Pruning the Parks: Father Millet Cross National Monument, 1925-1949, Was the Smallest National Monument Ever Established
Established on Sept. 5, 1925, to honor a Jesuit missionary, Father Millet Cross National Monument was abolished 24 years later. The 320 square-foot historic site with its simple bronze cross did not make the cut. Instead, it became one of the six "1933T" parks removed from the Park System.
This long-gone, famously tiny national monument (the smallest ever established) is rooted in an event that took place nearly three and a half centuries ago when France was locked in a bitter struggle with the British over control of eastern Canada and the vital water routes to the continental interior. Being able to freely travel on the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes was absolutely essential.
To protect their interests against the British and the hostile Seneca nation (a member of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy), the French built and garrisoned Fort Conti on the critical portage around Niagara Falls. More specifically, they built their fort on the eastern bank of the Niagara River close to where it empties into Lake Ontario. This was in 1678, and today this is the Youngstown, New York vicinity.
The French built a new fort on the site in 1687 and named it Fort Denonville in honor of the Marquis de Denonville, then governor of New France. The fort was garrisoned by 100 men during the winter of 1687-1688. It was a time of unspeakable privation for the soldiers, who suffered from starvation, cold, and disease. A relief party from Montreal had to wait until spring, and by the time it arrived only 12 of the garrison were still alive.
The French decided that their position at the Niagara portage was untenable, so in September 1688 they tore down the fort and abandoned the site. In 1755, Fort Niagara, which figured importantly in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), was built adjacent to the old fort site.
The party that rescued the wretched survivors of the Fort Denonville fiasco in 1688 included a Jesuit priest, Father Pierre Millet, who had arrived in New France only the year before. On Good Friday of 1668, Father Millet erected a simple wooden cross at Ft. Denonville and dedicated it as a memorial to the victims of that terrible winter and “to invoke God's mercy for plague-stricken men.”
In the tradition of colonial-era missionaries everywhere, Father Millet was a dedicated and courageous servant of God and country. After his brief stint at Ft. Denonville, he served for more than a decade as a missionary among the Onondaga and Oneida (two Iroquois Confederacy nations) in what is now New York. He then became a chaplain in the French colonial forces, first serving at Fort Frontenac and then at Fort Niagara. The latter assignment, interestingly enough, brought him full circle to the place where he had erected his memorial cross in 1688.
The Jesuit missionary’s wooden cross had been gone for centuries by the time President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Father Millet Cross National Memorial on September 5, 1925. Setting aside only a tiny plot of land, a mere 320 square feet, the President stipulated that another commemorative cross was to be erected on the site. The New York State Knights of Columbus did so the next year, dedicating an 18.5-foot bronze memorial cross "not only to Father Millet, but to those other priests whose heroism took Christianity into the wilderness and whose devotion sought to create in this new world a new France.” The cross that the K of C installed in 1926 has remained on the site to this day.
Being on the grounds of what was then the Fort Niagara Military Reservation, the new monument was logically placed under War Department management. It became a National Park System property as part of the agency reorganization ordered in August 1933.
When the Army declared Fort Niagara surplus in 1945 (it wasn’t completely demilitarized until 1963), plans were made to abolish the national monument and turn the property over to the state of New York. This was done on September 7, 1949, when Congress transferred the Father Millet Cross National Monument to the state of New York for public use.
If you want to see the Father Millet Cross for yourself, you’ll find it on the grounds of the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, a component of New York’s state park system.
Postscript: A tennis doubles court is a little over 2,800 square feet, which is nearly nine times the size of the former Father Millet Cross National Monument.