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Did Portage Road play a prominent part in French & Indian War? (Part 1)

June 25, 2017
By Marybelle Beigh - Westfield Town & Village Historian , Westfield Republican

During the 1600s and 1700s, the French and British are both documented as exploring what became Chautauqua County in 1811, including finding a way to connect the waterways of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes with the great Mississippi River and its tributary rivers waterway system to the Gulf of Mexico. Vying for ownership of the "new world" of North America, each nation laid claims to the land based on the landings of early seafaring explorers, and grants made by the rulers of their respective countries. (Other countries had claims too, but these were the dominant ones.)

As briefly described in the recent BeeLines about Lost Gold Legends, before the "white man" came, the Seneca Indians, and the earlier Erie Indians, had followed trails along the edge of the Chautauqua Creek and gorge and through dense forests, carrying canoes between Lake Erie and Chautauqua Lake, to reach hunting and fishing ground and waters, as well as other ventures such as new abodes or even conflict and conquest with other peoples. Legends, stories, histories, journals, and diaries have been recalled, discovered, translated, and shared in history books describing traces and relics of an ancient race preceding the Seneca and Erie Indians that include earthworks, roads, implements of warfare and domestic arts surpassing greatly the skills of the Indians here when the white man arrived.

The Eries, or "Nation of the Cat," were enemies of the Six Nations of Central New York and were exterminated by the Senecas about 1655, according to Jesuit records and legends. Although the Jesuits were living along the Mississippi and the shores of the western Great Lakes - Huron, Michigan, and Superior - the earliest recorded date of the white man in the Chautauqua region is about 1615. According to the journals and maps of Samuel Champlain, a young Frenchman named Etienne Brule was sent with twelve Hurons, by Champlain, on a mission of peace from Lake Simcoe in Canada to the Andastes who lived south of the Iroquois. A dotted line on Champlain's map shows a route from Lake Erie to Lake Chautauqua, which would be approximately the shortest portage between the two lakes, in order to reach the rivers to the south, although Champlain himself did not travel the route.

In 1678, another Frenchman, LaSalle, was promoting the importance of joining the French Possessions in Canada with those in the Mississippi valley, because the English were pushing westward from their settlements along the Atlantic coast, so Fort Niagara was built that year. The following year, LaSalle built and launched the first ship sailed by a white man on Lake Erie, and with Father Hennepin, a Jesuit Priest, followed the Chautauqua Coast of Lake Erie. Two or three years later, he landed and passed through the region, and found "a little lake six or seven miles south of Lake Erie, the mouth of which opened to the southward." This is documented in his biography.

Fort Niagara was captured and destroyed by the Indians in 1684, but was rebuilt by the French in 1725 when they discovered that the English had established a trading post on Lake Ontario. Again, at this time, plans were recommended and made for establishing a carrying place between Lake Erie and setting up trading posts and forts at critical locations along the routes between Canada and the Mississippi River tributaries to the Gulf of Mexico.

One expedition, the record of which was translated from French to English in 1940, was The Expedition of Baron De Longueuil in 1739. The successful journey of over 1,600 miles of lake, trail and river from Montreal, Canada to the vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee followed a predetermined route, completing one of the longest military movements ever carried out in North America. It was the first to map the Ohio and Allegheny rivers, and the first large military force to use the Chautauqua-Allegheny route. It was done ten years before Celeron's expedition and fourteen before the first French forts were built in western Pennsylvania, and was part of a major campaign against the Chickasaw Indians in northern Mississippi.

The Marquis de Benuharnois, governor of Canada since 1726, planned the campaign with M. de Bienville, governor of Louisiana (that would be the whole area drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries later being the Louisiana Purchase), and appointed the Baron de Longueuil, a nephew of the Louisiana governor, to command the expedition. From the heart of French Canada - Montreal - Baron de Longueuil's force traveled by way of Lake Ste. Croix (as Governor de Benuharnois called Lake Chautauqua), and included an eighteen-year-old boy named Chaussegros de Lery, son of the chief engineer of New France (Canada). De Lery made the survey and reckonings for the map, which was the most important accomplishment of the expedition. The expedition was equipped at Montreal, and left that town in June 1739. In bateaux and canoes, they followed the shore of Lake Ontario along the Niagara River, and reached the entrance to Lake Erie on August 4, proceeding by water on Lake Erie to the mouth of Chautauqua Creek near present-day Barcelona. Here they made the portage to Lake Chautauqua. They may have used two routes since one of the 1740 maps shows a dashed line slightly to the east of the one used in 1749 by Celeron, and again in 1754 by de Lery.

To be continued in Part II of the Portage Road history.



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