Lake George in History

Through years of significant events during the French and Indian War including The Battle of Lake George, Massacre of Fort William Henry, the Battle of Saratoga, and the final surrender of British General Burgoyne (known as “the turning point in the American Revolution”), it can be said that the Lake George region played a vital roll in the ultimate creation of the United States. Read all about it.

Lake George was discovered in 1646 by Father Isaac Joques, a French Jesuit missionary, who christened it Lac du St. Sacrement and it was over a hundred years later when General William Johnson re-named it Lake George in honor of his king. By 1690, the seventy-year-long struggle between England and France for control of the all-important water route to Canada. When the French built Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point in 1731, it posed a major threat to the British installations at Ticonderoga and this was the military objective of General William Johnson when he set forth from Albany in August of 1755. Johnson carved a Military Road from Fort Lyman, which he renamed Fort Edward, to the head of the lake at what is now Lake George Village. This road through the wilderness roughly parallels today’s Route 4 from Fort Edward and Route 9 north to Lake George. On hearing of Johnson’s plan to attack Crown Point, French Commander-in-Chief Baron Dieskau marched south to meet the British head on. He reached the head of the lake on September 8, 1755. Here General Johnson, together with General Lyman and Mohawk Indian Chief King Hendrik, were encamped and the three conflicts which took place that day are known collectively as “The Battle of Lake George.”

The first engagement took place when troops led by Colonel Ephraim Williams and King Hendrik’s Indian forces headed north on the Military Road to meet Dieskau. A quarter mile north of today’s intersection of Routes 9 and 149, the French were lying in ambush, and the British were well within the trap before the first shot was fired. King Hendrick died almost at once of a bayonet wound and, a short time later, Colonel Williams was shot and killed. His will provided for the founding of Williams College, and alumni of that famous Massachusetts school have erected a monument where he fell in a wooded ravine to the east of Route 9. Look for the highway marker and footpath leading to this memorial. On the west side of Route 9, a little further south, a simple gray rock inscribed “E. W. 1755” marks the final resting place of Colonel Williams. Colonel Johnson and King Hendrik were similarly honored with a statue at Lake George Battlefield Park, the original battleground which serves today as a 35-acre state park.

The Provincials beat a hasty retreat with Dieskau in pursuit, first to Bloody Pond and then on to the center of the barricade itself where the major battle of the day took place. Dieskau was taken prisoner and his wounds treated by Johnson’s personal physician. When Johnson suffered a leg wound his command fell to General Lyman, and credit for the day’s victory is his. Later, Captain McGinnis with a replacement force from Fort Edward attacked some 300 of Dieskau’s men at a stagnant pond along the Military Road. Legend has it that so many were slain in this encounter that the waters were stained red for weeks to come and thus the name Bloody Pond.

The winter of 1756-57 was a harsh one. Raids and counter-raids continued, and the French garrison at Ticonderoga was often under attack. The Rangers under Major Robert Rogers set fire to the outposts of the fort at one point, but the control of the Carillon itself remained with the French. Meanwhile, General Johnson was building Fort William Henry at the head of the lake, a log and earth structure name for the Duke of Cumberland, King George III’s brother. The fort successfully withstood a five-day siege by the French in march of 1757. However, history was less beneficial to the following August when the French under General Montcalm once again laid siege to the garrison in the wilderness. The fort’s northwestern bastion was just about totally demolished and at last Colonel George Munro agreed to surrender, with the assurance of safe conduct back to Fort Edward for his men. But Montcalm’s Indians defied their French leader and cruelly butchered and scalped not only soldiers, but their wives and children as well. Montcalm was helpless to prevent this infamous “Massacre of Fort William Henry” and his victory that day was a hollow one. The fort was destroyed and the logs, together with the bodies of the slaughtered, formed a giant funeral pyre to which the General set fire before heading north once more.

During the siege of Fort William Henry, the lives of Colonel Munro’s two daughters were saved by the friendly Indians, Uncas and Hawkeye, who hid the girls in a cave under the Copper’s Cave Bridge which spans the Hudson River between the city of Glens Falls and the village of South Glens Falls. This incident serves as background material for James Fenimore Cooper’s classic tale, The Last of the Mohicans, and thus the hiding place is known as Cooper’s Cave. A platform complete with interpretive signage provides for open viewing of the two tear drop cave openings. Fort William Henry, of course, has been completely restored and offers a unique insight into the days of Colonial warfare.

A short period of peace followed these French and Indian Wars but ill will was growing between the colonists and their Mother Country. In 1775, the American War for Independence got underway. Just a few weeks later the fort at Ticonderoga was seized “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress” by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the Green Mountain Boys. The British under Burgoyne recaptured the fort at Ticonderoga two years later but this was the last military action there. On hearing of Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, General Powell burned Fort Ticonderoga to the ground and it was abandoned. Meanwhile, at Fort Edward, the infamous massacre of Jane McCrea became a rallying cry for the colonists throughout the countryside. When British General Burgoyne finally faced these men on September 19, 1777 at Bemis Heights, he was completely outnumbered. For three weeks he managed to hold the line, waiting for reinforcements which never came.

The second “Battle of Saratoga” took place on October 7 and Burgoyne retreated to Schuylerville where he was not only outmanned but cut off from his supply line. Ten days later Burgoyne surrendered to General Horatio Gates, an event termed by historians everywhere as “the turning point of the American Revolution.” It was deemed one of those “signal events which shape the destiny of nations” because France, from that time on, openly intervened on the side of the revolutionists. Without her assistance, the American bid for liberty may well have been in vain. The fighting continued for four years before the final victory at Yorktown, but the success at Saratoga strengthened a desperate people at a time when failure could have meant disaster. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 and the thirteen original colonies were granted their independence from England. Lake George played a vital role in the ultimate creation of this United States of America.