“Years of Conflict” By Russell Bellico

Reprinted by permission of the publisher from SAILS AND STEAM IN THE MOUNTAINS: A MARITIME AND MILITARY HISTORY OF LAKE GEORGE AND LAKE CHAMPLAIN by Russell P. Bellico, pp. 7-13, Fleischmanns, NY.: Purple Mountain Press, Copyright © 1992 by Russell P. Bellico.
Lake George and Lake Champlain intertwined by history and geography, rank as two of the most significant water routs in the settlement of North America. Melting glaciers thousands of years ago left the lake basins with a myriad of deep channels, islands, towering palisades, and rock outcroppings surrounded by lofty mountain peaks. While the receding ice gave Lake George its present shape, the Champlain Valley was inundated by slat water forming the Champlain Sea. Remnants of the oceanic past, including marine fossils, bones of walruses, and a skeleton of a whale, have been discovered along the shoreline of Lake Champlain. Without the weight of the glaciers, the Champlain Valley rose and the waters of Lake Champlain gradually changed from salt to freshwater. Fish such as the ling, sheepshead, and sturgeon trace their origins to this earlier sea. Bothe Lake George and lake Champlain drained south to the Hudson River during the last period of glaciation, but later the geological rise of the surrounding land mass caused the water of both lakes to empty to the north.

The lakes have not always been tranquil, however. During their turbulent history, these now placid waterways were the sites of three wars and many disastrous shipwrecks, producing a legacy of stories of the American past. The interest in the history of these stormy events stems not from a glorification of war but from a fascination with the lakes as special places whose beauty and past are interwoven. The names of the islands and landmarks often reflect the historic incidents of the wartime period: Floating Battery Island, Sabbath Day Point, Rogers Rock, Prisoners Island, Arnold’s Bay, Carleton’s Prize, Schuyler Island, etc. As part of a natural water route from Canada to the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Champlain and Lake George were of strategic importance to the rival colonial powers. Colonel Louis Antoine de Bougainville, pondering strategy during the French and Indian War while at Ticonderoga, noted in his journal in 1758 that “the lakes and rivers are the only outlets, the only open roads in this country.”1 Bougainville, like many military leaders who would follow, concluded that “the only way to assure ourselves the possession of Lake Champlain . . . is by a strong naval force.”2 Radeaux, brigs, sloops, row galleys, and gunboats would become a familiar part of the scenery during periods of war. When peace finally arrived during the nineteenth century, it was time for new fleets of commercial schooners, sloops, steamboats, and canal boats to once again follow the natural water route that the lakes provided.

Although most of the early history of Lake George and Lake Champlain has been written from the ethnocentric view of the European inhabitancy, there is ample evidence that native civilizations had occupied the area for thousands of years. Stone points discovered at Highgate, Vermont (east of Maquam Bay), indicate the presence of a hunting society of Paleoindians about 9300 B.C. The Archaic period in Vermont, rooted in a broad-based hunting and gathering culture, has been dated from 3500 B.C. to perhaps 2000 B.C., based upon relics uncovered at two sites along Otter Creek (Vergennes). Artifacts from the Woodland period found at the Winooski River, Swanton, and East Creek range in date from 60 A.D. to after 1000 A.D. In 1997 scuba divers discovered a 2,000-year-old intact native American pot in 50 feet of water near Thompson’s Point in Charlotte, Vermont. (The clay pot was subsequently preserved at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s conservation labe.) East Creek, lying on the Vermont side across from Fort Ticonderoga, was the apparent site of a large village before the Iroquoian tribes or Europeans arrived at Lake Champlain. During the 1930s and excavation of a site on East Creek by the Museum of the American Indian yielded potter, 15-inch spearpoints, arrowheads, and strings of copper beads. The creek marshes had teemed with muskrat beaver, and water fowl, while the adjacent north slope of Mount Independence held the best source of flint in the lake valleys. Durning the British occupation of Boston in 1775, henry Knox delivered two barrels of flint from East Creek to George Washington, along with the cannons from Ticonderoga.

The Iroquois, who inhabited New York for more than a thousand years, eventually spearheaded one of the most important confederacies of North American Indians, known as the Five Nations (after 1713 Six Nations). While fishing and hunting were pervasive, agriculture, with corn as the staple crop, played a significant role in Iroquois life. Their well-developed political structure included councils composed of democratically-elected members which met in long, bark-covered communal houses. Fine potter, mats of husk corn, baskets, and orchard fruits were produced and traded, with wampum as a medium of exchange. Wampum was usually made from pieces of shells strung on threads, and were often worn as bracelets or necklaces. More importantly, wampum, in the form of belts, was a symbolic record of intertribal transactions as well as a way of recording historic events.

Evidence of a village site on the Ticonderoga peninsula, alternately occupied by both Algonquin and Iroquois tribes, includes large quantities of tools and arrowheads. Likewise, a village site on Missisquoi Bay where 1,000 artifacts have been unearthed may have been inhabited both by Iroquois and Abenaki Indians (Algonquin Confederacy). By 1575 the Algonquin and Iroquois tribes were mortal enemies vying for control of the region. The Iroquois laid claim to the western shore of Lake Champlain while the Algonquin tribes held the eastern shore.3 Many of the place names along the lake are Europeanized versions of the original Indian names.4

By the middle of the seventeenth century the English were ready to challenge the Dutch presence in North America. From 1652 through 1675 three periods of warfare between the two rival commercial powers took place. In 1664 the Dutch colony on the Hudson River was captured by the English, but subsequently retaken by the Dutch in 1673. It was quickly seized again by the English. By 1675 the Dutch were permanently driven from North America. The Dutch colonists, however, remained at the Hudson River settlement, retaining their cultural and religious heritage.

The elimination of the Dutch and the growth of new France ultimately led to a collision course between the French and English colonial empires in North America. Under King Louis XIV in 1661, France revived its interest in the economic potential of North America. Under several effective governors of New France, ambitious plans for settlement and trade alarmed England and its colonists. Three wars: King William’s War (1689-1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), and King George’s War (1744-1748) would ensue before the final confrontation of the French and Indian War (1755-1763). Each war escalated the size of the armies and the ferocity of battle as each nation attempted to oust the other from North America.

1 Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Adventure in the Wilderness: The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville 1756-1760, trans. and ed. Edward P. Hamilton (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 246.

2 Ibid.

3 For information on the archaeological sites of the native population at Lake Champlain see William A. Haviland and Marjory W. Power, The Original Vermonters (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1981), 31, 38, 54, 59, 95, 105, 148-55, 199, and John C. Huden, comp., Archeology in Vermont (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1970), 3-6, 73-74, 100.

4 Floyd G. Lounsbury, Iroquois Place-Names in the Champlain Valley (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1965), 23-66; Floyd G. Lounsbury, “Iroquois Place – Names in the Champlain Valley” in Neighbors and Intruders: An Ethnohistorical Exploration of the Indians in Hudson’s River, ed. By Laurence M. Hauptman and Jack Campisi (Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1978), 105-49; PRO, CO 5/46, UP microfilm reel 1, frame 638.