History/Travel

The French Castle on Lake Ontario

I paid a quick visit to Fort Niagara when I arrived in Buffalo earlier than anticipated.  The site is an active museum, but it closes at 5 PM.  I arrived at 4:15 and set about to quickly absorb as much information as I could in the museum before walking through the incredibly well-preserved/restored fort.  I could make a dozen posts just on Fort Niagara’s history, and I think I may just do that over time, but today I’ll focus on the crown jewel of the site; Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Lery’s “machicolated house”, known forever since as the French Castle.

Wikipedia describes a machicolation as “a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, through which stones or other material, such as boiling water or boiling cooking oil, could be dropped on attackers at the base of a defensive wall.”  The French Castle doesn’t have the traditional boxlike structures you might see in a castle in Europe, but the third floor dormers clearly serve this purpose.  For the French, the primary concern in 1725 was defending against attacking Iroquois, who resented their permanent presence at the strategic point on at the mouth of the Niagara River as it flowed into Lake Ontario.  The French had built two forts here previously, Fort Conti in the winter of 1678-1679, and Fort Denonville, the ill-fated staging ground the French used for aggressive campaigns against the Iroquois in 1687.  The French met with a delagation of the Iroquois Nation and requested a “house of peace” be built on the site.  They were granted permission and construction began in earnest, and completed in 1726.

As a history buff, and particularly as someone fascinated with the period when this fort was active, walking into the French Castle is extraordinary.  It’s a time warp into the past, and looking out onto Lake Ontario on a beautiful June afternoon, it looked very much like it would have for the French soldiers stationed there…  save for Toronto rising up on the horizon.  On this day, the buses of tourists were leaving for the day, the roving pack of Boy Scouts were busy taking pictures elsewhere, and I was almost alone wandering around in the French Castle.  I made a point of walking through each of the rooms open to the public – and almost every room was open – and soaking up the history of the place.

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Contrast Fort Niagara with a fort the English built at roughly the same time (1726 vs. 1754), Fort Western in what is now Augusta, Maine.  Fort Western was for the British pushing the limits of exploration at that time, and the fort was built with a wooden stockade and wooden buildings designed to defend against Abenaki raids.  Fort Niagara is huge by comparison, built of stone, and with a much larger military presence.  Wooden stockade fencing, as with Fort Western, was initially utilized, and eventually when the threat moved from attacks from Native Americans to British military campaigns with cannon, earthworks and walls were built to reinforce the perimeter.

The French Fort would eventually be occupied by, in succession, the French, the British, the United States, the British (War of 1812) and finally back to the United States.  It’s witnessed some incredible history in the last 293 years.  I was delighted to see it so well-preserved, and can’t wait to get back to this little corner of the northeast.

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