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By Paul Gromosiak

By the entrance to the small parking lot in Artpark, there is a marker commemorating the location of "Fort Joncaire," actually the first trading post by the Niagara River. The story behind this important site could not have happened without the efforts of one man, Louis Thomas de Joncaire Sieur de Chabert, a French soldier, interpreter and diplomat.

"Throughout these Dark Decades [the first 40 years of the 18th century] there is a figure in our regional history which, strive as we may, is at best but dimly seen," says historian Frank H. Severance. "Now it stands on the banks of the Niagara, a shadowy symbol of the power of France. Now it appears in fraternal alliance with the Iroquois; and anon it vanishes, silently disappearing down the dim aisles of his native forest. Yet it is around this illusive figure that the story of the Niagara centers for forty years.

"This man is the French interpreter, soldier and Seneca by adoption, commonly spoken of by our historical writers as Chabert de Joncaire--more accurately, as Chabert de Joncaire the elder. He never attained high rank in the service; he was a very humble character in comparison with several of his titled superiors, who were conspicuous in making the history of our region during the time of his activity hereabouts. But it was primarily through his skillful diplomacy, made efficient by his peculiar relations to the Indians, that France was able to gain a foothold on the Niagara, for trade and for defense, and to maintain it for more than a quarter of a century."

Joncaire was born about 1670 in the little town of St. Remi, France. He came to America (New France) in either 1687 or 1689. Sent on a mission to try and improve relations with the Iroquois, he and his comrades were captured. The year this happened might have been 1689, 1690, 1692 or 1693.

According to one of his acquaintances, a M. Raugot, Joncaire "was taken captive by the Senecas. As they were fastening him to a stake, to burn him, without knowing what he did, he gave a blow of his fist on the nose of the one who held him. It made the savage's nose bleed, averted the tragedy and saved his life, since he was soon adopted, the savages admiring a man who dared, alone, defend his life among his enemies."

According to another historian, Cadwallader Colden, Joncaire "ingratiated himself so much with the [Seneca] nation that he was advanced to the rank of sachem [chief], and preserved their esteem to the day of his death."

Joncaire went back to New France in 1694. He stayed there most of the time until, in 1705, the King of France sent him to live with the Senecas.

From 1705 to 1720, there was much talk about establishing a trading post by the Niagara River. Some thought it best to place it at the river's mouth, while others preferred a location by the lower landing of the portage. Note that there was only the one portage around the gorge and falls at that time. A portage on the western side of the falls and gorge wasn't built until after the end of the American Revolution.

Much to the consternation of the English and most of the Iroquois, the Senecas living west of the Genesee Valley gave the French permission to build a post in the spring of 1720. In May, Joncaire and his men hurried down from Frontenac with supplies and erected a small bark-covered structure overlooking the lowering landing. In the autumn, they made a sturdier post of logs--a blockhouse, surrounded by a high stockade made of sharpened stakes.

Joncaire named his post Magazin Royale ("The King's Store"). Soon Senecas settled by it; many of them worked for the French, carrying goods up and down the escarpment. The English competed for trade with the Native Americans with their posts at Albany and Oswego. Magazin Royale served as a trading post until the opening of the more secure post in the "House of Peace"--the "Castle"--at Fort Niagara in 1727.

Joncaire continued to play an important role for the French crown until his death on June 29, 1739. There is a good chance that he was buried somewhere in the Niagara region, but no one seems to know exactly where.

Joncaire should be remembered. In 1983, historian Richard Aquila said,"One of the ironies of history is Joncaire's present anonymity. Americans have made heroes out of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, but overlook Joncaire, one of the first frontiersmen of them all and perhaps the greatest. The fact that Joncaire was a Frenchman, and therefore an enemy of the English, might explain why Americans have long neglected him, but it certainly does not justify it."

Instead of the simple marker in Artpark, why not build a replica of Magazin Royale, and make it into a museum of the history of the lower landing and Joncaire's role in it? The site is now registered as a national historic landmark. Treat it as one. Give visitors a very good reason to spend more time by the Niagara River. Give local residents something to identify with and be proud of for generations to come.