New York's Old Fort Niagara Marks 1759 Battle Anniversary

By Carola, Chris | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 21, 2009 | Go to article overview

New York's Old Fort Niagara Marks 1759 Battle Anniversary


Carola, Chris, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


YOUNGSTOWN, N.Y. -- Fort Niagara still looks like a tough nut to crack.

The outer walls trace the same outline of the high earthworks that greeted a British-led army sent to conquer the fort 250 years ago this summer. The three-story "French Castle" looming over the western Lake Ontario shoreline is as imposing as when 3,500 redcoats, American colonials and Native American warriors laid siege to the fort in July 1759.

A significant part of the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site 26 miles north of Buffalo remains much the same as it was in 1759, at the end of the French and Indian War, when the English finally captured the wilderness outpost after decades under French control. A powder magazine built in 1757 still stands, 250 years after surviving the British bombardment that led to the fort's surrender.

"Niagara probably gives us the best sense of an 18th-century fortification," said Brian Leigh Dunnigan, curator of the map division at the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library and executive director of the fort from 1979-1996.

This summer, the fort is commemorating the 250th anniversary of the siege. During the July 4 weekend, more than 2,000 French and Indian War buffs from across the United States and Canada are expected to participate in the re-enactment of the 1759 siege of Fort Niagara, which actually lasted nearly three weeks.

The Old Fort Niagara re-enactment is this year's signature event of New York state tourism's commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War (1755-63).

Built to guard the portage between lakes Erie and Ontario, Fort Niagara was targeted by British military planners for years, but it wasn't until 1759 that a large force actually attacked it. Seizing the fort situated where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario would sever French Canada's communication and supply lines linking the colony with its outposts in the Ohio Valley, around the western Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River.

The British force headed westward from Albany in May and boarded boats at Oswego for the 130-mile voyage along the lake's southern shore. The redcoats landed a few miles east of the fort on July 6 and started digging trenches toward its walls. On July 11, British mortars began pounding the fort, with cannon fire later added to the bombardment.

The survivors among the garrison's 600 defenders surrendered on July 25, 1759, a day after a French relief force was defeated by the redcoats just a mile south of the fort.

The British capture of Fort Niagara was one of the key events leading up to the French defeat outside the walls of Quebec City later that year in one of history's most important battles. In 1763, France signed the treaty that surrendered Canada to the English.

Standing on the fort's western ramparts facing Ontario just across the Niagara River, visitors can understand why this spot was the lynchpin in the string of French outposts that stretched from Illinois to Quebec. Any vessel trying to slip past the fort's river defenses would find itself well within cannon range. …

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