The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





Lake George, nestling among the foot-hills of the Adirondacks, may well be called historic water, as around its shores have surged warriors, savage and civilized, in conflict, perhaps for ages. The Mahicans, the Adirondacks, Montagnies, and other Algonquin tribes of Canada, the Hurons, and the Mohawks and other Iroquois tribes fought each other along its shores and on its waters for centuries before the advent of the white man upon the continent. Champlain knew of its existence in 1609, when he, together with the Hurons, met and defeated the Mohawks on the shores of the lake that bears his name. It is said that Champlain visited its shores in 1613, being the first white man who gazed upon its waters.

Its Indian name is Andiatarocte, but it was known to the French of Canada, in connection with its larger sister (Lake Champlain), as Lake Iroquois. Cooper calls it Lake Horicon, a corruption of the word Iroquois. In 1645 Father Isaac Jogues paddled its length in a canoe with his Huron guides, on the eve of Corpus Christi, or the "feast of God," and in honor of that feast named it Lac St. Sacrement. This name it retained until 1755, when it was changed to Lake George by General William Johnson, in honor of King George the Second.

Being separated from the Hudson River by the Luzerne Mountain, the Indian trail from Canada to the Mohawk Valley passed over the level plain to the Great Carrying Place on the Hudson River, and thence down that river, or overland to the early Mohawk castles above Hoffman' s Ferry. This plain is also historic ground. Across its surface the Agniers (Mohawks) passed to seek a new home in the valley of the Mohawk, when driven from the St. Lawrence by their savage kindred. Here they fought their neighbors the Mahicans, and after gaining strength recrossed this plain, and in 1609 unexpectedly met defeat at the hands of Champlain on the shores of Lake Iroquois, and on account of that defeat became the deadly enemies of the French colonists. Repeatedly they paddled across these waters carrying death and destruction to the Hurons, whom they utterly destroyed on the shores of Lake Huron in 1649. Across this beautiful lake passed Father Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil as prisoners in 1642, and again in 1646 Jogues and Lalande, as missionaries, to meet a shameful death on the shore of the Mohawk. In February, 1666, De Courcelles and Tracy with 600 men, and again in October of the same year with 1200 French and Indians, and two pieces of artillery, in a flotilla of bateaux sailed its waters. In 1667 it was the route of Fathers Perrion and Bruyas as missionaries to the Mohawks' country, and on Sept. 8, 1755, it witnessed the conflict known in history as the battle of Lake George, between the English and colonists, under General Wm. Johnson, General Lyman, and others, and the French forces under Baron Dieskau.

Francis Parkman has told the story of this battle in his usual interesting way, and I have taken the liberty of giving a condensed account of his narrative:

The "last French war" was at its height, and to defeat a contemplated raid on Albany, by the way of Lake Champlain and Lake George, an expedition was organized whose object was the capture of Crown Point, at the upper end of Lake Champlain proper, then in possession of the French. Levies were made on the Eastern States, and Connecticut had voted 1200 men, New Hampshire 500, Rhode Island 400, while New York promised 800, and William Johnson had gathered 1100 Indians, men, women, and children, at his own house, known as Fort Johnson, on the Mohawk River.

This army of raw recruits gathered at Albany preparatory to proceeding to Crown Point by the way of Hudson River to the Great Carrying Place, as it was called, at Fort Edward. The American army numbered about 3000, and the French army, under Baron Dieskau, had reached Crown Point with 3500 regulars, Canadians, and Indians, mostly of the Caughnawaga tribe, from the banks of the St. Lawrence.

The Caughnawagas were composed of converts to the Roman Catholic religion from the Iroquois and other Indians, who, through the influence of the Jesuit priests, had migrated to Canada and formed a settlement on the St. Lawrence River at Lachine Rapids, which was called St. François Xavier du Sault, or St. Francis Xavier "at the rapids." This name was afterward changed to Caughnawaga, which means in the Iroquois tongue "at the rapids."

Foot Hills of the Adirondacks. Near the Sacandaga.

Among the followers of General Johnson were four hundred Iroquois, mostly Mohawks, under King Hendrick, who although deadly enemies of the French were loath to fight against their kindred.

Parkman says: "The soldiers were no soldiers, but farmers and farmers' sons who had volunteered for the summer campaign. A greater part brought their own guns but had no bayonets. Most of them carried hatchets in their belts as a sort of substitute, while at their sides were slung powder-horns."

After a tedious wait on the Albany flats the body moved up the Hudson to the Great Carrying Place, where General Lyman had begun a fortified storehouse, which his men called Fort Lyman, but which was afterward named Fort Edward.

Two Indian trails led from this point, one by the way of Wood Creek to Lake Champlain, the other over the plain to Lake George, which last was selected as the route. Two thousand men were ordered to the lake, preceded by axemen to hew out the way. At last they reached their destination. "The most beautiful lake in America lay before them, then more beautiful than now, in the wild charm of untrodden mountains and virgin forests."

The men made a camp near the water, at the head or south end of the lake.

It will be remembered that the Hudson River, only nine miles away, flows south to New York Bay, while the waters of Lake George and Lake Champlain flow north to the St. Lawrence.

It would seem that General Johnson intended to advance on Crown Point through Lake George by bateaux, which were constantly arriving on heavy Dutch wagons over the carrying place from Fort Lyman, fourteen miles away to the south. In front of the camp was a forest of pitch pine, on their right was a swamp, on their left the low hill on which Fort George was afterward built, and at their rear the lake. Little was done to clear the forest in front, though it would give excellent cover to the enemy. About three hundred Mohawks were in camp, and were considered great nuisances by the New Englanders.

While Johnson lay at Lake George, Dieskau prepared a surprise for him, and concluded not to wait to be attacked, but moved nearly his whole force to Carrillon, or Fort Ticonderoga, which commanded both routes by which Johnson could advance, that of Wood Creek and that of Lake George. Hearing from a prisoner, who had invented a falsehood, that the English had fallen back, and that there were only five hundred men at Fort Lyman, Dieskau resolved by a rapid movement to seize the place. At noon the same day, leaving part of his force at Ticonderoga, he embarked the rest in canoes and advanced along the narrow prolongation of Lake Champlain that stretched southward through the wilderness to where the town of Whitehall now stands. He came to a point where the lake dwindled to a mere canal, while two mighty rocks capped with stunted forests faced each other from the opposing banks. As they neared the site of Whitehall they turned to the right and entered the lonely lake called South Bay, where they left their canoes and began their march through the forests toward Fort Lyman (Fort Edward). Having captured some mutinous drivers who had left the English camp without orders, they learned that a large force lay encamped at the lake. The Indians having refused to advance to attack the fort, Dieskau resolved to attack the camp at Lake George. Advancing through the gorge they were following, they passed around the south end of French Mountain. When within three miles from the head of the lake a prisoner was brought in who told them that a column of English troops was approaching. Dieskau' s preparations were quickly made. The Canadians and Indians moved to the front and hid themselves in the forests along the slopes of West Mountain and the thickets on the other side. Behind every bush or tree crouched a Canadian or and Indian with gun cocked and ears intent, listening for the tramp of the approaching column.

Some of the drivers who had escaped capture returned to Johnson' s camp about midnight and reported a war party on the road to Fort Lyman. Johnson called a council at once, and it was determined to send out two detachments of five hundred men each, one toward Fort Lyman and the other toward South Bay. Hendrick, chief of the Mohawks, a brave and sagacious warrior, expressed his dissent after a fashion of his own. He picked up a stick and broke it; then he picked up several sticks and showed that together they could not be broken. The hint was taken, and the two detachments were joined in one. Still King Hendrick shook his head: "If they are to be killed," he said, "they are too many; if they are to fight, they are too few." Nevertheless he resolved to share their fortunes. He was too old and fat to go afoot, but Johnson lent him a horse, which he bestrode, and was soon at the head of the column, followed by two hundred of his warriors. Lieutenant Colonel Whiting soon came up with the balance of the detachment and the whole moved on together, so little conscious of danger that no scouts were thrown out in front or flank, and in full security entered the fatal snare. Before they were completely involved, the sharp eye of old Hendrick detected some sign of an enemy. At that instant a gun was fired from the bushes, the thickets blazed out a deadly fire, and the men fell by scores. Hendrick' s horse was shot down and the chief was killed by a bayonet thrust as he tried to rise. Colonel Williams was also killed as he charged up the slopes on the right, calling his men to follow. The rear hurried forward to support their comrades, when a hot fire opened upon them from the forest, and then there was a panic. The van became the rear and the enemy rushed upon it shouting and screeching. After a moment of total confusion a part of Williams' regiment, under command of Whiting, rallied and covered the retreat, fighting behind trees like Indians, and firing and falling back by turns, bravely aided by some of the Mohawks and by a detachment which Johnson had sent to their aid. "And a very handsome retreat they made, and so continued till they came within three quarters of a mile of our camp." So ended the fray long known in New England fireside story as the "bloody morning scout."

When the rattle of musketry was heard at the camp, gradually becoming louder, it was known that their comrades were retreating, and hasty preparations were made for defending the camp. A barricade was made along the front, partly by wagons and inverted boats, but chiefly by trunks of trees hastily hewn down in the forest and laid end to end in a row. Three cannons were planted to sweep the road and another was dragged to the ridge of the hill. Five hundred men were detailed to guard the flanks, already protected by swamps, right and left. The rest stood behind the wagons, or lay flat behind the logs and inverted bateaux. Besides Indians (about 300), the force numbered between sixteen and seventeen hundred rustics.

They were hardly at their posts when they saw ranks of white-coated soldiers moving down the road, and the glint of bayonets that seemed innumerable. At the same time a burst of war-whoops rose along the front, and "the Canadians and Indians came running with undoubted courage right down the hill upon us expecting us to flee. If Dieskau had made an assault at that instant, there could be but little doubt of the result. He had his regulars well in hand, but the rest, red and white, were scattered through the woods and swamps yelling and firing from behind trees." The regulars, who deployed and fired by platoons, were met by a fire of grape from the artillery, which broke their ranks and scattered them through the forest seeking cover. The fire now became general, during which Johnson received a flesh wound in the thigh and returned to his tent, leaving General Lyman in command for the rest of the day. Baron Dieskau was also wounded three times, the last time across the hips, but seated behind a tree he denounced the Canadians and Indians, and ordered his adjutant to lead the regulars in a last effort against the English. But it was too late. Johnson' s men were already crossing their row of logs, and in a few moments the whole dashed forward with a shout, falling upon the enemy with hatchets and the butts of their guns. The French and their allies fled.

It may be apropos to introduce at this time the following letter from Baron Dieskau to M. de Vaudreuil:



At Lake St. Sacrement, Sept. 15, 1755.


I am defeated; my detachment is routed; a number of men killed and thirty or forty are prisoners, as I am told. I and M. Burnier, my Aid de Camp, are among the latter. I have received my share, four gunshot wounds, one of which is mortal. I owe this misfortune to the Iroquois. [Caughnawagas.] Our affair was well begun, but as soon as the Iroquois perceived some Mohawks, they came to a dead halt; the Abenaquis and other Indians continued some time but disappeared by degrees; this disheartened the Canadians, so I found myself with the French troops engaged alone. I bore the attack, believing that I might rally the Canadians and perhaps the Indians, in which I did not succeed.

The Regulars received the whole of the enemy' s fire and were almost cut to pieces. I prophesied to you Sir that the Iroquois would play some scurvy trick; it is unfortunate that I am such a good prophet. I cannot too much acknowledge Mr. de Johnson' s kindness and attention to me. He is to send me to Orange to-morrow. I know not my fate either as regards my health or the disposition of my person.

I have the honor to be &c.,



Upper Falls of Adriutha.

Sometime before the final rout several hundred Canadians and Indians left the field and returned to the scene of the morning ambush to plunder and scalp the dead. While resting themselves near a pool in the forest they were set upon by a scouting party from Fort Lyman, chiefly backwoodsmen, under the command of Captains Folsom and McGinnis. The assailants were greatly outnumbered, but after a hard fight the Canadians and Indians fled. The bodies of the slain were thrown into the pool which bears to this day the name of Bloody Pond.

The English loss in killed, wounded, and missing at the battle of Lake George was 262, and that of the French, by their own account, was 228. For this victory General Johnson was made Baronet by King George II. and Parliament gave him five thousand pounds.

The expedition of General Johnson and his occupation of the lake led to the building of Fort William Henry, which was located near the lake and east of the two swamps between which Johnson had met and defeated the French under Dieskau. It would seem to have been a rude affair of no very great strength, but strong enough to resist the feeble attempts that were made to capture it between 1755 and 1757, when Montcalm, fresh from his victory at Oswego, advanced against it with 10,000 men, consisting of regulars, Canadians and Indians. Fort William Henry was garrisoned with 2200, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Monroe, a brave Scotch veteran.

Montcalm set out from Ticonderoga the 1st of August, 1757, having sent a detachment to advance along the west side of the lake, while the balance embarked in bateaux and canoes from Burned Camp. The whole force numbered 7600 effective whites and Indians. Parkman says:


And now, as evening drew near, was seen one of those wild pageantries of war which Lake George has often witnessed. A restless multitude of birch canoes, filled with naked painted savages, glided by shores and islands like troops of swimming waterfowl. Two hundred and fifty bateaux came next, moved by sail or oar, some bearing the Canadian militia and some the battalions of old France, in trim and gay attire; then the cannon and mortars, each on a platform sustained by two bateaux lashed side by side; then the provision bateaux and the field hospital, and lastly a rear guard of regulars.


Montcalm chose for the site of his operations the ground now covered by the village of Caldwell.

We will pass the story of the siege and assault, the brave defence of Monroe and his little band of heroes and their anxious watching for reinforcements from General Webb, the despair when it became known that Webb had refused to march to their relief, and the final surrender of the gallant defenders, and the massacre of the sick and wounded and a large number of the helpless captives, and the final burning of the heaps of slain, who were placed inside of the fort, which was then set on fire and destroyed.

In July, 1758, General Abercrombie' s army, about fifteen thousand strong, sailed down the lake and attacked Ticonderoga, without success. In July, 1759, General Amherst, with almost an equal force, also traversed the lake, and took Crown Point and Ticonderoga.

The Mohawk at Schenectady.

General Burgoyne, before he began his march to Saratoga, made this point a depot of his supplies.

There are also stories of Captain Rogers and his rangers that are as interesting as the most lurid tales of romance of the present; of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, and other expeditions of the war of the Revolution; and as late as the war of 1814 warlike bodies passed over its placid waters on expeditions of conflict and death to British soldiers, at Cumberland and Plattsburg, on Lake Champlain.



Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 12/10/99.

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