It was July 23, 1759, and the plight of the French garrison at Fort Niagara grew more desperate by the hour.
For nine weeks, the fort had been under siege by an army of British soldiers and their Mohawk allies, under the command of Sir William Johnson.
There was little the French defenders could do as the British pounded the fort with heavy cannon fire and engineers worked night and day digging trenches that brought the big guns ever closer to the crumbling walls of the citadel. As supplies of food and ammunition neared exhaustion, Niagara's French commander, Capt. Pierre Pouchot, had no way of knowing whether the reinforcements he'd sent for more than a month earlier would arrive.
But as night fell, the French relief column was indeed on its way, less than a mile to the south, making camp for the night near the Niagara River in a broad meadow known as La Belle Famille, the site of the present-day village of Youngstown. Made up of French regulars, Canadian militia and Delaware and Huron warriors enlisted from the Ohio country, the force was tasked with breaking through the siege lines and driving the British back east along the Lake Ontario shoreline.
It was a bold plan and it might have even worked had not a Mohawk scouting party discovered the French column and returned to Fort Niagara to sound the alarm. After hearing their report, Johnson wasted no time in assembling his own fighting force. Rather than waiting for an attack, he would meet the enemy on his terms.
At the first light of dawn, as the French were preparing to attack the fort, Johnson gave the signal and a heavy ambuscade of musket balls and arrows came raining down from the tree lines to the right and left. Sir William didn't wait for a second volley and led his main force in a wild bayonet charge, plunging cold steel into the heart of the panicking French.
Fifteen minutes later, the battle was over and nearly 300 of the French force were killed or captured. Among the latter was the expedition's commander, Col. D'Aubrey Ligneris, who watched in anguish as the Mohawks -- joined by the Ohio warriors he himself had brought -- set off in savage pursuit of what remained of his relief column.
They hounded the fleeing French south along the 16-mile portage trail. Those who weren't overtaken and killed in the chase stopped at their landing place long enough to put the torch to the wooden blockhouses and palisade walls of the French Fort du Portage, lest that outpost too fall into British hands.
Today, the fort's old stone chimney still stands in a vacant lot near the Seneca casino in downtown Niagara Falls.
Fearful that the main British army would be upon them at any minute, the beleaguered survivors boarded the bateaux that had delivered them to the scene of their disaster and began rowing back upriver for all they were worth. At Grand Island, which the French had used as a staging point for the doomed attack, a small inlet on the north shore had provided an anchorage for the larger fleet of flat-bottomed bateaux and two frigates that transported the French force along the southeastern shoreline of Lake Erie and up the Niagara.
Sieur Claireaux, who had taken charge of the shattered French expedition, still didn't know the British had not bothered to come after him. The fleet he now commanded could wreak all manner of havoc on Lake Erie should it fall into enemy hands. And so, before vanishing with his men into the mists of time, Claireaux ordered the warships and most of the bateaux burned at their moorings, leaving behind an enduring mystery -- and, perhaps, a fabulous treasure.
The existence of the buried French hoard became known almost immediately following the surrender of Fort Niagara, as the Ohio Indians brought by the French got to know their newfound Mohawk friends over flagons of rum. In fact, reports of the treasure were appearing in newspapers back east less than a month later.
One article, in the Aug. 23, 1759 issue of the Maryland Gazette, states, "By a letter from Niagara of the 21st ult., we learn that by the assistance and influence of Sir William Johnson there were upwards of eleven hundred Indians convened there, who by their good behavior have justly gained the esteem of the whole army; and that Sir William, being informed that the enemy had buried a quantity of goods on an island about twenty miles from the post, sent a number of Indians to search for them."
While the Indians returned with a quantity of beaver pelts and other furs, no treasure was found, and the search was eventually called off.
Later, American settlers, noting the blackened ruins beneath the clear water of the inlet, dubbed it Burnt Ship Bay, often salvaging chain, bits of iron and lead shot from the rotting wrecks. A June 22, 1825 article on the Niagara region in the Ontario Repository mentions the site:
"At the north end of Grand Island and almost in view of the Falls of Niagara, is a small bay, called Burnt Ship Bay, which takes its name from the hulks of several vessels sunk on that spot during the old French War; and tradition says they were sunk with all their military chests and munitions of war, fearing the enemy coming so sudden upon them, as to leave no time to escape."
Talk of the scuttled ships and buried French treasure continued, even as the spot became popular with anglers for the schools of perch and bass the tangled wreckage attracted. As late as 1866, the botanist George W. Clinton and the Hon. Lewis F. Allen wrote of the broken mastheads of at least one of the vessels still protruding a few inches above the water.
Born in 1890, the late Reginald P. Long was once the resident expert on Grand Island history in general and the treasure of Burnt Ship Bay in particular.
"My grandfather told me about a couple of men who came over here one time from Tonawanda," Long told "Buffalo Magazine" in a 1967 interview. "They gave him $5 for the use of his wagon and also to help them dig. He showed them Burnt Ship Creek and they got out some kind of a map and asked him if that tree over there was black walnut. He said it was and they started measuring distances. After measuring, they began digging.
"The reason I remember the story is my grandfather used to take me up there and show me the hole left by all the digging," he added.
Long's grandfather also recalled the famous "Blizzard of '88," which dumped five feet of snow on Boston, New York City and Philadelphia, completely shutting down the northeast. While the Niagara region escaped the snowfall, hurricane-force winds buffeted the area during the storm.
At Burnt Ship Bay, the high winds exposed a mysterious circular stone foundation near the water's edge, and residents recovered a number of gold and silver coins, the earliest dated 1537. In his classic 1896 treatise, "Myths & Legends of Our Own Land," Charles M. Skinner theorized the foundation was that of an early French trading post documented by the Jesuits.
"The house is not far from the water, as ships used to unload cargo there, and it is believed a number of chests are buried nearby." Skinner wrote.
As with the identities of the ships resting at the bottom of Burnt Ship Bay, the value and composition of the treasure buried there must also be deduced. The hard evidence of gold and silver specie being recovered perhaps indicates a payroll sent to ease the burden of Fort Niagara's defenders after enduring a siege that lasted more than two months.
One day perhaps, the many legends surrounding Burnt Ship Bay will be unraveled. Maybe by a child walking along the beach, or a utility worker laying an underground cable. Or an amateur treasure hunter who's done his homework and come equipped with the latest in electronic detection gear.
When -- if -- that happens, the final chapter can be written on one of the region's most enduring mysteries, that of a fabulous treasure lost almost 250 years ago. What an ending that would be.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||July 31 2007|