History and collections

History and Collections

The History of Old Fort Niagara

The history of Old Fort Niagara spans more than 300 years. Located at the mouth of the Niagara River, the fort played a vital role during the colonial wars in North America. Its strategic position allowed it to control access to the Great Lakes and the westward route to the heartland of the continent.

Initially, the fort was of great importance, but with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, its strategic value diminished. Despite this, it remained an active military post well into the 20th century.

The Nations that Held Fort Niagara

The three flags flown daily above the parade ground symbolize the nations that have held Fort Niagara. Each of these nations competed for the support of the powerful Six Nations Confederacy.

The French were the first to establish a post at the site, building Fort Conti in 1679. However, it burned down before the end of the year. They then built Fort Denonville in 1687-88, but it also had a short lifespan. Finally, in 1726, France erected the impressive “French Castle,” which served as a permanent fortification.

In 1759, during the French & Indian War, the British gained control of Fort Niagara after a nineteen-day siege. The British held the post throughout the American Revolution but were forced to yield it to the United States in 1796. The fort was recaptured by the British in 1813 but was ceded to the United States again in 1815 at the end of the War of 1812.

Fort Niagara’s Role in Armed Conflicts

After its recapture by the United States in 1815, Fort Niagara served as a peaceful border post. The fort expanded beyond its walls following the Civil War and became a barracks and training station for American soldiers during both World Wars. The last army units were withdrawn from the fort in 1963, and today, the U.S. Coast Guard represents the only military presence on the site.

Management and Restoration

Old Fort Niagara was restored between 1929 and 1934 and is now operated by the Old Fort Niagara Association, Inc., a not-for-profit organization, in cooperation with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The operation of the site is supported by admission fees, Museum Shop sales, grants, and donations. Membership in the Old Fort Niagara Association is open to all.

Historical Timeline

  • 17th Century- Senecas occupy a seasonal hunting and fishing camp at the future site of Fort Niagara
  • 1669- First documented visit of a European to the future site of Fort Niagara
  • 1679- French erect Fort Conti. The post burned down before the end of the year.
  • 1687- French erect Fort Denonville as part of their campaign against the Seneca. Of 100 men left to winter at the fort, only 12 survived.
  • 1720- Louis-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire erects Le Magazin Royal at the present site of Artpark in Lewiston.
  • 1726-27 French erect the French Castle.
  • 1744-48 King George’s War. The French strengthen Fort Niagara and construct a Bake House in 1747.
  • 1749- Celoron’s Expedition, to formally claim the Ohio Valley, passes through Fort Niagara.
  • 1754-1763- French and Indian War. The French strengthen Fort Niagara. Massive earthen walls are constructed and additional buildings erected.
  • 1757- The French erect a large stone Powder Magazine
  • 1759- After a 19-day siege, Fort Niagara falls to the British.
  • 1762- British rebuild the Bake House and Provisions Storehouse
  • 1763-66 Native American Uprising known as Pontiac’s War. Fort Niagara plays a key role in supplying Detroit. In September, British forces are defeated at Devil’s Hole, 11 miles south of Fort Niagara.
  • 1764 British forces under Colonel John Bradstreet camp at the fort on their way to relieve Detroit. Sir William Johnson holds the largest Native peace conference to date at the fort.
  • 1770 & 1771 – The British build two Stone Redoubts to shore up eroding defenses.
  • 1775-1783 – American War of Independence. British forces hold Fort Niagara and use it as a base for frontier raids and as a refuge for Loyalists and Native American allies.
  • 1796- Fort Niagara is turned over to the United States.
  • 1812- Fort Niagara and British Fort George trade artillery bombardments. The fort’s heroine, Betsy Doyle, carries hot shot to a gun on the roof of the French Castle.
  • 1813- Fort Niagara supports the American capture of Fort George. In December, Fort Niagara is captured by British forces.
  • 1815- U.S. troops reoccupy Fort Niagara
  • 1825- The opening of the Erie Canal diminishes Fort Niagara’s strategic importance.
  • 1839-1843- In response to the Canadian Rebellion of 1837, the U.S. makes extensive alterations to buildings and fortifications at Fort Niagara. A new stone wall and hot shot battery are constructed on the river side of the fort.
  • 1863-72- In response to the Civil War (1861-65) Brick revetments are constructed along the fort’s walls.
  • 1872- The Army garrison moves outside the old fort walls to New Fort Niagara.
  • 1885- 1000-yard rifle range created.
  • 1899- U.S. Troops train for service in the Philippines.
  • 1917- Fort Niagara hosts two Officer Training Camps for service in World War One.
  • 1927- The Old Fort Niagara Association is founded to save the old fort from ruin.
  • 1934- Old Fort Niagara opens as a public museum
  • 1941- Fort Niagara becomes an induction center for troops serving in World War Two.
  • 1944-45 Fort Niagara serves as a prisoner of war camp for German and Austrian POWs
  • 1952- With the advent of the Cold War, Anti-aircraft troops are stationed at the fort.
  • 1963- Fort Niagara decommissioned as an active military post.
  • 1985- Old Fort Niagara’s Collections Center established
  • 2006- Visitor Center opens
  • Today- The fort welcomes over 200,000 visitors a year.

Collections at Old Fort Niagara

Old Fort Niagara is home to one of the nation’s finest collections of original 18th- and early 19th-century military architecture and related artifacts. The museum collections cover a wide range of historical periods, from pre-contact to the present, and provide a comprehensive view of the site’s history.

Architectural Collection

The architectural collection at Old Fort Niagara includes six 18th-century buildings, making them the oldest extant structures of any type in the Great Lakes region. The oldest building, known as the French Castle, was constructed in 1726 and holds the distinction of being the oldest building in North America situated between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

Other notable 18th-century buildings in the collection include an above-ground powder magazine built in 1757, a Bake House and a Provisions Storehouse both constructed in 1762, and two stone redoubts built in 1770 and 1771.


Old Fort Niagara also boasts three extensive areas of fortifications that provide examples of changing defensive technologies over a century of intense military activity in North America.

The fortifications include earthen and log outer walls and fortified works originally constructed in 1755, stone walls and artillery emplacements from the first half of the 19th century, and brick underground casemate galleries and outer walls dating from the 1863-72 period.

Archeological Collection

The archeological collection at Old Fort Niagara consists of 103,000 specimens, all of which were excavated at the fort or related sites. The collection includes a small quantity of prehistoric material, a large number of historic artifacts spanning from 1679 to the present, and floral and faunal material.

Due to well-documented building locations throughout the fort’s history and relatively undisturbed ground, the artifacts can be identified in both temporal and physical contexts.

General Collection

The general collection at Old Fort Niagara spans the site’s history and includes 2,051 artifacts acquired by the fort since 1931. While most of the objects are military in nature, special effort has been made to collect objects representing the broader social and commercial impact of the site, its important role in European/Native relations, and garrison/community interaction.

The general collection includes 73 pieces of artillery, 115 small arms and edged weapons, 155 pieces of military clothing, 65 accouterments, 75 pieces of furniture, and military insignia and ephemera related to the garrison and the Old Fort Niagara Association. The most significant object in the collection is the U.S. garrison flag from the War of 1812, measuring 24′ x 28′, which holds national significance as one of the few extant U.S. flags dating before 1815.

Library and Archival Collection

The library and archival collection at Old Fort Niagara consists of 8,000 images of the fort, 3,000 books and periodicals, 3,500 manuscript items, and a vast amount of reproduced primary source material gathered from other institutions. These resources provide valuable insights into the history of Fort Niagara and the surrounding area.