I just spent a week exploring Old Fort Niagara with 40 educators from across the United States, including two other Buffalo Public School teachers. Our immersion in 17th and 18th century history included an overnight stay at the fort and in its "haunted" French castle.
The teachers came to learn about the fort's use during the Revolutionary War, French and Indian War and War of 1812. During the program, we had ample time to interact with period re-enactors employed by the fort, learn about excavations at the site and discuss facts and fiction with experts on the three battles.
The program, funded through a National Endowment for Humanities grant, was administered through Niagara University. Both the school and the fort rolled out the red carpet for the educators so they would have an enjoyable and authentic experience to share with their students.
The teachers learned how to shoot a musket, present arms and march in tandem for battle. The re-enactors were a dedicated group of mostly young college students. Many of them have been participating since they were teens or even younger. They could explain very clearly what they were wearing and why, how food was prepared, how the soldiers lived and fought and what relationships were between the French, British, Americans and Natives.
And despite the intense sun and heat, they maintained their professionalism while wearing up to 20 pounds of wool clothing, hats and shoes that didn't have a left and right, but molded to your feet. And when we arose after spending the night in our sleeping bags, one young man was already up preparing porridge over an open fire he ignited using flint and gun powder. The grub was served in wooden bowls and eaten with wooden spoons.
As a lifelong Buffalo resident, I have been to Old Fort Niagara many times. My first visit was as a seventh-grader at School 76, now Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy, and the only thing I remember was being bored to tears. I also visited the fort with my mother, and after I became a teacher, took several classes of seventh-graders there.
I thought I had also taken my own children there, but they informed me I was wrong. I had taken them to Mumford, the Amherst Museum and Colonial Williamsburg, but not Old Fort Niagara. And none of them visited the fort with their schools.
I was disappointed to hear they had not been there and were not particularly educated in our local history. But it's not their fault, or their teachers. The New York State Education Department dictates the standards, and in my estimation, fails miserably when it comes to social studies.
New York State students get local history in fourth grade, and U.S. history in seventh, eighth and 11th grades. Seventh-grade history covers the Iroquois Nation, but not very much in depth. Wouldn't it be wonderful if local history was offered again in high school, even if only as an elective?
With the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, area students will have the opportunity to explore our local involvement and the role of Old Fort Niagara. Re-enactments have already started and WNED is expected to broadcast a television show on the war in October.
With a gem like this in our back yard, the schools, the public and the world should definitely take advantage of Old Fort Niagara. I can't wait to share my new knowledge, and hopefully the fort itself, with my students.
Chris Salamone is a teacher at Bennett High School and a member of the Western New York Writing Project.