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Rodney's Ramblings: Insights From Past Battlefields – Part V

Rodney Gascoyne tells some of the history of Old Fort Niagara, held at different times by the French, the British and the Americans, and a place at the centre of fighting between the three nations over centuries, that helped determined the final settlement of North America.

During my travels, I have had a chance to visit a few battlefields and to see and try to understand how the fighting went, and local physical features that must have influenced events. One unique site is Old Fort Niagara, held at different times by the French, the British and the Americans, and a place at the centre of fighting between the three nations over centuries, that helped determined the final settlement of North America. It is near to Niagara Falls, on the US side of the river as it exits into Lake Ontario, and so a place many people may be able to visit when in the area.

The Great Lakes were of interest during times of early European settlement, mainly as an access point to the interior and the wealth of animal furs that could be traded for with the native bands. France was equally involved in this but wanted to protect their territory and trade from American Colonialists and other traders, well before the 7 Years War. They gained permission to build a trading house from the Iroquois, but when completed in 1726 it was a well fortified ‘French Castle’ with thick walls.

It became part of the assets and land lost to the British in the 7 Years War in 1759, leading to their exit from New France, and the establishment of Canada. The fort was besieged during the war and fell, to be under the British flag, for the next decades until the end of the War of Independence and it’s agreed handing over to the new United States. During that war it had often sheltered loyalists who were escaping the fighting elsewhere in the area, but the new frontier was the river, and so on the American side. Soon afterwards Canada built a new fort opposite, Fort George.

Local matters settled down for a while and the border was stable, allowing officers from either fort to call on each other and arrange mess dinners. But by 1812, tensions between the US and Britain had erupted again and war was declared by Congress. So fast did this happen, that on the day, officers from Niagara were dining at Fort George when both parties learned the news. It was agreed to finish the meal and the visitors to leave for home, without hindrance, although they then shelled each other for some period soon afterwards, the Great Lakes being at the centre of the conflict area. In 1813 after local actions, the fort again fell to the British, who reoccupied it until the end of that war, when it was returned to the US. This marked the final end of any conflict across the border and the fort settled down into being an army training base for many decades, right through to the end of WW2.

The fort had been expanded over the centuries, with massive earthworks and new defensive structures, but in later years, was not maintained when in disuse. It was finally restored, back to its heyday period of the late 1700s, by local people and New York State in the 1920s/30s, and it flourishes today as a national monument and tourist attraction. It had served at the centre of many wars of the 18th and 19th century, but became less important after opening of the Erie and Welland Canals allowed shipping to pass on up to Lake Erie, and its position at the mouth of the Niagara River was no longer guarding local access to the interior. Its exhibits and grounds are well worth visiting as witness to major changes that befell the area over many centuries, in forming the United States and this border area with Canada. It is a piece of living history in its own right.


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