1726-1759 Portal to the West
The years between the abandonment of Fort Denonville and the construction of Fort Niagara witnessed many changes in North America. The French expanded their influence in the Great Lakes, concentrating on native tribes beyond Iroquois control. A settlement at Detroit in 1701 barred the British from Lake Huron and its rich fur trade. Another post was established at Michilimackinac in 1715 as the French consolidated their hold on the Upper Lakes. The North American rivalry between Britain and France grew more intense as their relations deteriorated in Europe. New York Governor Thomas Dongan's vehement protests against Denonville's 1687 incursion into the Iroquois country presaged open conflict. France and Britain soon clashed in a pair of European Wars with their colonies involved in corresponding conflicts known in America as King William's War (1689-97) and Queen Anne's War (1702-13).
Both European nations continued to view Niagara as a place of importance for ensuring access to the Great Lakes and its fur trade. French efforts to influence the Iroquois intensified, especially after 1701 by which time the Five Nations had been weakened by nearly a century of conflict. They sought a neutral position in the Anglo-French rivalry. French agents and traders, notably Louis-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire, encouraged a more benign posture by the Iroquois. By the second decade of the eighteenth century, the climate was right for the French to reestablish themselves at Niagara. In 1720 the Seneca gave Joncaire permission to construct a trading post. He chose a location at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment, the northern terminus of the portage. The site is today within Artpark in Lewiston, New York. From there Joncaire and his fellow traders could extend their influence among the westernmost of the Iroquois nations.
The French Castle
The French required a more substantial fortification to ensure their position at Niagara. Joncaire reported that the Seneca would allow a new post, as long as it was not a masonry fort. In 1725 the French met with a delegation of Iroquois at Onondaga, central town of the Five Nations, to request permission to construct a new trading house of stone. The French emphasized their peaceful intent by carefully terming this "a House of Peace" and representing it chiefly as a place to exchange goods for furs. Although few Seneca were present at the council, the representatives of the Five Nations gave their permission. Belated protests by the Seneca did not prevent the French from moving ahead with their project. The post at Niagara was intended for much more than trading. Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Lery, chief engineer of New France, designed a "machicolated house" as its central feature. This was to be enclosed by a wooden stockade, a defense common to most North American trading posts. DeLery 's fort thus avoided the appearance of a "regular" fortification. The house, however, was designed to be impregnable to native attack. It included all the facilities necessary for a garrison - quarters, storerooms, a well, and even a chapel. DeLery's "house" survives today, known by its more romantic name, first used in the nineteenth century - the "French Castle."
Construction of the new fort began in 1726 and was completed the following year. To better counter the British, it was situated at the mouth of the river on the site of Denonville's fort. By the end of 1727, the French were firmly established in a strong frontier fortification manned by about thirty soldiers. The Seneca were unhappy but resigned to the French presence while the British protested in vain that Fort Niagara violated the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. A fort built at Oswego by the British in 1727 did little but secure their access to Lake Ontario. The French had taken possession of the ports to the West. For the next thirty years, British traders would conduct considerable business on the south shore of Lake Ontario, but those who reached the rich Ohio Valley did so by a slow, tortuous journey over the mountain trails of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Fort Niagara was useful only briefly as a trading post. It soon became more important as a guardian of the portage. As the fur trade moved inevitably westward, the quantity of pelts passing through Niagara increased. Control of this traffic was important to the French. In 1751 they established a secondary post, Fort Little Niagara, at the head of the portage above Niagara Falls to prevent western Indians from slipping past Fort Niagara to trade with the British at Oswego.
The need to protect the portage increased the military role of Fort Niagara. The demands of a third colonial conflict, King George's War (1744-48), caused the post to be strengthened and enlarged. It was also during this conflict that Fort Niagara first served as a base for Indian raids against the frontiers of the British colonies.
Tension between the two colonial powers did not abate with the end of King George's War. On the contrary, rivalry over the West, particularly the Ohio Valley, increased. Niagara provided the French with their main avenue to the disputed territory south of Lake Erie and guarded communications between the colonies of New France and Louisiana. Beginning in 1749, Fort Niagara became the staging point for military expeditions to the Ohio Valley. The most aggressive of these occurred in 1753 and 1754 when French troops established a chain of forts between Lake Erie and the fork of the Ohio River, the site of modern Pittsburgh. This confrontation with the British sparked the French and Indian War (1754-60).
The French and Indian War
The climactic North American conflict between France and Britain differed from earlier colonial wars in that regular European troops were used by both combatants. Fort Niagara was totally unprepared to resist an attack by such forces. The machicolated house and its rickety stockade, by this time crowded with additional wooden buildings, provided adequate defense against Indians. British troops, however, would bring cannon which could quickly bombard the post into submission.
The British were aware of the weak state of Niagara's defenses. During the summer of 1755 General William Shirley assembled an army at Oswego to attack Niagara and pinch off French communication with the West. Shirley could easily have taken the post, but he delayed too long. By September the British had lost the opportunity to besiege distant Niagara.
Shirley's threat prompted an immediate response by the French. A battalion of regular soldiers, newly arrived from France, was sent to Fort Niagara in the autumn of 1755. The troops were accompanied by Captain Pierre Pouchot with orders to design fortifications capable of resisting artillery. Pouchot spent the winter of 1755-56 directing the construction of massive earthworks. His new defenses increased the size of Fort Niagara roughly eight-fold and have shaped its appearance ever since. As soon as the new walls were completed, the old stockade was removed, and additional buildings were erected within the enlarged fort.
For the first four years of the French and Indian war, Fort Niagara served as a base for raids b Native American warriors and French partisans against the British frontiers, particularly those of Pennsylvania. Niagara continued to protected communications between Montreal and the Ohio and Louisiana. French success required an unimpeded flow of goods and supplies to her soldiers and Indian allies. The British realized this and knew that the capture of Niagara would isolate the defenders of the Ohio Valley.
The early years of the war saw many reverses for the British, however, and it was not until 1759 that they were able to organize another expedition against Niagara. The support of the Iroquois (by now comprised of six nations) was a critical factor in this undertaking. Although the confederacy had remained neutral, the Iroquois attitude was changing by late 1758. The persuasiveness of Sir William Johnson, the weaking position of the French and the long-standing resentment of the Fort at Niagara convinced most of the Iroquois to actively assist the British.
The Siege of Fort Niagara
In May 1759 a British army set out from Albany under the command of Brigadier John Prideaux. Its goal was Fort Niagara. Prideaux left part of his force at Oswego to construct a replacement for the fort destroyed by the French in 1756 and to guard his vulnerable supply line to the Mohawk Valley. Then, on July 1, he led the balance of his army, about 2,500 soldiers and 1,000 Iroquois warriors, against the fortress of Niagara. Avoiding French naval vessels, the British landed four miles east of the fort on July 6. They quickly surrounded the post, held by Captain Pouchot with a garrison of six hundred men.
Pouchot's strong, regular fortifications forced the British to conduct a European-style siege. The attackers were delayed for nineteen days as they dug trenches toward the walls. Batteries of cannon and mortars bombarded Fort Niagara day and night. By July 24 the British were within eighty yards of the walls, the Fort's Lake Bastion had been ruined and the defenders were exhausted. Their last hope was an army of 1,500 men from the Ohio country which had been summoned to the aide of Fort Niagara. Pouchot held on in hope that they could raise the siege. On July 24, however, the relief force encountered the British a mile south of the fort. The French were routed in the ensuing action, known as the battle of La Belle Famille. On July 25, 1759, Captain Pouchot surrendered Fort Niagara.