Kingston, Ontario – The Founding Of Fort Frontenac

The period of two centuries and a quarter—though falling far short of what is considered antiquity in the Old World—constitutes a somewhat venerable age in the one we distinctively style the “New.” On a continent where the vestiges of even a moderate antiquity are few and far between—where the most ancient traces of European civilisation are little older than three centuries—the citizens of Kingston may justly claim the honours of age for their loyal old city, whose site, during two hundred years—as Cataraqui, Fort Frontenac, or Kingston,—has played an important part in the history of Canada,—ranking, in military importance, next to Quebec itself.

It is not easy to call up a mental picture of the Canada of two hundred years ago : since the country we know by that name to-day had, save in its natural conformation, no existence. New France, or “Canada,” as it was by that time generally known, was little more than a line of scattered settlements along the banks of the St. Lawrence. In order to realise its aspect as it was then, we must sweep away, in imagination, the busy and substantial cities of the present, the towns and villages, the harbours and shipping, the roads and railways, and conjure up in their stead a vision of the trackless forest wilderness, the haunt of the deer, the wolf and the beaver, as well as the battlefield of the fierce wandering tribes that waged a no less destructive warfare with each other than with the wild beasts of the forest.

The relative position of British America must also, in some degree, be reversed in our mental picture. For Nouvelle France, under the Most Catholic King, Louis Quatorze, occupied nearly the same territory with our Eastern Canada, while the north-eastern portion of the United States—so far as it had then been explored—was claimed by the English and Dutch, and held by their garrisons. The period at which our “Story” begins is July, 1673—the thirtieth year of the reign of Louis XIV., and the thirteenth after the restoration of the Stuart dynasty—little more than a century after the “men of the Mayflower” had landed on Plymouth Rock. Boston and New York were as yet little more than villages, and Quebec and Montreal only insignificant hamlets defended by palisaded forts.

On the morning of July twelfth—a date to be remembered by Kingstonians—the observant crow, hovering over the blue St. Lawrence, a few miles below Kingston, or the contemplative crane, fishing solitary on some tufted rock, beheld a strange flotilla, unlike any before seen amid these sylvan solitudes, emerging from the devious mazes of the Thousand Isles. Canoes, manned by French soldiers, and gaily painted bateaux led the way; then came large war-canoes, filled with imposing figures in glittering French uniforms, amid whom might easily have been distinguished the stately figure and clear-cut features of the Great Ononthio, Count Frontenac himself. On either side came another squadron of canoes, one filled with French soldiers and one with Indian allies, while two others, following as a rear-guard, closed the martial cortege. The Governor himself, as we are told in the Journal of the expedition written by the Abbe D ‘Urfe, had carefully arranged the order of approach, with a view, undoubtedly, to the impression he hoped to make on the savage mind.

But why had the dignified French Viceroy undertaken, with such a retinue, an expensive and tedious voyage from the rock of Quebec to the outlet of Lake Ontario—an almost unknown point in the midst of unbroken wilderness ? And why was he so desirous of impressing a gathering of roaming Indians with the power and prestige of his country ? For the answer we need only recall the circumstances in which the gallant “Pioneers of France in the New World” had been, for more than a century, struggling with the adverse forces of Nature and human savagery, in order to establish the colony of New France on a stable foundation.

In the seventeenth century the supremacy of North America was still actively contested by the three great nations which had shared in the honour of its discovery. Spain, fortified by a papal bull, had early pre-empted a vast southern region under the name of Florida ; the Fleur-de-Lis floated over a great northern area, styled New France ; and Great Britain, with adventurous Dutchmen by her side, was pressing her way inwards from her chain of settlements on the eastern seaboard. Between the latter, especially, competition was naturally keen for the “sinews of war,” i.e., the fur trade, then the mainstay of any northern colony.

The ferocious Iroquois, or Five Nations, were, through their geographical position on the water-shed of north-flowing rivers, the chief purveyors of this important traffic in the northern area occupied by the French, Dutch and English settlers. They had long been the scourge and terror of New France, and though a temporary check had been imposed on their destructive raids by the brave Daulac and his gallant comrades of the “Canadian Thermopylae,” a border warfare had for years harassed the European settlements. A punitive expedition, conducted by the Marquis de Tracy, temporary Viceroy, and the Governor, De Courcelles, had, in 1666, made a descent upon the Iroquois country, and, without coming to a single engagement, had so intimidated the savages that they were ready to conclude a truce, which lasted for almost a quarter of a century, affording New France a breathing-time in which to develop and expand her resources.

In pursuance of such development, the Governor, De Courcelles, recognised the importance of securing for New France a larger share of the fur trade, which the English and Dutch settlers naturally sought to draw to the southward of lake and river. The shrewd Intendant Talon had, in 1670, suggested to Louis XIV. the expediency of planting two outposts—one on the north and one on the south shore of Lake Ontario—which might serve at once as a check on the Iroquois and as depots for fur-trading; and the building of a small vessel to cruise between them and intercept the Indians on their way to the rival settlements. The commanding site, now occupied by the City of Kingston, at the “meeting of the waters,” where the St. Lawrence emerges from Lake Ontario, and the winding Cataraqui joins and swells its broader stream, had previously attracted the attention of pioneer explorers. In 1671 De Courcelles, then Governor, made a canoe voyage up the St. Lawrence, and, as the Memoir of his expedition informs us, arrived at the mouth of Lake Ontario, which appeared “as an open sea without bound.” Apparently he reached the vicinity of Kingston, if we may judge from the following observation:

“The Governor remarked at this place a stream bordered by fine land, where there is sufficient water to float a large bark. This remark will be of use hereafter “—a statement justified by subsequent history. The result of his visit was a recommendation to his successor to establish an outpost in that vicinity.

We shall not transgress the bounds of probability in connecting this visit to the site of Fort Frontenac with the remarkable personality who was to be for years to come its commander and animating spirit, as well as the Seignior of the surrounding country. Robert Rene Cavelier de La Salle—to give him his full title—is the figure that most strongly impresses the imagination in the history of this epoch, and connects the early history of the “Limestone City” with the discovery of the great South and West, claimed by him for France under the name of Louisiana. This young Norman had arrived in New France in 1666, animated by the passion for discovery and the enthusiasm of the explorer, and had become possessed by the desire to find the long dreamed-of waterway through the continent to remote Cathay and the rich treasures of the Orient. He had been greatly attracted by the accounts received from wandering Indians, of the course of the Mississippi, and the rich regions through which it flowed, and began to regard it as the true water-way to the East, and to concentrate his aims and efforts on tracing its course, colonising its banks, and adding a vast and fertile region, open to the sea, to the realms of France. He had been a companion of the Friars Galinee and Dollier de Casson on the exploring tour of the lakes, from which De Courcelles had derived the information that led to his own voyage ; and it is probable that the suggestion of a fortified depot at the eastern end of Lake Ontario had originated with him. It was certainly a much more convenient base for his projected voyages of discovery than his first Seigniory of Lachine, so called, we are told, in derision of its master’s dream of finding a short-cut to China.

When the energetic Count Frontenac succeeded De Courcelles in the government of Canada, he had been attracted by the enterprise and enthusiasm of the young Norman, whose nature was in many ways akin to his own ; and he had readily lent a favouring ear to the far-reaching projects which had already taken definite shape in the mind of Cavelier. Pre-disposed to consider any proposals for extending the power of France in the New World, and to fulfil the recommendation of his predecessor, and finding that Cavelier had already explored much of the region about the Great Lakes, he sent him on in advance to make a final reconnaissance of the site for the new outpost, as well as to conciliate the surrounding Iroquois and prepare the way for its establishment.

Meantime he began to muster men and canoes for his expedition, and as funds were lacking and he would not run the risk of awaiting the result of an application to the king, which might have proved unfavourable, he had recourse to the Seigniors settled on both sides of the St. Lawrence, whom he invited to join his retinue, supplying, of course, a contingent of men and canoes. Arriving at Montreal with a somewhat imposing following, he was received with due ceremony, and made a halt long enough to secure two bateaux gaily painted in Indian style, and other necessary supplies. These were duly portaged to La Salle’s old settlement of Lachine, where he embarked at the head of one hundred and twenty canoes, carrying a martial force of four hundred men, including friendly Hurons and Algonquins. the bateaux bearing the supplies of food, as well as the cannon and necessary stores for the journey and the building of the proposed fort.

The season was the loveliest of the Canadian year, when the summer is at its prime, the forest gay with fresh verdure, the coverts vocal with the joyous songs of birds, and the air filled with delicious floating fragrance. But the expedition was no holiday excursion; though we may not linger to follow it through the long succession of toilsome portages, as one foaming rapid after another impeded its progress, dashing silvery wave-crests against the dark rocks that bristled with interlacing hemlock and pine. When the bateaux could not be portaged they had to be pushed on, literally “by force of arms,” against the strong sweep of the current. When the mighty surges of the Long Sault barred their course, the men had to stand waist-deep in the water, though keeping close to the shore, as they breasted the strong, dashing waves. It was an arduous undertaking, but Frontenac knew how to encourage and spur on his men to success, and did not disdain, at times, to share the toil, standing knee-deep in the raging stream. Heavy rains, unusual at that season, impeded their course, damping the spirits as well as the clothing of the voyagers; and Frontenac, bivouacked with his men on the shore, passed sleepless nights from anxiety lest the water should have found its way into the bateaux and spoiled the biscuit which formed the staple of the provisions.

At length, however, the laborious ascent was completed, and at the head of the rapids Frontenac received a message from La Salle, designating the mouth of the Cataraqui as the place where the approaching conference should be held. From thence the flotilla glided, under a cloudless July sun, over calm waters and through the mazes of what seemed a fairy archipelago, studded with rocky islets, clustered thickly on a sapphire lake, some rising, like weather-beaten fortresses, out of the water, others luxuriant bowers of foliage, seeming to nestle in the placid stream, mirrored in the still waters that lapped their shores. Passing through a seemingly endless succession of these fairy isles, the expedition at length reached the end of the “Lac des Iles des Rochers,” and saw, far before them, the blue expanse of the apparently shoreless lake. The Abbe D ‘Urfe was sent on in advance to notify the assembled Indians of the approach of the expedition, which was now arranged by Frontenac in the order which has been described. As the flotilla neared the promontory now crowned by the British Fort Henry, a canoe was seen advancing, containing a deputation of Iroquois Chiefs, accompanied by the Abbe, to escort the strangers to the appointed rendezvous, which at once impressed them with its advantageous position and its picturesque surroundings of summer verdure and sapphire lake and stream. Around them stretched a spacious harbour, cut off from the broad breast of Lake Ontario by a chain of large islands, where the lake narrows into the river and is joined by the narrower stream of the Cataraqui, winding its way out from a succession of lakes, cascades and still river-reaches—now made navigable by the Rideau Canal—and forming here, by its wide embouchure, a quiet bay and sheltered port. The sylvan solitude was as yet unbroken, and the dense green woods that clothed the gently sloping shore were still undisturbed, save by the wigwams of the Indian encampment. But the approaching flotilla was the harbinger of inevitable change.

The meeting which now took place between the great “Ononthio” (as the Governor was styled by the Indians), and the representatives of the Iroquois, and the “civilities” exchanged are thus quaintly described in the Journal of the expedition :

“They saluted the Admiral (Governor) and paid their respects to him with evidence of much joy and confidence, testifying to him the obligation they were under to him for sparing them the trouble of going further, and for receiving their submissions at the River Katarakoui, as they were about signifying to him.

“After Count Frontenac had replied to their civilities, they preceded him as guides and conducted him into a bay about a cannon-shot from the entrance, which forms one of the most beautiful and agreeable harbours in the world, capable of holding a hundred of the largest ships, with sufficient water at the mouth and in the harbour, with a mud bottom, and so sheltered from every wind that a cable is scarcely necessary for mooring.”

The task of disembarkation was quickly begun ; the Indians, from their encampment close at hand, looking on with characteristic passivity, while some of the more venerable Sachems approached to do homage to the august Ononthio, whose office and power La Salle had taken every opportunity to magnify. All formalities were, however, postponed until the next morning, and as it was still early in the day, Frontenac set out to explore the vicinity for himself, not returning until dusk. The French encampment was by that time completed, guards being, of course, set with punctilious ceremony, while the Fleur-de-Lis floated proudly above the Governor’s tent, and martial music for the first time awoke the slumbering echoes of the spot.

On the following morning—the thirteenth of July, 1673—the reveille, with the beating of drums, aroused the French camp to the important work of the day, for Iroquois Councils were early functions. A double line of soldiers under arms formed a living lane from the Governor’s tent to the Iroquois camp, to impress the deputies who marched, with grave and dignified mien, to the place of conference—an area carpeted with sail-cloth before Frontenac’s tent, where burned the orthodox camp-fire, making a centre for the meeting as well as warding off the insect intruders. Here the envoys, in their robes of state, were duly presented to the Governor and his suite, imposing in their brilliant gold-laced uniforms and aristocratic bearing, Frontenac himself hardly needing any accessories to enhance the native dignity of his commanding face and figure.

After the first salutations, there followed, according to Indian custom, a period of silence, while the Chiefs squatted on the canvas carpet, smoking their pipes with imperturbable serenity. At length the conference was opened by a speech from the Chief Garakontie, known to be friendly to the French, expressing, with profuse compliments, the pleasure and respect with which the new Ononthio was welcomed among them, on behalf of the five Iroquois nations for whom he undertook to speak. At the close of his harangue, Frontenac, with the paternal air so well adapted to the Indian nature, began his own address as follows:

“Children, Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas! I am glad to meet you here, where I have had a fire lighted for you to smoke by, and for me to talk to you. You have done well, my children, to obey the command of your Father. Take courage ! You will hear his word, which is full of peace and tenderness. For do not think that I have come for war. My mind is full of peace, and she walks by my side. Courage then, children, and take rest !”

Then followed a generous gift of tobacco, more promises to be a kind father to them as obedient children, and another presentation—this time of guns to the men and prunes and raisins to the women and children. Thus closed what was but a preliminary conference. The great Council was to meet on a future day.

It would be interesting to know and mark the exact spot where this important meeting took place; but we may not be far wrong in supposing it to have been in the near vicinity of what was afterwards, and perhaps then, called Mississauga Point, near the foot of the present Earl street, where the Indian encampment was probably situated. It could not have been very near the site of Fort Frontenac, because, even while the conference was proceeding and the savages were being entertained with speeches and gifts, Frontenac, with characteristic promptness, had ordered his engineer, Raudin, to survey the ground selected and trace out the ground plan of the projected fort; and as the men of the expedition, under the directing officers, were speedily set to cut down trees, hew palisades and dig trenches, the work of construction was soon rapidly proceeding before the eyes of the astonished Indians, who found their consent already taken for granted. Frontenac, however, spared no trouble to win their favour, and seems to have amused his suite by caressing the little brown children, feasting them with bread and sweetmeats, and ordering an evening banquet for the squaws, that they might entertain the strangers with their native dances, which they were nothing loth to do. By these means he astutely managed to divert their attention from his military designs, and secured his own popularity among them. Four busy days passed, during which the building of the fort was well advanced, and then the Grand Council was summoned, with due state and ceremony, when, after a repetition of the former preliminaries, the Ononthio, in his grand manner, again addressed his Indian children.

He began by repeating his satisfaction that they had obeyed their Father’s command in repairing to this rendezvous in order to hear what he had to say. He then briefly exhorted them to embrace the Christian religion, which he doubtless sincerely desired, and not solely on account of their own spiritual interests. And after calling their attention to the strength and power of his armed escort, and the guns of the bateaux moored close by, he continued his oration in the grandiloquent terms congenial to both speaker and hearers :

“If your Father can come so far, with so great a force, through such dangerous rapids, merely to make you a visit of pleasure and friendship, what would he do if you should awaken his anger and make it necessary for him to punish his disobedient children? He is the arbiter of peace and war. Beware how you offend him !” Furthermore, he warned them strongly against molesting the Indian allies of the French, any attempt at which would bring down a swift chastisement.

He then, with cautious diplomacy, proceeded to the matter in hand, explaining, with many expressions of regard, that he was about to build a storehouse or depot there, at which they would be able to barter their furs for the things they required without being obliged to undertake a long and dangerous journey. They must not, however, listen to the misrepresentations of bad men, who, for their own interest, would delude and deceive them, but must give heed only to men of character like the Sieur de La Salle. Finally he closed a long oration by asking that they should entrust him with a number of their children to be educated at Quebec, so that in time they and his French nephews might grow into one people.

The profusion of presents which accompanied this address, along with its friendly tone of paternal consideration, secured for it a good reception, though the Indians expressed a natural desire to know what prices would be given for the furs, in goods, at the new depot. They promised, on their return to their villages, to consider the proposal concerning their children, and a few of these were eventually sent to Quebec to be educated—the girls in the Ursuline Convent, the boys in the household of the Governor himself.

After three days more of feasting and friendly intercourse, the Iroquois broke up their camp, and the great majority embarked in their canoes and disappeared beyond the neighbouring islands, on their way to their villages to the southward. By the time that the primitive palisaded wall of the fort was set up, and the barracks of rough logs well advanced towards completion, a belated band of Iroquois from the north of the Great Lakes and the villages on the Bay of Quinte, arrived to hold a similar “pow-wow” with the Ononthio. He had already sent a large part of his expedition home in detachments, and when the second division of Indians had taken their departure, duly propitiated with presents and “belles paroles,” he himself prepared to embark with his suite for Quebec, after making arrangements for the winter provision of the garrison he left behind to finish and hold the fort. Whether La Salle was present during this important conference is not stated by contemporary narrative, and the presumption would seem to be that he was at the time engaged in propitiating the Iroquois at their homes. At all events, we find him writing to Frontenac from the Iroquois country, in September, that his visit had produced a profound impression on the deputies, who had returned full of satisfaction with his courtesy and generous gifts, and while regretting the poverty of their own, expressed their willingness, as an offset, to comply with his wishes regarding the education of their children.

As he retraced his course down the St. Lawrence, much more swiftly and easily than he had ascended it, Frontenac felt that he had reason to congratulate himself on the success of his expedition. He had accomplished a dangerous voyage without the loss of a single canoe, and, owing to the aid he had enlisted from his own people, the whole work had been accomplished at a cost of about ten thousand livres, advanced by himself on behalf of the king. He had gained from the Iroquois all the concessions he had sought, and wrote to Colbert that “he might boast of having impressed them at once with respect, fear and goodwill ;” and that, by means of the new fort, with a vessel already begun, and another fort which he hoped to build at the mouth of the Niagara, the French would command the Upper Lakes—always an essential point for the mastery of Canada. And however opinions might differ as to the commercial value of the new fur depot, however much the Montreal merchants might look askance at it from their point of view, there could be no doubt that in it New France would possess an effectual barrier against Iroquois incursions for years to come.

The Story Of Old Kingston:The Founding Of Fort FrontenacFort Frontenac Under The French RegimeThe Fall Of Fort FrontenacThe Coming Of The LoyalstsSettlement And Early DaysA Naval And Military Centre And First Seat Of Provincial GovernmentThe Cloud Of WarTo ArmsNaval Expeditions From KingstonAfter The WarRead More Articles About: The Story Of Old Kingston