As part of the research for the colonial historical novel I’m writing, I recently visited Old Fort Niagara near Youngstown, New York where the mouth of the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.
In 1726, the French military force in North America desired to build a fortification on this strategic site in order to control who traveled on the Niagara River. However, the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy owned this land and strenuously objected to the building of a fort. In order to appease the Iroquois and still meet their own military objective, the French purposely built the main building of the fortification to look like nothing more than a large residence. They named it the “French Castle.”
Eager to retain the Iroquois’s loyalty, the French shrewdly outfitted a room on the castle’s first floor as a trading post and stocked it with goods that the Indians desired to purchase. Cognizant of Europe’s insatiable desire for furs—especially beaver pelts that were used to make hats—the French encouraged the Indians to trade the furs they trapped for European goods. As would any woman who enjoys shopping, I was eager to spend some time in the French Castle’s trading post. Come with me as we take a look at some of the items that induced the Iroquois to part with their furs.
Bales of luxurious wool trade blankets were shipped from France to Old Fort Niagara. Before the Native Americans were able to purchase blankets, they used furs for warmth on a cold night. Notice the small keg containing trade tomahawks in the lower left corner which not only provided the owner with a sharp edge, but a pipe for smoking tobacco as well.
Hanging between bolts of colorful wool fabric is a metal trap used in hunting. Because Native Americans were unable to produce iron, these traps were a popular and fast-selling item, helping them acquire more furs for trading. Knives and trade beads are displayed on the bottom shelf.
Guns, snowshoes, kegs of cider, plates, iron cooking kettles, kegs of gunpowder, and silver jewelry enticed the buyer to part with his furs or money.
Once the French learned what items were important to Native Americans, they imported large quantities from Europe. Because the Indians loved jewelry, the trading post offered a large selection of silver necklaces, pendants, and glass trade beads.
Note the animal pelts on the counter and the canoe and paddles hanging from the ceiling. Perhaps someone needed a canoe but didn’t have time to construct one.
A customer has recently traded fox pelts for French-made goods.
Traded furs were bundled and tied with cording …
… or wrapped in canvas and sent to France where they were made into garments.
The man who ran the French Castle’s trading post not only slept in the store—perhaps to make certain his wares didn’t disappear during the night …
… he also cooked his meals in the trading post’s fireplace.
I’m glad you joined me on this tour of Old Fort Niagara’s trading post. Did you see anything that you’d like to purchase? I must admit that I loved the well-made silver jewelry imported from France. Because there’s so much more to see at the fort, I’ll return there on a later post.
A very special thank you to our wonderful Old Fort Niagara tour guide, Jim Watz, who graciously answered our many questions and to Robert Emerson, Executive Director of Old Fort Niagara, who met privately with my husband and me and provided valuable historical details, and to Hawk, a Seneca Indian employed at the fort who taught us about muskets and rifles.
Photographs ©Cynthia Howerter
Old Fort Niagara is located at Youngstown, New York.