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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Old Fort Niagara's Trading Post by Cynthia Howerter

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.

Old Fort Niagara

 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.”

The French Castle at Old Fort Niagara

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.

Bundles of imported wool trade blankets
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.

An iron trap amidst colorful fabrics
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 goods.

Purchased 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 were able to join 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, the 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. Visit Old Fort Niagara’s website: www.oldfortniagara.org 

All Photographs ©2014 Cynthia Howerter

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter loves using her training in education, research, writing, and speaking to teach and inspire others about a time in America that was anything but boring. A member of the Daughters of the American revolution (DAR), Cynthia believes history should be alive and personal.



  1. Very interesting article Cynthia. Great pictures.
    Blessings, Tina

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Mrs. Tina. I hope you get a chance to visit Old Fort Niagara - my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

  3. Great post Cynthia! I loved this tour and would love to go there but I don't know if that will ever happen! This is the biggest trading post I've seen anywhere. As in Michigan, the French knew how to properly establish a commercial relationship with the Native Americans that was beneficial to both.

  4. Thank you, Carrie! You would love Old Fort Niagara; there's so much to see and the tour guides and re-enactors couldn't be more knowledgeable and friendly.

  5. How wonderful! Reminds me of the 1754 fort store in Maine which gave me a little extra context for your post. I loved seeing and hearing all about this. I would LOVE to go there someday. Plan to!

  6. I hope you're able to visit Old Fort Niagara, Carla. My husband and I had a great time there - lots to see.

  7. Great post, Cynthia. Interesting to see free market capitalism at work.

  8. Isn't it, Janet?! Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

  9. Great article. I have visited Old Fort Niagara a number of times, as I used to live in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. We could see the fort from Niagara, and visiting it was always a highlight!

  10. Thank you, Betti. How wonderful to know you've not only been to the fort, but could see it from where you lived! My husband and I were just amazed at how well-maintained the fort is and by how much there is to see there. Thanks so much for commenting.

  11. Very interesting article#! Thank you.

  12. Hi, Mary! You've made my day. I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you so much for leaving your sweet comment.


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