To Have the Garrison Supplied with Wood: Gathering Firewood at Fort Niagara


                Winter will soon be upon us and our thoughts will turn from travel and outdoor activities to hearth and home. Today most of us take central heating and  a comfortable indoor temperature for granted.  A flick of the thermostat is all that’s needed to keep warm during even the coldest days of winter.

                Such was not the case in early America when most depended on fireplaces, warm clothing and bedding to keep warm during the winter months. According to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, the average New York farmstead consumed about 40 cords of wood in a year. This is the equivalent of about one acre of wooded land.  Translating the BTUs produced by this much wood  into the cost of modern  heating oil yields a heating bill of around $17,000 a year.  [i]

                Woodcutting on the farm was the responsibility of men and boys, who spent long hard days in the woods harvesting trees for fuel. The best time to cut firewood was in the winter months when snow on the ground allowed relatively easy transport by sleigh from woodlot to dooryard . Winter was also the time when farmers had the time to lay in a store of firewood for the following year.  This timetable  allowed the wood to dry and season before it was needed. [ii] While cutting wood was best done during December, January and February, the arduous task of splitting and stacking was a year-round occupation.

                Providing firewood for a frontier military garrison intensified the challenges facing farmers.  Even a reduced garrison of 30 to 40 men required a great deal of firewood for heating, cooking, baking, laundry, cleaning and hygiene.  Ancillary activities like charcoal manufacture and lime burning also consumed large amounts of wood.  

                When Captain Daniel Hyacinthe Lienard de Beaujeu assumed command of Fort Niagara in July of 1749, he lamented to New France’s Governor, Roland-Michel Barrin de La Galissonière, “There are here no more than 50 cords of wood of the 1,200 which are consumed annually.”[iii]  That means, by Beaujeu’s estimate,  the Fort consumed about 30 acres of trees each year when its footprint was still relatively small.

                After the British captured the Fort, Major William Walters of the 60th Regiment of Foot wrote to General Amherst  “ I keep the Troops constantly employed of fetching wood for the Garrison on sleighs which is good Exercise and adds greatly to their Health , as long as the frost and snow continues.” [iv] Walters continued to gather firewood through the year, writing in August 1762 that he had  issued orders   “… to have the garrison … supplied with wood … ” [v]

                By November of 1762 General Amherst wrote to Major John Wilkins, who had replaced Walters as commandant:

                Before I received your letter, Lt. Col. Eyre had shown me a copy of Lt. Demler’s report which satisfied me that the troops at Niagara had been usefully employed during the summer; but I am now to express my particular approbation of the measures which I see you had taken to preserve the health of your garrison by establishing a brewery whereby the men should be supplied with spruce beer at the easy rate of one copper a quart; and likewise of the precautions to lay in a stock of firewood, and the regulations you had made for each Mess being supplied with plenty of vegetables from their own gardens, all which must make the men live comfortably during the winter and consequently be the more fit for service when the weather will permit their being employed. [vi]

                Five years later, in 1767, we find another reference to firewood in a letter from Captain Alexander Grant of the Naval Department  to  Booty Graves at Niagara:

You are hereby ordered and directed to take on you the command and direction of the Naval Department at Niagara, taking care to follow all orders and directions that you shall receive from time to time from Captain Brown, the commanding officer at Niagara, or myself; & all officers and seamen of the above Department are to obey you as such... firewood must be procured for Mr. McTavish in his room all winter…. You’ll always have sufficient of firewood for the people... [vii]

                One of the difficulties in gathering wood resulted from the long-term military occupation of the site. Defense considerations meant that no trees stood close to the Fort. With the garrison’s voracious appetite for firewood, supplies quickly moved ever farther from the Fort’s walls.  One solution to this problem was to use watercraft to move wood. On November 2, 1774 Fort Niagara’s new commandant, Lt. Col. John  Caldwell,  wrote to General Gage, asking for bateau to move wood from sources along the Lake Ontario shore:

I must observe that the scow when built will be so unwieldy and draw so much water that she can only be made use of on the river, for one Gale of Wind upon the Lake (from the shores of which we get our best and nearest wood) would infallibly destroy her. [viii]

                Harvesting firewood could also be dangerous. In January 1814, shortly after they captured Fort Niagara from the United States, British troops left the Fort on a mission to gather firewood. After covering only about one-half mile of ground, the woodcutting party was attacked by American troops, suffering several casualties. American Major General Amos Hall reported to New York Governor Tompkins on January 13, 1814:

                On the 8th inst. a detachment under the Command of General John Swift (a volunteer) and Lieut. Colonel C. Hopkins, with about 70 men, surprised a party of the British who were procuring wood about half a mile from the Fort, fired upon them, killed four of the enemy, lost one of their own men, and took eight prisoners, subsequent to which a large force of the enemy was observed to be in motion, which induced our troops on that station to fall back 4 or 5 miles to a more defensible position. The affair ended here and all is quiet. [ix]

                A British account of the same incident appeared in a letter from Lt. General Gordon Drummond to Sir George Prevost:

I am concerned to report to Your Excellency a circumstance of an unpleasant nature which occurred at Fort Niagara which..may be principally attributed to the want of exertion, or…to the neglect of the commissariat in not throwing a supply of that indispensably necessary article, fuel, into that place.

A party was sent out on the morning of the 9th to cut wood, under protection of a sergeant’s covering party, was attacked by a body of the enemy, reported to consist of about 150 men, and driven in. The sergeant was severely wounded and nine men of the working party, is supposed, taken prisoners…it appears very extraordinary that any individuals of so small a fatigue party should not have been able to affect their escape, and particularly as it appears they were not furnished with arms to assist the covering party in repelling the attack or in effecting a slow and cautious retreat. [x]           

                Thus gathering firewood could be a mundane, arduous and even dangerous task, but one that was never far from the minds of Fort Niagara’s winter garrisons.


[i] The Farmers’ Museum: Cutting Firewood: Preparing for Winter, Part 2. Fireplaces were only about 10% efficient, with most of the heat going up the chimney. Stoves came into use during the 18th century but for most, the fireplace was still the most common form of heating. Peter Kalm, visiting New France in 1749 noted stoves in use, including military installations in Quebec.

[ii] See Nylander, Jane C. Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760-1860. 1993 Alfred Knopf, NY pp. 82-84.

[iii] Beaujeu to de la Galissoniere, July 7, 1749.

[iv] Walters to Amherst. Feb 2. 1761   Amherst Papers  v. 21

[v] Walters to Amherst. Aug. 19, 1762  Amherst Papers v. 22

[vi] Amherst to Wilkins, November 28, 1762, Amherst Papers

[vii] Grant to Graves, Oct 23, 1767  Haldimand Papers  21678. McTavish was Simon McTavish, possibly a clerk for the Naval Department at Niagara.

[viii] Caldwell to Gage, November 2, 1774, Gage Papers, v. 124.

[ix] Major General Hall to Governor Tompkins, January 13, 1814. Documentary History of the Campaigns Upon the Niagara Frontier 1812-1814. Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, Lt. Col. E. Cruikshank, ed. v. IX p. 111. General John Swift had an interesting military career. He was born in Connecticut in 1761 and served as a private in Elmore’s Regiment during the American Revolution. Following the Revolution, he founded the town of Palmyra, NY. He reentered service at the outbreak of the War of 1812.  After leading the attack on the woodcutting party outside Fort Niagara, he took part in the 1814 campaign in Canada and was killed near Fort George July 12, 1814

[x] Ibid, p. 131.


Death on Hallowe'en


            During the American Revolution (1775-1783) the British controlled the Great Lakes and maintained headquarters for the region at Fort Niagara. The Fort's commandant exercised military command over the vast northwestern frontier and was responsible for maintaining alliances with Native peoples, moving supplies to western posts, and protecting the Fort from attack. After 1777 the commandant also dispatched raiding parties that struck the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers. Two remarkable men who served in this weighty position, Lt. Colonels John Caldwell and Mason Bolton, died on the same day, October 31, four years apart.


            Just prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, the 8th Regiment of Foot was ordered to garrison Fort Niagara and a number of smaller outposts throughout the Great Lakes. The regiment's field commander, Lt. Colonel John Caldwell, arrived at Fort Niagara in August 1774. Caldwell had served in the British Army since the 1740s and was about fifty years old when he assumed command of the isolated outpost at the mouth of the Niagara River.


            Ten months later, word reached Fort Niagara that British troops and Massachusetts militia had clashed at the battles of Lexington and Concord. Caldwell now assumed the onerous task of preparing Fort Niagara for war. Strengthening the Fort was made more difficult when American forces invaded Canada late in 1775. Now, Fort Niagara was cut off from supplies and communications with England. The Fort's garrison spent a miserable winter in a starving condition.


            By summer 1776 British forces had regained control of the St. Lawrence Valley and the flow of supplies to Fort Niagara resumed. Caldwell now turned his attention to securing support from the powerful Six Nations of Indians. In September he assisted with a grand council where part of the Six Nations declared their allegiance to the British; a major diplomatic success.


            Unfortunately a combination of harsh winter weather, poor diet and overwork began to take its toll on Colonel Caldwell's already delicate constitution. Early in October he reported that his “ill state of health” kept him from fulfilling his duties. On October 31 he succumbed to a lengthy, unidentified illness.


            When word of Caldwell's passing reached General Guy Carleton, Governor of Quebec, he immediately appointed a successor, Lt. Colonel Mason Bolton of the 9th Regiment of Foot. Until Bolton was able to reach Niagara in July 1777, Captain Richard Lernoult held temporary command of the Fort.


            Like Caldwell, Bolton had begun his career in the British Army during the 1740s. He now oversaw  Fort Niagara's rapidly expanding role in the events of the Revolution. A British plan to invade New York during 1777 via the Lake Champlain/Hudson River corridor involved a supporting attack down the Mohawk River from the west. This expedition, under the command of Brigadier General Barry St. Leger drew troops and Native allies from Fort Niagara but stalled at present Rome, NY when Crown forces were unable to capture the American-held Fort Stanwix.


            After the failure of the 1777 campaign, British officials at Fort Niagara turned their attention to outfitting raiding parties to attack the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania. The most famous of these units, Butler's Rangers, was raised among Loyalist refugees who had been fleeing to Fort Niagara since 1776. Growing numbers of Native Americans also arrived at Fort Niagara, some to seek succor from British forces and others to obtain supplies for launching raids on the frontier.

            By 1779 a series of devastating Loyalist and Native attacks on frontier settlements led General George Washington to order a 4,000-man expedition to “chastise” the Six Nations. Led by General John Sullivan, American troops came within 85 miles of Fort Niagara but lacked the supplies and artillery needed to attack the Fort. Bolton meanwhile strengthened the Fort and dispatched troops to help defend the territory of the Six Nations. With their villages and crops largely destroyed, thousands of Native refugees converged on Fort Niagara during the winter of 1779-80 where many starved to death.


            By Fall 1780, Lt. Colonel Bolton's health began to fail and he asked to be relieved of his command. In early October he received permission to return to England. On October 31, Bolton boarded the snow H.M.S. Ontario for well-deserved leave. Later that evening the vessel was engulfed in a sudden lake storm and sank with no survivors.       Several efforts were made to locate the wreck of the Ontario over the years but it was not until 2008 that divers Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville located the sunken vessel using sophisticated side-scanning sonar and an underwater remote operated vehicle.


            Today, Lt. Colonel Bolton's remains lie at the bottom of Lake Ontario while those of Lt. Colonel Caldwell rest under the grounds of historic Old Fort Niagara. Both men commanded Fort Niagara with honor and considerable skill. Oddly, both died on Hallowe'en.    









The Burning of Fort du Portage




            Fort du Portage, also known today as Fort Little Niagara, was erected in the spring of 1751 at the upper landing of the Niagara Portage. The purpose of the Fort was to  bolster French trade, strengthen ties with Natives from the upper country, and better protect the strategically important portage, a vital link in the route from Canada to the Ohio Valley.

            The new fort was placed under the authority of Lieutenant Daniel-Marie Chabert de Joncaire de Clausonne. Joncaire was not only the commandant of the Fort, he also held the trade concession at the post.  Fort du Portage was described as including a log trading house with lodging for a clerk, a room for housing the 10 soldiers of the guard, and a little room for the Commandant. All of this was enclosed in a triangular-shaped palisade described as “somewhat flanked.” By April 1753 a new building had been added, probably outside the stockade, for the construction of bateaux and canoes. After the outbreak of the French and Indian War, two additional improvements were made; the construction of a new house for commissary clerks and other workers and a shed for government stores. Just prior to the British invasion, Joncaire recorded that the complex included a stable 100 feet long and a shed of 40 feet. There was also a 42-foot long barn, a residence for the Commissary, and a house for the Commandant and workmen.

            When Fort Niagara was besieged in July 1759, Joncaire received orders from Captain Pierre Pouchot to destroy Fort du Portage if the British approached. Fearing that the fort was indefensible, Joncaire burned it on July 8, casting a large quantity of trade goods and stores into the river.  Joncaire was ruined financially, a situation from which he never recovered. He then led his men to Fort Niagara by traveling down the western bank of the Niagara River and slipping into the Fort on 10 July.





A Very Pleasant and Good Drink:  Brewing at Niagara in the Spring of 1760 


      On St. Andrews Day, 1759 Fort Niagara's new Commandant, Lt. Colonel William Eyre, took pen in hand to write to Major General Jeffrey Amherst, His Majesty's commander in North America. Cold weather was closing in on Fort Niagara and Eyre feared that the coming winter would lead to an outbreak of scurvy among the garrison. Since capturing the Fort the previous July, soldiers had focused on filling siege trenches and repairing the Fort's damaged barracks. There were no fresh vegetables or fruits to ward off the dreaded disease.

            One supposed remedy for scurvy was spruce beer, a beverage often issued to British soldiers. Spruce beer was made from a mixture of molasses, yeast, fresh spruce tips, and water and took only a few days to be ready for consumption. The spruce tips provided the vitamin C, but the fermentation process reduced the amount that ended up in the beer. Eyre's problem was that he had no molasses to make spruce beer.  He looked ahead to a dismal winter in a strange land, subsisting on a diet of bread and salted meat. Eyre had served long enough to realize that he was confronted with a recipe for disaster.

            By the time he arrived at Fort Niagara in November 1759, Lt. Colonel William Eyre was a veteran of many years service in the British Army. During the 1740s he served in Scotland and in the Low Countries. He accompanied General Braddock's expedition to America in 1755 as a Captain in the 44th Regiment. A talented engineer, he constructed Forts Edward and William Henry on the Hudson/Lake George portage. As commander of the latter post, he successfully defended the Fort against a strong French and Indian raid in March 1757. The following year Eyre was wounded in the assault on Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga). When Fort Niagara's commandant, Lt. Colonel William Farquhar died of “flue and fever” in October 1759, Eyre was dispatched by General Amherst to replace him.

            By January, Eyre's fears were realized as men began to complain of bleeding gums, wobbly teeth, atrocious bad breath, lethargy and weakness. The disease, if left unchecked, would result in a slow, agonizing death for many of its victims.

            Scurvy occurs when the human body is denied an adequate supply of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), causing the body's connective tissue to degenerate. For centuries scurvy remained a medical mystery. The cause of the disease was widely regarded as the result of a virus or “evil vapors.”  By the early 17th century, the British medical profession knew that scurvy was caused by diet not virus. In 1734 the Polish-born Dutch theologian and scientist Johann Bachstrom published a treatise on scurvy in which he observed scurvy is solely owing to a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens, which is alone the primary cause of the disease.  In 1747 Scottish naval surgeon James Lind proved that scurvy could be treated by supplementing the diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. Lind published “A Treatise of the Scurvy” in 1753.

            Lt. Colonel William Eyre also understood that poor diet led to scurvy. Such theoretical knowledge must have been cold comfort to Eyre, sitting in wintry,  isolated Fort Niagara hundreds of miles from the supplies necessary to combat the disease. During the remainder of the winter, the disease spread rapidly through the garrison. By February 25 Eyre described scurvy in the garrison as “violent.”

            Various measures were taken to ship the needed supplies to Fort Niagara. In mid-February, General Thomas Gage promised to send vinegar and lime juice from Albany to Oswego by sleigh. Eyre in turn dispatched a boat to Oswego for medicine, vinegar, and molasses. By early March a supply of vinegar,  lime juice and cabbage was forwarded from Oswego to Niagara but the supplies were not quick in arriving and 123 men were dead by the middle of April.

            In the meantime, Eyre looked to the woods and the lake for the solution to the problem. By early February he ordered the garrison into the nearby woods to look for sassafras, an herb thought to possess great medicinal value. Products of the sassafras tree had been used by Native Americans for centuries. Europeans shipped quantities of sassafras back to England and Continental Europe for the manufacture of teas and poultices. It was believed that the root bark, when crushed and steeped in boiling water could reduce fevers, soothe rheumatism, gout, dropsy, relieve eye inflammation, ease menstrual pain and even serve as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhea.  If fermented, sassafras root could be used to make molasses and beer.

            With supplies of sassafras in hand, a brew house was set up inside the Fort and the men took to brewing in their barracks to supplement the supply. At first the sassafras brew provided “a bitter drink.” Later the men added hickory bark and maple sap to sweeten the concoction. Eyre wrote to General Thomas Gage on March 18, 1760,


           I have likewise a Brewery going on here upon a New Plan. And by which Means I supply All  the Sick in the Hospital, And the Well Men Brew in the Barracks for their own Use. This Brew is made of Hickery and sassafras boiled together, And by adding some of the Juice which we now collect from the Maple Tree, make a very agreeable Drink. (Gage Papers v. 5)


Amherst later reported that ...he brews Sassafras, Hickery, with some of the Maple which makes a very pleasant and good drink...Each man was given one-half gallon of this “beer” a day. (Amherst Papers v. 5 April 10, 1760),


            Eyre also took other measures. Fishing nets were procured and the men started harvesting the bounty of Lake Ontario. Others gathered watercress in the woods. By early May a palisaded garden was well underway. Eyre reported to Gage on May 8, Our people in general is growing better and indeed much faster than I expected. Our fish and Beer helps us much and I keep constantly Men out gathering Greens of different kinds in the woods for the Sick. (Gage Papers, v. 6)  The same day Eyre wrote to Amherst The men in general are mending fast. We still continue to catch Fish enough to Supply the Garrison, and our Beer, I think grows better. I am building a Brew house close to the water side which will be more convenient than having one in the Fort.


            The crisis had passed. A total of 149 men died of scurvy the winter of 1760. Had the brew house helped end the crisis?  It is unlikely that it contributed substantially to the cure. Hickory contains trace elements of vitamin C but it is more likely that Eyre's other measures were more effective. Nonetheless Colonel Eyre's efforts the winter of 1760 led to the construction of western New York's first documented brewery.



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