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Old Fort Niagara had smallest U.S. monument

Niagara County is home to national landmarks and buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, but no national monuments.

That was not always true. Once upon a time, on land where Old Fort Niagara now stands, the smallest national monument ever erected in the United States was built to honor Father Pierre Millet, an early Jesuit missionary.

Prior to Fort Niagara, the French erected a fort in 1687 named Denonville to hold a garrison of 100 men at the mouth of the Niagara River. Unfortunately, due to disease, bad food and the harsh winter, only 12 men were still alive when a rescue party from Montreal arrived in the spring of 1688. The rescue party included Millett.

On that Good Friday in April 1688, he erected a wooden cross at the site to memorialize the victims of the long winter at the fledgling fort and "to invoke God's mercy for plague-stricken men."

Millett was born in 1865 in Bourges, France. He studied theology in Paris and was sent to Canada in 1668 to study under Father Claude Allouez. Instead of heading west with Allouez, he was dispatched to be a missionary among the Onondaga people. In 1672, Millett was appointed to serve the Oneidas, whom he described as "the most arrogant and least tractable of all the Iroquois." After great success among them, Millett was transferred again in 1685 to Kingston, Ont., where he served before and after the Fort Denonville tragedy.

In July 1689, Millet was taken prisoner by Iroquois preparing to attack Fort Frontenac. Initially spared by Chief Manchot, he was subjected to beatings after the chief left to join in the attack of the fort. Preparing for death, Millett began to pray in Iroquois. Hearing this, his captors unbound him and sent him to the Oneida camp, where he was met with joy.

However, the non-Christian members of the tribe were keen for Millett's death as an agent of the French governor. His life hung in the balance until he was adopted into a leading Oneida family in place of Otassete, a warrior who had died of natural causes. At a ceremony, Millett was named Otassete and adopted into the Oneida Nation, sparing his life.

Millett returned to Quebec in late 1694 and later was assigned as a missionary among the Hurons. From 1697 to 1703, he remained in Quebec, but at least once he petitioned Rome to return to the Iroquois "to fight like a good soldier the battles of the Lord." In 1705, his health steadily deteriorated, and he died Dec. 31, 1708, in Quebec. With his dying breath, he wished to return to the Iroquois.

The French had abandoned the Fort Denonville site as a place of defense until 1726, when they began to build the "French Castle" at Fort Niagara. The wooden cross erected by Millett nearly 50 years earlier was gone. Under the three flags of three different nations and several wars, Fort Niagara remained, though Millet's cross had faded into obscurity.

That began to change nearly 200 years later when President Theodore Roosevelt utilized the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare Devil's Tower a national monument before it was ruined by outside forces. This act allowed the president to restrict the use of federally owned lands, specifically to help protect artifacts found on these lands from being removed and placed into private collections.

On Sept. 5, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the Father Millett Cross National Monument, stipulating that a commemorative cross be raised. At 320 square feet, this spot along the Lake Ontario shore of Fort Niagara became the nation's smallest national monument, a distinction it held for nearly 25 years.

Here, the New York State Knights of Columbus erected an 18 1/2 -foot bronze cross in 1926. They dedicated it "not only to Father Millet, but to those other priests whose heroism took Christianity into the wilderness and whose devotion sought to create in this new world a new France." The crosspiece of the monument was inscribed with "REGN. VINC. IMP. CHRS." That is Latin for "King, Conquering, Commander, Christ."

Initially, the monument was under the management of the War Department, since Fort Niagara was an active military reservation. In 1933, reorganization brought the monument under the control of the national park system. The care of the Millett cross changed yet again when the U.S. Army declared the old fort surplus in 1945, and the process was begun to transfer ownership to the State of New York. On Sept. 7, 1949, Congress abolished the Father Millett Cross National Monument, and New York acquired the memorial.

While no longer a national monument, the memorial is still a historic marker in the state parks system. Today, the Father Millett Cross still stands just west of the north redoubt inside Old Fort Niagara, and the Knights of Columbus yearly celebrate and remember the work of Millett and others who carried on after him.

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Craig E. Bacon is the deputy Niagara County historian.