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.