Written by Kyle Robinson, PhD Candidate and Instructor at the University of Rochester
Many people know about the sumptuous world of Louis XIV’s Versailles, but few people probably know that the reach of the Sun King extended all the way to what is now Western New York. In 1678, the French explorer Robert, Sieur de La Salle stopped at the confluence of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario before beginning a long voyage of exploration that would take him through the Ohio River valley and down the Mississippi. Here, near modern day Youngstown, NY, an encampment was built that La Salle named Fort Conti, later known as Fort Niagara. The goal was trade, trade with the Native Peoples of the area and access to the lucrative beaver pelts the French provided to the European market. La Salle’s effort was part of Louis XIV’s wider mission, through the influence of his famous contrôleur général des finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to expand the wealth and power of the French state and its economy. Despite the lucrative trade in pelts and the importance of its strategic location, the French initially struggled to maintain a permanent presence at the mouth of the Niagara. The encampment was abandoned several times in the face of harsh winters, disease, and a tenuous supply chain that struggled to arrive from New France’s more permanent settlements along the St. Lawrence. It was not until 1726, eleven years after the death of Louis XIV, that a permanent stone structure was built, serving as a fortified trading post and France’s strategic claim to the Niagara region until the Fort was taken in 1759 by the British during the Seven Years War. After the American War of Independence, the Fort was used as an entry point for Loyalist immigration to Canada before being turned over to the United States, and was again a major arena of combat during the War of 1812.
On Saturday November 5, 2016, students from the University of Rochester’s course Rays of the Sun King: The Age of Louis XIV travelled to Fort Niagara to explore the history of the site and French activity in North America during the reign of the Roi-Soleil. After a tour of the Fort’s museum and its collection of French and British armaments, coins, and remnants of everyday life from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, students were then led on a tour of the Fort by the course’s instructor Kyle Robinson. Robinson outlined for the students the role the Fort played in French New World expansion during the reign of Louis XIV, and how an early trading post grew into a major fortified position that utilized the mid-eighteenth century’s latest technologies in design and construction. Students were then able to watch the Fort’s staff conduct a demonstration of Early Modern French cannon and musketry, along with recreations of French drill and field hospital techniques before returning to Rochester.