Fort Niagara has been a lot of things throughout its 300-plus-year history.
It was a crucial military post for France, Great Britain and eventually the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a training ground for Polish soldiers during World War I, as well as an induction site for the U.S. Army and even a camp for German prisoners of war during World War II.
On Wednesday morning, it was also the beginning for 20 of the United States’ newest citizens, as Old Fort Niagara hosted its first naturalization ceremony in nearly three decades.
Patriotic songs like “Hail Columbia” and “Chester” played and a canon was set off as U.S. District Court Judge Michael Roemer swore in the 20 immigrants, who hailed from 11 different countries, including China, Vietnam and Lebanon.
“It is of course an exciting and important day for you as you become new citizens, but it is also an exciting and important day for our country,” Roemer told them. “It is new citizens like you that keep our country young and vibrant.”
Old Fort Niagara, now a tourist destination and run by a not-for-profit, had not held a naturalization ceremony since the early 1990s, according to the site’s executive director, Robert Emerson.
But he said the former military post is an appropriate site for such a venue given it’s been a meeting place for people from all over the world.
“This was a crossroads of culture in the 18th century and forward,” Emerson told WBFO, noting the Seneca Nation of Indians first had a fishing camp on the site. “Most recently we’ve really seen a lot of visitors from Asia coming to learn the history of the site here, so it is a real crossroads of culture.”
The ceremony was held there thanks to local girl scout and Starpoint High School student Bridget Hersee. She helped organize the event between U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Old Fort Niagara for her Gold Award application.
The Gold Award is the highest Girls Scouts honor. Only 5% of girl scouts earn the award.
“I thought that would be a good idea because it’s a historical site,” Hersee told WBFO, “(and the immigrants) have to learn a lot about American history coming in.”
One of the immigrants, Sam Samo of Niagara Falls, was glad to be made a U.S. citizen at the site.
The 29-year-old, who moved to the U.S. about five years ago from his native Iraq, wore a red, white and blue USA hat that his American friends bought for him.
“Now I feel American,” he said. “This is my new country.”
Samo said he now hopes to help bring his parents and siblings to the U.S.