The Iroquoian-speaking Neutral lived throughout the Niagara Peninsula, between the Grand and Niagara rivers. They were called Neutral by the French, who observed that the tribe remained neutral in most conflicts between the Huron-Wendat and the Haudenosaunee. In addition to hunting and fishing, the Neutral grew squash, beans and corn, and their villages included longhouses.
Did you know?
Niagara is derived from an Indigenous word, likely from within the Iroquoian language family (see Indigenous Languages in Canada). However, its exact origins and meaning are unknown. There are two common interpretations. First, that it means “thundering waters,” referring to Niagara Falls. Second, that it means “neck,” referring to the way in which the Niagara River connects lakes Erie and Ontario.
In 1647, several Neutral villages were conquered by the Seneca from the east side of the Niagara River. Later, in the early 1650s, additional villages were destroyed by the Haudenosaunee. These attacks, combined with the smallpox epidemics of 1638–40, meant the Neutral population largely ceased to exist. They were last mentioned in the writing of French explorers in 1671. The Haudenosaunee, however, continued to live in the region as the French, British and Americans fought for control. By the early 1700s they had been joined by the Anishinaabeg, in particular the Mississauga, who were migrating westward from the continent’s northeast coast. Today, many Haudenosaunee and Mississauga remain in the Niagara Peninsula area, both on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve and in other communities.
The first European settlers were refugees fleeing the American Revolution in 1778. At the end of the American Revolution, Britain gave Loyalists who chose not to live in the new republic of the United States land grants in British North America. Under the leadership of John Butler, who had led a regiment of rangers during the revolution, the town of Niagara was laid out on the west bank of the Niagara River.
In 1792, John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of the new province of Upper Canada, chose Niagara as the temporary capital of the province. His government held parliament here until 1796, when the capital was moved to York (now Toronto). Simcoe changed the name to Newark, but after his departure for England in 1796, the citizens petitioned the province to have the name Niagara reinstated. This was done in 1798. Nearly a century later, the post office added “on-the-Lake” to the name to avoid confusion with Niagara Falls, which is 19 km to the south.
Several hundred Black Loyalists were among those who arrived before and after the American Revolution in what would become Upper Canada. They arrived either as free persons or as enslaved persons with their white Loyalist masters. Many settled in the Niagara Peninsula (see also Richard Pierpoint). In the years following the revolution, enslavement was socially and legally protected in Upper Canada. However, lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe was an early abolitionist. In 1793, his government passed Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. Under the Act, any enslaved person would automatically be free on entering Upper Canada. This made Niagara and the rest of the province a haven for people escaping enslavement. During the War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837, Black people from Niagara formed their own militia companies, referred to as the “Coloured Corps.”
Fort George, within the town, served as the headquarters of the central division of the British army in Upper Canada. General Isaac Brock, commander and administrator of the province in 1812, lived in the government house where the courthouse now stands on Queen Street. On 27 May 1813, the fort and town were captured by an American army after a fierce battle through town. The Americans occupied the fort and town until 10 December 1813. On this day they were driven back across the Niagara River by a force of British regulars, Indigenous warriors and Canadian militia. Before retreating, the American army burned the entire town (see also War of 1812). In 1814, the British rebuilt Fort George and began construction on two new posts. They built Fort Mississauga at the mouth of the river and Butler’s Barracks further inland. Until 1965, Butler’s Barracks served as a training base for Canadian militia.
During the 1830s to early 1850s the rebuilt Niagara was important for its shipbuilding. Economic depression in the 1850s and the construction of the Welland Canal caused the decline of industry in Niagara. It also meant the town lost its importance as a port and transshipment point. The town was revitalized in the railway era of the 1860─90s and became a tourism mecca. Hotels and restaurants sprung up. By the turn of the century, four large steamers made two trips daily between Niagara and Toronto, frequent trains linked the town with Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, and hourly electric trains ran to St. Catharines. These various forms of transportation brought tourists to the town and shipped agricultural produce, namely tender fruits, to city markets.
Business suffered a downturn during the First World War. After the war the advent of the affordable automobile eventually drove the steamers and passenger rail service from the town. The Great Depression, followed by the Second World War, stalled tourism. By the late 1940s, Niagara-on-the-Lake was in poor shape with little money and few jobs. That turned out to be a saviour for heritage. With little money, residents could not replace the old houses with new bungalows, a phenomenon occurring elsewhere in Ontario at the time.
In the early 1960s a small group of people began purchasing and restoring the older buildings. The Shaw Festival was founded to try and boost tourism. Tourists began to visit to enjoy the town’s history, restored buildings and Shaw Festival.
Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s major industries include agriculture and tourism. The region’s climate permits the growing of tender fruit and grapes. Internationally acclaimed wineries have sprung up and agritourism has become a huge business. The Shaw Festival has also grown and now has three theatres attracting visitors between the early spring and late autumn each year. Many more visitors come to enjoy the town’s heritage architecture, shops, restaurants and accommodations.
National Historic District
In 2004, the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was designated a national historic district. The town received the designation due to its preserved architecture dating from the 1815─59 period, all standing in the grid-pattern street plan. The town boasts the largest and best collection of the architectural styles of that period in the country. Notable examples include the Niagara Apothecary, MacDougal-Harrison House (both c. 1820), Kirby House (c. 1832), once the home of William Kirby, and St Andrew’s Church (1831), one the finest examples of the Greek revival style in Canada. The historical significance of the old town was first recognized in 1986 when it was designated as a provincial heritage conservation district.
The town has many national historic sites. These include Fort George, Brock’s Monument (1856), Willowbank (1835), Fort Mississauga and Butler’s Barracks (post-1815). Historic properties of the Niagara Parks Commission include McFarland House (1800), Mackenzie Printery (of William Lyon Mackenzie), and Queenston Chapel (1862). The Niagara Historical Museum was the first building constructed in Ontario specifically as a museum. It displays a collection of early artifacts related to the history of the town.