Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga, Lake Champlain, New York
Fort Ticonderoga, Lake Champlain, New York

One could desire to be at the bold promontory of Ticonderoga in 1609, when the virgin woodside gazed anxiously at Samuel Champlain, that intrepid French adventurer, as he fired his bellmouthed musket against the mystified Iroquois. The echoes of the discharge of this ancient firearm were seldom allowed to die in these wildernesses until the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, until the complete ascendency of white man over red had been established.

Standing upon the ramparts of the old fort one may today easily imagine himself in a virgin forest world. Civilization has set her hand upon Lake Champlain, but her work is not obtrusively near to the fort. The hills to the rear are still wooded; the waters, to front and sides, are clear; and the same blue bends over all. The immediate surroundings are little different from those in which Champlain fought his opera bouffe fight and inaugurated the long struggle between red men and white in this part of the world.

We must remember that in 1609 the French had already taken hold of New France. They had a querulous, contumacious baby of a colony on the Saint Lawrence at Quebec and to this point came many curious red men. With some of these red men the French had formed alliance.

One tribe of these allies had seen the thunderous cannon and guns of the French and had suggested that these weapons be taken out and turned upon some of the ancient enemies of that tribe. The idea had appealed to Champlain as eminently a clever one, and with eleven other Frenchmen armed with arquebuses and clad in light armor he had set out, on the 28th of June, with three hundred amiable red people. The party proceeded up the Saint Lawrence as far as the river, which afterward became known as the Richelieu and here paused for feasting and a carouse. During the course of this ceremony three-quarters of the Indians became huffy over a trifle and left for their homes in a hurry, reducing the expedition to eleven Frenchmen and seventy-five Indians.

As the expedition proceeded the Indians consulted their tutelary spirits. A small circular tent would be raised of skins over saplings and into this would crawl the medicine man with shudders and groans. A grand commotion would be heard and then the voice of the spirit would speak in a thin, treble squeak. The tent structure would dance violently around and the savage spectators would feel that their divinity was having a very busy time.

At length the French and Indians approached the lake, which was to bear the name of the white chief, and made their way upon it in canoes. They came to a promontory of land which bore the resounding Iroquois name of Ticonderoga, or “meeting of waters,” in recognition of the fact that the waters of Lakes George and Champlain come together at the base of the eminence. Here they met a flotilla of skin canoes bearing a large war party of Iroquois and the issue of this little trip of Champlain’s may now be said to have been fairly joined. The Iroquois, not being much given to fighting on water, paddled to land, while the invaders decided to spend the night in their canoes. All night long the air resounded with yells and epithets and bandied menaces, but, at length, morning broke and put an end to the unseemly clamor. The Frenchmen were concealed in the bottoms of canoes until a dramatic moment should arrive to show themselves. Their companions landed and now that they had come to their desire were filled with terror of the Iroquois, calling loudly for Champlain to come forth and destroy his opponents with thunder and lightning. The doughty Frenchman, feeling secure in his armor and his arms, threw aside the skins, which covered him, and strode forth like a white god in shining raiment. The gallant Iroquois were filled with consternation at the sight of him. Raising his arquebuse, into which he had stuffed four balls, he fired at short range, slaying two chiefs and wounding one. A second shot caused the defenders to break and flee, and this gave Champlain’s allies opportunity to kill and capture to their hearts’ content.


The expedition made its way back to Quebec filled with exultation. Thus did Ticonderoga come upon the pages of history.

This engagement of Champlain’s, incidental as it seems, had far reaching consequences in the destiny of France in the New World. By the slaughter of the Iroquois Champlain mortally offended the Five Nations, which was an all powerful Indian confederation, incurring an enmity never remitted. The alliance of the Long House with the English was one of the factors that helped to turn the scale in their favor in the long contest for balance of power, which the years brought about between France and England in the New World.

On this very same day of July 1609, while Champlain’s arquebuse was frightening the solitudes of this leafy part of the wild New World, a little vessel known as the Half Moon was in anchor on the New England coast while the carpenter fitted a new foremast. A few weeks later the Half Moon was in the Hudson and had come to anchor above present Troy in the precincts over which the warriors of the Long House kept watch. Thus does the Muse of History play different parts with two hands.

Time passed and French and Indian war parties again and again went by the point of land on which Ticonderoga now stands, bent on marauding and harrying the English villages. Lake Champlain and Lake George had become part of the great highway between French world and English world. Finally, in 1735, Crown Point, the forerunner of Ticonderoga, was established by the French as an organized centre of power and an outpost thrown toward the English. Twenty years after this Ticonderoga came into prominence.

The year 1755 was a doleful one for the English colonies. It was the year of Braddock’s defeat. In January, Shirley, governor of Massachusetts, proposed an attack on Crown Point. The other colonies were taken with the idea and raised levies of men and funds. A heterogeneous army was the result under the leadership of William Johnson, of New York, with the rank of Major general, separately bestowed upon him by each of the colonies taking part. His selection was due not only to his immense personal popularity but to his influence in the Long House of the Five Nations as well, no other white man of his time having so much authority with the dwellers in the forest. Of white men he had altogether about eight thousand and he had his Indian allies.

That in an army which included men from Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire there should be some bickering and disagreements was inevitable, but, at length, the column reached the foot of Lake George, which had become known to its French acquaintances as Lac le Sacrement. Now it received a new baptism. “I have given it the name of Lake George,” wrote Johnson to the Lords of Trade, ” not only in honor of His Majesty but to ascertain (assert) his undoubted dominion here.” Lake George it has been ever since. A camp was made where, after a time. Fort William Henry was built, and a most unmilitary camp it was, if we can believe the accounts of contemporaries. Though a dense forest gave cover for an enemy to its very borders, no effort was made to clear away the trees. Painted Indians lounged around, traders squabbled together, and New England clergymen preached to the savages long Calvinistic sermons.

The Mess Hall: Interior Views Of Fort Ticonderoga, New York
The Mess Hall
Interior Views Of Fort Ticonderoga, New York

Meanwhile the French at Crown Point were preparing a surprise for Johnson. Large forces under the German Baron Dieskau had come up, and Dieskau had assumed command of the united troops. He had no thought of waiting to be attacked. He told his men to be in readiness to move at a moment’s notice. Officers were to take nothing with them but one spare shirt, one spare pair of shoes, a blanket, a bearskin and provisions for twelve days. The Indians were to make up their minds not to take scalps until the enemy had been entirely defeated, because the operation of taking a scalp was too lengthy a proceeding, and kept them from killing other men. Then Dieskau moved on to a promontory, which commanded both Lake Champlain and Lake George. It was a high wooden mount with a magnificent view of the waters; in short, our old friend Ticonderoga.

The German baron for a time made camp here, the first formal military occupation of this point, but at length, being misinformed by an American prisoner, who had been threatened with torture, as to the force Johnson had, he prepared to move in haste and with deadly intent against the American colonials. News of Braddock’s defeat had just then become general information, and throughout the ranks of the ignorant white men of the French party and of all their savage allies ran an unwarranted contempt for English bravery based on accounts of that lamentable massacre. Dieskau left a part of his force at Ticonderoga, and embarking with the rest in canoes and bateaux made his way through the narrow southern part of Lake Champlain to where the town of Whitehall now stands, a point at which they pitched camp.

The close of the next day found them well on toward Johnson and on the day after that the battle of Lake George took place. It is unnecessary to go into detail about this. The first part of the day went against the Americans, who had foolishly sent out against Dieskau, when they received word of his approach, an insufficient number of white and red forces; but the end of the day found the Americans victorious. Dieskau was badly wounded and was a prisoner.

The story goes that a delegation of chiefs waited upon Johnson while Dieskau was in his cabin. The unwilling guest made some comment about them to his host after their departure. “Yes, they wish to be allowed to burn you,” was the response. Johnson took extraordinary pains that the French leader should not fall into the hands of his savages, and Dieskau died a peaceful death as a result of his wounds several years later, midst the civilization of Bath, England, whence he had gone in hopes of being benefited by the waters.

Johnson commenced now to build Fort Wilham Henry at one end of Lake George, and the French, quickly recovering from their setback, began building at the other end, on the site of Dieskau’s camp, the famous Fort Ticonderoga. The building of the French fort consumed the greater part of 1756 and 1757, and was consummated under the reign, in Canada, of Vaudreuil.

The original plan of Fort Ticonderoga was of a bastion fort, but afterwards star shaped outer walls, following plans of the great Vauban, were added. The French built solidly in their various military works, and Fort Ticonderoga was an enduring and strong construction.

We have seen Fort William Henry and Fort Ticonderoga started as rivals. The survivor of these two was Ticonderoga, and the destruction of Fort William Henry was the occasion of one of the saddest and most horrible massacres in American history. In 1757 the Marquis de Montcalm, chief of the French king’s forces in Canada, was at Ticonderoga and with him was the Chevalier de Levis with about eight thousand regulars, Canadians and Indians. The troopers and the irregular forces were camped around the walls of Ticonderoga near the lake and in the rear of the fort where the eminence of land on which the fort stands continues in a gentle plateau before commencing its descent. A colorful, picturesque camp it was, with its red Indians, its half breed whites, and its careless soldiery. The officers and gentlemen of consequence were lodged in the fort where they ate in the mess hall and lounged and smoked and drank at leisure.

With his eight thousand men Montcalm set forth on the first of August, 1757, across the little neck of land which divides Lake Champlain from Lake George, leaving a small detachment to hold the fort, and made his way along Lake George to near Fort William Henry. His Britannic Majesty’s stronghold was solidly built and was in command of a capable officer, Lieutenant Colonel Munro, a brave Scotchman, but its garrison was insufficient, and reinforcements were never sent. Montcalm attacked.

A Council Room: Interior Views Of Fort Ticonderoga, New York
A Council Room
Interior Views Of Fort Ticonderoga, New York

So well did the little band of beleaguered men contest their position, that when inevitably they surrendered very favorable terms were offered. It was agreed that the English troops should march out with the honors of war and be escorted to Fort Edward by a detachment of French troops; that they should not serve for eighteen months, and that all French prisoners captured in America since the war began should be given up within three months. The stores, munitions, and artillery were to be the prize of the victors, except that the garrison, in recognition of its bravery, was to retain one fieldpiece. The Indian chiefs were consulted in the making of these terms and agreed to them by shaking of the hands.

When the capitulation took place, a scene very different from that which had been anticipated was to be viewed. The Indians, excited by the presence of so many captives, as they considered the English prisoners of war, were not to be restrained and, though measures were taken to hold them in rein, fell upon the helpless men and women and butchered them mercilessly.

The morning after the massacre soldiers were set to work destroying all that remained of Fort William Henry.

The year that followed the massacre – 1758 – brought the most formidable looking and least effective of all of the attacks against Ticonderoga. The English, thoroughly incensed at the loss of Fort William Henry, had set themselves with determination to destroy Ticonderoga and to this end had raised a great force of regular soldiery, provincial militia and those invaluable irregular border troops of which Roger’s rangers are a good example, and had placed them under the command of General Abercrombie. The whole body lay encamped in June 1758, at the head of Lake George, within easy striking distance of the terrible French stronghold. It numbered nearly fifteen thousand men, all told. Montcalm’s forces were not one fourth so numerous and the great French leader was sadly sure of disaster to himself and his men.

That disaster did not, indeed, fall upon the French as the outcome of this undertaking on the part of the British is to be ascribed primarily to the unfortunate choice of a leader which they had had made for them and to Providence, which early in the campaign removed from their midst the only military talent which they seem to have possessed. Abercrombie was a political heritage of corrupt powers in England, where the government had undergone a great reconstruction since the horrors of Fort William Henry, and had been kept in authority solely on account of pressure which could be brought to bear at home. Lord Pitt had appointed as second in command of the expedition one of the few military geniuses of his age, – as all of his contemporaries admitted, – the young Lord Howe, elder brother of the more famous Sir William Howe, who later commanded His Majesty’s forces in America against the rebellious colonies. ” The noblest Englishman that has appeared in my time and the best soldier in the British army,” said Wolfe, of him. In a minor skirmish at the very first of the reconnoitering around Ticonderoga he was killed by an Indian’s bullet, and the English troops were left to flounder on from one blunder to another.

The last part of the march against Ticonderoga was commenced on the morning of July 4 and by July 6 the soldiers were at the head of Lake George and in touch with the enemy in Ticonderoga just over a ridge of woods.

The ridge of land on which Ticonderoga is situated continues northwest without the sharp decline that marks its topography in every other direction. Along this spine, then, the English attack might be expected, so in this quarter Montcalm had had barriers built of fallen trees, laid together so as to form a zigzag parapet nine feet in height and with a platform behind, from which the French soldiers might shoot without exposing themselves. Along the entire front of this barricade the ground was strewn with sharp pointed boughs. Obviously it was not a position that infantry could take without the aid of artillery.

Yet, under Abercrombie’s command, the English advanced against this work without waiting for the cannon, which they had with them to be brought up. Between noon and nightfall of July 7 they made six gallant assaults without result. A perfect hades of shot and flame those logs became. The scene has been described by one of Roger’s rangers who took part in the action, and his description, found in an old letter, was published a decade ago in Harper’s Magazine, by one of his descendants. “The maze of fallen trees with their withered leaves hanging broke their ranks and the French Retrenchment blazed fire and death,” he wrote. “They advanced bravely up but all to no good purpose and hundreds there met their death. My dear Joseph I have the will but not the way to tell you all that I saw that awful afternoon. I have since been in many battles and skirmishes but I have never witnessed such slaughter and such wild fighting as the British storm of Ticonderoga. We became mixed up – Highlanders, Grenadiers, Light Troops, Rangers and all, and we beat against that mass of logs and maze of fallen timber and we beat in vain. I was once carried right up to the breastwork, but we were stopped by the bristling mass of sharpened branches, while the French fire swept us front and flank. The ground was covered deep with dying men and, as I think it over now, I can remember nothing but the fruit borne by the tree of war, for I looked upon so many wondrous things that July day that I could not set them down at all. We drew off after seeing that no human valor could take that work. We Rangers then skirmished with the French colony troops and the Canada Indians until dark while our people rescued the wounded, and then we fell back. The Army was utterly demoralized and made a headlong retreat during which many wounded men were left to die in the woods.”

On the day following his victory Montcalm had a great cross planted in the battlefield bearing words, composed by himself, which have been translated by Parkman as follows:

Soldier and chief and rampart’s strength are nought; Behold the Conquering Cross! ‘Tis God the triumph wrought.

The old fort was to fall into English hands the next year, however, when Amherst, commander in chief of the English forces in America, advanced against it with a force of British and Americans. Montcalm had hurried to the defense of Quebec with the greater part of his force and Ticonderoga was in the command of Boulemarque, a capable officer, but one no more able than any other man to accomplish the impossible. He could not hold the position with the inconsiderable force he had against that opposed to him. A stroke of Providence was not to be anticipated a second time. So, while the British encamped under the walls of the fort prepared to attack it the next day, Boulemarque set a fuse to the powder magazine and marched his men out. There was a great explosion and a rending of walls, and Ticonderoga’s besiegers knew that the fort was their prize.

Through the rest of the French and Indian War, which was from this time forward a tale of uninterrupted success for the British arms, Ticonderoga played no part except that of a garrisoned English possession. Its walls were repaired where Boulemarque’s match had shattered them.

The prestige of the fort had now become such that in the fermenting first days of the outbreak in the colonies against the Mother Country it was conceived that the seizure of the place would have an immense moral effect in the colonies. A sturdy Vermont man, Ethan Allen, with his Green Mountain boys, was given the task of seizing it. In early spring, 1775, Allen approached the old Indian stronghold now held by merely a handful of British, who had no idea that the Americans were in action against them. One cannot depreciate the tenacity of purpose and hardiness, which carried Ethan Allen and his men through the inhospitable wilderness to success in their enterprise, but the military valor of the action was not great. With his men Allen crept up to the unsuspecting stronghold, seized the sentry, and, while his men scattered through the fort making prisoners of its inmates, thundered at the door of the commanding officer: “Open in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” While knowing little of the Continental Congress, the officer submitted to the inevitable.

The news of Allen’s exploit was spread through the colonies and was a determining influence with many undecided Americans. His resounding phrase has been repeated by schoolboys many times since and is perhaps more familiarly associated with the name of Ticonderoga than any of the great exploits which have marked its past.

For a time the Americans held on to the fort. In 1776 a large force was concentrated here, since it guarded that very vital means of access to the heart of the colonies, which the British persistently tried to make use of. It was from this point that in 1776 Benedict Arnold set forth with a small fleet of vessels to attack Sir Guy Carleton at Valcour Island. Though the American fleet was almost entirely destroyed, it, nevertheless, set back the plans of the British one year and delayed their projected invasion from the north that long.

In 1777 Burgoyne invested the fort and, by dragging some guns to the top of Mount Defiance, an eminence which commands Ticonderoga, caused General Arthur St. Clair of the American forces to evacuate the place. Burgoyne occupied the fort for a passing visit but was soon on his way into the colonies by the ancient trail, which war parties for generations had trod, fortunately, for the colonies, to meet defeat and loss of his army at the battle of Saratoga.

The fort remained in the hands of the British until after the surrender of Yorktown, though Colonel Brown of Massachusetts made a brave effort to take it once more. During the War of 1812 it listened to the guns of McDonough’s improvised fleet in action with the British, but it had no active part in this action or in this war, itself.

In 1806 the property on which the old fort stands was leased from Union and Columbia colleges by William F. Pell of New York, it being a part of a State grant to these institutions. Mr. Pell built a summer cottage for himself and, in 1816, purchased the land. The cottage was destroyed in 1825 and a second building known as the Pavilion was erected. The Pavilion is still in use and has never been out of the Pell family.

The walls of Ticonderoga, the fort, were not greatly prized by the early holders of this Pell tract and it remained for the present head of his generation, Mr. Stephen H. P. Pell, to appreciate the historic value of the old place and to set about a work of restoration and repair. The foundations of the walls were still solid and some of the old buildings were still standing when, in 1909, Mr. Pell began his work of rebuilding. The original plans of the fort were secured from the French government. The work of rehabilitation has been carried forward in strict accordance with authorities. Historic points in the grounds surrounding the fort have been marked with tablets and monuments and each year sees an increasing number of visitors coming to Ticonderoga to inspect this history filled place.

Forts, History,

Fort Ticonderoga,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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