Military history

CHAPTER 34

The Six Nations Join the Fight THE SIEGE OF NIAGARA

JULY 1759

THE POSITION of the British at Pittsburgh, so precarious at the beginning of summer, had become one of mastery by summer’s end—not because anything decisive had occurred at the Forks of the Ohio, but because in July, two hundred miles to the north, an Anglo-American army had seized Fort Niagara. The Niagara expedition, under the command of Brigadier General John Prideaux, had been the first to take the field, beginning its trek up the Mohawk River from Schenectady before the end of May. There could be no better indication of the dramatic shift in the North American balance of power than the fact that when Prideaux’s Anglo-American troops reached Oswego on June 27, a thousand Iroquois warriors and Sir William Johnson were waiting to join them. 1

Onondaga’s new willingness to support the British proceeded from the well-founded fear that the Shawnees and Delawares were about to create an independent Indian confederacy in the west: a new regional power that might potentially include French allies like the Miamis and the Munsees, who shared an interest in excluding Iroquois influence from the area south of the Great Lakes. At the Treaty of Easton the Six Nations had reasserted their claims to suzerainty over the Ohio Country, but the leaders of the Confederacy knew only too well that that same agreement had recognized the Delawares’ right to negotiate directly with the government of Pennsylvania, and neither the Delawares nor any other people on the Ohio would gladly resubmit to Iroquois dominion. Sometime during the fall or early winter of 1758, the League Council seems to have concluded that the only means of restoring substantial influence over the Ohioans was by cooperating directly with the British, and they therefore began to send the necessary signals. At the beginning of January an Iroquois delegation at Pittsburgh took aside the commandant, Hugh Mercer, to warn him privately that “the Shawanese and Delawares [intended to] Join in the Confederacy against [the Iroquois, and that] their ruin would soon be compleated, unless a very powerfull aid is afforded them by the English.” The Six Nations’ spokesmen were obliged to maintain strict secrecy, Mercer reported, because “they observe too great an intimacy Still Subsist[s]” between the Ohio nations and the French. Yet, he continued, “at the Same time they appear to be convinced that the French may be easily drove from this Country; that one or two Defeats will make their Indians drop their Alliance, and universally join the English.”2

Soon thereafter, emissaries from Onondaga evidently also approached Sir William Johnson and offered what they knew he could not refuse— military aid in an expedition against Fort Niagara. The northern superintendent hurried to his desk on February 16, writing to inform Amherst that he would require “a large Augmentation” of Indian gifts for a meeting in the spring. If he had the support he needed, he wrote, he would “be able to engage a large Body of Indians” for a campaign against the last French stronghold on Lake Ontario. “I flatter myself,” he wrote, “and have some Reason to expect that (as Affairs are now Circumstanced) if an Expedition was designed against Niagara . . . thro’ the Country of the Six Nations, I shou’d be able to prevail upon the greater Part if not the whole of them, to join His Majesty’s Arms.”3

This was indeed a remarkable change, particularly in Johnson’s suggestion that perhaps even “the whole of” the Iroquois would “join His Majesty’s Arms.” With the exception of thirty or forty Oneidas who had accompanied Bradstreet to Cataraqui the previous year, only the Mohawks (to whom Johnson was related by marriage) had shown any willingness to aid the British, and even they had done little since the death of Chief Hendrick in 1755. Throughout the war Iroquois warriors, and particularly the Senecas, had aided the French as participants in frontier raids if not as formal allies. Yet when Prideaux’s field force reached Oswego, warriors from all of the Six Nations were there to greet them, including even substantial numbers of Senecas.

This reversal was so abrupt that no British officer—not even Johnson—was sure of its meaning, and no one thought to look beyond the Iroquois themselves to understand its origins. The “nativist” impulse among the western Indians was so recent, so much a product of the war and its upheavals, that the Anglo-Americans could scarcely have been expected to see what was going on in the Ohio villages. But resistance in the valley was already developing a powerful religious dimension, and the leaders of the Six Nations were not as slow as the whites to grasp its significance. Because Iroquois influence in the west had always depended upon Onondaga’s ability to manipulate the Europeans diplomatically, any exclusionary resistance movement among the Ohio nations would gradually wear away the Iroquois position. Insofar as the roots of resistance were religious, however—insofar as the Ohio Indians became convinced that contact with the Europeans had spiritually contaminated the Iroquois, making them in effect indistinguishable from whites—the influence of the Six Nations would vanish like smoke in the wind.4

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Fort Johnson, c. 1759. Unlike its successor, Johnson Hall (1763), an elegant Georgian mansion, Sir William Johnson’s base of operations during the Seven Years’ War was a thoroughly utilitarian complex, including a campground for visiting Indian delegations, several storage structures, a mill, and stout, defensible living quarters. The lack of outward-facing windows in the main house, center right, suggests that Johnson’s highest priority was security. His modest original house is partially visible at the bend of the Mohawk, just beyond the flank of the hill at left. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Thus during the winter of 1758–59 the chiefs at Onondaga concluded that the only way to restore their ascendancy over the interior tribes was to harness British military power to serve Iroquois ends. If Fort Niagara were to fall to the Anglo-Americans, the French would lose control of the critical portage to Lake Erie and their power in the west would shrivel. Yet merely to exclude the French from the Ohio Country would not enable the Iroquois to control the region. The Anglo-Americans somehow had to be encouraged to remain at the Forks in force, for only British hegemony could guarantee Onondaga’s influence over the western Indians. The virtually simultaneous approaches of Iroquois emissaries to Johnson, urging an expedition against Niagara, and to Mercer, informing him of the dangers posed by an incipient western confederacy, had formed complementary halves of a single Six Nations strategy. In the end, therefore, it was not pressure from the Europeans but the Confederacy council’s well-founded fear that the Iroquois would be unable to reestablish influence over their former client peoples that made the Six Nations abandon neutrality for an open military alliance with the British. No doubt the chiefs at Onondaga thought of this move as a temporary, tactical accommodation—only one of many pragmatic policy shifts in the long history of relations between the Confederacy and the British Crown. But this time the tilt toward the British would prove irrevocable, and its consequences would exceed any that the Iroquois could have intended. For the commitment to an active alliance, in fact if not in name, meant the acceptance of dependency. Once French power in the west had been broken, Britain’s economic and military might would serve the needs not of the Iroquois, but of the empire.

Once begun, the Niagara campaign was no prolonged affair. General Prideaux—yet another junior colonel serving as a temporary brigadier— did not tarry at Oswego. He detached a thousand men to begin rebuilding the fort there, then hurried on toward Niagara on June 30 with the remainder of his troops and Johnson’s warriors. For four days they rowed westward along the wild south shore of Lake Ontario, then put in about three miles from their goal, a handsome gray granite “castle” overlooking the lake from a bluff at the mouth of the Niagara River. Fort Niagara was by no means as easy a target as Fort Frontenac had been in the previous year, for its commandant, a forty-seven-year-old regular captain named Pierre Pouchot, was also an experienced military engineer, and he had greatly improved the post’s defenses. When the British arrived on July 6, they faced the only fort in the North American interior that was protected by extensive, European-style earthen outworks: a glacis, ditch, and covered way stretching across the peninsula and screening the castle and other buildings within the ramparts.5

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The Siege of Niagara, July 10–25, 1759. This map of Fort Niagara and its outworks, from Rocque’s Set of Plans and Forts, shows the state of the siege as of about July 20, when the third battery was in place. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Captain Pouchot was one of the most capable regular officers in America, and under ordinary conditions he would have been able to defend the fort and its crucial portage against any feasible assault. This was so for reasons that went beyond the impressive fortifications he had built. First of all, he had taken great care to cultivate relations with the Iroquois. The local band of Senecas had for so many years held a monopoly as carriers on the Niagara portage that he had had no reason to doubt their continued loyalty. They in turn had assured him he would have ample warning should any British force pass through Iroquoia to attack his post, and—since the timely communication of such intelligence had been the cornerstone of the Iroquois-French entente in the west for more than a half century—he had believed them.

Secondly, Pouchot knew that the best time for a British attack had already passed. Niagara had been most vulnerable in the spring, before he had returned from Montréal with men to reinforce its winter garrison. When no British force appeared in May, and when his Seneca informants had brought him no word of any British movement in the Mohawk-Oswego corridor by the beginning of June, Pouchot had felt confident enough to send 2,500 of his 3,000 men off to reinforce Lignery at Fort Machault, in preparation for the planned summer’s campaign in the Ohio Valley. Vaudreuil had instructed him to detach this force, but Pouchot would doubtless have done it on his own authority, for he shared Vaudreuil’s strategic vision. If Lignery and his troops could descend the Allegheny before the British had a chance to build up their strength at the Forks, the French would regain command of the Ohio passage to Louisiana, Indian raids on the Virginia and Pennsylvania backcountry would resume, and the British would have to divert substantial numbers of men to frontier defense. New France would be saved from invasion, once again.6

Therefore no one could have been more surprised than Captain Pouchot on July 6, when Iroquois warriors attacked a working party outside the walls of the fort: it was his first indication that anything out of the ordinary was afoot. Quickly ascertaining that thousands of British and American troops were landing nearby, he recalled his fatigue details, buttoned up the fort, and sent urgent word to Fort Machault for Lignery to return with the force intended for the Ohio Country. He had on hand fewer than five hundred men to defend his post, along with perhaps a hundred Indians—principally Senecas as bewildered as he was at seeing so many of their kinsmen in the company of an Anglo-American army. Now Pouchot needed time, a commodity that seemed all the more precious as the British opened their first siege trenches a half mile from the fort on July 10. Thus on the next day, although the etiquette of sieges scarcely sanctioned it, he called a truce to allow Kaendaé, the chief of the Niagara Senecas, to approach Johnson and his Iroquois supporters and see if he could dissuade them from participating in the attack.

Kaendaé was astonished by what had taken place, and he berated Johnson—who merely smiled in response—for “having plunged his Nation into bad business.” Over the next three days, the Iroquois war chiefs endeavored to convince Kaendaé that continued support for the French was no longer tenable, while he in turn tried to persuade them that the wisest course was to let the Europeans fight their own battles and withdraw, along with his band, up the Niagara River as far as La Belle Famille. He almost succeeded. In the end Johnson managed to keep “his” Iroquois from taking Kaendaé’s advice by promising them the first chance to plunder the fort after it fell; even so, they took no active part in the siege after the conference ended on July 14. At this point Pouchot— reluctant to have within his walls warriors of dubious loyalty, who would at best be unenthusiastic fighters—permitted Kaendaé’s people to withdraw under a flag of truce. This episode, which nearly ended with the British-allied warriors joining the Niagara Senecas at La Belle Famille, puzzled Prideaux and Johnson, who worried that the Iroquois were about to resume their old preferences for neutrality. In fact the negotiations had served every purpose the Six Nations could have wished, for they had avoided the unacceptable prospect of fratricidal bloodshed at the same time that they had done nothing to improve the ability of the French to resist. 7

Pouchot had bought a little time, but his adversaries had not ceased to drive their trenches forward during the cease-fire. After Kaendaé’s Senecas passed through the lines to safety on the fourteenth, British cannoneers opened fire from an advanced battery less than 250 yards from Fort Niagara’s glacis. Now the garrison’s only hope lay in the arrival of Lignery’s relief force from Fort Machault. On the seventeenth, British howitzers began shelling the fort from across the Niagara River, enfilading the works from the rear and dominating the river- and lakefront approaches. By day and night the digging continued, until on the afternoon of the twentieth heavy guns opened fire from a breaching battery sited murderously close (80 yards) to the fort’s covered way. At that point even the sudden death of General Prideaux—the back of his head blown off when he stepped in front of a mortar, while visiting a battery at dusk—could not slow the progress of the siege. Sir William Johnson assumed command, but his limited capacities as a field commander could not slow operations that continued as if by their own momentum. 8

By the twenty-third the Anglo-American trenches had crawled almost the whole length of the peninsula; the nearest lay within musket range of the fort’s outer defenses. Inside the walls, red-hot shot and mortar bombs fell in a lethal hail. Shell-shocked men, sleepless for days, were refusing to mount the walls. All the guns in the battery of the main bastion had been blown off their carriages and a great hole had been shot through the parapet; unable to make proper repairs under fire, the defenders were reduced to cramming bales of furs and skins into the breach.9

At this point, when all seemed lost, Lignery’s relief force appeared in the Niagara River above the falls. In all there may have been as many as sixteen hundred French, Canadians, and Indians; they seemed to one observer like “a floating island, so black was the river with bateaux and canoes.” Pouchot’s hopes soared; but Johnson, whose Indian observers had also kept him well informed, had time to order out a force to block the road from the portage to the fort. By the following morning Johnson had sent Iroquois emissaries to warn Lignery’s Indian allies of what was waiting for them. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Eyre Massey of the 46th Regiment had had time to construct a log breastwork and abatis across the road near La Belle Famille and to position approximately 350 regulars and a hundred New York provincials behind it. An approximately equal number of Iroquois warriors, acting on their own initiative, quietly took up positions in the surrounding woods.10

When Lignery’s force came marching down the road toward the British at about eight o’clock, his Indian allies had heeded the Iroquois messengers’ warning and decided not to participate in the battle. It was, therefore, perhaps six hundred French regulars, troupes de la marine, and Canadian militiamen who charged the British abatis and, at a range of about thirty yards, ran headlong into volley after volley of British musket fire. Only about a hundred men, mostly wounded, survived long enough to be taken prisoner; among them were nineteen officers and cadets, including one of the most experienced of New France’s Indian diplomats, Joseph Marin de La Malgue. The remainder, who broke and ran for their lives, were pursued by Iroquois warriors who, it would seem, either killed or captured most of them; the French would report that at least 344 men were killed or captured, but the number may have been much higher. Lignery himself—veteran of more than a dozen campaigns, hero of the Battle of the Monongahela, and the last commander of Fort Duquesne—was found among the French wounded in the abatis. He lived long enough to realize that no French expedition would ever take back the Ohio Country.11

Captain Pouchot’s field telescope revealed that a battle had taken place at La Belle Famille, but it could not disclose the totality of Lignery’s defeat. He learned of that only when the British ceased shelling the fort late in the afternoon and sent an emissary to invite him to surrender with guarantees of personal safety for his men but without the honors of war. Pouchot, his last hope gone, accepted Johnson’s terms on July 25. Over the next two days he and his garrison were loaded aboard British bateaux for transportation to New York, and imprisonment. Many would be repatriated to France; Pouchot himself would be exchanged in December and return to help defend Canada once again.

The massacre that Pouchot had feared would follow the surrender never came. The Iroquois contented themselves with the plunder of Niagara and its outlying storehouses, which contained furs, skins, and trade goods of vast value. Having lost few or no warriors in the siege, they had no pressing need to adopt more captives than those they had taken after the engagement on the portage road. Most of all, however, their docility reflected the Six Nations’ need to maintain the goodwill of the British, on whom they necessarily had to depend if they hoped to regain influence on the Ohio.12

With the French safely gone, Johnson moved quickly to consolidate control over the west end of Lake Ontario before his Indians too took their leave. Dispatching whaleboats to reconnoiter Fort Toronto, he learned that the garrison had burned it and retreated. Immediately therefore he set about establishing friendly relations with the local Chippewas, in the hope (he informed Amherst) of “Settling an Alliance between Us & them distant Nations” of the pays d’en haut. With this accomplished, and with little interest in hanging about to superintend the repair of Fort Niagara, Johnson handed command over to a regular lieutenant colonel and returned to Oswego. Amherst, anxious to have in charge a commander who knew something about running an army, dispatched his best administrator, Brigadier General Thomas Gage, to take command of the western posts. Sir William would linger yet a while at Oswego, where he could more efficiently attend to the activities at which he excelled: the management of Indian affairs, the pursuit of his business interests, and the cultivation of his laurels. He had held his last military command of the war.13

Although the French would post a small detachment at Cataraqui to observe the Anglo-Americans, the loss of Niagara effectively rolled back their western frontier to Oswegatchie, about 115 miles upriver from Montréal. Montcalm, realizing the danger of invasion by way of the upper St. Lawrence, sent his second-in-command, the chevalier de Lévis, along with as many troops as he could spare from Québec, to defend Montréal. But the British had already delivered their greatest blow in the west, for Gage was too cautious to risk sending troops from Oswego down the St. Lawrence.

The effects of Niagara’s loss thus would be felt not at Montréal but in the posts that remained on the Great Lakes and the Ohio. The French now had no choice but to abandon Forts Presque Isle, LeBoeuf, and Machault. The settlements in the Illinois Country would remain under French control but would have to shift for themselves; they would have no further communication with New France during the war. Similarly, the forts and trading posts on the upper Great Lakes, from Detroit to Michilimackinac and beyond, would also remain awhile in French hands, but the British occupation of the Niagara portage meant that they would only wither for lack of supplies. No western commandant would persuade any of the Indians of the pays d’en haut to send warriors to Canada’s aid. For the first time in its history, New France would face its enemies alone.

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