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Architecture of Fort Niagara

French Castle (from FortWiki)

The fortifications and buildings at Fort Niagara were originally designed for trade and the repulsion of Indian and British attacks, these fortifications include the French Castle and two blockhouses. However they were not designed very well to repel attacks from Europeans, specifically the British, or withstand any lengthy European-style sieges conducted by the British. This is interesting since there were conflicts between the Europeans in the Americas at the time that the French Castle and the fort was built. One would assume that this would have been taken into account, in order to design some more well-rounded buildings. The fort has changed hands many a time between the British, the French and the Americans. Over the years most of the fort has stayed the same, but due to various conflicts and needing new up to date buildings, changes to buildings, and fortifications have been added to the original fort.

Fort Niagara was constructed under the supervision of Jacques-Rene de Brisay de Denoville in the year 1687 [5]. Originally a simple fort constructed of wood, it would not be until later that most of the fort would be converted to stone. The fort was built while Denoville was fighting the Seneca’s, and (as it was deep inside Iroquois territory) was planned to be used as a resupply point, a place to spur fighting against the Iroquois, and as a stronghold for war parties [5]. It was seen as foolhardy to place a fort so deep into hostile territory, and so far from reinforcements, which were up the St. Lawrence River. Strategically this was a bad place for any kind of fortification to be, whether it be a fort, outpost or trading post. Having the ability to be cut off from supplies and reinforcements so easily is never a good thing and should always be taken into account.

The “French Castle” (also known as House of Peace) at Fort Niagara was designed by the French engineer Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Lery [4]. The design of the French Castle was presented to the local Indian tribes as a place where furs and goods could be traded in peace [4].The true intentions of the French Castle were more pessimistic than that, the French designed it so that if the Indians ever attacked it would be impenetrable as the French had everything they needed inside to survive. They had a well within the walls, as well as living areas, and storage rooms [4]. Also the way the second floor and the windows were designed, it made it easy for the occupying force inside to shoot down onto anyone outside trying to get into the building [8].

The fort was originally used as a trading post between the French and the local Indian tribes, such as the Iroquois, but as the threat from the British increased, Fort Niagara turned itself into a military strong point [2]. From the position it held on the shore, Fort Niagara guarded the entrance to the Niagara River. The Niagara River is just off of Lake Ontario and leads to the Niagara Falls. During the French and Indian war, Fort Niagara was one of the most impressive fortifications that the French possessed [2]. However it came under siege from the British in 1759 [2]. Although the French Castle and the rest of the fort had been designed to withstand Indian attacks and some European attacks, it was not designed well enough to withstand a lengthy European-style siege. The Fort eventually fell under the control of the British. It took nearly one month for the Fort to fall, even with the walls in shambles it held out for a while [3]. One of the main reasons that the fort fell is that the British had it surrounded. They had taken control of Lake Ontario, cutting off any hopes of resupply or escape via water [2]. On land General John Prideaux had surrounded the fort with roughly 1,000 Iroquois and 2,400 British soldiers [4]. This prevented an overland French relief force from reaching the fort, ultimately getting only within a mile of the fort to attempt to lift the siege, before being attacked and defeated by the British [2]. Once this force was defeated, all hopes for Fort Niagara were gone.

Once the Fort fell, it was under British control until after the Revolutionary War when the Treaty of Paris in 1783 gave American troops control of the fort [7]. However the Americans did not occupy the fort until after 1796 [7]. This was because the local Indian population made threats of violence against the British if they relinquished their control of their forts along the border of Canada and the United States, including Fort Niagara [7]. The Indians were upset with the Treaty of Paris along with the border policies that it created. This was because the British conceded all of the land that was south of the Great Lakes to the Americans, but most of this land was in control of the Indians [7]. This did not make them very happy, as the Indians wanted a zone between the British and the Americans to call their own [7]. Given all of this the British had no intention in giving up the fort due to the Indian threats and what seemed to be the quick and expedient fall of the new American government [7]. But after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the Jay and Canandaigua Treaties, the British were in no position to refuse turning over the fort [7].

Eventually the British handed over Fort Niagara in 1796. Once the British had relinquished control of the fort, their response was to go across the Niagara River into Canada and construct a new fort of their own, Fort George [7]. Fort George played a major role in the War of 1812 as both forts were well within range of each other. However Fort George had an advantage, the fort was at a higher elevation [8]. Due to this, Fort George could fire down into Fort Niagara, while Fort Niagara had a difficult time firing upon Fort George, let alone down into the fort itself. Due to this disadvantage, the Americans were forced to think of ways to negate or equalize the height advantage that Fort George had. The Americans eventually decided to take the roofs off of three buildings, which included the French Castle and the two blockhouses, the result of this was the emplacement of cannon batteries on top of the buildings [8]. This created an elevated position from which the Americans could fire from.

Fort Niagara in American Wars

During the war of 1812, the Americans captured Fort George for a brief moment of time [4]. The British then counter attacked and the Americans left the fort, after the British reclaimed Fort George, they took Fort Niagara [3]. After the war, the Treaty of Ghent forced the British to once again relinquish control of the fort to the Americans [4].

During the American Civil War, the British were looking into whom to support, the Union or the Confederacy. Since the British received substantial cotton shipments from the Confederacy for their textile mills, they were leaning more towards supporting the South. Due to this there were tensions between the Union and the British, as it was unclear if the British were going to supply the Confederacy, or even worse for the Union, enter the war. If the British entered the war, the Union was concerned that there would be fighting along the border with Canada [4]. The Union sent troops to garrison Fort Niagara as a precautionary measure [4].

The fort was considered out of date, so projects ensued that built new fortifications. These fortifications included new ramparts and new fortified positions for artillery emplacements [4]. Although eventually being finished by the end of the 1860’s, construction was stalled when the unit that was garrisoning Fort Niagara was sent to the front lines to fight [4]. This was possible due to a de-escalation of tensions between the British and the Union [4].

During World War II Fort Niagara was used as a prisoner of war camp for German prisoners of war. Starting in 1944 Fort Niagara housed around 1,800 prisoners, who had come from the Africa Campaign that had ended the year prior [6]. Their sole purpose here was to help with the labor shortages that were happening. Due to American men being drafted to go fight the war, there were shortages of labor in factories, and some farms were struggling to harvest their crops [6]. This is where the German prisoners of war came into play, they began filling in. They were working in the factories that had shortages of labor and on the farms that were struggling to harvest their crops. One such prisoner was Heinrich Willert [1]. He talks about an experience and a conversation he had with a farmer as the war ended, the farmer said “‘You’re all criminals because of the concentration camps.’ Willert summoned all the English swear words he knew and let them fly. Then, to his surprise, the American took a step back. “The farmer said, ‘I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you,’ Willert recalled. ‘He said ‘Come inside and have a meal.’ Prisoners were never invited to eat with the farmers” [1]. It was because of this experience that Willert wanted to come back to the fort years later [1]. At Fort Niagara, all that remains of the barracks that housed the prisoners is a marker where the barracks used to be [2].


Restorations to the fort are a very real concern as most of the fort is now well over 200 years old. Most of what needs to be done to the fort is on the outside, exposed to the elements. Things such as roof repair, repairs to disintegrating walls and masonry work [3]. The curators need to keep these things in check because it looks good for any visitors and reenactors. By keeping Fort Niagara restored and in good shape, it keeps the long history of the fort alive [3]. There are also ongoing proposals on how to make the fort more attractive to the public. Such as a project that would be turning three of the buildings into places for people to stay such as a bed and breakfast, a hotel and also a conference area [3]. Other proposed projects include turning the old officers club into a museum that would be focused on the history of Fort Niagara from 1871 to 1963, including the fort’s involvement in World War I and in World War II [3].

The most interesting part about the fortifications of Fort Niagara, is the fact that the British were able to defeat them, but then defend them. The British were the only Europeans/Americans that could take the fort by force, after the French Castle had been built. The only reason that the Americans got the fort was that that was a part of the peace treaties. The Treaty of Paris after the Revolutionary War gave the Americans control of the fort. During the War of 1812 the British took the fort, but then were made to give it back after the war was over. They never had the fort taken from them by force, only diplomatically. During the Civil War if the British had entered the war on the side of the Confederacy, it would have been interesting to see if the pattern had stayed the same. Would the British have been able to capture and defend Fort Niagara a third time?

Primary Sources

  1. Miner, Dan. “Youngstown: Former POW Returns to Niagara.” Niagara Gazette[Niagara Falls] 8 May 2008, State and Regional News sec.: n. pag. Web.

Secondary Sources

  1. Elson, Henry William. “Lake Ontario in History.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association. Vol. 13. N.p.: New York State Historical Association, n.d. 143-58.
  2. Hartley, Tom. “Fort Niagara Development Takes Another Step Forward.” Business First. N.p., 10 May 1999
  3. History of Old Fort Niagara.” Old Fort Niagara. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.
  4. Keener, Craig S. “An Ethnohistorical Analysis of Iroquois Assault Tactics Used against Fortified Settlements of the Northeast in the Seventeenth Century.” Ethnohistory. Vol. 46. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 777-807.
  5. McClatchy, Thomas J. “German Prisoners of War Called Fort Niagara Home: Effort Seeks to Chronicle Their WWII Experiences.” Tribune Business News. N.p., 03 Jan. 2007.
  6. Taylor, Alan. “The Divided Ground: Upper Canada, New York, and the Iroquois Six Nations, 1783-1815.” Journal of the Early Republic. Vol. 22. N.p.: U of Pennsylvania on Behalf of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, n.d. 55-75.
  7. Stuart-Harle, Martin. “Great Lakes Guardian GREAT GETAWAYS”New York State’s Old Fort Niagara Has Endured through Three Centuries of War and Uneasy Peace.” The Globe and Mail (Canada)31 Aug. 1991

Further Reading