Adirondacks: Europeans and American Colonists

The French were the first Europeans in the Adirondack region. Explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first European to enter the Adirondack region who, in 1609 as part of an expedition of Indians moving against the Iroquois, arrived at the lake which today bears his name. On a journey to work on a treaty with the Mohawk, Father Jogues reached a lake the Iroquois called Andia-ta-roc-te, or Tail of the Lake. Jogues named it Lac du Ste-Sacremente; in 1755, General William Johnson named it Lake George in honor of King George II.

Upon discovery of large populations of beaver in the Adirondacks, a war over the animal essentially broke out between the French, Dutch, English, and Native Americans who harvested the fur to trade. As noted by historian Harry V. Radford, “The Indians, at times, even forgot their ancient animosities to unite in a common assault on the inoffensive beaver, and, for the first time in their history, the glass beads, looking-glasses, firearms and ‘fire-water’ of the white invaders, lured them to forget their former providence and moderation in the chase.” The French and their Algonquian allies fought with the English, Dutch, and the Iroquois for control of the region. The beaver trade was highly profitable, with a hat made from the fur selling for over £4 in 1663. Excessive hunting led to the beaver being nearly exterminated from the Adirondacks by the nineteenth century, however.

Any military activity in the region focused upon rivers and lakes, since the mountainous Adirondack wilderness was too difficult through which to move troops and supplies. The French and British contended for the Champlain Valley, a strategic point of control between Canada and New York. Numerous forts were built by both nations along both Lake Champlain and Lake George, typically with one nation building a fort followed by its abandonment, and the other nation either retaining the structure or building a new one nearby. Additionally, the Adirondacks served as a natural barrier between European territories: French to the north, British to the east, and the Dutch to the south until the 1660s, when the British took over their lands.

Minimal amounts of settlement in the region occurred during the colonial period, especially preceding the French and Indian War. The Champlain Valley failed to attract many settlers while under French control, for hostilities between the French, British, and Indians were common occurrences. As noted by historian Walter Hill Crockett, “…young farmers, realizing that a pathway for war parties was not likely to be a safe home for their wives and children, or a comfortable place for themselves, and having a lively desire to keep their scalps on their own heads, looked elsewhere for land.” Farmers and traders settled near Fort St. Frederic along the military road to Fort Carillon, but when the fort was abandoned in 1759, the villagers also retreated to Canada.

The French sought a base of operations on Lake Champlain for attacking British colonial settlements in New York and the New England colonies. In 1726 the French tried to establish themselves on Chimney Point in what is now Vermont, but Massachusetts Colony forced them to retreat across the Lake Champlain. They began construction of Fort St. Frederic on the Crown Point peninsula, a point at which the lake is only a quarter of a mile wide, in 1731. While the colonial governments in New York and Massachusetts attempted to move against the French, no real activity occurred until the outbreak of the French and Indian War. In 1759, after defeats in battle during the war, the French abandoned Fort St. Frederic and the Champlain Valley. The following year, the British constructed Fort Crown Point two hundred yards from the site of Fort St. Frederic.

Another strategic point along Lake Champlain was the narrows at the south end of the lake. Under the direction of chief engineer Michel Chartier de Lotbiniere, the French built Fort Carillon on the site between 1755 and 1757. However, the fort would not remain for long in French possession. A major British offensive in 1755 targeted four French forts: Fort Duquesne, Fort Niagara, Fort Beausejour, and Fort St. Frederic. The French were aware of the army moving toward Crown Point, and commander Barron Dieskau met them at Lake George. While the British won the battle, they did not have enough forces to capture the fort. On July 8, 1758, a force of 14,000 British soldiers and American colonial troops attacked Fort Carillon. While the French successfully defended the fort, they suffered heavy casualties. French resilience would eventually crumble, and on July 2, 1759, General Jeffrey Amherst captured the fort without firing a single shot. He renamed it Fort Ticonderoga.

Following the war, veteran soldiers who had served in the region applied for lands grants. Robert Rogers, the famed leader of an area militia unit known as Rogers Rangers, with twenty-five other men applied for a grant of 25,000 acres of land on the west side of Lake George. By the 1770s a large number of settlers had moved into the Champlain Valley. Scotsman Philip Skene was the first permanent settler of this period on Lake Champlain. For his military service, he received a grant near the mouth of Wood Creek in 1761, where he founded Skenesborough (today Whitehall, New York). William Gilliland, who served in the area during the French and Indian War, purchased twelve tracts of land on the west side of Lake Champlain between Crown Point and Cumberland Head in 1765. He built his home on the Boquet River at what is now Westport, and his estate grew to a village of about 100 people with two grist mills and two sawmills. However, these settlers would be displaced by the coming war between the colonies and Great Britain.

As during the French and Indian War, the Champlain Valley was an important strategic point for military activity during the American Revolution. On May 10, 1775, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys made a surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga and captured it. The Americans repaired and fortified both the fort as well as Mount Independence across the lake. On October 28, 1776, a reconnoitering party from the British fleet, which had just defeated Benedict Arnold’s forces at to the north at Valcour Bay, found 13,000 men reinforcing the fortifications. Instead of attacking the Americans, the British army of 8,000 men under command of Sir Guy Carleton withdrew to Canada for the winter. As part of a strategy to try to divide the New England colonies, Lt. General John Burgoyne departed Fort St. Johns (also known as Fort St. Jean) in Quebec on June 17, 1777 for Fort Ticonderoga. His force consisted of naval vessels, 400 Indians, and 1,500 light troops as a screen for an army of 9,000 soldiers. They occupied Mount Hope on July 2 and hauled up cannons to the top of Mount Defiance to focus down on Fort Ticonderoga. With the enemy holding higher ground, the American troops abandoned the fort and retreated east. In September 1777 the Americans attempted to retake Fort Ticonderoga but failed. The British destroyed both the fort and Mount Independence before abandoning them in November of that year.

Footnote:

B. F. DeCosta, A Narrative of Events at Lake George, from the Early Colonial Times to the Close of the Revolution (New York: [publisher not identified], 1868), 6, 14.

Harry V. Radford, “History of the Adirondack Beaver: Its Former Abundance, Practical Extermination, and Reintroduction,” in Harry V. Radford, Artificial Preservation of Timber and History of the Adirondack Beaver, State of New York Forest, Fish and Game Commission (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon and Company, 1908): 397.

Ibid., 398.

Otis, 39.

Walter Hill Crockett, A History of Lake Champlain; The Record of Three Centuries, 1609-1909 (Burlington, VT: H. J. Shanley & Co., 1909): 61.

Richard Greenwood, “Fort St. Frederic,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination (February 20, 1976), section 8, page 1; Charles W. Snell, “Fort Crown Point (Amherst),” National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings (October 25, 1967), 1-2.

Charles H. Ashton and Richard W. Hunter, “Fort Ticonderoga/Mount Independence National Historic Landmark,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination (October 1983), section 8, pages 1-2; Greenwood, section 8, page 2.

Crockett, 109-112; DeCosta, 44.

Ashton and Hunter, section 8, pages 1-3

Last updated: November 21, 2018