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Siege Of Fort Niagara
The River Niagara was known to the Jesuits as early as 1640. The Falls
are indicated on Champlain's map of 1632, and in 1648 the Jesuit
Rugueneau speaks of them as a "cataract of frightful height."
In 1678, the Falls were visited by the friar Louis Hennepin, who gives
an exaggerated description of them, and illustrates it by a curious
picture. The name Niagara is of Iroquois origin, and in the Mohawk
dialect is pronounced Nyagarah.
In the year of Hennepin's visit, the followers of Cavelier de la Salle
began a fortified storehouse where Lewiston now stands, and on Cayuga
Creek, a few miles above the Falls, La Salle built the "Griffin," the
first vessel that ever sailed on the Upper Lakes. At the same time he
began a fort at the mouth of the river. La Salle's fort fell to ruin,
and another was built in its place a few years after. This, too, was
abandoned to be again rebuilt, and the post remained in French hands
more than half a century. It was of the greatest importance, since it
commanded the chief route from Canada to the interior of the continent.
At length, in 1759, the year of Wolfe's famous victory at Quebec,
General Prideaux was sent to reduce it.
Prideaux safely reached Niagara, and laid siege to it. Fort Niagara was
a strong work, lately rebuilt in regular form by an excellent officer,
Captain Pouchot, of the battalion of Bearn, who commanded it. It stood
where the present fort stands, in the angle formed by the junction of
the River Niagara with Lake Ontario, and was held by about six hundred
men, well supplied with provisions and munitions of war. Higher up the
river, a mile and a half above the cataract, there was another fort,
called Little Niagara, built of wood, and commanded by the half-breed
officer, Joncaire-Chabert, who with his brother, Joncaire-Clauzonne, and
a numerous clan of Indian relatives, had long thwarted the efforts of
Sir William Johnson to engage the Five Nations in the English cause. But
recent English successes had had their effect. Joncaire's influence was
waning, and Johnson was now in Prideaux's camp with nine hundred Five
Nation warriors pledged to fight the French. Joncaire, finding his fort
untenable, burned it, and came with his garrison and his Indian friends
to reinforce Niagara.
Pouchot had another resource, on which he confidently relied. In
obedience to an order from Vaudreuil, the French population of the
Illinois, Detroit, and other distant posts, joined with troops of
Western Indians, had come down the Lakes to restore French ascendency on
the Ohio. These mixed bands of white men and red, bushrangers and
savages, were now gathered, partly at Le Boeuf and Venango, but chiefly
at Presquisle, under command of Aubry, Ligneris, Marin, and other
partisan chiefs, the best in Canada. No sooner did Pouchot learn that
the English were coming to attack him than he sent a messenger to summon
them all to his aid.
The siege was begun in form, though the English engineers were so
incompetent that the trenches, as first laid out, were scoured by the
fire of the place, and had to be made anew. At last the batteries opened
fire. A shell from a cochorn burst prematurely, just as it left the
mouth of the piece, and a fragment striking Prideaux on the head, killed
him instantly. Johnson took command in his place, and made up in energy
what he lacked in skill. In two or three weeks the fort was in
extremity. The rampart was breached, more than a hundred of the garrison
were killed or disabled, and the rest were exhausted with want of sleep.
Pouchot watched anxiously for the promised succors; and on the morning
of the twenty-fourth of July a distant firing told him that they were at
Aubry and Ligneris, with their motley following, had left Presquisle a
few days before, to the number, according to Vaudreuil, of eleven
hundred French and two hundred Indians. Among them was a body of colony
troops; but the Frenchmen of the party were chiefly traders and
bushrangers from the West, connecting links between civilization and
savagery; some of them indeed were mere white Indians, imbued with the
ideas and morals of the wigwam, wearing hunting-shirts of smoked
deer-skin embroidered with quills of the Canada porcupine, painting
their faces black and red, tying eagle feathers in their long hair, or
plastering it on their temples with a compound of vermilion and glue.
They were excellent woodsmen, skilful hunters, and perhaps the best
bushfighters in all Canada.
When Pouchot heard the firing, he went with a wounded artillery officer
to the bastion next the river; and as the forest had been cut away for a
great distance, they could see more than a mile and a half along the
shore. There, by glimpses among trees and bushes, they descried bodies
of men, now advancing, and now retreating; Indians in rapid movement,
and the smoke of guns, the sound of which reached their ears in heavy
volleys, or a sharp and angry rattle. Meanwhile the English cannon had
ceased their fire, and the silent trenches seemed deserted, as if their
occupants were gone to meet the advancing foe. There was a call in the
fort for volunteers to sally and destroy the works; but no sooner did
they show themselves along the covered way than the seemingly abandoned
trenches were thronged with men and bayonets, and the attempt was given
up. The distant firing lasted half an hour, then ceased, and Pouchot
remained in suspense; till, at two in the afternoon, a friendly
Onondaga, who had passed unnoticed through the English lines, came to
him with the announcement that the French and their allies had been
routed and cut to pieces. Pouchot would not believe him.
Nevertheless his tale was true. Johnson, besides his Indians, had with
him about twenty-three hundred men, whom he was forced to divide into
three separate bodies,--one to guard the bateaux, one to guard the
trenches, and one to fight Aubry and his band. This last body consisted
of the provincial light infantry and the pickets, two companies of
grenadiers, and a hundred and fifty men of the forty-sixth regiment, all
under command of Colonel Massey. They took post behind an abatis at a
place called La Belle Famille, and the Five Nation warriors placed
themselves on their flanks. These savages had shown signs of
disaffection; and when the enemy approached, they opened a parley with
the French Indians, which, however, soon ended, and both sides raised
the war-whoop. The fight was brisk for a while; but at last Aubry's men
broke away in a panic. The French officers seem to have made desperate
efforts to retrieve the day, for nearly all of them were killed or
captured; while their followers, after heavy loss, fled to their canoes
and boats above the cataract, hastened back to Lake Erie, burned
Presquisle, Le Boeuf, and Venango, and, joined by the garrisons of those
forts, retreated to Detroit, leaving the whole region of the upper Ohio
in undisputed possession of the English.
At four o'clock on the day of the battle, after a furious cannonade on
both sides, a trumpet sounded from the trenches, and an officer
approached the fort with a summons to surrender. He brought also a paper
containing the names of the captive French officers, though some of them
were spelled in a way that defied recognition. Pouchot, feigning
incredulity, sent an officer of his own to the English camp, who soon
saw unanswerable proof of the disaster; for here, under a shelter of
leaves and boughs near the tent of Johnson, sat Ligneris, severely
wounded, with Aubry, Villiers, Montigny, Marin, and their companions in
misfortune,--in all, sixteen officers, four cadets, and a surgeon.
Pouchot had now no choice but surrender. By the terms of the
capitulation, the garrison were to be sent prisoners to New York, though
honors of war were granted them in acknowledgment of their courageous
conduct. There was a special stipulation that they should be protected
from the Indians, of whom they stood in the greatest terror, lest the
massacre of Fort William Henry should be avenged upon them. Johnson
restrained his dangerous allies, and, though the fort was pillaged, no
blood was shed.
The capture of Niagara was an important stroke. Thenceforth Detroit,
Michillimackinac, the Illinois, and all the other French interior posts
were severed from Canada and left in helpless isolation. The conquest of
the whole interior became only a question of time.
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