BOTANICAL EVALUATION OF THE GOAT ISLAND COMPLEX, NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK
PRE-1885 LAND USE IN THE GOAT ISLAND COMPLEX
An excellent recent treatment of archaeological and historical information relating to the Niagara Reservation was prepared by Scott and Scott (1983), and much of the following is based on information provided in this source.
The Niagara region was free of ice and accessible to the settlement of Pre-European peoples by around 9000 B.P. (Calkin & Miller, 1977). Big game animals of the Pleistocene did occur near the Niagara River, based on mastodon teeth found in the river gravels of the embankment overlooking Goat Island on the American side reported by Lyell (1855) and Hall (1843). The Paleo-Indianculture, widespread about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, are associated with these animals. However no cultural remains have been found in the area of the Reservation from this period (Scott & Scott, 1983). Evidence for Indian occupation of subsequent periods has been found at Lockport and Grand Island, possibly representing the Archaic period of Indian cultures, beginning about 8000 B.P. At Lewiston a burial mound was excavated representing the Woodland archeological period from 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.
It is only with the sixteenth and seventeenth century literature of early missionaries, traders and merchants in North America that a clearer picture of Indian settlement in the Niagara area appears. A group termed the Neutral tribe emerges whose territory, it is believed, "occupied the heart of the Niagara Peninsula" (Scott & Scott, 1983), including the east bank of the Niagara River at Niagara Falls. Contemporary with their existence, a group of native peoples was described by Gendron in 1644-1645 (Dow, 1921) as scavenging in the vicinity of Niagara Falls on the abundance of freshly killed animals which had had the misfortune to be swept over the cataracts and be destroyed on the rocks below.
Paleo-Indian cultures appear to have relied largely on hunting large game for their subsistence. When the game animals became extinct, forage with more emphasis on plants as food became more important, as during Archaic period cultures. During the Woodland period it is suggested that there was "some seasonal movement with summer occupation along lake and river banks" (Scott & Scott, 1983). The Owasco-Iroquois cultures show "year-round villages to small, temporary hunting and fishing camps and isolated cemeteries" (Trubowitz in Scott & Scott, 1983). The Seneca, the nation of the Iroquois confederacy that destroyed the Neutral tribe mentioned above and settled their territory, were "village-dwelling agriculturalists" with considerable social and cultural complexity (Scott & Scott, 1983).
All of these people took advantage of, in one form or another, the availability of natural food supplies for subsistence. The destruction of native animals by being swept over the falls was written about in several early accounts. "We often find on the shores of this basin fish, bears, deer, geese, ducks and various kinds of birds which have been killed in passing over, having been drawn in by the water, or the current of air formed by the falls. The Indians collect these..." (Pouchot in Dow, 1921). If this event occurred for centuries, this food resource must have been known to at least some native peoples. Although there is no evidence, animals could have been deliberately driven into the river above the falls, and picked up in the lower river after they had been killed.
Native animals were also reported to have arrived on Goat Island by the same processes that swept them over the falls. Occasionally their numbers were large enough that they were sometimes harvested by native peoples (Kalm, 1770). However, there were no bridges to the islands before the nineteenth century, and passage to the island for hunting would have been extremely perilous. How food could have been brought back to the mainland would be hard to say, unless the animals were driven off the island, into the water and down onto the rocks and the lower river.
The cost in life and energy to forage vegetable material from the islands would have precluded the island ever becoming a source of forage or settlement such that there would be a significant effect on the plant communities there.
It must also be borne in mind that the brink of the cataracts was seven miles downstream when the last glacier retreated from the area. Whether Goat Island came into existence 9000 or 2000 to 3000 years ago is still a matter of conjecture (Calkin & Brett, 1978). These geological issues must be considered in theories of floral, faunal and human dispersal to and contact with the island over long periods of time. Goat Island, when it came to exist, was in a less dangerous situation when the cataracts were miles downstream, rather like Navy and Grand Islands upstream are today.
Scott and Scott (1983) report local newspaper accounts of "aboriginal village sites - one near Chippawa, one at Foster's Flats and the third between the two" (Niagara Falls Gazette, Sept. 12, 1900). Foster's Flats lies at the bottom of the Niagara Gorge. Subsequent discoveries of Indian remains in the village of Niagara Falls were reported for 1860 and 1912. However, on Goat Island it is exclusively mortuary remains which have been reported.
Porter (1894) indicated the native people's "use of Goat Island as the burying ground of their chiefs and warriors, and their adoration of the island because of such use" although he cited no source for this information and reported no written source for native burials. The skeleton of a young woman was exhumed from Goat Island around 1834, where it had been buried in a sitting position, and later displayed in the Museum of the Boston Medical College. Porter quoted that "the graves on the island were in a sandy spot, each body in a separate grave, always in a sitting or squatting posture, and without ornaments" (16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900). In the Niagara Falls Gazette, July 22, 1912, a human bone was reported discovered on Goat Island while steps were being put in at the Spring, with a reference to "other bones found on Luna Island several years earlier" (Scott & Scott, 1983).
These burial activities have been referred to Seneca or Neutral Iroquois culture with the possibility that the "artifacts represent reoccupations of what were even earlier sites" (Scott & Scott, 1983).
Due to the precarious situation of the island, burial here would have been an achievement accomplished at great risk. This condition may have conferred a great honor to the persons buried there, and also protected them from depredation and possible desecration of the burial of tribal leaders by rival tribes or peoples. This may be true for islands in general, especially to peoples not accustomed to navigation on the lakes or rivers. Tribes who were accustomed to transportation by waterway may have depended on these islands more than those who didn't, such as the Neutral tribe, who were "notoriously poor canoesmen" (Scott & Scott, 1983).
The particular interest the Seneca had in the river margins and islands in the river may have had something to do with burial practices on the islands in addition to their proprietary interest in the waterways. Native peoples, however, have been given special rights to water systems in western New York, as several Indian Reservations have been designated along major waterways: the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation along Cattaraugus Creek, the Allegany Indian Reservation along the Allegheny River, and the old Indian Reservation in what is now the City of Buffalo, centered along the Buffalo River.
The activities of native people in the region appear not to have affected the flora of the Goat Island complex.
The region came to belong to the French who occupied the area from the time of LaSalle in 1678, to 1759, but perhaps not the islands in the river, which, according to subsequent treaties, the native peoples retained.
The English next controlled the surrounding region from 1759 to 1776, ending with events leading to the Declaration of Independence. The English continued to occupy the area until 1783 when effective control passed to the United States after the treaty of Paris was signed in that year (Porter, 1894). Throughout the various activities of voyageurs, soldiers and colonials on the mainland, there is no indication either people made any use of the Goat Island complex, other than as a diversion for soldiers who tested their mettle with forays across the rapids and back during the British period. Isaac Weld was reported to have said that in 1776, "it was a common practice for young men to go to the island in the middle of the Falls; that after dining there they used frequently to dare each other to walk into the river towards certain large rocks in the midst of the rapids ..." and that these gentlemen left their marks on the island's trees (no doubt beechs) where Judge Augustus Porter, visiting the island in 1805 could find them: "the dates 1769, 1770, 1779, 1783" (Porter, 1900).
First European ownership of the islands at the brink of the cataracts at Niagara began just after the time when Fort Niagara, at the outlet of the Niagara River into Lake Ontario, then under French control, was lost to the English in 1759 with Sir William Johnson effectively in charge. In 1763 the Seneca Indians, who had been allies of the French, conducted a hostile operation later called the Devil's Hole Massacre, in which a supply train heading south from Lewiston was ambushed with British soldiers and allied individuals killed. A year later, Johnson created a supplemental treaty to the treaty with the French of 1763 ceding to England all former French possessions "this region and all her Canadian possessions." The 1764 treaty was with the native peoples of the area, and England received title to "a strip [of land] eight miles in width, four miles wide on each side of the Niagara river for its entire length" (Porter, 10 Ann Rep Comm, 1894) although Porter later adjusted this claim to four miles wide, two miles wide on each side of the river (Porter, 16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900). The islands were ceded to Sir William Johnson personally, which real estate he transferred to British crown ownership.
At the time of the massacre, the portage from Lewiston up to an area above the Falls was conducted by a Mr. John Steadman or Stedman. Stedman himself was part of the Devil's Hole Massacre, being the only victim to escape without injury. Stedman had a partnership with Lt. Francis Pfister, an engineer associated with Fort Niagara who built the Stedman House along the shore of the upper river near Goat Island. "This house became a landmark between Fort Niagara and Buffalo, and many 18th century visitors recorded the Stedman House in their journals" (Scott & Scott, 1983). On one occasion at least, Stedman transported himself and five men over to the island by boat (Carver in Dow 1921).
In 1826 John Maude published a book of his travels in the United States in which a confabulation of information was related, apparently fed to him by a guide by the name of Coldrakes "who came to this country with Philip Steadman, elder brother to ... John Steadman ..." who conducted the portage. According to Coldrakes it was John Stedman who received nearly the same property as was awarded by treaty to Sir Johnson by the Indians, who wished to make a gift of atonement to Stedman in recognition of his fabulous escape from the Massacre. Stedman even went so far as to petition the New York State legislature to have this land "returned" to him, after it was appropriated by the state subsequent to the Treaty of Paris.
According to Coldrakes, through Maude, it was the brother Philip who grew a "remarkably fine" crop of turnips on Goat Island - on crown property it seems - and loosed the hapless animals who died one winter in the year of their introduction - excepting the goat which survived and after whom the Island was named. It was John, according to Porter (16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900), who "cleared a portion of the upper end ... and raised thereupon a fine crop of turnips." This is the only evidence of clearing or grazing on Goat Island prior to ownership by the Porter family in 1815 (see Pool, 1897).
Throughout the development of saw mills on the mainland by Goat Island during the French and English period, wood was still plentiful there, and too difficult to transport from Goat Island since there is no evidence the island woods was cut for the purposes for which these mills were established (see Scott & Scott, 1983 for history of these early milling operations).
Access to the Island was very difficult, made initially by taking advantage of shallows presented by one of the limestone ridges intersecting the Island at or near its east end on a day when the river levels happened to be lower than normal. The ice in winter may have proved sufficient deterrent to anyone farming the island (Maude, 1800), "when every thing on the Island is encrusted with ice from the frozen spray of the Falls." Porter wrote that a horse could be gotten onto Goat Island by taking it in the water far upstream until reaching the sandy bar extending east from the Island, and walking to the island along it (16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900).
Porter (16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900) also related the claims by Stedman to "all the land between the Niagara river and the line of his flight, some five thousand acres...," which Stedman's descendants pursued until 1823 when the State of New York "ejected them from such lands as they occupied under the claim."
All the islands in the Niagara River were still considered to be under special ownership by native peoples after the governments of the United States and the state of New York had been established. The State felt an obligation to pay them for title to these areas. The islands appear to be part of the mile-strip (New York side) of land along the Niagara River but somehow separate roughly in line with the separation made by native peoples for Sir William Johnson in 1764. The Holland Land Company, although it owned all other land in Niagara County, did not own the mile strip of land extending the length of the Niagara River and constituting its shoreline and which was reserved by the State (The State Reserve). A map of the mile strip was reproduced by Scott and Scott (1983) indicating this land was "reserved to the State out of the cession to Massachusetts in 1786 ... and sold at auction February 26, 1805." The survey was made "under the direction of Simeon De Witt, Esq. Surveyor-General." The islands in the Niagara River are indicated, but, oddly enough, not Goat Island. The historic reason for this omission may have had to do with the fact that the island, unlike the other islands in the Niagara River, was never surveyed, for the simple reason that there was no bridge, and it was a treacherous crossing. It probably had never been seriously considered as a piece of real estate.
Lots 42 (now the Prospect Point area) and 43 east of it and extending perhaps to Gill Creek, constituting 19 acres and 100 respectively were purchased by Peter B. Porter and Benjamin Barton. Lot 44, extending east to Cayuga Creek, of 681 acres, was called the Stedman Farm and does not appear to have been sold, although Scott and Scott (1803) report that in 1806 Augustus Porter "moved his family into the old Stedman Farm."
At any rate, the "State of New York patented this mile strip to individuals commencing in the first decade of [the nineteenth] century" (Porter, 1894). The developing village near the cataracts which would become the city of Niagara Falls fell within Range 9, Township 13 of the survey grid for the Holland Land Purchase. During the first years of that century "private individuals bought the land from the State on account of its adjacent water power, and established here a village which they named Manchester." By 1815, Augustus Porter acquired title to Goat Island and other properties near the cataracts, deeding half interest to Gen. Peter B. Porter, his brother. It was only in 1815 that the State "extinguished the Indian title to the islands" (Porter, 16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900).
Olmsted and Vaux (1887) wrote that "in 1806 the State sold the property which it has lately re-acquired at Niagara," which indicates a somewhat different version than that given by Porter.
The Porter's built the first bridge to Goat Island in 1817 above Green Island, but ice destroyed it that winter. In 1818 they erected another and Goat Island became fully accessible to the public. Buffalo's first railroad went to Niagara Falls in 1836, a venture supported by General Peter B. Porter of (Black Rock) Buffalo (Brown & Watson, 1981) whereas a previous horse-drawn coach line "from around the time of the War of 1812" operated "through Niagara Falls from Canandaigua by way of Buffalo" (Scott & Scott, 1983)." This was probably the railroad that Judge George Clinton would so often take to go to Niagara Falls early in the morning to spend the day botanizing (see section on Clinton's diary).
The island began to be developed by the Porter family. They cleared the first road around Goat Island partly on land that subsequently washed away by erosion. They built the first bridges to the Three Sisters in 1869, the bridges on Terrapin Point and to the Tower they built there subsequently. At some time, if not from the beginning, carriages were permitted to cross the bridges and drive on the circuit road on Goat Island, as Olmsted and Vaux refer to the added congestion of carriages at the Horseshoe Falls (Olmsted and Vaux, 1887). There was a foot-bridge to Luna Island more toward the crest of the Bridal Veil Falls "so placed as to mar a scene that in certain conditions of light and atmosphere is the most gorgeous of any of the falls" (Olmsted and Vaux, 1887). The subsequent bridge, built back from the brink served to get it "out of the direct line of view of the American Fall from Stedman's Bluff," but also, unfortunately, fed visitor traffic to the back of the island to the detriment of the native vegetation which now stood between visitors and the object of their pilgrimage.
Erosion control structures were built on the south side of Goat Island: "deflecting piers of logs and stones, so slight as to be unnoticeable, placed at the water's edge by the former owners, have proved adequate to prevent the undermining process from going further" (Olmsted and Vaux, 1887).
The structures built by the Porters were extremely durable and were most likely built in part out of the primeval timber they had to cut to clear the roads. In spite of development by the Porters, their the island property was returned to the state essentially "in its original and natural condition," after around seventy years of private ownership (Porter, 16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900).
Before State ownership in 1885, A toll of fifty cents had been charged to go to the islands (6 Ann Rep Comm 1890). As early as 1823, the Sugar Maples "had all been tapped or bled and still seemed uncommonly vigorous" (Douglas, 1914).
In 1846 a map was made of the village of Niagara Falls (Buffalo and Erie Co. Historical Society) by P. Emslie showing that at that date a gravel circle "walk" had been made that roughly paralleled the present road system. It circled the island and then bisected it on a line with the bridge from the mainland to Bath (i.e. Green) Island, and from there to Goat Island. A bridge to a point off Terrapin Point was in place as was the area called Port Day at the eastern end of what would become the Reservation.
A large gap in the depicted forest cover on Goat Island represented in the map published in the 19 Annual Report of the Commissioners, 1903, occurred on the south side of the island, just west of the Horseshoe Falls. This was the largest of the Goat Island gravel pits, of which others were indicated on the geologic map of Kindle and Taylor (1913; see section on soils). The Porters may have initiated this pit when they built the first gravel road or walkways on the island.
A "cottage dwelling house" at the entrance to Goat Island, and visible in the early depictions of the bridges built out to the island was "razed into its own basement and the ground was leveled and seeded" (Scott & Scott, 1983) in 1902 (19 Ann Rep Comm, 1903). It had existed there for "half a century before the establishment of the State Reservation." On the map drawn up for the Commissioners of the Niagara Reservation by T. Evershed in 1883, the cottage is drawn as part of a large complex, including an extensive garden. It is perhaps here that the Goat Island lumber yard existed, as this seems to have been removed with the cottage, as well as the nursery. In around 1862, "a cottage on Goat Island was remodeled to become a refreshment saloon selling strawberries and cream, ice cream, sodas, and fruit" (Scott & Scott, 1983) -probably this structure. "By 1863 there were two refreshment saloons on the Island" (Scott & Scott, 1983).
In the map of Goat Island, published in 1903 (18 Ann Rep Comm, 1903), the cottage and complex at the entrance to Goat Island was not represented. A tiny rectangle is drawn, however, in the area to the northeast between the Spring and the bridge to Green Island. This small structure appeared to be in the same place as one drawn in the clearing by the artist Catlin in 1831 (Adamson, 1985). Another tiny structure on the 1903 map also occurred in the meadow area, and might have been joined to the center road by a path (the trees drawn seem to occur in a line between this tiny building and the road).
Above The Spring, just west of the present vehicular bridge, and just south of the roadway as it passed there was an "unused hut" the previous use of which could not be determined. It was used for a year by a young man from England, Francis Abbott, who would bathe in the channel between the First Sister and Goat Island - the Hermit who appeared from time to time in the literature about the Falls. A drawing of this hut amid the pines on the northeast part of the Island is given by Porter (16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900). The hut was made of logs, with a fitted-stone extension in back (Porter in 16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900). This structure was made of large logs and may have predated Porter ownership of the property, during the days of John Stedman - the stone addition perhaps added after construction of the first bridges by the Porters. This hut was indicated in the map accompanying the Porter article of 1900, just three years before the map of 1903. In the Porter map, this "Hermit's Hut" was built close to the Spring and seemed to have a natural relationship with it - as though built near a constant potable water supply.
In 1903, a shelter for visitors occurred at the north west corner of the forest road just as people came across the bridge from Green Island. A structure called The Pavilion existed in the approximate position of the present rest rooms near the Three Sisters Islands (16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900).
When the State of New York purchased the Porter properties in the channel of the Niagara River, natural and induced disturbance appears to have been concentrated on the periphery of Goat Island. Natural disturbance occurred by erosion and slumping on the island's south side, and perhaps portions of the high sedimentary bank on the west end, together with winter winds blowing down trees and high water and ice scouring the margins of the Three Sisters and the part of Goat Island adjacent to the First Sister.
The central woods and most other areas on the island appear to have been left alone by the Porters except for paths leading to prospect and other areas of interest. Paths and roads were built primarily to focus people on the prospect areas, and the areas supporting structures (capital expenditures): the Terrapin Tower, the Biddle Stairs and the profit-making concession of the Cave of the Winds - all on the extreme margins of the island. Bridges were built to provide limited access to other islands, such as the Three Sisters and Luna Island. Maintenance facilities occurred at the very entrance to the island, and on Green (Bath) Island occurring midway on the mainland-Goat Island bridge.
The Porters chose not to remove vegetation, but to build out into the channel where the finest views were to be had after visitors emerged from densely vegetated areas. This must have contributed greatly to the dramatic impact of contrast between enclosure and sudden freedom into a tremendously dynamic river environment. This is in sharp contrast to the State's subsequent "provision of delightful views" claimed every time the primitive riverbanks on Goat Island were cleared for a new trail, or some part of the island physically destroyed to make it more convenient, for example, to drive cars onto the island at the end of the bridge to the island from the mainland. As the State removed more and more woods to provide more and more views, the dramatic appeal of the island experience was continually reduced to the point where in the present day, one can sit in the middle of the central woods in autumn and see the river and surrounding mainland without mystery or expectation, where little contrast or drama is allowed to exist.
In sharp contrast again with conditions in the nineteenth century, even after more than half a century of private ownership, the prospect at Porter's Bluff overlooking the Horseshoe Falls, and one of the most frequented spots by visitors on Goat Island, had by 1885 lost only about fifty yards of forest "beyond which point considerable bodies of foliage interpose that cannot be removed without detriment to the scenery. This space of fifty yards, therefore, is invaluable" (Olmsted and Vaux, 1887).