Fort William Henry

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The Story of the Fort

Fort William Henry was constructed at the southern end of Lake George in 1755 by Major-General William Johnson and a group of colonial volunteers.  The British military strategists designed the fort as a key installation in the northern defense of the colony of New York.  It would also serve as a launching point for future military operations against the threatening French empire to the north.  Finally, the fort would guard the portage between the waters of Lake George and the Hudson River to prevent any large scale French invasion.  This portage was a vital link in the water route from Montreal to New York City.  Formed by the St. Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers, Lake Champlain, Lake George, and the Hudson River, this historic "Warpath of the Nations" provided an avenue over which the French and British armies and their Indian allies moved in their military operations for the conquest of North America.  The fort was constructed during the armed prelude to the final colonial conflict between France and England in the New World.  It served His Britannic Majesty in the French and Indian War which marked the culmination of a century of struggle for the control of the North American Continent and saw the English emerge supreme.

    The land upon which Fort William Henry was built was claimed by both nations.  The French considered it theirs by right of the early explorations of Samuel de Champlain.  The English advanced a more clouded title stemming from treaties with Iroquois Nation.  When Johnson arrived in the area during the month of September, he found an armed force ready to maintain the French title by open conflict.  The opposing armies vied for control of the land in an engagement known as the Battle of Lake George.  The fighting took place in an area east of the fort at the present site of Lake George State Park.  The British under Johnson and their fierce Mohawk allies under Chief "King" Hendrick, narrowly gained victory under the French under Baron de Dieskau. It was in this battle that Colonel Ephraim Williams, founder of Williams College*, was killed while participating in the famed "Early Morning Scout." "King" Hendrick**, the aged war-wise sachem, in the same engagement had his horse shot out from underneath him and a French bayonet plunged into his heart.

*Colonel Williams' grave and monument may be seen alongside US Highway 9 a short distance south of Lake George Village.

**A life-sized monument to Hendrick, who was killed and Johnson, who was wounded in the battle, stands in Lake George Battlefield Park.

    Only after the price of battle had been paid and the victory was in the hands of the English colonials, could construction of the fort begin. Following the battle, Johnson assigned his Chief Engineer, Captain William Eyre, the task of designing a formal, Vauban-style fort.  The survivors of the battle exchanged their muskets for hammers and saws and began construction of the log fortress.  Though the efforts of the volunteer soldiers from this and the surrounding colonies, the plans for the fort began to take life.  At dedication ceremonies, Johnson christened it Fort William Henry in honor of two royal grandsons of King George II.

    During the year immediately following the construction of Fort William Henry, the outpost served effectively as the base of operations for English raiding parties, including the famous Rogers' Rangers, which moved against French positions to the north.  It was also the rendezvous point for John Winslow's ill-fated expedition against the French.  Because of the fort, the residents of the entire colony slept more peacefully knowing that there was protection against the blood thirsty Indian raiding parties.  The true hour of destiny for the fort, however, did not come until 1757.  During that turbulent year, the fort twice repulsed the French military machine.  The first attack was launched against it in the winter of that year by a French force of 1500 regulars and their Huron allies, led by Sieur de Rigaud de Vaudreuil.  For protection for the extreme cold, the French troops built camp fires which revealed their position to the British pickets and prevented the French from staging a surprise attack on the garrison at Fort William Henry.  When the opposing army reached the fort, it was met by a withering fire from the British troops and finally driven off after they nearly succeeded in firing the fort by igniting nearby buildings.  A heavy snowfall the very night of the attempted burning helped to quench the flames and prevent the fort's complete destruction.  Vaudreuil was forced to withdraw his troops and retire through deep snow drifts back to Fort Carillon at Ticonderoga.  

    In August of 1757, the most brilliant French general of the colonial period, the Marquis de Montcalm, sailed up Lake George with a force of 8,000 crack French regulars, a large party of Indian allies, and Canadian volunteers.  With the capable assistance of the Chevalier de Levis, Montcalm masterfully deployed his troops and artillery train of thirty-two pieces.  Once their cannon were in siege position, the French expected the fort to surrender rather than engage such an impressive army in battle.  When an easy capitulation was not forth coming, Montcalm initiated a brutal assault with great vigor and much skill.  The defending garrison, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel  George Munro, consisted of 2,200 men.  In addition, there were numerous women and children from neighboring settlements who sought refuge within the safety of the fort's walls.  After a siege of six days, Colonel Munro realized that the structure of the fort was near collapse and holding out any longer would be impossible.  Yet by withstanding the French onslaught for such an extended period, the British had time to mass troops further south.  After Colonel Munro surrendered, Montcalm recognized that any attempts to continue his expedition further south would be futile.  The terms of capitulation included a promise of safe passage for the beleaguered English who were able to make the trip to Fort Edward.  This greatly mystified and angered the Indians who had accompanied Montcalm from Canada for the sole purpose of securing English scalps.  Montcalm, underestimation the ferocity of his Indian allies, had detailed but a small guard of French regulars to escort the garrison to Fort Edward.  As the pitiful column of unarmed survivors marched down the military road, the Indians could be restrained no longer.  Although the precise number of Englishmen killed during the massacre may never be ascertained, historians agree that it constituted one of the bloodiest pages of colonial American history.  Following the massacre, Montcalm razed the fort and covered the charred remains with sand.  The site remained untouched until the present project was begun in 1953.

--Article from the Fort William Henry Spy

Today the fort is reconstructed as a museum and tours are available several times daily.  

 

Lake George Historical Association
PO Box 472
Lake George, NY 12845

lgha@verizon.net

Copyright 2002 Lake George Historical Association
Last modified: August 28, 2007