The First French Explorers in Niagara

niagara history


Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain

When Samuel de Champlain arrived in Ontario in 1615, the Hurons were at war with the Iroquois. The Neutrals of the Niagara region were on good terms with both sides although the presence of war parties from both nations must have made the situation a precarious one.

Champlain led a war party of Huron and Algonquin warriors into Iroquois territory and gave the Iroquois their first taste of warfare with firearms. The campaign was to have far-reach-ing and historic consequences. The Iroquois retaliated by wiping out the Hurons and opposing French expansion with such ferocious hostility that they played a major part in the final expulsion of France from North America. If Champlain had maintained neutrality and used his power and prestige to promote a peace between the warring tribes (as other French governors did – too late), the history of this continent might have been much difterent.

The immediate result of Champlain’s campaign was an Iroquois hunger for guns. Although the French in Quebec initially forbade the trading of firearms with the Hurons and Algonquins, the Dutch in New York observed no such niceties. Guns were soon travelling through the Iroquois Long House in exchange for furs. The acquisition of weapons so vastly superior to the bow and spear boded ill for the enemies of the Iroquois.

Champlain’s lieutenant, Brule, travelled extensively in Southern Ontario during the early years of the 17th century. He certainly passed through Neutral country and his account of it may have brought about the first visit to the Neutrals of a white missionary. The Franciscan friar, La Roche Daillon, visited the Neutrals in 1626. He was very harshly treated (probably because of intrigues by the Hurons and fur traders who spread the word that the “black robes” brought pestilence and ruin), and was lucky to return to Huronia alive.

french explorers niagaraThe same treatment was accorded the Jesuits Brebeuf and Chaumont when they visited the Neutrals in 1640. Spurned and threatened with death wherever they wandered, they returned to Ste. Marie in Huronia after four dangerous and fruitless months, Lalemant in the “Relations des Huron 1641” speaks of the celebrated river of the Neutrals or Onguiaahra, but it was not until Ragueneau’s Relation of 1648 that the Falls at Niagara were specifically mentioned.

The name Onguiaahra appears on maps as early as 1641. It and the later version, Niagara, derive from the attempts of the early Jesuit missionaries to establish a written equivalent for the Iroquoian word. The generally accepted meaning is “The Strait”.

The first attempt to bring Christianity to the inhabitants of the Niagara area was a failure. So, too, was the Mission to the Hurons, but they were failures on a heroic scale. The Relations of the Jesuits, besides being remarkable historic documents, tell a story of selfless devotion to a cause, endurance of misery, and courage in the face of daager that would be difficult to equal anywhere in human experience.

jesuitsIn 1649 and ’50 the Five Nations invaded Huron territory. Huron bows were no match for guns. The tribe was completely routed. Their Jesuit missionaries were killed or burned at the stake. Slaughter, capture or flight put an end to the Hurons as a nation in southern Ontario.

Their ancient enemies disposed of, the Iroquois turned on the Neutrals and Eries. After some resistance these people took to the forests or were captured and assimilated by the Iroquois. By the end of 1651, the Neutral Nation ceased to exist. Niagara was Seneca territory.

The Iroquois remained in possesion of the Niagara area until the settlement of the white man gradually dispossessed them of all their property. The remainder of this once powerful tribe now lives in a much whittled-down reservation near Brantford, Ontario. A few Tuscaroras, who joined the League in 1715 after being ousted from the Carolinas, live on a reservation near Lewiston. This remnant ekes out a living as best it can; a thorn in the side of the government and would-be developers alike. The Tuscaroras came last to Niagara, but have stayed longest. Most of the Lewiston reservation was purchased by the tribe and they have managed to retain their property – although the latest assault by the New York Power Authority, who wanted Tuscarora land for a water reservoir, resulted in a court order forcing them to sell a corner of the reservation.

A similar fate has overtaken a band of Senecas near Salamanca, New York. The Kinzua Dam completed in 1966 will result in half the tribal reservation being flooded by the waters of the Allegany River.

The history of the Iroquois is a sad one. The tribes once controlled land from Montreal to the Mississippi. When asked to attend an anniversary celebration of the Battle of Queenston Heights, a Six Nation Chief replied, with a touch of the old dignity, “What for? We have nothing to celebrate.”

A display of Indian artifacts may be seen at the Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum, at Lundy’s Lane and Drummond Road in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Many of these relics came from the Indian burial ground discovered at St. David’s Hill .


Father Louis Hennepin

Father Louis Hennepin

Twenty-eight years were to elapse after the Iroquois occupation of Niagara, before French-Iroquois relations had settled down enough to permit further explorations. It is one of the freaks of history that the first recorded visit to Niagara should have involved two of the most remarkable men in the history of North American exploration – La Salle and Father Hennepin.

Of La Salle, first man to travel the length of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, J. B. Brebner says, “It was his fate always to exceed present practicability by the novelty and magnitude of his designs, but those designs ultimately proved so apt and shrewd that history has been right in elevating him to greatness even though he carried to completion almost nothing of what he essayed.”

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, came to New France in 1666 and was granted a seigneury on Montreal Island near the La Chine rapids. The life of a seigneur seemed little to his liking and he was soon involved in voyages of exploration and fur trading. He established a fort and trading post at Cataraqui (Kingston) for Frontenac, and in 1678 gained permission to engage in an ambitious scheme of exploration. His patent authorized him to find an inland route to the Gulf of Mexico, establish forts, and trade in buffalo hides.

The advance party of this expedition, including La Salle’s lieutenant, La Motte, and Father Hennepin, set sail from Cataraqui in November and arrived at the mouth of the Niagara River on December 6th 1678. Shortly after this, Hennepin and his party explored the Niagara River as far as Chippawa Creek. His well known description of the Falls is minute and accurate, although he does report the Falls as being 600 feet high and making a noise that could be heard for 45 miles. The famous first sketch of the Falls appeared in 1699 in his book “New Discovery”. (First French edition 1697.)

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle

La Salle arrived at Niagara shortly after Hennepin. He commenced building a small fort on the site of the present Fort Niagara and then proceeded upstream. At Cayuga Creek, on the U.S. side, about two miles above the Falls, La Salle started building the famous, but ill-fated “Griffin”. After set-backs that would have crushed a lesser man, La Salle got the Griffin launched in 1679, and, loaded with trade goods, she set off into the Upper Lakes, the first ship to sail these waters.

The Griffin is known to have reached Lake Michigan, and, after trading and loading with furs, set out from Green Bay. On the return voyage, the ship was lost with all aboard. Where, and how, no one knows. Many attempts have been made to find the Griffin and some claims have been made for the discovery of La Salle’s vessel, but none have been authenticated and the fate of the ship remains an unsolved mystery.

The loss of the Griffin was a shattering blow to La Salle’s fortunes. Nevertheless, he persevered with his grand scheme of finding the overland route to the mouth of the Mississippi. He was finally successful in this and attempted to form a French colony in Louisiana. This courageous, but luckless man, met his end in 1687 when he was murdered by members of his own party.

In spite of La Salle’s personal misfortunes, he was undoubtedly responsible for laying one of the cornerstones of the French influence in the Niagara region. This influence was to remain the dominant one for a long time, in spite of the British, who were vigorously contesting French control of the fur trade in the Upper Lakes region.

Ten years after La Salle’s expedition into the Upper Lakes, another Frenchman, Marquis de Denonville, succeeded in establishing a fort at the mouth of the Niagara on the site of the earlier structure built by La Salle. The purpose of the fort was to provide a strong point against the Iroquois, who were attacking French settlements on the St. Lawrence, and to secure the Niagara carrying place.

Once again the effort was ill-fated. About one hundred men were left by Denonville to winter in the new fort. Supplies of fresh food soon ran out and the garrison was prevented from hunting by bands of hostile Senecas. Finally, plague broke out. In the spring of 1688, when the fort was relieved, only twelve of the original garrison were alive. Father Millet, a member of the relief party, erected a wooden cross on Good Friday, 1688, to commemorate the unfortunate garrison. A large bronze cross now marks the spot at Fort Niagara. The sacrifice of life proved to be fruitless; later that year, the aggressive Seneca Indians insisted on the dismantling of the fort.

The loss of Fort Denonville was a temporary set-back for the French empire-builders but they continued their efforts to strengthen their trade routes. 1721 saw the establishment of a post at Lewiston. It was a cabin of bark, large enough to house a considerable quantity of furs and trade goods. In command was Louis Joncaire, an intrepid Frenchman who was an adopted son of the Senecas. Under Joncaire’s expert guidance and with the help of his two sons, the fur trade flourished; a list of the “peltries” passing through Niagara at this time is impressive. A small Seneca village was located near Joncaire’s cabin and 200 Senecas were employed as porters to carry goods around the Rapids and Falls.

Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry

Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry

In 1726, the French strengthened their hold on the Niagara Region. In that year, the French Castle at the mouth of the Niagara River was erected by Gaspard de Lery, Louis XV’s chief engineer in Canada. Every effort was made to persuade the Iroquois that the building was no more than a trading post. The result is surely a fortress that is unique on this continent. The exterior facade is that of a French country chateau, but the thick walls, an inside well and a six-pounder battery, cleverly concealed on the top floor, show the “house” to be a well-designed fortress capable of resisting any attack the Iroquois were capable of making.

The discomfiture of the British, as they saw the consolidation of French power, Joncaire’s success with the Senecas, and the wealth flowing through the new trading post, was unendurable. They protested at the Iroquois councils and did everything in their power to bring about the dismantling of Fort Niagara. But the French stayed on and increased their influence in the fur-rich Ohio Valley. Friction between the two nations increased. Officially, Britain and France were at peace.

However, a British army under General Braddock was dispatched to seize control of the Ohio Valley. It was cut to pieces in the woods by a small troop of French soldiers and Indians. In other sectors, the British defeated the French on the Champlain route and in Nova Scotia.

War was declared in 1756. All the initial successes were French, but in 1759, British sea-power was throttling the ability of New France to resist the steadily mounting British and Colonial pressure. Outposts of the far-flung French empire were nipped off one by one.

Oswego, once Britain’s old strong point on Lake Ontario, was recaptured. From here, a strong army, led by Brigadier-General John Prideaux, moved against Fort Niagara. The force comprised about 2000 British regulars, and 1000 Indians under the command of the British Indian Superintendent, Sir William Johnson.

When Prideaux laid siege to the fort, the French situation was very serious. The only hope of the encircled garrison was a force of about 1200 soldiers, coureurs-de-bois and friendly Indians gathered from the western outposts. This motley group hurried down the river to relieve Niagara. Captain Franqois Pouchout, the commander of Fort Niagara, had been under continuous bombardment by the British artillery. His garrison was so depleted that he was unable to give any support to the relief force and he cautioned the commander to avoid a direct confrontation with the British if he had any doubt about the outcome.

Prideaux was killed when a small cannon burst near him and the command of the British force was taken over by Sir William Johnson. He continued the bombardment of the fort and built a redoubt at La Belle Famille blocking the road leading from Lewiston to Fort Niagara. He deployed his regulars behind the defense work and his Iroquois warriors on the flank.

Whether the French commander, D’Aubrey, was inept or merely over-confident is a matter for some speculation. He marched his troops directly towards the entrenched and well-deployed British force. Just as the regulars were no match for coureurs and Indians in the woods, D’Aubrey’s men were no match for regular soldiers in a stand-up battle. Within one hour the French force was broken, its officers wounded or captured, and the survivors were streaming back down the road over which they had just advanced. The Indians pursued them, eager for scalps and booty, and the retreat became a rout.

Pouchot, in Fort Niagara, knew that without the relief force his position was hopeless. When he learned of the outcome of the battle at La Belle Famille, he had no alternative but to negotiate the best surrender terms he could. The remnants of the garrison were allowed to embark for New York carrying their possessions with them. The Fleur-de-Lis came down for the last time. With Pouchot’s surrender, French influence on the Niagara was at an end – it also marked the beginning of the end of French power in Canada.

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