Old Fort Niagara

Sunday, Aug 20, 2006

We had originally planned to go to Niagara Falls today, but while looking thru some of the touristy literature we picked up, I noticed that Old Fort Niagara, which is only a couple of miles from the campground, was having ‘American Revolution Day’. This involved re-enactments of the period, a mock battle, and other goodies.

What was going to be a quick side trip turned into an all day adventure. The fort was ‘occupied’ by both British and American soldiers – each side of re-enactors had their own side of the fort. Fort Niagara, which is at the mouth of the Niagara River (flowing into Lake Ontario), was a site of significant strategic importance while the French and the English were duking it out to expand their empires in North America. Fort Niagara controlled the water route to the other Great Lakes from the east – prior to the construction of the Erie Canal, the portage around Niagara Falls was ‘the’ way to go west in this area. Being able to lob a few cannon shells across the river was a very effective way to control what side was able to take advantage of the land and resources the heart of the continent offered.

The French originally constructed the fort by pulling a fast one on the Iroquois Indians – they convinced the Iroquois to allow them to build a stone trading post at the site of the future fort. While building the ‘peace house’, they constructed what today is called the ‘French Castle’, which was a fort unto itself in all but name. Once in place, safe from anything except a direct artillery attack, they simply kept building. The British later seized the fort in a straightforward, 19 day, European style siege, and held the fort at the time of the American Revolution. The United States got the fort later by treaty, then the British took it back briefly during the War of 1812. The fort saw quite a bit of action until the Erie Canal opened, which provided a much easier water route to the west.

The fort really came to life with the re-enactors. There were guards and their families in the redoubts (towers which were mini forts within the fort), camps pitched in the fields, a fully stocked trading post with deerskins, beaver, beads and other items, and of course, plenty of period muskets and rifles. There was some type of demonstration going on about every thirty mins, including firing the cannon, explanations of the various costumes, and my favorite, a demonstration of the different songs played by the field music band. Prior to radios (or reliable clocks, for that matter), music tunes were used to signal the troops for different tasks for the day (wake up, form for drill, change the guard, etc…), as well as battlefield signals. The sound of the drums and the high pitched fifes would carry much better than voices on a battlefield, so musicians were valuable members of a regiment, rather than the sideshow they are today.

Side note: re-enactments apparently are getting expensive, therefore rarer. As many of the individuals participating come from quite a distance away, the cost of gas is getting prohibitive. There was a critical mass of individuals for this one, but the organizer said that they have to focus on fewer events in order to get the numbers.

The highlight of the day was the battle between British troops and American Militia. The fight occurred outside the walls of the fort, and highlighted why all of the earthworks (hedges and ditches) existed. The redcoats carried the day, as the professional British Soldiers were able to easily withstand a fairly ragged American attack. Later in the fort, there was a dramatic interrogation of the American prisoners, and a failed prisoner exchange. All the Americans had managed to capture were several women, and the British didn’t particularly want them back, or not enough to exchange for a couple of American Militia officers.

Vance had a great time, and learned a bit about life at that time, and some history of the area. There were lots of children who were dressed in period costume who were ‘armed’, and Vance joined right in staging mock battles for a good part of the day, as well as playing a modified form of cricket. He wanted to go back the next day, which we took as a good sign ;-)

The fort is right on Lake Ontario, with the Niagara River flowing down one side. It was quite a blustery day, and the waves coming off the lake were very impressive when they hit the seawall. You could see the skyline of Toronto across the lake, looking like the Emerald City in Oz. Later, back at our campsite…..a vivid pink and purple sunset with Toronto silhouetted in the background made this view even more surreal.

Vance: Fort Niagara shows a great view of the lake. I found some friends there and we played a fun little game. It had some cool programs. My favorite thing was the fight on the battlefield! We also had a nice little game of dress up old fashion.

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