- Historic Sites
Forts Of The Americas
On their weathered stone battlements can be read the whole history of the three-century struggle for supremacy in the New World
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
If Spain measured the worth of its new empire in gold, silver, and precious stones, the French and English thought in terms of furs. By the seventeenth century the demand for furs in Europe had outstripped the sup- ply. Then the shell of North America was cracked, and the continent was found to be the greatest source of fine furs the world had known.
Canada, particularly, teemed with the wild animals whose pelts were most prized—and Canada” belonged to France. King Louis XIV and his successors fought four wars with England between 1689 and 1763, with North America a major prize.
Thinly stretched along a three-thousand-mile arc| from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to New Orleans, the! French had to fight defensively in the New World. Although they were greatly outnumbered, their position was stronger than it appears today to have been. The Canadians were better wilderness fighters and better led than the peaceful English set- tiers. Furthermore, from 1665 on, France kept regular troops in Canada, whereas the English didn’t send any until 1755.
Since the English weren’t ready to breach the Appalachian rampart, the French hold on the Mississippi Valley was safe. In any event the strategic heart of New France was Quebec, and the St. Lawrence River was its artery. Consequently the serious fighting occurred in the north, where the French launched periodic raids to keep the English off balance and the English tried to cut the St. Lawrence lifeline. There were two practical invasion routes. The first was directly up the river to take Quebec headon. The second went almost due north up the Hudson, through Lakes George and Champlain, then along the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec. (“Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne followed this route south to disaster at Saratoga during the Revolution.)
Strong French positions guarded both approaches. The fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island flanked the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while Quebec itself was probably the strongest natural fastness in North America. To block the Hudson-Lake Champlain route, Fort Ticonderoga straddled the narrow connection between Lakes George and Champlain.
A third important point was Niagara on the bluff overlooking the entrance of the Niagara River into Lake Ontario, about fourteen miles below the mighty cataract. As long as Niagara, Ticonderoga, and Louisbourg remained in French hands, New France was unassailable.
In the end, the French forts failed to bulwark their builder’s position in the New World just as the Spanish forts had failed. France is gone and Spain is gone, but the forts remain to tell the story of their passing.