THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1920)

Historical Context:  Print -- Video -- Online

The Siege and Massacre at Fort William Henry during the French and Indian War

[1]    The war known as the French and Indian War in American history was actually a series of wars that began in 1689 and led all the way up to1763.  Each conflict was a part of a larger war that was occurring between England and the other European countries, mainly France.  England controlled a chain of colonies stretching from New England all the way to the Carolinas, and France occupied Canada.  To the west of the Appalachians lay a vast extent of territory open to competition by both parties.  Involved with France and England in their quest for land were the many tribes of Native Americans.  The Native Americans had deep rivalries among their tribes, and the conflict between their foreign allies enabled them to act out their aggressions.  The most influential Native Americans were those members of the Iroquois nation.  The five tribes of the Iroquois nation most often supported the English, but they found advantages to playing both sides.

[2]    The wars in North America were long and bloody and caused immense suffering among the Indians as well as the whites who were involved.  Among those who suffered most were the frontier settlers who were often exposed to sudden raids by their enemies. The most well known of the conflicts of the French and Indian Wars was the Seven Years War.

[3]    The Seven Years war began in 1754 when British settlers came into an area that was also claimed by French settlers in what is now western Pennsylvania.  The British began building a fort at the fork of the Ohio River but were expelled by a French expedition, which then proceeded to build Fort Duquense.  In July of 1754 the British were temporarily able to force the French from the area.  Within a few short weeks, the French continued to advance into the Ohio Valley.

[4]    The most effective leader for the French was the Marquis de Montcalm.  He was victorious in the battle of Oswego (1756), Fort William Henry (1757), and Ticonderoga (1758).  Montcalm was born on February 28, 1712, in France.  He entered the army in 1724 as an ensign and was a seasoned veteran of military service when he was named general officer in command of the French regular army contingent in North America.  Until 1758, he was subordinate to the governor general of New France (Canada), Vaudreuil.  Vaudreuil was in favor of guerrilla attacks that the Canadians used and found most successful.  The conquest that stands out most in the career of Montcalm is, perhaps, the capture of Fort William Henry.

[5]    The first attempt to take Fort William Henry was on March 19, 1757.  The French were under the command of Rigaud de Vaudreuil, and the British were under the command of Major William Erye.  The British repulsed four French attacks, and the French were forced to retire, having only destroyed several storage huts on the outside of the fort.  Colonel John Stanwix, of the English army, dispatched 1,900 colonials to protect the western front.  This left Forts William Henry and Edward with only four thousand troops.  Montcalm seized this as an opportunity for another attempt to capture Fort William Henry.  Major General Daniel Webb, who was in charge of the fort, chose not to take action upon warnings of a potential French invasion.  When Montcalm’s forces appeared on the lake, Webb fled to Fort Edward, leaving Lieutenant Colonel George Munro in command.  Munro was left with only 2,372 men, of whom only 1,100 were deemed fit to fight, while Montcalm proceeded with 8,000.  The attacks lasted four days until on August 8, 1757, the fort fell.  When the gates to the fort were finally opened to the conquerors, the Indians wildly assaulted the inhabitants and killed many.  Those who survived either escaped to Fort Edward or were taken prisoner.

[6]    The massacre that occurred at Fort William Henry began at dawn on August 9, 1757.  The Indians claimed the right to pillage the fort after the French had taken over.  As the gates opened, the Indians rushed in to find all that they could, and what they found were the sick and wounded English soldiers.  The Indians saw that the French had taken all that was valuable, so they saw the English dead as a prize.  There are several versions of information as to what role the French played in the massacre.  Some sources state that Montcalm said, “Take me, and save the English.”  While other sources stated that he just watched not wanting to lose his own men trying to save those he had just defeated.

Print Resources

Bird, Harrison.  Battle for a Continent.  New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

This book details the events of the Seven Year’s War, a small portion of the French and Indian War.  It gives a narrative account of the events that took place during this war.  Includes pictures as well as maps on the entire war as well as individual battles and contains maps and locations of Fort William Henry as well as its proximity to neighboring Forts.

Leckie, Robert.  “A Few Acres of Snow”: The Saga of the French and Indian Wars.  New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1999.

Fort William Henry was a fort built of fairly strong construction.  It was built in the middle of the 1600’s by the British and was conquered a century later by the French.  It was built of timber cribs filled with earth and could stand heavy bombardment in its early years.  But as time wore on so did the timber.  It eventually rotted, making it more vulnerable to invasion.  The decayed condition of the fort was not its sole problem; of the 2,500 troops stationed there, 500 were sick.  They buried 5-8 soldiers each day.  The fort smelled of infection and sickness.  On August 1, 1757, Montcalm left his post with 7,500 men in order to conquer the ailing Fort William Henry.  Fort William Henry fought back to the best of its ability, while it waited for reinforcements.  After the surrender, the Indians went out of control slaughtering the sick and wounded in their beds.  Montcalm’s excuse for not using his troops to stop the Indians was out of fear of what they might do to his men.  The destruction of Fort William Henry left Fort Edward as the only fort between Albany and the Hudson high road to New York City.  The fall of Fort William Henry ended on August 8, 1757.

Schwartz, Seymour L.  The French and Indian War, 1754-1763: The Imperial Struggle for North America.  New York: Simon &Schuster, 1994.

In the eighteenth century North America was a battleground between the French and the British.  This war extended from 1754-1763, and it set the stage for the American Revolution.  The war is called the Seven Year’s War or the French and Indian War.  The latter term is derived from the fact that the French and Native Americans fought together against the British.  It began as a struggle over territorial rights between colonists and settlers and ended as a war between great nations.  The war resulted in British domination of the continent.  British claim to the land stemmed from 1498 discovery by John Cabot.  The French based their claim on the discovery of the Ohio Valley in 1682 by La Salle.  In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht set up boundaries for the British Hudson Bay Company; meanwhile the French continued building forts where they chose.  The war because a British Governor promised land to his people that was already in use by the French.  Fort William Henry was officially constructed into a Fort in 1755 by Captain William Eyre  (page 68 and 69 contain a map of the fort).  Captain Robert Rogers was left in charge of the fort during the fall and winter of 1756 and was fully aware of Montcalm’s intention to attack.  On March 19, 1757, the French attacked Fort William Henry, led by Captain Rigaud de Vaudreuil.  The British were able to repel four French attacks.  At the end of July Major Daniel Webb was aware of another oncoming French attack and chose to flee the fort, leaving its defense to Lieutenant Colonel George Munro.  Munro was left with 2,372 men, of whom only 1,100 were considered fit.  Fort William Henry fell on August 8, 1757.

Steele, Ian K.  Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the “Massacre”.  New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

The mixture of Indian, colonial, and European presence created conflict that promoted the conquering of a continent.  The Battle of Lake George shows the consistent military battle that took place over the area.  The siege of Fort William Henry in 1757 displayed what could be accomplished if two sides, the French and the Indians, had the ability to ally themselves together.  The massacre, on the other hand, was representative of the two varying ideas about prisoners of war.  The massacre itself left many people dead or missing, establishing it as an American folk memory.  For the most part, Americans would have completely forgotten the massacre had it not been for literature.  This book gives a novel-like description of what actually happened to Fort William Henry.  Its goal is to make the reader feel a part of the atrocities that so many have tried to forget about.

Video Resources

The Native Americans.  John Borden, dir. and Pat Mitchell prod.  TBS Productions, Inc., 1994.

These portrayals of Native American life come in a six-part series.  Native Americans tell their own stories against the backgrounds of five geographic regions.  The series takes a journey through the history and culture of the North American lands the Native Americans call home.  The series moves to tribes and their existences throughout various regions of the country starting from the southeast and working its way around the country.

How the West Was Lost.  Chris Wheeler, dir. and Jim Berger. Prod.  Discovery Communications, Inc., 1993.

The film series is a documentary for the epic struggle for the west.  It tells the story of five Native American nations: the Navajo, Nez Perce, Apache, Cheyenne, and Lakota.  The film states that the Native Americans were not only fighting for their territory, but also their way of life.  These films contain rare historical documents, recollections from Indian's descendants, and archival photographs.

The West.  Ken Burns, dir. and prod.  PBS Video, 1996.

This film series deals with the original Native American inhabitants.  It discusses the stories of the land and the environment that the people lived in.  The West also discusses the coming of Europeans and the toll that it took on the Native Americans and their lifestyle.  The series dates back to 100 years before the American Revolution to the present.

Online Resources

The Fort William Henry Museum
http://www.fortwilliamhenry.com/fortmus.htm

This web page contains detailed information in regards to Fort William Henry.  It also contains photographs of the Fort and what still remains standing today.  This page also gives historical accounts of what happened at the massacre, eyewitness accounts of the siege and destruction.  It gives information about the major players in the conflict and what effect they had.

On the Trail of the Last of the Mohicans
http://www.mohicanpress.com/

This is perhaps the most extensive web site available about the history of The Last of the Mohicans.  This site contains everything from photos, to interviews, and biographies of characters that actually existed in history.  Perhaps the most extensive sub- links from this page are:

http://www.mohicanpress.com/mo08000.html

http://www.mohicanpress.com/mo08009.html

http://www.mohicanpress.com/mo08021.html

These links contain information about the French and Indian War, Fort William Henry, photos of the era as well as the fort, and they also contain detailed information about the films and the author of the original novel, James Fenimore Cooper.
 
 

Copyright (c) 1999 by Jessica Baker Roche, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

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