The History of Lake George • Written by Curtis • Lake George, New York
Jess: After our hike last weekend to Prospect Mountain, we went on a little tour of the touristy town of Lake George, NY. We focused our time around walking along the side of the lake, admiring the mountains surrounding the area, and checking out the sites of historical importance. Here in the town, there is a big reconstruction of Fort William-Henry, but we focused on the park next to the fort: Lake George Battlefield park. Here there are a few monuments and remains of buildings and walls that once stood here, but there wasn’t a lot explaining the history that took place here. Luckily, I had Curtis to explain things as we took a walk around the large park. Today, he will share a little about what happened around Lake George.
Lake George, as a village, only exists today because of the role that it played 250 years ago. At that time, the region was only sparsely inhabited by the Iroquois and perhaps the occasional back country settler. But with the beginning of the French and Indian War, increased pressure was placed on the region. During that conflict, Lake George (or Lac du Saint-Sacrament as it was originally called) was viewed as an access point to French Canada. From present-day Fort Edward, NY to the Southern end of the lake was a portage of only about 20 miles. From Lake George, the English could sail North into Lake Champlain, down the Richlieu River and into the St. Lawrence and the heart of French Canada. A perfect plan in theory, but one which would take four years to implement.
Beginning in 1755, a full year after the start of the War in Pennsylvania, William Johnson (official British agent to the Natives) undertook construction of Fort Edward on the Hudson and transported as many supplies as he could to the South end of the Lake – which he had renamed Lake George after his monarch George II. Baron de Dieskau, commander of French forces in Canada had similar plans and had moved his forces South on Lake Champlain and had established Fort Carillon at the inlet of Lake George into Lake Champlain (the site which would later become Fort Ticonderoga). Dieskau decided to attempt a raid on the British stores and sailed up Lake George. On September 8, 1755, Dieskau made for Fort Edward and succeeded in capturing a baggage train en route between the British positions. Dieskau then set up an ambush to trap the British as those at Lake George came to the aid of Fort Edward. Colonel Ephraim Williams fell into the trap and became one of the many casualties of “The Bloody Morning Scout”. Seizing upon his success, Dieskau decided to push forward to Johnson’s position on the lake. But his Indian and Canadien auxiliaries refused to join in the assault. Not to be deterred, Dieskau sent the French regulars in, in an effort to shame his other troops. But Johnson was prepared for this assault and the French grenadiers were cut down, Dieskau included (he was captured and exchanged in 1763). The French forces, their leader gone, attempted a retreat, but not before fighting a third battle against more British troops coming up from Fort Edward. This battle convinced William Johnson to construct an additional Fort on Lake George: Fort William-Henry, a stockaded fort complete with moats, though it was too small to host a very large regiment and many of the soldiers stayed in “Fort George”, a meagerly built camp to the Southwest.
For the next three years, the British struggled to gain any momentum in America, and so little progress was made towards invading Canada via Lake George. In the winter of 1757, British Captain Robert Rogers led an ambitious raid against Fort Carillon using snow-shoes, which purportedly gave his men the advantage, but not enough to cause a significant outcome. That summer, the British commander and chief, General Loudon, made the invasion of Canada via Champlain his first priority. But again, the French beat him to it. While the British struggled to get approval from London (then in the process of changing Prime Ministers), the French under the command of General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, moved along the Lakes and were soon on the doorstep of Fort William-Henry. A siege soon began, and as sieges go, the person laying the siege will almost always win unless outside forces come to aid. And unfortunately for the British commander, the commander at Fort Edward, a mere days march away, refused to abandon his post.
Montcalm received the surrender of Fort William-Henry on the 8th of August 1757. The terms of surrender gave the British the honors of war, allowing them to leave on parole with their muskets and a symbolic brass canon. But that is not what is remembered today. With Montcalm came many Native auxiliaries, some from as far away as present day Minnesota and Wisconsin. These Indians had come under the “promises” of spoils of war. The European idea of a siege and formal surrender did not include captives or scalps for the Native warriors. Feeling it was their due, the Indians began to attack the relatively defenseless British in their camps, scalping the wounded and taking many captive. Montcalm’s French forces attempted to stop the massacre, but not soon enough. The exact numbers are likely exaggerated, but upwards of 100 soldiers and provincials were taken captive or killed. This “lack of good faith” on the part of the French soured the British and especially the Provincial opinion of their opponents and in many future engagements, the British would only accept total capitulation. The event so scarred the collective memory that it was memorialized in the 1826 novel “The Last of the Mohicans”.
Montcalm burned Fort William-Henry but did not push his gains to the Hudson. Perhaps a shame he didn’t, for in 1759, the British and Provincials would sweep up the Lakes and Montcalm would die on the Plains of Abraham three months later. All of New France would be under British control within the year.
Today the historic section of Lake George village is divided into two parts: a commercial 1950’s reconstruction of Fort William-Henry (which we did not visit, nor was it open) and Lake George Battlefield Park. The Park rests on the remains of the fortified camp known as “Fort George” and is also the site of some of the fighting in both of the battles. There are several monuments, the remains of a stone/earth work, and placards placed around the park, but the history is generally lacking. There are no information boards and what placards there are, are generally vague. In fact, we could find next to no reference to the 1757 siege. Perhaps we were merely in the off season, or perhaps the information lies in the reconstructed fort. Jess: And THAT’S why you bring your history-loving husband along with you to historical sites. 😉