- 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
On the northwest shoulder of South America, looking out over the blue waters of the Caribbean, an ancient citadel stands guard above a Spanish city. Three thousand miles to the north, where the Gulf of St. Lawrence meets the gray rollers of the North Atlantic, the guns of another once-menacing fortress stare sullenly across a bleak, empty sea. The tropical city is Cartagena, Colombia. The northern bastion is Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, once called the “Gibraltar of the West.”
The story of Cartagena, Louisbourg, and a handful of similar strongholds is the story of the European conquest of America. Built far apart in time and distance, every one of them embodies the same reasoning: the attempts to preserve a colonial empire by hiding behind stone walls.
The discovery by Christopher Columbus and those who followed him at the dawn of the sixteenth century to a hitherto unknown land mass far to the west touched off a scramble among European states to carve out possessions in this New World. As the riches of the Western Hemisphere revealed themselves, the competition became hotter. A century and a half of warfare determined the winners.
Spain got there first. Within fifty years of Columbus’s landfall Spanish arms had explored and conquered Mexico, the Greater Antilles, the north coast of South America, Central America, Peru, and Chile. The Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico became a Spanish lake that outsiders entered at their peril. From settlements in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico poured an increasing flow of treasure into the coffers of the Spanish crown and aristocracy.
Not all the treasure got there. As early as 1522 French privateers intercepted two caravels carrying Hernando Cortez’s first shipment of Aztec loot from Mexico, most of which wound up in the hands of Francis I.
That capture occurred near the Azores, but the freebooters, often with the under-the-table connivance of the governments, were soon hunting in the Caribbean. Corsairs—the Spanish called them pirates—even amused themselves by capturing and sacking inadequately defended Spanish settlements. Before long English ships had joined in, and Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach were inscribing their names in the lurid saga of the Spanish Main.
They lacked the staying power to shake Spain’s grip on the Caribbean, but their depredations demanded countermeasures. Gradually Spanish shippers and ship captains worked out a system of convoys for mutual protection.
It was only partially successful, however, until the crown turned the problem over to Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. A brilliant planner and cold-blooded character who could order and calmly watch the slaughter of between two hundred and three hundred helpless French prisoners on a Florida beach, Menéndez consolidated convoys into two annual fleets, one bound for Veracruz, Mexico, the other for Portobelo in Panama. After taking on the year’s accumulation of treasure from Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, the fleets wintered in Havana and Cartagena before combining at Havana for the voyage home under strong naval escort.
Menéndez further designated several settlements, among them Havana and Cartagena, as treasure depositories, safe ports of call, trading centers, and naval bases. These were to be heavily fortified.
Drawing plans and giving orders were one thing; getting them obeyed was another. Madrid could issue all the decrees it pleased, but Madrid was far away and the colonists were expert foot draggers. The projected fortifications took generations to complete.
The principal stumbling block was money. Although millions in treasure were extracted from Latin America annually, the Spanish government wasn’t inclined to disgorge any for protection, and the colonies were just as reluctant to pay the bill.
The settlements weren’t particularly cooperative among themselves either. In one crisis Cartagena hijacked a shipment of gunpowder needed desperately in Havana. Havana retaliated by seizing a cargo of fuses and a lot of shells it didn’t need just to keep them from Cartagena. Nevertheless, after 250 years, the principal colonial cities of the Caribbean had become formidable fortresses.
By the early 1600s both France and England had succeeded in planting their flags permanently in the New World, England at Jamestown in 1607 and France at Quebec in 1608. A century and a quarter later a block of thirteen English settlements stretched from New England to Georgia, where the founding of Savannah in 1733 put England on a collision course with Spain in Florida. Meanwhile, the French followed the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi. They established Mobile, Alabama, in 1711 and New Orleans seven years later.
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 supply. 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 settiers. 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.
Three and a half centuries ago Cartagena de Indias was renowned as the richest trading center and most beautiful city on the Spanish Main. It was the principal emporium for merchandise sent from Spain to its South American colonies and the shipping point for gold, silver, emeralds, and pearls mined in Colombia and Venezuela. Between 1544 and 1741 Spain’s enemies sacked the town five times.
Built on a narrow, low strip of land between the open Caribbean Sea to the north and a huge bay behind, Cartagena was hard to defend. The marshy soil made poor footing for the heavy stone fortifications required in the tropics, and in any case there was no stone to build them with. The only harbor entrance was miles to the south.
Lack of landing beaches, heavy surf, and shallow water that kept bombarding ships at a distance combined to make the direct northern approach quite secure. The back door, however, presented problems beyond the capacities of seventeenth-century weapons and tactics. Once inside the bay an attacker could easily close in from the south.
Over two centuries, as requirements and military tactics changed, Cartagena’s defenses expanded and contracted. From a small log stockade on the harbor side of the town and a small gun battery at Boca Grande the system grew into an elaborate series of six stone forts around the bay, two guarding the entrance, and a seven-mile-long seawall around the city bristling with more than two hundred cannons. The wall alone took more than two centuries to complete.
The core of the system was the citadel of San Felipe de Barajas, a hill slightly southeast of the city in the eighteenth century but now well within it. Initially only a small eight-gun redoubt some 135 feet above sea level, it gradually grew into a massive stone fortress whose ramparts could sweep the city with seventy big guns.
San Felipe was—and still is—an amazing network of tunnels and passageways connecting storage vaults, housing, magazines, and batteries. In the sheer mass of its battlements and in the ingenuity of its water and ventilation systems, the fortress is ranked by engineers as equal, if not superior, to Gibraltar. Today it is a major tourist attraction.
Unfortunately the individual forts were too far apart to support one another. While they were formidable obstacles to direct attack, they could be cut off by landing parties and reduced one after the other. The gateway batteries, especially, never displayed much enthusiasm for a last-ditch defense.
In 1741 the British admiral Edward Vernon toppled the inner forts in turn but got his nose bloodied on San Felipe. Thanks to the stubborn leadership of Don Bias de Lezo, a one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged old fire-eater, the effort to take Cartagena failed. Don Bias caught one too many during the siege and died of his wound, but the campaign gave the name to one of the United States’s most revered historical shrines: George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest European settlement and the only walled city in the United States; its guardian, Castillo de San Marcos, is the oldest standing fortification. Throughout most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though, few would have given a clipped doubloon for its survival. In fact, the viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) would gladly have ignored its existence. Mexico had to foot the bills for the upkeep of the lonely outpost, which couldn’t even feed itself.
In the early 1560s, when Adm. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés organized his system for convoying galleons loaded with New World treasure back to Spain, France planted at the mouth of the St. Johns River a colony from which privateers could sally to harass the homebound fleets as they beat up past the Bahamas.
Menéndez reacted ruthlessly. In 1565 he smashed the little French colony and ordered the massacre of some two hundred and fifty helpless prisoners. Then he established St. Augustine and Fort San Marcos to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
Militarily the site was excellent. Town and fort were located on a narrow, sandy peninsula with almost impassable marshes on three sides and the fourth side squeezed by a meandering stream. Fort San Marcos commanded the entrance to a long, narrow bay. A shallow sandbar across the harbor mouth kept out large enemy warships.
Before long coquina stone was discovered on nearby Anastasia Island. Coquina stone, a soft stone made of broken seashells cemented together in their own lime under tremendous geological pressure, is ideal for building fortifications. Menéndez immediately recommended a stone fort at St. Augustine, but nobody in Madrid or Mexico City would buy the idea.
For nearly a hundred years the scraggly settlement lived from hand to mouth while nine wooden stockade forts fell victim, one after another, to time, fire, weather, and termites. Since nothing happened, faraway authorities were lulled into a false sense of security. Every suggestion for bringing San Marcos up to scratch was talked to death.
Then, in 1668, a privateer crew surprised and captured the town. The attackers were English, and they made it clear they meant to come back. The threat was driven home two years later, when England founded Charleston, South Carolina, on land claimed by Spain.
The Spanish government ordered an immediate reconstruction in stone of San Marcos, increased the garrison, and told the viceroy of Mexico to pay up. Construction finally got under way in 1672, but after a fast start the project slowed down, and the new Castillo de San Marcos wasn’t finished until 1695.
It was a square structure with triangular bastions at each corner and a ravelin covering the south curtain, which contained the only entrance via a drawbridge over the ditch. Walls of coquina mortared together with oystershell lime cement rose thirty-three feet from a twelve-foot-thick base. Because the wooden firing deck wasn’t strong enough to withstand the shock of recoil, the fort’s sixty guns were concentrated at the bastions, which were filled in solidly with sand and rubble.
Between 1704 and 1762 a series of earthen outworks were built around the town. The one farthest out, called the Mosa Wall, blocked the only land route between a seaside swamp and the San Sebastian River. Other lines, known as the Cubo and Rosario walls and the Hornwork, completely encircled the citadel and town. These entrenchments were planted on their outward faces with Spanish bayonet, spiky plants whose needle-sharp points made extremely uncomfortable obstacles to infantry attacking under fire. Beginning in 1738 the fort itself was greatly strengthened, and its walls were raised another ten feet.
Reconstruction was nearly finished when Florida was ceded to England at the end of the French and Indian War. Except for Anglicizing the fort’s name to St. Mark, the British let well enough alone until 1783, when Florida was returned to Spain. In 1821 Florida went to the United States, and the fort’s name was changed to Fort Marion, honoring the Swamp Fox of Revolutionary War fame. Long after the obsolete little work had been abandoned as a military post and become a national monument, Congress, in 1942, restored the original title.
A French officer lay in his blankets on the site of the wilderness fort he had been sent to build, listening to the soft wind in the trees and water rushing down the rapids be- tween Lakes George and Champlain. It reminded him of bells and he asked and got permission to name the new post Fort Carillon. In American history it carries a more rolling, martial title: Ticonderoga.
The spot, whose Indian name means “Place between Big Waters,” was recognized as one of the most strategic positions between New France and the British colonies long before anything was ever built there. Who held the rocky promontory controlled the easiest and most direct route between the Hudson and St. Lawrence river valleys.
At the outbreak of the French and Indian War, the French moved to secure it. Beginning in the fall of 1755 and continuing into 1758, the fort, with as many as two thousand men on the job, was rushed nearly to completion before the British marched against it.
A standard square with earth-filled stone walls and pointed bastions at the corners, the fort had, in addition, a low outer wall protecting the south side facing Lake Champlain. Two triangular outworks called “demilunes” guarded the north and west faces. (Incidentally, the difference between a demilune and the ravelins at St. Augustine and Niagara is strictly technical. If the outwork is outside the ditch surrounding the curtain walls, it’s a ravelin; if inside, it’s a demilune.)
The enclosure had stone barracks for a four-hundredman garrison, but during campaigning season an additional fifteen thousand could be encamped on level ground between the fort and the lake. The walls had embrasures for ninety cannons.
The first attempt to take Fort Carillon, a bungled 1758 assault, was a disaster for the British, but the following year a more careful approach succeeded. A small French delaying garrison held on until the British got within six hundred yards of the walls, then blew up the magazine and fled. The British repaired the damage and changed the name from the softer Carillon to Ticonderoga.
One night in 1775, at the outbreak of the American Revolution, Ethan Alien and his Green Mountain Boys surprised and captured the fort without firing a shot. Among the supplies scooped up were more than a hundred artillery pieces of various sizes, sixty of which Henry Knox later hauled down the Hudson and over the Berkshire Mountains in midwinter to use in the siege of Boston.
Recaptured by John Burgoyne two years later, the fort repulsed another American attempt to retake it but was evacuated as part of the Burgoyne surrender agreement. The fort was never used again. In a life of slightly more than twenty-five years, Ticonderoga changed hands four times.
After the Revolution the site was given by the state of New York to Columbia and Union colleges. In the early 1800s it was acquired by William F. Pell, a New York merchant, who built a summer home nearby. By then the fort was derelict, looted of everything that could be carried away, including much of the stone. Pell put a stop to the looting but left things pretty much as he found them.
In the 1880s, however, his great-great-grandson, Stephen Pell, fell in love with the place and vowed that he when he grew up, he would restore it. He began in 1908. When he died in 1950, the restoration was almost finished, and it continues under the guidance of his son, John H. G. Pell, as a family responsibility. In addition to the fortifications themselves, Fort Ticonderoga houses one of the finest small museums of its kind in the United States, depicting the history of the “Place between Big Waters.”
The Treaty of Utrecht ending the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 cost France heavily in the New World, but its smooth-talking diplomats salvaged one strategic point. This was Cape Breton Island, a rugged, lonely bit of real estate jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean off the tip of Nova Scotia. There France built the fortress of Louisbourg, renowned in the early eighteenth century as the strongest in North America and perhaps in the world.
Some twenty miles southeast of what is now the island city of Sydney, a narrowgated harbor faced the North Atlantic. About two miles long from northeast to southwest, with an average width of half a mile, the bay was usually clear of ice the year round and sheltered from ocean storms by two necks of land that pinched the entrance to less than a mile, although rocks and shoals restricted the navigable passage to less than half that. Near the middle of the harbor mouth sat a small island.
The shoreline was low and rock-strewn, lashed by heavy surf nine days out of ten, and blanketed by heavy fog for weeks at a time. The sea itself was a great moat, the coast a fogbound lee shore too dangerous for heavy warships to close within effective bombardment range.
After the French military engineers sited the fort on the southern headland, work went slowly. The project so taxed the French treasury that King Louis XV was said to have remarked that someday he expected to look out the window at Versailles and see the walls of Louisbourg thrusting above the horizon.
The walls of this typical eighteenth-century stronghold enclosed fifty-seven acres between the seashore and inner harbor that contained a complete town that eventually housed four thousand people, exclusive of the garrison. The most massive portion was on the land side facing south, an earth-filled wall twelve hundred yards long, thirty feet high, revetted with solid masonry a foot thick and anchored at each end with bastions. The biggest of Louisbourg’s bastions—the King’s Bastion—contained in its gorge a strongly built stone structure that was the largest building in North America at the time: four stories high and three hundred and sixty feet long. The enclosure had emplacements for 148 guns, although never more than 90 were in position.
On the island off the tip of the peninsula a powerful battery covered the channel, and another one, called the Grand Battery or Batterie Royale, swept the entrance head-on. When completely armed—it never really was—Louisbourg could mount more than two hundred heavy guns and twenty huge mortars.
The imposing facade, however, had fatal flaws. It was dominated by a series of low hills about half a mile to the southwest, from which besiegers could command the wall. Since the French didn’t believe heavy guns could be moved through miles of swamp to the position, they didn’t bother to secure it.
Of greater concern was shoddy construction. Corrupt colonial officials diverted the solid stone masonry sent from France and replaced it with inferior stone. Sea sand and seawater were used in the mortar, producing a mix that never set properly. Long before construction was finished, older portions of the walls had begun to deteriorate, and the revetments were so unsteady that in action they gave way under concussion of the fort’s own guns.
In 1744 war broke out again between France and England, and French privateers based in Louisbourg soon were harrying the main trade route between New England and Britain. When the former raised troops and asked the home government to help out, the latter offered a protecting fleet for any force the colonists might send against Louisbourg.
The governor of Massachusetts recruited an army of four thousand wild, undisciplined, but young and hardy New Englanders. The commander was a Kittery, Maine, merchant named William Pepperrell. His knowledge of military matters just about matched that of his troops, but Pepperrell displayed unexpected abilities.
Thrice-armed with the valor of ignorance, the expedition swarmed ashore at the end of April 1745 at an uncovered point three miles to the west of the fort. Blissfully unaware they were attempting the impossible, the New Englanders dragged siege guns through the impassable marsh on huge wooden skids, carrying ammunition and provisions on their backs, and set up shop overlooking the fortress. There they discovered the Grand Battery abandoned and its guns spiked; the attackers quickly occupied it and put gunsmiths to work clearing the touchholes. Within days five batteries were zeroing in on the King’s Bastion, while another took care of the island battery. On June 17, after a siege of six weeks, Louisbourg surrendered.
Colonial elation was shortlived. At the end of the war Louisbourg was returned to France, to the huge disgust of New England, which never forgave the home government.
Eight years later the old antagonists squared off for the final round of a worldwide struggle. Early reverses delayed British efforts in America, but in 1758 an army of fourteen thousand regulars backed by a huge fleet set out for Louisbourg. The campaign was, in many ways, a repeat of 1745 but more professionally conducted under the driving leadership of a scrawny, red-headed brigadier named James Wolfe. After a terrific battering of seven weeks, Louisbourg again capitulated.
This time the British took no chances. Demolition experts drove galleries beneath the walls, packed them with explosives, and blew Louisbourg sky-high. For one hundred years the ruins lay barren and deserted.
Then, after the coal mines on Cape Breton shut down in the 1960s, the Canadian government embarked on a twenty-five-million-dollar reconstruction program. Today virtually all of old Louisbourg stands just as it stood when Louis XV was grumbling about how much it cost.
The Indians called it kebec—(“the narrow place”). There a mighty river, compressed to a width of less than a mile, broke through the mountain barrier, added the weight of another stream flowing from the north, and, spreading out in its great bed, began a four-hundred-mile sweep to the sea. The French adopted the name.
The meeting of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles rivers created a high, triangular promontory whose flat summit would one day be covered by a splendid city. A natural fortress on two sides, the bluff soared steeply upward to a height of 333 feet above the St. Lawrence and extended for miles along the river with few passages to the top. Along the St. Charles the grade was gentler but guarded at the bottom by open mud flats at low water.
Between the St. Lawrence and the cliff a narrow strip of flatland covered with walnut trees provided a landing at the point. From there a rough gully offered a steep—and sole—passageway to the top. Only from the west was the summit accessible once a way had been found to cross the river and scale the heights.
In July 1608 a French ship anchored below the cliff and sent an exploring party ashore. The leader was a forty-one-year-old Frenchman named Samuel de Champlain, taking his first steps along a path that would lead to much disappointment but also a place in history as the father of Canada.
By the 1620s Champlain had erected atop the cliffs a fort and, within its walls, a stone building that served both as quarters for the governor and as an administrative center of New France. The stockade was named Fort St. Louis but over many years came to be known simply as the “chateau” and la citadelle.
When the major European powers became embroiled in the complex struggle known as the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1948), Quebec fell to an English privateering squadron under Sir David Kirke, but was given back to France three years later.
Thereafter, for nearly sixty years, the colony enjoyed relative security while armies marched and countermarched across Europe and England was convulsed in civil war, revolution, and counterrevolution. The most noteworthy event in the history of New France was the arrival in 1672 of the greatest governor the colony ever had: Louis de Buade, the comte de Frontenac. Under Frontenac’s ironfisted leadership the settlement expanded, and France extended its control of the St. Lawrence Valley, the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi Valley.
Resumption of hostilities between France and England in 1689 caught Quebec’s defenses in poor shape. The town major hastily threw up earthworks and palisades while wily old Count Frontenac bluffed a colonial force under Sir William Phips long enough for reinforcements to arrive. After the failure of one assault, Phips gave up. Frontenac then built two powerful batteries to protect the Lower Town and replaced part of the temporary entrenchments west of the city with palisades and some stonework.
Not until the War of the Spanish Succession was work resumed on permanent fortifications. Peace having been declared in 1713, construction of a stone-revetted earth wall across the west end of the town was ordered stopped. From then on France put all its colonial eggs in the Louisbourg basket.
The fall of Louisbourg in 1745 threw a scare into Quebec, and feverish preparations began. The west wall, extending forty-eight hundred feet across the crest of the hill, about twenty-eight hundred feet from the point, was completed from Cape Diamond on the St. Lawrence to the Cöte du Palais above the St. Charles. When the long-expected attack finally came, more than a hundred cannons girded the town.
Near the end of June 1759 a British army under now Major General Wolfe, backed by a powerful naval squadron, laid siege to Quebec. After frustrating weeks Wolfe finally found a path to the top. During the night of September 12-13 he put his army ashore. The French commander, the marquis de Montcalm, came out to meet him. On September 13, 1759, the fate of New France was decided on an open meadow called the Plains of Abraham because it had once belonged to a man named Abraham Martin.
Since neither side had any artillery, the battle was short, sharp, and decisive, an infantry fire fight lasting only a few minutes. British musketry and discipline prevailed as the French were driven back into the city. Both Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded. On September 18 Quebec surrendered.
The following spring a French force from Montreal besieged the British garrison in turn. Both sides marked time, waiting for relief from Europe. The British won the race, Quebec was relieved, and the French retreated. When Montreal fell in September, the Union Jack replaced the Fleur-de-Lis after a century and a half.
Quebec had still one more threat to withstand. In 1775 an American force under Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold arrived from the west. A poorly coordinated attack in a driving snowstorm on December 31 was decisively repulsed with Montgomery killed and Arnold wounded.
Quebec, today a city of nearly six hundred thousand that long ago spilled over its ramparts, prides itself on being the only walled city in Canada. Its walls, however, are of fairly recent origin; in the 1820s the British rebuilt most of the fortifications, including the present elaborate Citadel on Cape Diamond. Of the original Fort St. Louis nothing remains except a single stone bearing a Maltese cross and the date 1647. The rest of the old citadel is buried under the foundations of Quebec’s world famous landmark, the Hôtel Château-Frontenac.
Fourteen miles below its awesome cataract, the swiftly flowing Niagara River sweeps through a steep gorge into Lake Ontario. Just before it reaches the lake, the river makes a sharp turn, creating a low, triangular-shaped bluff on the east shore. This inconspicuous neck of land was the strategic key to the control of the Great Lakes pre-Revolutionary fur trade.
From Quebec to the farthest reaches of the lakes, the backbone of the trade was water transportation. To move from one end to the other, all traffic had to pass through the Niagara. Who controlled the bottleneck at “Thundergate,” as the Seneca Indians called the river mouth, had a stranglehold on the trade.
Fort Niagara was the cork in the bottle.
After two unsuccessful attempts late in the seventeenth century, the French established a small trading post near the site in 1720. Six years later the suspicious Senecas gave reluctant permission for a permanent stone building on the point. Ostensibly a trading store and fur warehouse, touted as a “House of Peace,” the building was actually a fort, impervious to Indian attack even without several small cannons sneaked into the attic. Known today as the “Castle,” the oldest stone structure in the lake country is still there, as sturdy and solid as ever.
In 1728 a square log stockade with bastions at each corner was erected around the Castle, which was garrisoned by about thirty soldiers. A few additional buildings were probably added inside and outside the little fort, which, by the 1740s was replaced by a larger one and the garrison increased.
The beginning of the French and Indian War led to a major strengthening of Fort Niagara. The garrison was reinforced to about six hundred and a French engineer, Capt. François Pouchot, sent to build heavier defenses. Several hundred feet beyond the stockade. Pouchot constructed a massive earth wall across the base of the point.
At the outbreak of hostilities Fort Niagara became a British objective, but the Braddock disaster and other early reverses delayed action until 1759. That summer a force of two thousand soldiers and fifteen hundred Iroquois warriors laid siege to the post, which Pouchot now commanded. Pushed into a corner, he had only two choices. He could surrender to superior force or hold out until relief arrived. He chose to fight.
For nineteen days the tenacious Pouchot endured day-and-night battering as the besiegers’ trenches crept to within eighty yards of the crumbling defenses. By mid-July a relief force was approaching from the west. Unfortunately for the stubborn defenders, the British ambushed and routed the column a few miles from the fort. Only then did Pouchot haul down his colors.
During the Revolution the British made extensive repairs, facing the sod of the old French earthworks with heavy planks, digging bombproofs and building new stockades and batteries facing the lake and river. But the fort was never seriously threatened at any time during the war. It went to the Americans at the end of the Revolution, was surprised and recaptured by the British during the War of 1812, and once again returned to the United States when peace was restored. For the next century and a half, Fort Niagara was intermittently garrisoned by the U.S. Army, although it had lost most of its military significance after the opening of the Erie Canal. The original post was largely abandoned after 1872, and the fortifications slowly deteriorated. In 1925 a private group dedicated to the preservation of the historic ruins organized the Old Fort Niagara Association. With the cooperation of the Army, restoration began.
In 1963 the Army closed Fort Niagara and gave the reservation to the state of New York for conversion into a park. The state in turn licensed the Old Fort Niagara site to the association, which maintains and operates it as a historic site, over which the ancient lilies of royal France, the British Union Jack, and the Stars and Stripes sway peacefully together in the lake breeze side by side.