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War Over the Waterways

An 18th century French <em>voyageur</em> carves a powder horn that will keep his gunpowder dry
From a height of 167 feet, one hundred thousand cubic feet of rushing, racing, pounding water falls over the ever-eroding edge each second. This massive wall of water stretches for 2,600 feet from side to side, creating miles of dangerous whirlpool rapids in the river below.

As he approaches in his canoe, a French voyageur (fur trader) shivers to hear the powerful roar of this awe-inspiring water. He has reached the famous Niagara Falls, in the land that would become the border between the United States and Canada. He needs to get beyond this thunderous waterfall to the trading post, for his job depends on it. He needs to trade the beaver skins that he has carefully collected for the wool, metals and ammunition he needs to survive in the wilderness of New France. He knows that he can't go over the side of this natural wonder. That would be suicide! He can't go under it. He certainly can't go through it. The only choice this voyageur has is to go... around it!

Becky stands in front of the impassable Niagara Falls
First the Native Americans, then the European settlers that came after them, learned that the only way to make use of this important trade route was to portage their canoes around the great Niagara Falls. To portage meant that these men would take their canoes out of the river before reaching the falls, and carry them over their heads on dry land. They would hike with their canoes until they reached a safe point in the river, beyond the dangerous rapids, where the small boats could be put in the water again.

Sounds tough. Why go through all this trouble to get from one place to another?

A look at the 'shopping list' at Ft. Niagara.  I'll give you one beaver pelt for a new felt hat!
Well, it's the early 18th century. There are no highways in America, no concrete freeways connecting point A to point B. There are no cars and no buses, no trucks and no railroads at this time. What there is, however, is water. The fastest, safest, and easiest way to travel in this time is by boat. Since there are five Great Lakes and numerous rivers twisting and connecting across the Northeast, water became the early settlers' way to get around. It became their roads, essential to a prosperous life in the "new" world.

None of these waterways was more important than the Niagara River. This river enabled anyone to get into the Upper Great Lakes, and into the heart of our huge continent, with ease. Whoever controlled the Niagara Portage, which was the only way around the waterfalls on this wonderful river, controlled all trade in the Northeast. Trade meant money and supplies for those who were able to do it, and perhaps starvation and want for the people who couldn't.

What would you trade for one beaver pelt? To a voyageur, that one fur meant five pecks of Indian corn, or ten pounds of pork, or two pints of gunpowder. For two beaver pelts he could get four small axes, or a sewn cotton shirt... with ruffles!

Nope, no forts here.  Only a little
It should come as no surprise, then, that the French, who were the first Europeans to settle and trade here, wanted to protect this wonderful waterway and the portage that made it passable. They dreamt of building a fort to solidify their control over the river. This land wasn't officially theirs, though, for the continent was populated with Native Americans before the French ever knew America existed. The relationship between the French settlers and the surrounding tribes was always up and down, always rocky. There was no way the Iroquois confederacy would have approved a symbol of French dominance and power (and military protection) being built on their lands. So the French devised a sneaky plan. What they would build was not called a "fort," but instead called a "trading house," also named the "House of Peace." They set it where Lake Ontario meets the banks of the Niagara River, just a few miles away from the Niagara Falls. It soon became clear, though, that this trading center was also a fort in disguise. It was built large enough and strong enough to house the entire French battalion. With storerooms, a bakery, a chapel and an indoor well for drinking water, this "house" provided the French with the protection they needed from any Indian or British attack.

The French fort commander acted as police chief to the community
Ft. Niagara, as it is called today, soon saw the military action for which it was prepared. By the mid 18th century, the British had already set up colonies up and down America's Atlantic coast, but they wanted more. They were ready to make a move to control the entire fur trade around the Great Lakes. Through a series of battles known as the Seven Years' War (also known as the French and Indian War), the British attacked French forts in hopes of taking over these important trade routes. The British knew they could not win without convincing the Iroquois, who also lived on these lands, to help remove the French. By 1759 many of the Iroquois were sick of the French, and agreed to let the British pass through and attack Ft. Niagara. While some of the native warriors fought with the British army, others fought with the French. The siege on Ft. Niagara lasted nineteen days. In the end, the fort, and control of the water highways, fell to the British. It would only take one more year for the British to drive the French out of North America... completely.

French soldiers who lived in the fort were given two feet of bed width each
The "House of Peace" would see two more wars and fall to the power of yet another country, the United States of America, before the clock ticked away into the 19th century. Although the development of the Erie Canal, and of roadways and railroads, later made the Niagara Portage unnecessary, Ft. Niagara still sits where the river meets the lake, in the same spot for the last 260 years. Today, historians and volunteers dress as 18th century French voyageurs and soldiers, reenacting what life would have been like for these European settlers so long ago. As I stood in the "House," picturing the crash of the Falls a few miles down river, I met two girls whose parents had brought them from New Jersey to see the fort. They were so excited to be there, touching the walls and meeting the characters that were otherwise just words in a Social Studies textbook. I realized then that although it was built in deceit, and used for so long for humans to make war on one another, the fort had become something truly positive: a time capsule of history. The lessons it offers to visitors today are perhaps as powerful as the thunderous waters of Niagara Falls themselves.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pontiac's War: They didn't recall this one!
Rebecca - Iroquois Federation - The founding fathers?
Team - Dead before their time
Making A Difference - Murder most foul and an innocent Indian