The arrival of the humans to the Niagara Region nearly 12,000 years ago corresponded to the arrival of what would become its most famous tourist attraction - Niagara Falls. But it was a different world, consisting of tundra and spruce forest. The Clovis people, who inhabited the area during the Palaeo-Indian Period, which lasted until nine thousand years ago, were nomadic hunters who camped along the old Lake Erie shoreline, living in simple, tiny dwellings.
At that time, deciduous forest covered southernmost Ontario, providing the hunter-gatherers of the Archaic Period (3,000 to 9,000 years ago) with a diet of deer, moose, fish and plants. Small groups of people hunted in the winter, feeding on nuts and animals attracted to the forest. Larger groups came together during the summer, setting up fishing camps at the mouths of rivers and along lakeshores.
The Woodland Period lasted from 300 to 3,000 years ago, culminating in the peak of Iroquois culture in southern Ontario. Corn, bean and squash agriculture provided the main sources of food. The vibrant Iroquois built small, palisaded villages, with families occupying individual longhouses. During this period, burial rituals and ceramics were introduced to Ontario.
The Europeans' arrival in the 17th century signalled a sea of change. Inter-tribal warfare with the Five Nations Iroquois of New York State dispersed the three Ontario confederacies, the Huron, the Petun and the Neutral.
In May 1535, Jacques Cartier left France to explore the New World. Although he never saw Niagara Falls, the Indians he met along the St. Lawrence River told him about it. Samuel de Champlain visited Canada in 1608. He, too, heard stories of the mighty cataract, but never visited it. In fact, Etienne Brule, the first European to see Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Superior, may have been the first to see the Falls, in 1615.
That same year, the Recollet missionary explorers arrived in Ontario. They were followed a decade later by the Jesuits. It was a Jesuit father, Gabriel Lalemant, who first recorded the Iroquois name for the river -- Onguiaahra, meaning the Strait. Niagara is a simplification of the original.
In 1651, during the fur-trade rivalry between the Huron and Iroquois, the Iroquois wiped out the Neutrals, and they kept white settlers out of Niagara until the American Revolution.
In December 1678, Recollet priest Louis Hennepin visited Niagara Falls. Nineteen years later, he published the first engraving of the Falls in his book Nouvelle Decouverte. Impressed by its awesome power, Hennepin overestimated the height at 183 metres, more than three times its actual height.
Artifacts from the War of 1812 dot the riverside, as do monuments erected later, such as the one to Sir Isaac Brock. Recently, the skeletons of members of the U.S. Army were found near Old Fort Erie, at the outlet of Lake Erie.
Following the War of 1812, Queenston emerged as a bustling community. Chippawa, near modern Niagara Falls, was even bigger, with distilleries and factories.
In the 1820's, a stairway was built down the bank at Table Rock and the first ferry service across the lower Niagara River began. By 1827, a paved road had been built up from the ferry landing to the top of the bank on the Canadian side. This site became the prime location for hotel development and the Clifton was built there, after which the Clifton Hill is named.
Niagara has perhaps the most complex transportation history of any area in North America. The first Welland Canal was completed in 1829. The roadway between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Chippawa was the first designated King's Highway. The first stagecoach in Upper Canada operated on this roadway between the late 1700's and 1896. The first railroad in Upper Canada opened in 1841 with horse-drawn carriages running between Chippawa and Queenston. In 1854, it was converted to steam and moved to serve what was to become the Town of Niagara Falls.
In 1855, John August Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, built the Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge, the first bridge of its type in the world. Between the late 1700's and the middle 1800's, boats were the main way to get to Niagara Falls. By 1896, three boats plied the route between Toronto and Queenston.
One of the first electrified streetcar services was provided in Niagara, and in 1893 the Queenston/Chippawa Railway carried boat passengers from Queenston to Table Rock and beyond. In 1902, a railway was constructed across the Queenston Suspension Bridge. Later it was extended along the lower Gorge on the American side of the River, connecting back into Canada at the Upper Arch Bridge. This transit line, the Great Gorge Route, continued in service until the Depression. The use of boats declined as tourists increasingly chose to visit Niagara by automobile, bus or train.
Tourism travel to the Falls began in the 1820's and it had increased ten-fold within 50 years to become the area's dominant industry. Early English settlements included Newark (the first seat of government), now called Niagara-on-the-Lake, and St. Catharines (site of the first Welland Canal).
Following the American Revolutionary War, a strong influx of British settlers migrated to the counties of Lincoln and Welland. They played key roles in the agricultural, economic, industrial and educational development of the area.
The counties of Lincoln and Welland were created in the late 1860's, and included 26 cities, towns, townships and villages. They remained until work on local government reform began in 1963 with the creation of the Niagara Peninsula Municipal Committee on Urban and Regional Research. The Mayo Report, released in 1966, recommended that the Regional Municipality of Niagara be created.
The two founding counties were combined into the Niagara Region in 1970. On January 1st, 1970, twelve area governments and one regional government replaced the 2 counties and 26 municipal structures, a reform move that remains controversial today.
Regional Niagara's 12 municipalities now have 400,000 residents. The communities are: Fort Erie, Grimsby, Lincoln, Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Pelham, Port Colborne, St. Catharines, Thorold, Wainfleet, Welland and West Lincoln.