Natural Niagara Falls 1783
Oldest painting of Niagara in North America
Author: Andrew Zebrun III
It was 1783; the Revolutionary War was winding down. King George ordered his Royal Surveyors to go north into Canada to survey and open up the vast north for his Loyalists.
On his way north to answer the King’s order, Captain James Peachey stopped at Fort George where he authored a work of this fort at the time. Peachey was the British Army version of our George Washington. He also worked for the Holland Land Company as a surveyor. PEACHEY (Peachy, Pitchy), JAMES, surveyor, draughtsman, army officer, and artist
It was Peachey who authored a watercolor painting of Niagara Falls, which I now call Natural Niagara Falls. Though it is an unsigned work, it has been attributed to James Peachey by Brian L. Dunnigan of the University of Michigan. The university possesses one of Peachey’s work of Fort George that he painted at the same time (1783). That work is also unsigned.
Peachey studied landscape artistry under Paul Sandby, who, along with his brother Thomas, founded the Royal Academy of Art in London. The Standbys also pioneered aquatints, which made it possible to produce copies of artworks.
I believe that this work was meant to be produced in London as an aquatint, but got sidetracked to me somehow. In my hands it has been shear magic, opening a world of history I would never have known. But I do remember visiting the famous Falls as a child; I was awe struck by its tremendous power and majesty.
When presented with this gigantic grandeur, I thought, wow, what did all this look like before it was paved over? The universe looped around, as it’s known to do, and answered my question decades later, in spectacular fashion.
What Paul Sandby and his brother Thomas did was lay the groundwork for modern society to spread out, and be documented at the same time. They surveyed, and authored landscapes that would be forever changed by the very survey work they developed. The area the painting was authored from still exists – it’s known as Painters’ Point in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The spot still exists, although it is now surrounded by large buildings. They finally realized this may not have been such a good idea, because the buildings are affecting the wind and light patterns in a sacred place where that is not considered desirable.
While we’ll never get lost nature back, we do have this image which I feel is important to have as a record of sorts.
I spent the most enjoyable day, back in the 1990’s, with William Loos, the late and great curator of the Rare Book Room in the Central Erie County Library in downtown Buffalo. I took the painting there in my early quest for answers, and he was over the moon at seeing it. Loos specialized in books about Niagara, so he was extremely struck by the painting. He was certain he had seen it in a book previously, so he sagely tore into his stacks and stacks of archives, but he came up dry. My thought was that it had never been published before!
At the onset, I only asked him because I too was coming up dry after cracking open old book after old book. We both conceded after hours of scouring. Alas, he did point me in the right direction. On the back of the work it is inscribed C.K.R. got it from P. Gagnon 1882. From this clue he helped me discover that:
P. Gagnon was Phileas Gagnon – a historical author, Canadian antiquities and book collector, politician, shopkeeper, and all around well educated man of Quebec.
C.K.R. stands for Cyrus Kingsbury Remington, who was a historical author from Buffalo, NY. Remington had previously served in the Civil War.
It seems that Remington* brought the work to Buffalo for the tidy sum of $4.25 cents, which I presume was paid in gold (documented on the back).
Loos helped me to find a book written by Remington in 1891 called The Shipyard of The Griffon. What makes this connection especially poignant at this time, is that ship, lost for centuries, has recently been discovered in Lake Michigan. Le Griffon was the first European-style sailing ship built, and lost, on the Great Lakes. I was hoping my artwork would be in that book, but it wasn’t.
Throughout the research process, I learned so much about local history. Loos gave me a behind the scenes tour of his office, and the Rare Book Room, which I was most impressed by. It’s a place filled with original manuscripts by famous authors such as Mark Twain. I also learned how Canada was born out of America as the shackles of Empire were cast off.
My biggest takeaway from the research project? That information can be found now more easily than any time in history. I highly suggest paying a visit to this incredible resource – the Rare Book Room – which is at our fingertips.
Not only did I get to peruse fascinating literature, I got to hang out with epic keepers of history, and gain a deeper knowledge of historical figures like Washington, and his foe King George III. This epic dance of bygone figures is what makes history – and life – so very interesting, especially when you see how it runs in a shadow play of dark and light. All the world’s a stage; take delight in your role.
*Cyrus Remington’s Niagara collection went to the Porter family after his death. It’s in his book about the Griffon – the family used to ‘own’ Niagara Falls at one time.
Andrew Zebrun III 9/24/2021