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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 42: Battle of Lake George — 1755.

[This information is from Vol. I, pp. 564-573 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Victory of American-British army over French-Canadian-Indian army, under Baron Dieskau — Johnson's scouting party ambushed — Hendrick slain — French-Indian attack on Johnson's camp repulsed — Johnson wounded and General Lyman commands — General Johnson made a baronet and presented with 5,000 pounds by the British crown for his services in the victory of Lake George, which had heartening effect on the colonists — Mohawk Valley militia and Mohawk Indians, form detachments of General Johnson's army.

The French power in America had been gradually strengthening and extending its dominion since the close of the Old French war in 1748. The French had a line of communication and a series of forts and trading posts, extending from the mouth of the St. Lawrence nearly three thousand miles along the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to its outlet into the Gulf of Mexico. The Canadian French had powerful Indian allies along the entire route. In 1754, they started to rule the waters of the Ohio, in which, as we have seen, they came into conflict with the claims of the Six Nations to that entire region. The English attempted to build a fort at the forks of the Ohio and Allegheny on the present site of Pittsburgh. The French seized the post and completed the fort which they named Fort Duquesne. Colonel George Washington moved against this post, engaged the French in battle, but was defeated and compelled to return. This opened the great conflict in America.

The English Colonists appealed to Great Britain and three expeditions were planned for 1755, one against Fort Duquesne, one against the French Lake Ontario forts, and the other against Crown Point on Lake Champlain. The first two failed, but the third, under command of Major-General Sir William Johnson, fought and won a victory at Lake George. This was one of the three pitched battles won by the English-American forces during the war, the others being Quebec, under Wolf, and Niagara, also under Johnson. Thus Johnson nominally won two of the three English victories of the war, although General Lyman, second in command under Johnson, was the actual victor of Lake George, as Sir William was severely wounded early in the attack on the American camp.

General Braddock was sent to America, in 1755, as commander-in-chief of the English and Colonial forces. He led an expedition for the capture of Fort Duquesne and was terribly beaten and mortally wounded in a French-Indian ambuscade on July 9, 1755. This reverse, at the beginning of hostilities, had a very depressing effect upon the Colonists.

Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, was at the head of the expedition to capture the French Fort Niagara. He had previously appointed Colonel Johnson a major-general, with orders to lead the English and provincial expedition against Crown Point. As both movements had to start from Albany and as each commander needed all the sober and reliable Indian scouts available, each general competed for these red men and there grew up a strong animosity between the two leaders which worked injury to both military movements. The Niagara campaign, if successful, would have shut off the Ohio Valley from the French. It was doomed to failure as Shirley did not get beyond Oswego. If the two forces of Shirley and Johnson had been combined in one army and directed against one point more would have been gained.

Shirley, as chief-in-command, had appointed Major-General Johnson to command the army against Crown Point, "thus gratifying that important province and pleasing the Five Nations, who at this time looked on Johnson with even more than usual favor." A New England leader could not be appointed because it would have aroused too many dangerous jealousies. Shirley was a strong leader but extremely dictatorial and he soon estranged both Johnson and Governor DeLancey. The governor and Johnson, from being enemies thereupon became allies united in opposition to Governor Shirley.

For the Crown Point expedition, Connecticut raised 1,200 men, Massachusetts 1,200, New Hampshire 500, Rhode Island 400, New York 800, all American militiamen. Of Johnson, Parkman says: "By birth he was Irish, of good family, being nephew of Admiral Sir Peter Warren who, owning extensive wild lands on the Mohawk, had placed the young man in charge of them nearly twenty years before. Johnson was born to prosper. He had ambition, energy, an active mind, a tall, strong person, a rough, jovial temper, and a quick adaptation to his surroundings. He could drink flip with Dutch boors or Madiera with royal governors. He liked the society of the great, would intrigue and flatter when he had an end to gain and foil a rival, without looking too closely at the means."

Colonel Johnson early took precautions to guard the frontiers at the very beginning of hostilities. As early as June 6, 1754, he issued orders to the Albany County militia, including that of the Mohawk Valley, to be ready to repel any threatened French attack. On August 30, 1754, at Mount Johnson, he issued orders to the Schenectady militia to guard that town.

On February 7, 1755, Johnson held a council with the Mohawks and the "Canajoharies," as the Mohawks of the Upper Castle, in the Canajoharie district, were called. On February 24, 1755, Colonel Johnson was nominated by Governor Shirley to lead the Crown Point army. He attended the Provincial council in New York, on February 28th and March 12th. He left New York City for Mount Johnson, March 19th and on April 7th, he set out from Mount Johnson for Alexandria, Virginia, where General Braddock then had his headquarters. Braddock there made Johnson superintendent of Indian affairs for all the British colonies in America and commissioned him commander of the Crown Point expedition.

On April 16th, Governors Shirley of Massachusetts, and DeLancey of New York, commissioned Johnson a major-general of the Provincial forces. Following his return to Mount Johnson, Major-General and Indian Commissioner Johnson held a number of important Indian councils, concluding with one with nine Indian nations from June 21 to July 24, 1755, at which 1,100 red men were present. Mount Johnson had been stockaded and fortified and henceforth became Fort Johnson, one of the most important British-American army and militia posts in the English colonies. Parkman writes of this council as follows:

"This meeting took place at his own house known as Fort Johnson; and, as more than eleven hundred Indians appeared at his call, his larder was sorely taxed to entertain them. The speeches were interminable. Johnson, a master of Indian rhetoric, knew his audience too well not to contest with them the palm for insufferable prolixity. The climax was reached the fourth day and he threw down the war-belt. An Oneida war chief took it up; Stevens, the interpreter, began the war-dance, and the assembled warriors howled in chorus. Then a tub of punch was brought in and they all drank the King's health. They showed less alacrity, however, to fight his battles and scarcely three hundred of them would take the war-path. Too many of their friends and relatives were enlisted for the French."

The main reason why more of the Six Nations did not join Johnson was that Shirley, then in command of the Niagara expedition, was competing with Johnson for Indian recruits and foolishly depreciated Johnson in the councils he held with the Six Nations. Johnson's American Provincial troops mobilized at Albany. From there General Johnson sent General Lyman ahead to the carrying place between the Hudson and Lake George, and he followed on August 9th, arriving there, August 14th, with about 3,000 men. On August 15th, he held a council of war which asked for a reinforcement of 1,000 men from Massachusetts and Connecticut. A fort was begun at the Great Carrying Place and named Fort Lyman by its builders. On August 28th, General Johnson arrived at Lake Saint Sacrament. This beautiful lake had received its name from Father Jogues when he passed it on his way to his death in the Mohawk country. On September 1, 1755, General Johnson announced that he had changed the name to Lake George, in honor of the English sovereign. On September 3rd, Johnson wrote a letter to the Lords of Trade complaining of Governor Shirley's interference with his plans. On his arrival at the lake a fortification was begun at once.

Learning of the British-Colonial attempt to capture Crown Point, New France prepared to defend it. An expedition originally intended for the capture of Oswego was sent to defend Crown Point under the command of Baron Dieskau, who expected an easy conquest of the "mob of countrymen" opposed to him. The French force sailed down Lake Champlain in boats and canoes.

Johnson's Provincial army had in it many able military leaders, chief of whom was General Phineas Lyman of Connecticut, second in command, who was the real victor of Lake George. Others were Col. Ephraim Williams of Massachusetts, the founder of Williams College, who was killed in the first battle. Israel Putnam, then a private in a Connecticut regiment and later the famous American Revolutionary general; Lieutenant John Stark of the New Hampshire regiment, who, as a Revolutionary general, stopped the British at Bennington in 1777. Only one of the regiments was uniformed in blue, the rest wearing their daily clothing, as the militiamen of the Revolution did usually. They were not soldiers but farmers and farmers' sons who had volunteered for the summer's campaign. "Blankets had been served out to them by the several provinces, but the greater part brought their own guns; some under the penalty of a fine if they came without them, and some under the inducement of a reward. They had no bayonets but carried hatchets in their belts as a sort of a substitute. At their sides were slung powder horns, on which, in the leisure of the camp, they carved quaint devices with the points of their jack-knives." All in all, they were the same type of Americans who later fought and won the War for Independence. With them was a battalion of men from the Mohawk Valley, in which Hendrick Frey, Jelles Fonda and others held command. Our Valley militia fought bravely in the following battle.

Johnson's Indian scouts reported the advance of the French, consisting of 3,500 French regulars, Canadians and Indians, with the German Baron Dieskau at their head. The French moved forward to capture Fort Lyman (later Fort Frederick) at the Great Carrying Place. The Indians, as usual refused to join in an assault on a fort and so Dieskau changed his plans to an attack on Johnson's fortified camp at the head of Lake George. Both the French and the Americans had trouble with their Indian allies, whose idea of a successful military expedition seemed to be a prolonged eating and drinking bout, with incidental bloody barbarities.

Dieskau's advance guard captured some wagoners from Fort Lyman, but some escaped and ran into the American camp with the news of the approaching enemy. Johnson's plans of attack and defense do not seem very professional. At a war council, on September 8th, Johnson proposed sending out two parties of 500 men each, although he only had about 2,200 men and less than 300 Indians. Hendrick, the Mohawk war chief, strongly objected. "He picked up a stick and broke it and then he picked up several sticks and showed that together they could not be broken." Johnson thereupon proposed joining the detachments in one. Hendrick shook his old gray head, saying, "If they are to be killed, they are too many; if they are to fight, they are too few." In spite of his objections, Hendrick led his Indians in the reconnoitering force, which Johnson sent out toward the enemy. He was too old and fat to walk, so Johnson lent the veteran a horse. Previous to going out, Hendrick harangued the red men in one of his most famous speeches. Colonel Ephraim Williams commanded this advance force.

On the morning of September 8, 1755, the French commander prepared an ambush for the approaching Americans who walked into it, led by Hendrick, with his Mohawks and other Indians. Volleys from three sides shot the men down in files. Hendrick's horse was shot down and the old chief was killed with a bayonet as he tried to rise. The sudden attack threw the American force into confusion but the Americans and Indians soon rallied and retreated to their camp in good order, firing as they retired and killing a number of the enemy. The Canadian commander of the advance party was killed and the Canadians and the Indians showed signs of having had enough. Baron Dieskau finally rallied his army and, with the French regulars leading the way, the enemy finally moved forward to attack the American camp.

The Americans lay behind a redoubt of logs, wagons and inverted batteaux, when the retreating party piled into the camp after their defeat of the morning. Order was soon restored and the men were disposed to meet the advancing enemy. The French regulars came on in good order but Dieskau's Canadians scattered behind trees and fought in the Indian fashion.

The French regulars advanced, firing by platoons, but were stopped by the American artillery. Both sides now opened a furious fire. Johnson was shot in the thigh and the command passed to General Lyman, who successfully directed the fight for four hours, when the French were finally driven off. Lyman was everywhere in the front of the battle but escaped uninjured. The French fire failed to make an opening in the American line, where wagoners and camp followers joined in the battle. The Mohawks, however, did little, evidently thinking that they had done and suffered enough in the morning fight, where many of them were killed. Baron Dieskau was shot in several places. About five o'clock the Americans rushed from behind their line with a yell and attacked the enemy with their hatchets and gun butts and routed them completely. Dieskau was again shot and carried wounded to Johnson's tent, where the American general ordered him to be immediately cared for. By General Johnson's care, Dieskau was saved from being murdered by the Mohawks who were furious at their losses in the battle of the morning.

The casualties of the battle are given as 262 Americans killed, wounded and missing and 228 in the enemy army, both of which seem to be greatly understated as the fighting covered five hours and four hundred Americans were later required to bury the dead. Only two American surgeons and two assistants were with the American army and these four men cared for the many wounded.

Parkman says: "Johnson did not follow up his success. He says that his men were tired. Yet five hundred of them had stood still all day and boats enough for their transportation were lying on the beach. Ten miles down the lake, a path led over a gorge of the mountains to South Bay, where Dieskau had left his boats and provisions. It needed but a few hours to reach and destroy them; but no such attempt was made. Nor, till a week after, did Johnson send out scouts to learn the strength of the enemy at Ticonderoga. Lyman strongly urged him to seize that important pass; but Johnson thought only of holding his own position."

Johnson has been severely criticised for not moving forward to the capture of Crown Point. Although recruits were coming in and his army numbered 3,600 by October, yet it was insufficiently clothed and supplied. On September 21, Johnson gave the name of Fort Edward to the fort at the carrying place which had been named Fort Lyman. On September 29th, he gave orders for building a new fort at Lake George.

A solid breastwork was now built around Johnson's camp and his recruits were set to work building the new fort, on a rising ground by the lake, which, on November 8th, he christened Fort William Henry, like Fort Edward, named in honor of the King's grandsons. Johnson expected a more formidable attack. In reply to Shirley's criticism of his failure to advance, General Johnson wrote that he did not have wagons enough and that his troops were ill-clothed, ill-fed, discontented, insubordinate and sickly and that discipline was at a low state. His artillery was also insufficient. On November 9th, he offered the resignation of his command to Governor Shirley, which was refused. Johnson's Iroquois left him soon after the battle and the militia now began to desert, singly and in squads.

Johnson called a council of war, on November 22nd, and asked General Lyman to preside. The council advised against making any further advance that season. News of the American victory reached London, and on November 27th, the English government conferred the title of baronet upon Johnson and presented him with 5,000 pounds. On the same day, Major-General Sir William Johnson left Lake George. He arrived in Albany December 1st, and, on December 2nd, resigned his command in a letter to the governors. On December 8th, he returned to Fort Johnson. He then went to New York, arriving there on December 30th, where he was given a great public ovation.

Fort William Henry was garrisoned by a certain number of soldiers from each colony represented in Johnson's army, the balance of which, 3,000 strong, returned to Albany. From there the New England and New York militia returned to their farms and villages and, around their winter firesides, again fought over the battle of Lake George to the great admiration of their families and neighbors.

Johnson made no mention of Lyman in his official report of the Battle of Lake George, although he is said to have privately admitted that he owed the victory to the Yankee general, which is not to be doubted. There was a bitter feeling between the partisans of the two leaders and, all in all, the entire campaign showed both the strength and weakness of the American Colonists.

The battle of Lake George was an important victory of the French and Indian war, although General Johnson's army had failed to take Crown Point. This success had all the more importance because of the depressing news of Braddock's defeat and Shirley's failure to go against Fort Niagara. The psychological effect of this American victory, therefore, was immense. It cheered up the Colonists and reconciled them to the prospect of an extended war which now seemed inevitable. The battle was the first pitched battle which a purely American force of militiamen had won against French regulars. It was a bitter conflict fought in the forest, which style of warfare was a great test of mettle and skill. It was won by untried militiamen who had been badly beaten in the first encounter. As a result of the victory, the Colonists, from New Hampshire to Georgia, felt that they were the equals on the field of battle of any foreign trained soldiery. Lake George was the trial conflict which gauged the American effort in the later Revolution. It also showed the Americans that they were as good men and soldiers as any of the British regulars, whose attitude toward the provincials was supercilious and frequently insulting. American officers of equal rank with the British were rated below the foreign officers, which was a particularly galling thing for the Colonists to bear. The Americans had furnished the greater part of the troops in the Colonial wars with New France. They had supplied the best Indian fighters and forest rangers and now they had shown they were the equals of English regulars in the field.

There were five great pitched battles in the French and Indian war, Braddock's defeat, Lake George, Ticonderoga, Quebec and Niagara. Braddock's and Ticonderoga were French victories. Lake George, Niagara and Quebec were the three outstanding American-British victories. In two of these — Lake George and Niagara — Sir William Johnson was the commanding general. New England historians, including Parkman, are generally unfriendly or inimical to Johnson and do not see or admit his great work in aiding the success of American-British arms in the French and Indian war. His masterful diplomacy and tremendous energy, which he utilized to the fullest extent in keeping the Six Nations loyal, is largely overlooked. The French would probably have won the war before the British government got started had it not been for Johnson's holding the Iroquois to the English cause. While his first soldiering seems amateurish, yet Johnson was brave, and, compared with some of the first British commanders, such as Webb and Abercrombie, he was a master-at-arms. Furthermore, Sir William was a brainy man, who learned by experience and who later fought at Niagara in splendid style. When our American historians overcome sectional and racial prejudices, Sir William Johnson will at last receive his just due, as a statesman, a diplomatist, a soldier and a vital factor in final English success in The Great French and Indian war.

* * * * *

The death of King Hendrick, the great Mohawk chief who fell at the battle of Lake George, was a great misfortune to his friend, Sir William Johnson, and to the English cause. Hendrick and Johnson were the mainstays of the English-Iroquois alliance. Hendrick and Brant were the two greatest Mohawk sachems of the eighteenth century — Hendrick dominating the nation in the mid-century and Brant during Revolutionary times. Hendrick is said to have been a Mohican by birth who was adopted by the Mohawks at an early age. He was born about 1675, became a Christian about 1690 and a chief of the Mohawks in 1697. He was deposed as a chief by the Mohawks in 1716 and reinstated in 1720 at the request of the Provincial government through its Albany Indian commissioners. From that time until his death, Hendrick was the leading Indian figure in the life of his nation and the Mohawk Valley. His influence was most powerful in keeping the Six Nations from alliances with the French. He was an active war chief, wise in council and the most powerful orator in the Colonial history of the New York Iroquois. Historians of Colonial times write of his speeches with unrestrained admiration. Hendrick lived, during his early years, at Canagorha and Canajorha on the slope and top of Big Nose Mountain. After 1700, he resided at the Upper Castle, or Canajoharie Castle, so called because it was located in the Mohawk River district of Canajoharie which ran from the Noses westward to Fall Hill (Little Falls). In 1758, Sir William had a fort erected at present Indian Castle, Herkimer County, which he named Fort Hendrick, after his Indian friend. As previously mentioned, because of their location in the Canajoharie district, the Mohawks of the Upper Castle were known as "Canajoharies". Hendrick's brother, Abraham, was the head chief of the Lower Mohawk Castle at Fort Hunter.

The well known story of how Johnson became possessed of the Royal Grant deserves a place here. Sir William Johnson obtained over 60,000 acres of choice land, now lying chiefly in Herkimer County, north of the Mohawk, in the following manner: The Mohawk sachem, Hendrick, being at the baronet's house, saw a richly embroidered coat and coveted it. The next morning he said to Sir William:

"Brother, me dream last night."

"Indeed, what did my red brother dream?" asked Johnson.

"Me dream that coat be mine."

"It is yours," said the shrewd Irish baronet.

Not long afterward Sir William visited the chief, and he, too, had a dream.

"Brother, I dreamed last night," said Johnson.

"What did my pale-faced brother dream?" asked Hendrick.

"I dreamed that this tract of land was mine," describing a square bounded on the south by the Mohawk, on the east by Canada creek, and north and west by objects equally well known in present Herkimer County.

Hendrick was astounded. He saw the enormity of the request, but was not to be outdone in generosity. He sat thoughtfully for a moment and then said, "Brother, the land is yours, but you must not dream again."

The title was confirmed by the British government and the tract was called the Royal Grant.

* * * * *

The Mohawks and others of the Six Nations formed the advance guard of the American force which fought the morning engagement of the battle of Lake George. In that bloody ambush many of the Mohawks were killed and wounded, a number of whom, including the head chief, were from the middle Mohawk town of Tarajorees, then located on the southeast point of present Prospect Hill, Fort Plain and on the northern slope of the little creek of Tencksowemy, which now forms the southern boundary of the village. So many warriors of the small Mohawk town of Tarajorees were killed in this bloody battle that most of its people moved up to the Upper Castle at present Indian Castle. Probably a few Mohawks still remained in their cabins on Prospect Hill or on the neighboring slopes of Tsidrosowengen, or the Hog's Back, to the southward.

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