Massacre at Lake George

Illustration by Alfred Bobbett, circa 1875. From the Library of Congress

In the most recent film version of The Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis may have dashed through the forests of North Carolina, but the drama on which James Fenimore Cooper’s classic was based happened right here in northern New York, 255 years ago this month.

On August 3, 1757, cannons and mortars began blasting Fort William Henry, Britain’s small log outpost on Lake George. The British—about 2,500 soldiers, many of them sick, plus family members and camp followers—were wildly outnumbered by a combined French and Indian force of at least 8,000. The siege might have gone down as just another skirmish in a decades old struggle for New World domination. But what happened next cemented the battle as the most infamous of the French and Indian War, or Seven Years’ War, that raged from 1754 to 1761.

Through days of bombardment the British, led by Lieutenant-Colonel George Monro, had one slim hope: that soldiers from nearby Fort Edward would come to their aid. They didn’t. With only a couple thousand men of his own, Fort Edward’s Major General Daniel Webb didn’t like the odds. Meanwhile, the French extended their trenches daily, inching artillery closer and closer to the fort. Finally, with British cannons exploding from overuse, Monro handed the position over to the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, on August 9.

The terms of surrender that seemed generous—the British could keep their possessions and weapons, though no ammunition—may have sown the seeds of slaughter. The French’s Indian allies, who had fought on the promise of plunder and prisoners, rushed into the freshly captured fort, killing soldiers too injured or ill to move, as well as some women and children. Corpses, many dead from smallpox, were unearthed from the fort’s cemetery for their clothing and blankets. (For some Indians, the deadly disease became an unintended spoil of war.)

As the defeated troops and hangers-on trudged toward Fort Edward, Indians hungry for a share of treasure attacked the retreating column from the rear. Almost 200 are believed to have been killed; hundreds more were taken prisoner and carted to Canada, to be ransomed or sold into slavery. The group’s tiny French escort was unable or unwilling to protect them until Montcalm arrived and put an end to the slaughter.

You may have glossed over some version of those events in grammar school. But, says archaeologist David Starbuck, “History is not just memorizing facts from a textbook.” This summer he and a troop of State University of New York students, plus a pile of volunteers, are digging on the grounds of the Fort William Henry Museum, giving visitors a glimpse of daily life at Fort William Henry during the tumultuous 18th century.

The team is uncovering two sites. One is a deep dump outside the east curtain wall of the fort that has revealed, according to Starbuck, an “incredible array” of everyday items. “There’s just so much there,” he says. “Things used, worn and eaten by ordinary soldiers on the frontier.” The other spot is in the reconstructed parade grounds, probably within the north end of the original east barracks, where the team has revealed the remains of a large fireplace that may have been used for blacksmithing. Nearby, a 10-foot pit exposes parts of the barracks’ charred foundation wall and cellar floor. Visitors are allowed—even encouraged—to watch the archeological action, with guided tours three times a day through August 17. Call (518) 964-6626 for details.