Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fortifications in New France

For me, the most visually striking feature of any fort is its fortifications. When looking at the architecture of Fort St. Joseph I found myself drawn to this topic because of that. Fort St. Joseph didn't have cannons, there was a garrison that was stationed there but it’s not primarily a military fort. What then might these fortifications have looked like? I find myself more and more intrigued by this question over the semester because I have been finding links between fortifications and the functions of forts.

The design of French fortifications in the colony of New France we influenced heavily and modified from Sebastien Le Preste de Vauban, a French military engineer who designed fortifications in France and Europe. The designs was taken to the New World by French settlers and adapted by using local resources and landscapes such as the abundant lumber supply and proximity to rivers. One aspect his design was the bastion which are on the corners of fortifications and used for either artillery or for troops to fire upon the outside of the palisade or stockade wall. This defensive focus allows the fort to be easily defended by a smaller number of soldiers.

Part of the Plan for a Vauban Bastioned fortification. Notice the hexagonal shape.

In New France fortifications are constructed for a variety of reasons. Forts had the ability to be places of trade, religion, communication and government. These functions are not mutually exclusive, as we know Fort St. Joseph was a place of trade, military, as well as also being a mission. The French built their fortifications all around North America as a way to prevent land claims by the English. Once built these forts would have supported themselves through trade networks.

Perhaps the largest symbol of a fortification is the palisade wall. These are typically constructed around the perimeter of the fort. Evidence from sites like Fort Massac in Illinois and Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan help us get an idea of how palisades were constructed. Evidence supports palisades being made of wooden materials like cedar, and having two doors on opposite ends (North and South) of the palisade. The walls at Massac are said to be 20 feet high while Michilimackinac’s are 12 feet. These forts are also built more resembling a square showing another modification to Vauban’s design. This could have made it easier to build with fewer resources and time.
Detail map by a military engineer of Fort Massac in Illinois.

Since we have not found any evidence archaeologically about the fortifications of Fort St. Joseph we only have historical sources to use. While the account from Charlevoix detailing the ‘poor’ quality of the palisade at Fort St. Joseph has been challenged, there are other stories that support this idea. One of these is an Iroquois raid where their guns were able to be placed between gaps in the palisade wall. The lack of defense in this situation can support the idea that perhaps there were no bastions at Fort St. Joseph, and that individual logs in the palisade wall are actually spread apart.

I would love to leave the post with a detail map of the Fort or a picture, but it would be wrong. It is not that we can’t know what the Fort looked like, but archaeological evidence will really help us understand the fortifications of Fort St. Joseph. It most likely wasn’t pristine and picturesque like an artists’ rendition, but it would have had character just like the people who lived and traded there.

Joe Puntasecca

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