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Construction and Military History 1758 to 1777

The city of Rome, New York, lies athwart an ancient route along which travelers, traders, and warriors moved for centuries. On the south-east side of the city are the headwaters of the Mohawk River, which flows eastward until it joins the Houston to reach the Atlantic Ocean. On the northern side is Wood Creek, which with the Fish Kill (Creek), Lake Oneida, and Oswego River forms a passage to the Great Lakes. Using this route, the Indian and colonial trader had only to carry his canoe over the nearly level land between the two riparian systems to travel by water from the ocean to the Great Lakes and Canada. The short portage between the Mohawk and Wood Creek came to be known as the Oneida Carrying Place. Possession of this portage was a significant strategic position on the northwest frontier, which carried with it control of the water route. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of that frontier. That the Mohawk was the gateway to a vast western region was apparent to the colonists and the government in London. More immediately important were its associations with the local Indians. The area from the upper Hudson to Lake Erie was the land of the confederacy known as the Six Nations of the Iroquois, which was composed of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. In spite of their limited numbers, the Iroquois were the strongest native power in eighteenth century North America; and they were the generally consistent foes of the French and their Indian allies, supporting first the Dutch and then the English in their colonial wars. But for them, the English colonists would have been flanked north and west by France and her native confederates, the Algonquins and Hurons. They were economically important as the entrepreneurs of a fur trade that made the northwest frontier one of the most important economic areas in North America.

Provincial interest in the region and its people appeared early in the Colonial period. Dutch traders in Fort Orange (Albany) carried on an extensive beaver trade with the natives and were constantly concerned that France would seduce the Iroquois and possess their lands. This concern continued after the colony became English, and as early as 1727 the province built a small fortified trading post at the mouth of the Oswego River on Lake Ontario. This was eventually replaced by a larger and stronger post; and, before the middle of the century, stockades stood at the falls of the Oswego and at both ends of Oneida Lake. The size of the garrisons varied, depending upon the intensity of the international rivalry for the Indian trade.

The Oneida Carrying Place was one of the most critical points on the route to the Great Lakes and Canada. On July 10, 1702, two Indian tribes, the Twightwighs (a Miami group) and the Teoreondaties (perhaps a Seneca group) petitioned Governor Cornbury of New York, asking that a path be marked over the portage and that trees be removed from Wood Creek to permit the passage of canoes. The governor granted their request and promised to send guides to meet the Indians and conduct them to Albany. [1]

More than two decades later, on November 10, 1724, Cadwallader Colden, then Surveyor General and later Lieutenant Governor and author of a classic history of the Five Nations, prepared a memorial concerning the fur trade for Governor William Burnet in which he referred to the Carrying Place, describing the portage as being three miles long except in dry weather, when its length was five miles. [2] Occasionally the provincial government's officials, especially the Commissioners for Indian Affairs, gave their attention to matters related to the portage, as when they considered the complaints of forty-seven traders who were having trouble with the Oneidas because the Indians were making too much of a good thing of their situation at the Carrying Place. [3]

The Oneida Carrying Place's position on the route between Albany and the Great Lakes was described in the following terms:

Oswego, along the accustomed route, is computed to be about 300 miles west from Albany. The first sixteen, to the village of Schenectady, is land carriage, in a good waggon road. From thence to the Little Falls of the Mohawk River, at sixty five miles distance, the battoes [sic.] are set against a rapid steam; which too, in dry seasons, is so shallow, that the men are frequently obliged to turn out, and draw their craft over the rifts with inconceivable labour. At the Little Falls, the portage exceeds not a mile: the ground being marshy will admit of no wheel-carriage, and therefore the Germans who reside here, transport the battoes in sleds, which they keep for that purpose. The same conveyance is used at the Great Carrying Place, sixty miles beyond the Little Falls; all the way to which the current is still adverse, and extremely swift. The portage here is longer or shorter, according to the dryness or wetness of the seasons. In the last summer months, when the rains are most infrequent, it is usually six or eight miles across. Taking water again, we enter a narrow rivulet, called the Woodcreek, which leads into the Oneida Lake, distant about forty miles. This stream, tho' favorable, being shallow, and its banks covered with thick woods, was at this time much obstructed with old logs and fallen trees. The Oneida Lake stretches from east to west about thirty miles, and in calm weather is passed with great facility. At its western extremity opens the Onondaga [Oswego] River, leading down to Oswego, situated at its entrance on the south side of Lake Ontario. Extremely difficult and hazardous with rifts and rocks; and the current flowing with surprising rapidity. The principal obstruction is twelve miles short of Oswego, and is a fall of about eleven feet perpendicular. The portage here is by land, not exceeding forty yards, before they launch for the last time. [4]

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Oneida Carrying Place was an active station on the western route with four landing places, an upper one on each end for use during the spring and early summer when the waters were high and the lower ones for the drier seasons. Indians and possibly a few white settlers took advantage of the location, supplying wheeled vehicles to carry freight over the portage.

The Carrying Place's military potential became obvious in 1755, when William Shirley, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay and Major General of the Royal Forces in North America, prepared for his Niagara campaign. Capt. William Williams of the 51st Regiment of Foot was sent to Oneida to open the road between the river and Wood Creek. Supplies and men moved up the old route, bound for Oswego, where ships were being readied for the lake voyage to Fort Niagara. The general moved his headquarters into a newly-erected building and directed the operations from there throughout the rest of June and July. It was here that he received official news of Gen. Edward Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela on July 9. That event was a great personal tragedy to him, for his son and namesake was among the slain. To his sorrow and immediate burdens was added the vastly increased responsibility for the success of British arms in the Colonies. Braddock's death made him the commanding general in North America. [5] Here in his log headquarters, Shirley struggled with the problems of his new role. It was a difficult one for a 61-year-old man who had spent his adult life in the courts of law and in colonial administration. Everywhere he turned problems faced him, not the least of which was the effective use of the services of another important civilian turned soldier, William Johnson. Here, also, he enlarged the purpose of his expedition from the limited objective against Niagara (Frontenac) to the conquest of the Great Lakes region. To that end, Oswego should be fortified because "It is as much the key of these lakes and the southern and western country lying round them, to the English, as Nova Scotia is of the sea coast and eastern parts of North America; and the loss of them to the French. . . must not only make them absolute masters of the navigation of all these lakes, . . . but let them into the heart of the country inhabited by the Six Nations." By reducing the French posts, Britain would secure "the whole southern country behind the Appalachian or Alleghenny [sic] Mountains to the Crown of Great Britain, and have a further effect, to render Canada itself, of little or no value to the French." [6]

Throughout the summer, General Shirley worked at strengthening Oswego and preparing to take the offensive against Niagara. However, the campaign was delayed when a council of war recommended that it be deferred until spring, "when greater numbers of men, vessels, provisions, and muskets would be available". [7] Deciding to winter his units at Oswego and Wood Creek, the general continued to plan for the next year and to seek support for his theories of how the British should move against the French in the lake country.

Shirley was concerned about the security of the Albany-Oswego supply route. He had a healthy respect for French and Indian tactical mobility and was alert to the route's vulnerability to raids. On October 29, while stopping at the Carrying Place en route from Oswego to Albany, he prepared a set of instructions for Captain Williams that dealt with the security of that part of the supply line. After ordering him to assemble all of his command at the portage and to remain there until ordered elsewhere, to safeguard military stores, and to provide for transport over the Carrying Place, Shirley instructed Williams:

You are to employ as many of the Men of the Detachment under your Command as you possibly can, in finishing the Fort this day marked out at this place and called Fort Williams and Compleating Barracks therein to contain 150 Men. you are to build therein a Storehouse of about the same Demensions [sic.] of that already built here, and as soon as the Barracks are fit to receive the Men of your Detachment you are to Quarter them therein.

He instructed the captain to repair the road over the portage, to build a bridge over the "morass," and to provide quarters for one officer and thirty men who were being detached from Oswego to his command. He then informed him that "I have ordered Captain Marcus Petri with the Men under his Command to build a Fort at the upper Landing on the Wood Creek, to be called Wood Creek Fort." When Petri had completed the fort, he was to clear Wood Creek of obstructions; and Williams would station thirty men and an officer at the fort and build a storehouse there. [8]

The captains carried out their assignments. Fort Williams was erected near the Mohawk landings. It was a stockade with four half-bastions, each mounting a cannon. Inside were barracks for 150 men and two storehouses or blockhouses that John Oisher was directed to build in October. The Wood Creek Fort, subsequently called Fort Bull, was a smaller, weaker post, built of a double row of palisades, the outer one 15 to 18 feet high and the interior one about the height of a man. It mounted no cannon and could accommodate approximately thirty men. [9]

Shirley's fears for the safety of the supply route were well-founded. Early in the morning of March 27, 1756, a French party commanded by an officer named de Lery attacked Fort Bull. Everyone within the fort, except a woman and a few soldiers, was killed. The post's magazine caught fire and the powder exploded, wrecking the fort. A sortie from Fort Williams and the belief that William Johnson was within striking distance with a superior force deterred the French from attacking the larger fort. [10]

Alarmed by this threat to the security of the Carrying Place, the British began strengthening their position. Two engineers, Mackellar and Sowers, started building a new and stronger fort on the site of the one recently destroyed. It was a stockade with a ditch on three sides. On the side toward Wood Creek, the water was raised by a dam that impounded the water to facilitate floating batteaus down Wood Creek. The post was approximately 150 feet square, but the nature of the ground prevented building a perfect square. [11] The work was completed by Major Charles Craven; and by August a stronger fort, named Fort Wood Creek, with three structures, probably barracks and storehouses, had been completed.

At the upper landing of Wood Creek, Major Craven erected a new post, named Fort Newport. It was built to receive supplies brought over the portage from the Mohawk and to cover a dam that raised the water of the creek so that upon opening the flood gate batteaus could float down to Fort Wood Creek, three miles away "which saved much Land Carriage, & in dry Seasons 7 Miles to Canada Creek."

Fort Williams had been built hurriedly and was not strong enough to provide an adequate degree of security. Therefore, Craven was instructed to replace it with a new fort, called the Pentagon or New Fort and designated Fort Craven by later writers. It was built of "Hewed Loggs Horrisontaly [sic.] layed, & tyed with Cross Beams, nine feet wide & filled with the Earth dug out of the Ditch. The Bastions intended for Bomb proof Magazines . . . . the Rampart near the Gates was raised higher than the Gates, the highth [sic.] being near 10 feet & almost as High, all round." When the Pentagon was completed, Fort Williams would be razed. As shall be seen, it was never completed. [12]

By the end of the summer of 1756, the Oneida Carrying Place was an active unit in the colonial military supply system. Three forts stood guard; Wood Creek, Newport, and Williams, and the Pentagon was nearing completion. Two dams on Wood Creek cut the portage time so that the seven miles from the upper landing to Canada Creek could be negotiated in an hour and a quarter. There was a brick kiln, a saw-pit, and forge; and sutlers' houses lined the road leading from the Mohawk. A large post garden lay at the junction of the river and Little Creek. Craven's camp was located in an open area near Fort Williams and the Pentagon, which was still under construction. The situation at the Carrying Place had never been so strong. [13]

The year 1756 was a critical one for British interests. William Shirley's plan for a comprehensive campaign on all frontiers was wrecked on the shoals of shortages and colonial governments' unwillingness to contribute to a common effort. Less ambitious efforts against Crown Point and Ticonderoga and the forts on Lake Ontario were all that were salvaged. Toward these undertakings Shirley turned his energies. In spite of personal sorrow and political frustrations, he gave of himself unstintingly. He vested the command of the Crown Point expedition in John Winslow and retained the direction of the Great Lake campaign for himself.

The destruction of Fort Bull had been an illustration of one of Shirley's most serious military problem—enemy activity along the western supply route and the difficulty of maintaining the British garrison at Oswego. William Johnson investigated the matter, but little could be done except reprimand Captain Williams for building a defective fort and not providing for adequate defenses of the Carrying Place. [14] Williams had also ignored repeated orders to forward supplies to Oswego, had left his post against orders; and the situation at that place had become so bad that its commander, Col. James Mercer, had been forced to drag supplies through the snow from various forts along the route. Finally, the new Governor, Sir Charles Hardy, had organized a relief party. [15]

Through April and May, supplies, workers, and arms were rushed to Oswego in preparation for the campaign. Shirley worked hard at recruiting men for his expedition, which, if brought to full strength, would give him an effective strength of approximately 4,500 men.

While the general was struggling with these preparations, a political campaign directed against him bore fruit. He lost the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle, letters poured into London criticizing every phase of his civil and military administrations, local critics won over Governor Hardy, and the Ministry removed him. After a period of uncertainty about the command in North America, Col. Daniel Webb was named Shiley's interim successor. He would be followed by James Abercromby, who would eventually be superseded by John Campbell, the Earl of Landown, who was to become the commander-in-chief in North America. [16] While he awaited the arrival of his successors, Shirley went ahead with his plans for Crown Point and Ontario.

Webb and Abercromby arrived in America in June, and Lord Loudoun in July; and the three new commanders met in Albany, where Loudoun abandoned the Lake Ontario offensive in order to concentrate upon Ticonderoga. This did not imply an abandonment of Oswego; and on August 12, Webb, with the 24th Regiment of Foot and some of Bradstreet's batteauxmen, was ordered to reinforce the Ontario garrison, about which the new commander-in-chief was becoming apprehensive.

Loudoun's concern was justified. Soon after Webb, now a temporary major general, arrived at the Oneida Carrying Place on August 20, word reached him that Oswego had been captured by the French and that they were advancing toward the Mohawk, 6,000 strong. As soon as he heard the news, Major Craven mounted two six-pounders on one of the Pentagon's completed bastions and prepared to mount two more. Webb was in no frame of mind to defend the portage. Although he had Craven's troops, the garrisons of Forts Williams, Newport, and Wood Creek, the last including 150 of Schuyler's new Jersey Regiment, plus his own 24th Regiment and an unknown number of Bradstreet's men, on August 31 he gave the order to destroy the works and retreat to German Flats. [17] It was an inauspicious beginning for his American career, whose record included the disastrous failure to support Fort William Henry almost a year to the day later, which earned him the unenviable reputation of Britain's most in competent general officer in America during the Seven Years' War.

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Last Updated: 26-Dec-2008