History of Niagara On The Lake
Stroll back through history and enjoy world class theatre, fine dining, shopping, our estate wineries, farm markets and historical sites.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, often called the loveliest town in Ontario, has a long and distinguished history. Site of the old Neutral Indian village of Onghiara, it was settled at the close of the American Revolution by Loyalists coming to Upper Canada, many of whom had been members of the much feared Butler’s Rangers based during the American Revolution at Fort Niagara, then under British control.
In 1781 the British Government purchased land from the Mississaugas; a strip of land 6 miles wide along the western bank of the Niagara River for “300 suits of clothing”. By 1782, 16 families had become established and had cleared 236 acres. In 1791 part of the military reserve at the mouth of the river was chosen as the future townsite. In 1792, Newark – as it was named by Governor Simcoe, became the first capital of the newly-created colony of Upper Canada, and the legislature met here for five sessions, until Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe moved the capital to York. By 1796, 70 new homes were built, and the town continued to prosper as the economic, administrative and judicial centre for the Niagara Peninsula. The physical appearance of the town, with the exception of the powder magazine at Fort George was virtually erased by the burning of the town by the Americans during the war of 1812.
Rebuilt, Niagara became an active commercial centre, with a busy shipping and ship-building industry, as well as many shops and warehouses. The beautiful old homes lining the tree-shaded streets attest to the prosperity of its citizens.
TODAY, over two hundred years after its founding, Niagara-on-the-Lake hums with a different kind of traffic. Its many attractions include historic sites – Fort George and the Historical Society Museum, the Shaw Festival with its three theatres, the marina, our heritage business district for shopping, golf courses, parks and beautiful farmland, agricultural markets and our world famous Niagara wineries. Come to the many special events held throughout the year! Take a carriage ride through the Old Town, or a jet boat up the Niagara River. A short drive along the scenic Niagara Parkway leads to Queenston Heights and Niagara Falls. Check out the Butterfly Conservatory at the Niagara Parks Commission site. Our town attracts thousands of visitors who stroll the old streets, enjoy the comforts of fine hotels or our charming bed and breakfast homes, dine in our many varied restaurants, and, if even for a little while, journey back in time to a more leisurely time – the age of Niagara-on-the-Lake!
Early History of Niagara, Niagara Falls.
The first humans arrived in Niagara Region almost 12,000 years ago, just in time to witness the birth of the Falls. The land was different then, consisting of tundra and spruce forest. During this time (the Palaeo-Indian Period, which lasted until 9,000 years ago), Niagara was inhabited by the Clovis people. These nomadic hunters likely camped along the old Lake Erie shoreline, living in simple, tiny dwellings. They left little to mark their tenure except chipped stones. These large, fluted projectile points were likely to fell the caribou, mastodons, moose and elk that roamed the land. By 9,500 years ago a deciduous forest apparently covered southernmost Ontario. This forest supported the hunter-gatherers of the Archaic Period (9,000 to 3,000 years ago) with a diet of deer, moose, fish and plants. Small groups hunted in the winter, feeding on nuts and animals attracted to the forest. Larger groups came together during the summer, setting up fishing camps at the mouths of rivers and along lakeshores.
The Woodland Period lasted from 3,000 to 300 years ago, culminating in the peak of Iroquois culture in southern Ontario. Corn, bean and squash agriculture provided the main sources of food. With their bellies full, the Iroquois had time for other pursuits and the population boomed. Small palisaded villages were built, with nuclear or extended families occupying individual longhouses. During this period, burial rituals and ceramics were introduced to Ontario. Society became more complex with a political system based on extended kinship and inter-village alliances.
When the European explorers and missionaries arrived at the beginning of the 17 th Century, the Iroquoian villages were under the direction of various chiefs elected from the major clans. In turn, these villages were allied within powerful tribal confederacies.
Unfortunately, inter-tribal warfare with the Five Nations Iroquois of New York State, made worse by the intrusion of the Europeans, dispersed the three Ontario confederacies, the Huron, the Petun and the Neutral. Niagara ceased to be the territory of those who lived in harmony with nature. Still, this fascinating period of native occupation cries out for interpretation and study. Since human settlement requires drinking water, sites within 150 metres of rivers and lakeshores have the greatest archaeological potential. Palaeo-Indian sites in Niagara would most likely be associated with the series of relic beach ridges that once formed the shore of early Lake Erie.
In May 1535, Jacques Cartier left France to explore the New World. Although he never saw Niagara Falls, the Indians he met along the St.Lawrence River told him about it. Samuel de Champlain visited Canada in 1608. He, too, heard stories of the mighty cataract, but never visited it. Etienne Brule, the first European to see Lakes Ontario, Erie Huron and Superior, may also have been the first to behold the Falls, in 1615.
That same year, the Recollet missionary explorers arrived in Ontario. They were followed a decade later by the Jesuits. It was a Jesuit father, Gabriel Lalemant, who first recorded the Iroquios name for the river- Onguiaahra, meaning “the Strait”. “Niagara” is a simplification of the original.
In 1651, during the fur- trade rivalry between the Huron and Iroquois that was first precipitated by the French, the Iroquois wiped out the Neutrals. Until the American Revolution, they managed to keep white settlers out of Niagara almost completely.
In December 1678, Recollet priest Louis Hennepin visited Niagara Falls. Nineteen years later, he published the first engraving of the Falls in his book Nouvelle Decouverte. The Falls obviously made a great impression of Hennepin, for he estimated their height to be 183 metres, more than three times what it really is.
In 1812, United States President James Madison declared war on Canada. Artifacts from that war dot the riverside, as do monuments erected later, such as the one to Sir Isaac Brock. Recently, the skeletons of members of the U.S. Army were found near Old Fort Erie.
Following the War of 1812, the region began the slow process of rebuilding itself. Queenston became a bustling community, but Chippawa was the big centre, with distilleries and factories.
In the 1820’s, a stairway was built down the bank at Table Rock and the first ferry service across the lower River began. By 1827, a paved road had been built up from the ferry landing to the top of the bank on the Canadian side. This site became the prime location for hotel development and the Clifton was built there, after which the Clifton Hill is named.
Niagara has perhaps the most complex transportation history of any area in North America. The first Welland Canal was completed in 1829. Between 1849 and 1962, thirteen bridges were constructed across the Niagara River Gorge. Four of them remain.
The roadway between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Chippawa was the first designated King’s Highway. The first stage coach in Upper Canada operated on this roadway between the late 1700s and 1896. The first railroad in Upper Canada opened in 1841 with horse-drawn carriages running between Chippawa and Queenston. In 1854 it was converted to steam and relocated to serve what was to become the Town of Niagara Falls.
In 1855, John August Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, built the Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge, the first bridge of its type in the world. Between the late 1700s and the middle 1800s, boats were the main way to get to Niagara Falls. By 1896, three boats plied the route between Toronto and Queenston.
One of the first electrified street car services was provided in Niagara, and in 1893 the Queenston/Chippawa Railway carried boat passengers from Queenston to Table Rock and beyond. In 1902, a railway was constructed across the Queenston Suspension Bridge. Later it was extended along the lower Gorge on the American side of the River, connecting back into Canada at the Upper Arch Bridge. This transit line, the Great Gorge Route, continued in service until the Depression. The use of boats declined as tourists increasingly chose to visit Niagara by automobile, bus or train.
Tourism travel to the Falls began in the 1820s and within 50 years it had increased ten-fold to become the area’s dominant industry.
After World War 1, automobile touring became popular. As a response, attractions and accommodations sprang up in strip developments, much of which still survives.
Glacial Lake Iroquois was a prehistoric proglacial lake that existed at the end of the last ice age approximately 13,000 years ago. The lake was essentially an enlargement of the present Lake Ontario that formed because the St. Lawrence River downstream from the lake was blocked by the ice sheet near the present Thousand Islands. The level of the lake was approximately 30 m (~100 ft) above the present level of Lake Ontario.
The lake drained to the southeast, through a channel passing near present day Rome, New York. The channel then followed the valley of the Mohawk River to the Hudson River.
The lake was fed by Early Lake Erie, as well as Glacial Lake Algonquin, an early partial manifestation of Lake Huron, that drained directly to Lake Iroquois across southern Ontario, along the southern edge of the ice sheet, bypassing Early Lake Erie.
The subsequent melting of the ice dam resulted in a sudden lowering of the lake to its present level, and setting off the Younger Dryas episode.
The prehistoric shoreline, marked by a ridge known as the Iroquois Shoreline, can be discerned in places around Lake Ontario.This can be seen, for instance, in Toronto parallelling Davenport Road near Spadina Avenue, and also nearby in Scarborough, Ontario, where the prehistoric shoreline takes the form of earthen cliffs at the modern lakeshore (called the Scarborough Bluffs) and the Niagara escarpment.
Aboriginals in Niagara
Thousands of years ago Niagara was discovered by its first inhabitants, aboriginal peoples. The Neutral Indians have been recorded as one of the earliest native tribes residing in the Niagara region. It is estimated that in the early 1600s there were approximately 12,000 Neutrals living in the area, which made them the largest Native group in the Northeast in the 17th century. Their territory was situated around the western end of Lake Ontario and to the north of Lake Erie, and they claimed the land on both sides of the Niagara River. This entire district was called Onguiaahra, which means, “the strait” or “thundering water”. The name Niagara was derived from this Native word, and was also used to name the thundering waters.
The villages of the Neutrals were situated in the forests not far away from the waterways. This tribe had established semi-permanent villages in the area by the 17th century. The Neutrals like other Indian tribes used their surroundings to survive. They used the bark from local trees to make their homes and to build canoes for usage on the waterways for transportation. The Neutrals also learned how to harness the land. They grew beans, corn, and pumpkins and found many deer, elk, and beavers to hunt. They used the maple trees as a source of sugar and created flour from the acorn of the white oak trees. They also gathered nuts, berries, and herbs. The Neutrals were excellent fisherman and their diet consisted of many types of fish, as the waterways in Niagara were an abundant source of trout, sturgeon, and salmon. The men hunted and fished while the women gathered wild foods and prepared meat and hides. Children also had a role to play as they were expected to gather water and wood for the village.
The Neutrals received their name from, French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he came to the region in 1615. He named them “The Neutrals”, because they were neutral in the ongoing battles between the feuding Iroquois, who lived to the south of the Neutrals, and the Hurons who lived to the north.
The Neutral Indians would prove to not be the only Indian tribes residing in Ontario, the Huron and Petun resided north of Lake Ontario, with the Huron living around Lake Simcoe, and the Petun living near Lake Huron. The Erie and the Wenro lived to the southeast of Lake Erie, in present day New York.
The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondgo, Oneida and Mohawk Nations lived to the south of Lake Ontario in present day western New York. These tribes spoke the Iroquoian language, and in the 15th century the Iroquois speaking tribes banded together and formed an alliance between each other, which was known as the League of 5 Nations or the League of Iroquois. It would eventually grow to 6 Nations by 1720 when the Tuscarora Indians migrated to the area from North and South Carolina and joined. Historians have determined that the league was established to bring unity and peace between the Iroquois-speaking nations. The league had a very successful political structure, and it is believed that it would later be the model for the first constitution of the United States.
The Great Lakes area had a large beaver population, which would prove to be very important for the local Indian tribes who had established well defined trading networks, trading furs along the St. Lawrence Seaway into Quebec. The Indians used the waterways for transportation and would portage the waterways in their canoes which were filled with beaver pelts. The New York Iroquois, wanted control of the Niagara region for its abundant beaver stocks, and in 1652 they moved into the region destroying the Neutral Indians villages and claiming them as their own. Many of the Neutrals were forced eastward to Albany New York, however the majority of the Neutrals were systematically killed by the Iroquois and they ceased to exist as an Indian Nation by 1653. Surviving Neutrals assimilated with the Seneca and Huron tribes.
The New York Iroquois were also feuding with the Hurons who had established good trading relations with the French. The Iroquois demanded that the Hurons share the burgeoning fur trade with them. Talks broke down between the two tribes and the Iroquois turned to war to gain control of the area. Many Hurons perished in the ongoing feuds for domination of the area and the surviving members of the tribe would eventually flee the area. The Jesuit missionaries of Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, who had settled in the area to convert the Native Indians to Christianity, also perished along with the Hurons. The Iroquois briefly settled in this area during the late 17th century.
Historians believe the Iroquois were an agricultural society. They were excellent farmers and grew mostly beans, squash and corn. They also ate fish and meat when available, but their diets primarily consisted of vegetables, because farming provided a much more stable supply of food than did hunting. They lived in fairly permanent settlements, occupying territory for 15-20 years until their fields were exhausted of their supply. The Iroquois lived in wooden long-houses, where several families cohabited.
The Iroquois were known as fierce fighters and they were feared by Indian tribes and settlers alike. They set their sights on domination of the entire fur trade and for 10 years they pillaged the land, killing other tribes in their wake. The Iroquois were trading furs with the Dutch, who had threatened to cut off their supply of guns if the Iroquois stopped providing them with the highly sought after beaver pelts. They held control of both sides of the St. Lawrence to the rapids and the fur trade, until French settlers arrived in the 17th century.
Negro History and the Underground Railroad
Next stop, freedom For many fugitive slaves, the final steps on their path to freedom ran through this region. Secretly refered to as the Underground Railroad, many courageous people risked their lives to aid thousands of freedom seekers by hiding them in churches, basements and attics and transporting them across the Niagara River by darkness of night. Throughout the region, historic safe houses, land markers, and cultural institutions give testimony to this history.
The enslavement of millions of Africans sparked a long history of resistance. During the 19 th-century, thousands of enslaved and many free African-Americans fled the United States and made their way to Mexico and Canada where they could live as free citizens.
In Canada, the refugees arrived at points as far east as Nova Scotia and as far west as British Columbia, but the majority crossed over into what is now southwestern Ontario. They formed communities in the growing villages and towns or cleared the forests and pioneered new farmland.
The network of sympathetic black and white abolitionists that assisted in the escapes along their secret routes became known as the Underground Railroad.
The story of the Underground Railroad is the stuff of courage and compassion, heroes and history. From the 1820s to the 1860s, African American refugees worked with a secret network of supporters in order to escape to Canada. They arrived by the thousands. In a new place, the refugees built a new home and helped lay the foundations of a new country.
We must cherish the diverse and inspiring stories of the history of our nation. Our heritage connects us to our past, connects us to our future, and connects us to each other.
The War of 1812
Niagara frontier, 1813
Because of the difficulties of land communications, control of the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River corridor was crucial. When the war began, the British already had a small squadron of warships on Lake Ontario and had the initial advantage. To redress the situation, the Americans established a Navy yard at Sackett’s Harbor, New York. Commodore Isaac Chauncey took charge of the large number of sailors and shipwrights sent there from New York. They completed the second warship built there in a mere 45 days. Ultimately, 3000 men worked at the shipyard, building eleven warships, and many smaller boats and transports. Having regained the advantage by their rapid building program, Chauncey and Dearborn attacked York (now called Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada, on April 27, 1813. The Battle of York was an American victory, marred by looting and the burning of the Parliament Buildings and a library. However, Kingston was strategically more valuable to British supply and communications along the St Lawrence. Without control of Kingston, the American navy could not effectively control Lake Ontario or sever the British supply line from Lower Canada.
On May 27, 1813, an American amphibious force from Lake Ontario assaulted Fort George on the northern end of the Niagara River and captured it without serious losses. The retreating British forces were not pursued, however, until they had largely escaped and organized a counter-offensive against the advancing Americans at the Battle of Stoney Creek on June 5. On June 24, with the help of advance warning by Loyalist Laura Secord, another American force was forced to surrender by a much smaller British and Indian force at the Battle of Beaver Dams, marking the end of the American offensive into Upper Canada. Meanwhile, Commodore James Lucas Yeo had taken charge of the British ships on the lake, and mounted a counter-attack, which was nevertheless repulsed at the Battle of Sackett’s Harbor.
Late in 1813, the Americans abandoned the Canadian territory they occupied around Fort George. They set fire to the village of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) on December 15, 1813, incensing the British and Canadians. Many of the inhabitants were left without shelter, freezing to death in the snow. This led to British retaliation following the Capture of Fort Niagara on December 18, 1813, and similar destruction at Buffalo on December 30, 1813. In 1814, the contest for Lake Ontario turned into a building race. Eventually, by the end of the year, Yeo had constructed HMS St Lawrence, a first-rate ship of the line of 112 guns which gave him superiority, but the overall result of the Engagements on Lake Ontario had been an indecisive draw.
Niagara and Plattsburgh Campaigns, 1814 By the middle of 1814, American generals, including Major Generals Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott, had drastically improved the fighting abilities and discipline of the army. Their renewed attack on the Niagara peninsula quickly captured Fort Erie. Winfield Scott then gained a decisive victory over an equal British force at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5. An attempt to advance further ended with a hard-fought drawn battle at Lundy’s Lane on July 25. The outnumbered Americans withdrew but withstood a prolonged Siege of Fort Erie. The British raised the siege, but lack of provisions eventually forced the Americans to retreat across the Niagara. Meanwhile, following the abdication of Napoleon, 15,000 British troops were sent to North America under four of Wellington’s most able brigade commanders. Fewer than half were veterans of the Peninsula and the remainder came from garrisons. Along with the troops came instructions for offensives against the United States. British strategy was changing, and like the Americans, the British were seeking advantages for the peace negotiations.
Governor-General Sir George Prevost was instructed to launch an invasion into the New York-Vermont region. He had a large invasion force which was much more powerful than the Americans. On reaching Plattsburgh, however, he delayed the assault until the belated arrival of a fleet led by Captain George Downie in the hastily completed 36-gun frigate HMS Confiance. Prevost forced Downie into a premature attack, but then unaccountably failed to provide the promised military backing. Downie was killed and his naval force defeated at the naval Battle of Plattsburgh in Plattsburgh Bay on September 11, 1814. The Americans now had control of Lake Champlain; Theodore Roosevelt later termed it “the greatest naval battle of the war.” To the astonishment of his senior officers, Prevost then turned back, saying it would be too hazardous to remain on enemy territory after the loss of naval supremacy. Prevost’s political and military enemies forced his recall. In London a naval court martial of the surviving officers of the Plattsburgh Bay debacle decided that defeat had been caused principally by Prevost’s urging the squadron into premature action and then failing to afford the promised support from the land forces. Prevost died suddenly, just before his own court martial was to convene. Prevost’s reputation sank to new lows, as Canadians claimed their militia under Brock did the job and he failed. Recently, however, historians have been more kindly, measuring him not against Wellington but against his American foes. They judge Prevost’s preparations for defending the Canadas with limited means to be energetic, well conceived, and comprehensive, and against the odds he had achieved the primary objective of preventing an American conquest.