In the winter of 1687, the men stationed at Fort Niagara were overwhelmed by disease and starvation. Of the 100 men stationed at the garrison, only 12 would survive that brutal winter.
Father Pierre Millet, a Jesuit missionary, was a member of the rescue party that arrived at the fort in the spring of 1688. Father Millet erected an 18 foot wooden cross in honor of the men who perished.
In 1825, President Calvin Coolidge named the 18 square foot section surrounding the cross a national monument. It was the smallest national monument ever named in the U.S.. At the monument dedication, the original wooden cross was replaced by a bronze version, which still stands in its place.
In 1949, monument status was abolished by Congress, and the memorial was transferred to the State of New York, to be a part of Fort Niagara State Park.
I headed out to Old Fort Niagara, which is located on a point, overlooking the Niagara River, at its mouth with Lake Ontario. Two “forts” preceded it, although neither lasted much over a year. Built by the French to protect their interests in North America, The French Castle is the oldest structure in the complex, having been built in 1726. The local native population tolerated its construction, because the building looks more like a grand home, than a fortification, which is exactly what was intended.
The layout of Fort Niagara
The fort played a significant role in the French and Indian War. During the Battle of Fort Niagara, the British lay siege to the fort for 19 days in July of 1759. The French commander, Francois Pouchot, surrendered to the British commander, Sir William Johnson, after learning expected reinforcements were massacred en route. Johnson, the leader of the New York militia, had taken over the British command when General John Prideaux stepped in front of a mortar test firing, and lost his head.
Battle of La Belle-Famille; painting of the siege of Fort Niagara
The fort would remain in British hands for the next 37 years. During the American Revolution, British Loyalists used Fort Niagara as a base, and protection from the Continental Army.
Fort Niagara was ceded to the United States after the revolution, but was not occupied by American forces until 1796, after the signing of the Jay Treaty.
With the War of 1812, Fort Niagara once again saw hostilities. The fort’s guns were able to sink the Provincial Schooner, Seneca, but British forces would go on to capture the fort in 1813.
Fort Niagara’s flag, with 15 Stars, from the War of 1812
When the fort was captured by the British, the U.S. flag flying over the fort, was taken as a trophy of war. Eventually, it was laid at the feet of the Prince Regent in London, who would go on to be King George IV. The flag was promptly given back to the British commander of Canadian forces, Major General Sir Gordon Drummond. It remained on display in a hallway in his home for decades. The flag was damaged by a fire in 1969, and somehow forced into a washing machine for cleaning. Considering the size of the flag, 12 feet, six inches by 27 feet 3 inches, that must have been some washing machine.
Eventually, the flag was purchased by the Old Fort Niagara Association for $150,000, which paid for a new roof on the Drummond ancestral castle. It is now displayed in a climate controlled environment in the visitor center, which was renovated from a 1939 U.S. Army warehouse.
First floor of the French Castle
Fort Niagara was reenforced on the river and lake shore during the Civil War, mainly out of concern that the British may intervene on behalf of the Confederates. It continued to see action in one form or another throughout the world’s ensuing conflicts. Men were trained here for both World Wars, and a prisoner of war camp, with 1200 German soldiers captured in North Africa, was located nearby during WWII.
The Army officially deactivated the fort in 1963. Although, the U.S. Coast Guard still operates The Bottoms, making Fort Niagara one of the longest continuously operated military bases in the United States: 1726-present.
I had a great time out at Old Fort Niagara. The visitor center houses a decent museum, in addition to the 1812 flag. There is a short film on the importance of the area, and how the fort was originally built to protect the portage around Niagara Falls. There was also a musket demonstration out in the field. I hear there are reenactments that take place every year around July 4, with approximately 500 participants.
Monument commemorating the Rush – Bagot Treaty, 1934