The Great Lakes opened up the Indian trade with Europe. Access to the Great Lakes was a gateway to the west, and fought over by the French, British, and Americans.
There was only one problem with access to the Great Lakes: Niagara Falls. Because of the Falls, a boat could only navigate into Lake Ontario, and you would have to portage several miles around to get access to the other four lakes.
The first European to see Niagara Falls was French Priest, Father Hennepin.
Through the magic of modern technology, you can step back into history and join Father Hennepin at that famous moment at the falls. At New York Power Authority's Niagara Power Project Visitor Center.
Fort Niagara was built on the mouth of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, and was fought over by three different empires. Also knows as the “Gateway to the Five (Iroquois) Nations.” If you visit one fort in the area, this should be it. I think one of the most interesting things on display in the museum is the Fort Niagara flag, captured by the British in 1813, and returned about 8 years ago. The flag is 15 stripes and 15 stars, which is also known as "The Star Spangled Banner." (Not to be confused with Fort McHenry's flag.)
One thing I am always on the lookout for is the silliest tourist souvenir on my trip. Here is the winner right here: A British Uniform beer bottle insulator from Old Fort Niagara. (Front and back shown.)
The bloodiest history of Fort Niagara was during the War of 1812, when the fort was fought over between the British and the Americans. First the Americans took it and bombarded Fort George on the opposite shore of the Niagara River. When the Americans pulled off the Canadian side of the Niagara peninsula, the burned one of the Canadian (British) villages. The royal forces retaliated by sneaking into Fort Niagara one cold December night and putting most of the Americans to the bayonet.
Despite all the bloodshed, the fort quickly became irrelevant in 1825 with the completion of the Erie Canal. Now there was water access from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, and the Fort and Niagara Falls could be bypassed entirely.
About 25 miles from Old Fort Niagara is the town of Lockport, with the Erie Canal Museum. One thing I recommend is the tour of the “Lockport Caves.” The caves at Lockport were actually conduits in the rock, blasted out to regulate the water level in the canals. This will give you a good overview of the history of the canal, and see some unusual things. Be prepared to go underground where it is a constant 55 degrees, with water dripping from the ceiling. I came out pretty soaked, but that is part of the fun.
Check out the Lockport Cave Tours at: http://www.lockportcave.com/