Society of the Old West

From early westward expansion through the early 20th Century.

Most people would probably equate Indian wars as a strictly Old West phenomenom, but in reality this sort of thing goes all the way back to Colonial America.

By the mid 18th century the two dominating European countries on the North American continent were France and Great Britain, and as both a nations were expanding their interests it was inevitable that "turf wars" over land and waterways would arise. These conflicts eventually culminated in The Seven Year War, more commonly known as the French and Indian War, which went from 1754 to 1763.

Fort William Henry, built in 1755, was a British stronghold near Lake George, in what is now modern day upstate New York. On March 18, 1757, the Fort came under attack by French forces who were detected moving across the ice. They were fired on by the fort's cannons and were soon forced to retreat by a heavy snowstorm. The following summer the French again decided to attach Fort William Henry. Led by the Marquis de Montcalm, the French forces included 5400 men, accompanied by over 1600 Indian allies. The cannons were again fired, but the French and their Indian allies, who greatly outnumbered the British, dug trenches and and laid siege, while each day they advanced closer to the fort walls. The fort commander, Colonel Munro, stubbornly resisted as he tried to fend off the French with cannons, but they soon began to crack from the strain of heavy use while the reinforcements he sent for never came. Once the French were within 150 feet of the fort walls Munro knew he had no alternative but to meet with Montcalm and discuss the terms of their surrender.

The French were surprisingly generous, allowing the British to take their colors and a small brass cannon south to Fort Edward. However, what should have been a simple, peaceful surrender went horribly wrong. The Indians, thinking they had somehow been betrayed by the French, looted the fort as they butchered and scalped the sick and wounded who had been left behind. The following day they attacked the British, who were still moving south, along with their women and children. While the exact number of casualties may never be known, most modern historians believe that 200 people were killed, with some 400 taken prisoner. The French were able to immediately rescue some of the prisoners while others would not be released for several years. Others, presumed killed or captured, managed to escape into the woods and made it on their own to Fort Edward. The French eventually regained control and got the remaining forces halfway to Fort Edward, where they were turned over to the British.

The French returned to Fort William Henry and burned what remained of it. It is said that when they returned that fall to harvest the remaining vegetables the stench of rotting flesh was still in the air for miles around the fort site. Eventually the area was reclaimed by nature, where it would remain undisturbed until two centuries later, when a replica fort; a museum housing artifacts from the original, was built at the site of the original Fort William Henry.

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Excellent post; this like many other events are lost in history. You sent me to the books with this one. Here is a sorta photo of what it looked like.

Lake George was wilderness. It was the void between two encroaching European frontiers. Just a few miles north of the lake, stood Fort Carillon, the French fortress, designed to guard the area north from any English advance into Canada. Several miles south and east of the lake stood Fort Edward, on the Hudson, the northern terminus of the English foray into this forested area. Between the two stood the 26 mile long Lake George.

Named Lac Du St. Sacrement by the French, the place was renamed Lake George by William Johnson in 1755, shortly before he had defeated a French force there in the Battle of Lake George, to leave no doubt as to English sovereignty in the area. A road, constructed to link Fort Edward to the lake, now needed protection. In addition, a fort at this site could prove to be a launching and resupplying point for assaults against the French outposts and beyond. Thus was born Fort William Henry, designed and situated by Captain William Eyre along with Johnson.

On June 7, 1756 General Daniel Webb arrived to assume command of the fort and lead the upcoming planned offensive. At both ends of the lake, French and English garrisons were increased, entrenchments built, and preparations undergone. Over the course of the next year, a series of raids, counter-raids, and scouting missions occurred leading to some casualties and gathered intelligence.

It soon became apparent that Fort William Henry was becoming a thorn in the side of New France. General Marquis de Montcalm, in command at Fort Carillon, decided to invest and reduce the log structure at the south end of the Lake. Departing from his post on Lake Champlain, Montcalm led a force of 6 French Regular battalions consisting of 2570 soldiers. Augmented by an almost equal number of Canadian militia, 300 volunteers, along with a large contingent of invaluable Indian allies - between 1500 & 1800 from a large number of tribes - this French force became almost invincible, in this situation, by the presence of 200 men of the artillery units firing their 36 cannon and four mortars.

By contrast, the garrison at Fort William Henry, under the able leadership of Lt. Colonel George Monro - once General Webb decided to turn tail and survey matters from Fort Edward - had a total, as the siege began, of 2372 men. Only a maximum of 500 could man the fort. The remainder settled into an entrenched camp just east of the fort. No preparations were undertaken to resist French attempts to make landings on the shore. The English merely waited. Expecting the attack to come from the west - the east side being swampy and fortified by the camp - Monro had the heaviest of the artillery pieces along the west wall. And so it was to be ...
It may be of interest here that when the fort was to be rebuilt, i letter was sent to the Bristish government in the UK asking if they had any idea how the fort was built. A copy of the original fort plans from the archives were sent back so it could be rebuilt as the original. The one exception is they have put a gate where the car park is into the fort which would have been the back wall. the main entrance was from the lake.


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