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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