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Heritage Moments: ‘This Horrible Precipice’ — Father Hennepin bears witness to Niagara Falls

New York Power Authority
Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls in December 1678, from Thomas Hart Benton’s mural at the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston.";

Seeing, hearing and feeling Niagara Falls for the first time is an awe-inspiring experience, even for visitors today who have viewed images of the mighty cataract all their lives before finally setting eyes on it. Multiply that sense of awe a thousand times and we can only begin to know what Father Louis Hennepin felt in the winter of 1678-79 when he stumbled through the woods and stood at the brink of Niagara.

Hennepin, born in what is today Belgium, was a Franciscan missionary who came to New France in 1675. In September 1678 he was part of the expeditionary party led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, that set out from Quebec City to explore the western lands of French North America. Few whites had gone before them.

By early December the French party had made it to Niagara, below the falls, probably somewhere around Queenston. They had already heard the roar of the waterfall. Indeed, they knew of it – in 1604 Samuel de Champlain wrote about “a fall about a league wide” that fell into a “sea so large” witnesses “have never seen the end of it.” But no European had ever both seen and described it.

Of course, La Salle’s native guides were quite familiar with Niagara Falls. On December 8, they led Hennepin through the snow to the falls. There, the priest witnessed a staggering sight, which he put to words in Description de la Louisiane, a book published in Paris in 1683. It was translated into English in 1698 as A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America:

Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprizing and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford it's parallel. Tis true, Italy and Suedland boast some such Things; but we may well say they are but soory Patterns, when compar'd to this of which we now speak. At the foot of this horrible Precipice, we meet with the River Niagara, which is not above a quarter of a League broad, but is wonderfully deep in some places. It is so rapid above this Descent, that it violently hurries down the wild Beasts while endeavouring to pass it to feed on the other side, they not being able to withstand the force of its Current, which inevitably casts them above Six hundred foot high. . . .
The Waters which fall from this horrible Precipice, do foam and boyl after the most hideous manner imaginable, making an outrageous Noise, more terrible than that of Thunder; for when the Wind blows out of the South, their dismal roaring may be heard more than Fifteen Leagues off. . . .
The River Niagara having thrown itself down this incredible Precipice, continues its impetuous course for two Leagues together … with an inexpressible rapidity: But having past that, its impetuosity relents, gliding along more gently for two other Leagues, till it arrive at Lake Frontenac [Lake Ontario].

His book included a relatively accurate illustration of the falls:

Credit Lehigh University Library

The Niagara Falls Hennepin saw was even more powerful and terrible than today’s falls – probably more than twice as powerful. Today, roughly 60 percent to 75 percent of the river’s flow is siphoned off above the falls via water intakes to feed the power stations on the American and Canadian sides. When Hennepin saw the Niagara, it flowed unimpeded – all the waters of the vast Great Lakes hurtling over the brink, some 2 million gallons of water every second.

Hennepin gave Europe its first accurate, verified description of Niagara Falls. But its name comes from the Attawandaron, or Neutral Confederacy, the Indians who lived on both banks of the mighty river. Only a few years before Hennepin and La Salle arrived, they were all but wiped out in the Beaver Wars by the Seneca nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. It was the Attawandaron who called the river Onghiara, a word that became Niagara by Hennepin’s time – then, as now, the only surviving remnant of that vanished people.

Cast (in order of appearance)

Native guide: Elijah Tyner
Father Louis Hennepin: Doug Smith
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo), Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein

Special thanks to:

Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.