History comes alive

“Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite” comes to mind along with “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.”

More than just “yesterdays” language, these may be the rhymes a visitor thinks about while visiting a nearby National Historic Landmark and New York State Historic Site. Old Fort Niagara, just past Niagara Falls, is a destination point for many people exploring our state’s history. The famous Oliver Hazard Perry played a role in its past as told last week in the column “Don’t give up the ship” from the War of 1812, but the fort’s presence dates as far back as 1678, making it a Western New York treasure worth visiting.

Several thousand people visit Old Fort Niagara each year, including many school-age students. It includes a 300-year timeline of the Iroquois, the French and the fur trade, the British in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and beyond. In its early days, control of the fort meant control of the Niagara River, which was access to the Great Lakes and waterways into the interior of North America. Changing hands several times, the site has original buildings including the “French Castle,” the oldest building (1726) in North America’s Great Lakes area and standing 50 years before the Declaration of Independence was even signed.

Something for everyone, a visitor can tour the “castle.” With permission from the Seneca Indians to build a simple trading post and storage facility, it was built to resemble a chateau, but was really a fort with the strength to repel attacks. Although the first floor had storerooms and a bakery, the third floor had gun decks for cannon fire behind its dormer windows. The Powder Magazine from 1757 is a darkened building that protected highly explosive gunpowder from mortar shells with its thick earthen roof. The two Redoubts, which are fort-like structures within the fort, have an upper and open level where today a visitor may enjoy the vista, but were originally used for cannon fire. During a recent tour, visitors were captivated when the guide told the story of attacking British troops breaking down the doors of the South Redoubt with the last holdout of American defenders. During a cold night in December during the War of 1812 when it was deemed no one would be on the move, the gate to the fort was left open. The British crossed the river and in a surprise attack, easily gained entrance and bayoneted to death many Americans. The book, “Old Fort Niagara” (1988), recounts how 80 were killed, 14 wounded, and 244 made prisoners. “Within a few days the entire Niagara Frontier, from the fort to, and including Buffalo was a heap of smoking ruins.”

The tour guides and perhaps the spirits of the fort have stories to tell of the many people who inhabited it through the years. There is the story of the “haunted well,” where according to legend, two men fighting over a lovely Indian maiden came to blows, with one man losing his head. His body thrown into the well and his head into Lake Ontario, his ghost is said to reappear now and then in search of his head. During the French and Indian War, as the British laid siege to the fort, a general was killed by a premature mortar shell to his head and may be seen today wandering the grounds. Then, of course, there is the unsettling “Massacre at Devils’ Hole.” Near the fort, but farther up the river, many Seneca Indians ambushed a wagon train of supplies. It is said that wagons, horses and men were “hurled” into the gorge. Going back in time at the site of the fort prior to 1726 in the late 1600s, there are also the men who died during a harsh winter. Of 100 men at the small post, only 12 survived. The book, Old Fort Niagara, describes it as one of “bitter cold, starvation, and disease as the fate of these Frenchmen, beset by wolves and surrounded by unfriendly Indians from whom they could expect no succor.” There is a large replica cross at the fort, commemorating a French priest, who as part of the rescue party, erected a cross before celebrating a Mass for the both the survivors and dead men.

Old Fort Niagara’s 300-year span of history actually tells much of our nation’s history. It can be a challenge to keep track of who was doing what, why, and when. Just like us however, despite the events or turmoil of the times, people go about their business of work and daily living. Sleep and food can’t be denied. A tour of the fort tells the stories of this part of life in addition to the military. The typical soldier slept with several others on long wooden platforms, but officers had beds. A cross-weave of tightly stretched roping across a wooden frame supported the mattress. Some sources deny that this is the origin of the phrase “sleep tight” and that it merely comes from the adverb “tightly,” or to sleep soundly. Nevertheless, the same story is told at many historical sites. It certainly makes sense, as well as bedbugs. Mattresses were made and stuffed with organic materials which had to be loaded with all sorts of critters.

As far as eating, both frontier and fort conditions had to be rough, with scurvy and other nutritional deficiencies a common problem. Porridge was the norm for soldiers at the fort, and it was sometimes hot, sometimes cold, but most certainly more than nine days old! Hanging in a large pot over a fire, it consisted of boiled legumes such as peas with some ancient salted ham thrown in. Fat and such was just reheated and more was added to the pot each day. Sometimes soldiers were rewarded with a handful of oats to add to their porridge. This was part of their living quarters, trying to also keep warm by the fire on cold nights with the ever present chamber pot under the bed.

History is alive and well at Old Fort Niagara. Consider a trip there and see how exciting it is to learn about and understand our history. Make it a good week with the Fourth of July once again upon us. Next week’s column will highlight the Battle of Gettysburg from 1863. With the 150th anniversary, there are two weeks of re-enactments this year. Week one is “campaign style” no tents, women, children, or modern food.

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