• Path Through our Maritime History


    Path Through our Maritime History: Waterways of War


    New York State’s early history is often best understood when considering the State’s unique geographic features.  The entire Atlantic Coast of the North American Continent is dominated by the Appalachian Chain, a mountain range that restricts east-west water-based travel into and out of the heart of the continent but with few exceptions – exceptions that are located within what became New York State.  To that end, it should be no surprise that the period of warfare that shaped our history (1754-1814) was largely located in what became New York State.  The French & Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812 all took center stage in New York.



    The “Path Through Our Maritime History: Waterway’s of War” exhibit takes just a few pieces of that history and places it in the context of conflict demonstrating how New York State’s unique geographic features shaped the course of war. Below is supplemental information on the three stand-alone regions, with more information on their prominence in American memory.


    Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River:


    These three bodies of water and those that they connect to form the western boundary of New York State.  Water-based access to them afforded the developing east coast cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia access to the heartland.  During times of conflict controlling that access became of most importance.

    While the exhibit features the War of 1812 in that region, it served crucial roles in both the French & Indian War and the American Revolution as well.  The Niagara Frontier probably best defines that significance.  Fort Niagara was the epicenter of the French & Indian War as it provided a vital link in New France’s effort to maintain the integrity of its lines of communication between Montreal, the Mississippi River, and Louisiana.  Fort Niagara, situated on a bluff overlooking the entrance to the Niagara River from Lake Ontario, it not only controlled access to the portage around Niagara Falls but served as the staging grounds for raids into the Ohio Country from Lake Erie.  The Niagara region demonstrates the important role of interconnected waterways in the history of New York State.

    Lake Ontario’s prominence during the French & Indian War should not be overshadowed, though, as Oswego (where the Oswego River meets Lake Ontario) served as the western edge of the historic maritime highway that extended from New York City to the Great Lakes.  Recent scholarship suggests that the construction of British fortresses at Oswego (Fort’s Oswego, Ontario and George) led to increased tensions between British and French interests in the North American continent.  Oswego was sacked by the marquis de Montcalm in 1756 and three years later was British General Prideaux used Oswego as a staging ground for his advance to the Niagara region further highlighting its significance.     


    The Mohawk Valley and Points West to the Great Lakes:

    The only east-west water-based route through the Appalachian Mountains was via the Mohawk Valley and Central New York.  Stretching from the Hudson River to Lake Ontario via rivers, creeks, and portages, men and material were could traverse the vast expanse of New York State with relative success.  As such, fortifications, conflict and diplomacy with various Amerindian tribes were required to maintain control of the vital links in this chain. 

    Many of the fortifications and portages were established during the French & Indian War, but in the American Revolution and, to an extent, the War of 1812 that followed, much of that groundwork came to fruition.  Fort Stanwix, for example, was constructed at the Great Carrying Place, located between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek at present-day Rome, NY.  During the American Revolution in August 1777 British Brigadier General Barry St. Ledger besieged the fortress as part of the three-pronged campaign to divide the American colonies.  The siege failed, forcing St. Ledger back to the Great Lakes effectively making the three-pronged assault on the Hudson River Valley a failure. 

    In later years, this water-based route that had been traveled for centuries became the same route the Erie Canal passed through this part of the State, ushering in a new era of waterway travel.


    The Hudson River Valley, Lake George, Lake Champlain:

    Much significance is placed on the Hudson River to Lake Champlain route during the American Revolution, but key battles and fortifications took hold during the French & Indian War and War of 1812 as well.  This waterway effectively connected New York City to the St. Lawrence River.

    During the French & Indian War, Fort William Henry was constructed in September 1755 on the southern shore of Lake George to protect a key forward location of the frontier between New York and New France. Much like at Oswego, the marquis de Montcalm besieged the fortress.  Following the 1757 siege, French forces destroyed the fort and withdrew.  General Munro’s failed defense and Montcalm’s victory are highlighted in James Fennimore Cooper’s the “Last of the Mohicans”.

    The Battle of Plattsburgh, during the War of 1812, highlights another significant waterway – Lake Champlain.  On September 11, 1814, American Naval forces won a decisive victory against a British fleet.  This victory helped lead to the conclusion of peace negotiations between Britain and the United States, and the decisiveness of the victory gave the United States significant leverage in those negotiations.


    While impossible to highlight the totality of New York State’s significance during these conflicts in either exhibit form or on this single web page, we hope you’ll take the opportunity to visit the many historic heritage sites throughout New York State.  The “Path Through our Maritime History: Waterway’s of War” is based on the “Waterway’s of War” series, by Steve Benson, Ton Toelke and Nicholas Westbrook and published by Great Lakes Seaway Trail Inc., and Lakes to Locks Passage, Inc. This exhibit is just the beginning of your journey.  For more information on traveling the cultural waterways of New York, or the unique history therein, visit the following:



    Great Lakes Seaway Trail, Inc.




    Lakes to Locks Passage