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 its parallel. 'Tis true, Italy and Suedeland boast of some such things; but we may well say they are but sorry patterns, when compared to this of which we now speak. At the foot of this horrible precipice, we meet with the river Niagara, which is not above half 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 endeavoring to pass it to feed on the other side, they not being able to withstand the force of its current, which inevitably casts them down headlong above six hundred foot.

This wonderful downfall is compounded of two great cross-streams of water, and two falls, with an isle sloping along the middle of it. The waters which fall from this vast height, do foam and boil after the most hideous manner imaginable, making an outrageous noise, more terrible than that of thunder; for when the wind blows from off the south, their dismal roaring may be heard above fifteen leagues off.

The river Niagara having thrown itself down this incredible precipice, continues its impetuous course for two leagues together, to the great rock above mentioned, with an inexpressible rapidity: But having passed that, its impetuosity relents, gliding along more gently for two leagues, till, it arrives at the Lake Ontario, or Frontenac.

Any bark or greater vessel may pass from the fort to the foot of this huge rock above mentioned. This rock lies to the westward, and is cut off from the land by the river Niagara, about two leagues farther down than the great fall; for which two leagues the people are obliged to carry their goods over-land; but the way is very good, and the trees are but few, and they chiefly firs and oaks.

From the great fall unto this rock, which is to the west of the river, the two brinks of it are so prodigious high, that it would make one tremble to look steadily upon the water, rolling along with a rapidity not to be imagined. Were it not for this vast cataract, which interrupts navigation, they might sail with barks or greater vessels, above four hundred and fifty leagues further, cross the Lake of Hurons, and up to the farther end of the Lake Illinois (Michigan); which two lakes we may well say are little seas of fresh water.

1Louis Hennepin, born in Belgium in 1640, was a friar of the Recollect order, an offshoot of the Franciscans. Mr. Thwaites, who has edited Hennepin's "New Discovery of a Vast Country," from which the account of Niagara Falls here given is taken, describes him as "an uneasy soul, uncontent to remain cloistered and fretting to engage in travel and wild adventure." After the pioneer voyage down the Mississippi, made by Joliet and Marquette, had become known in Europe, it intensified an already active spirit of discovery. In the summer of 1678 Hennepin joined La Salle and Laval Montmorency in the famous expedition of La Salle undertaken from Quebec to explore the interior, with a view to uniting Canada with the Gulf of Mexico by a chain of forts. On arrival in Quebec Father Hennepin was sent forward by La Salle to Fort Frontenac, on Lake Ontario. Thence, with La Monte and sixteen men, he went on to Niagara in order to smooth the way with the Indians for La Salle's later coming. It was at this time that Hennepin first saw Niagara Falls. White men had probably seen the cataract before, but he is the first who wrote a description of it that has come down to us. Hennepin's character has been severely criticized. He was much given to exaggeration, and he magnified his own importance. Mr. Thwaites. describes him an "hardy, brave and enterprising," but "lacking in spiritual qualities."

Hennepin's estimate of the height of the falls (about 600 feet) may be cited as an example of his faculty in exaggeration. The actual height is 167 feet. The descent from Lake Erie to Ontario, including that of the rapids above and below the falls, is only 330 feet.
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© 2002 by Lynn Waterman