See the movie. Don’t bother with the book. James Fenimore Cooper’s classic 1826 novel may tell one of the most romantic tales in American literature, but its writing style is hopelessly turgid (as Mark Twain attested). Nonetheless, the book has inspired no less than four American movies, an opera, a Marvel Comic, and a half a dozen more foreign versions. The latest film in 1992, starring heart-throb Daniel Day Lewis as hero Hawkeye, beautiful Madeleine Stowe as the heroine Cora, and sinister Wes Studi as villainous Magua, is well worth a Netflix review since it has so much to do with what will be here related. It’s likewise a wonderful flick. However hyped and mythicized it is based on a true and terrible historical event.
The setting is 1756. It’s a year after the battle in which Ephraim Williams gave his life, and at the same Lake George location. Currently all was quiet on this front as the English put the last touches on new Fort William Henry. Commandant Sir William Johnson had just renamed the lake after the English king, thus claiming all of it for the crown. Wounded in the previous battle, he now passed the command of the fort to Lieutenant Colonel George Munro and left him with a garrison of two thousand troops, half red-coat British regulars, half blue-coat colonials.
All this, however, was an utterly insulting blow to the French who for over a hundred years had considered the lake irrevocably theirs, calling it by their own name, Lac du Saint Sacrement. In response to the English aggression, the French began building another fort at the north end of the lake, Fort Carillon (later to be renamed Fort Ticonderoga). For the moment, however, these two bastions confronted each other inertly, even if defiantly, thirty three miles of disputed water apart.
Meanwhile back in Massachusetts, English settlements along the Mohawk Trail were also pushing further in the face of the French. After much argument among the villagers as to whether Fort Massachusetts was sufficient to protect the community, another was built some four miles to the west called Fort Hoosac consisting mostly of a log blockhouse where now stands Williams Inn at the crossroads of routes 2 and 7. The village of West Hoosac itself was expanding along Hemlock Brook. In 1756, several West Hoosac residents were killed and scalped, their houses burned and live stock slaughtered by Indian marauders, ever more inflaming the local population’s hatred of the French and their swarthy cronies. In Northeast America particularly, the employment of Indians by the French, and later by the British in the Revolutionary War, had the effect of turning white settlers against whoever was letting “blood-thirsty savages” loose in their neighborhoods. Two common English words, “savage” and “civilized,” which in their original Latin roots simply meant “of the forest” and “of the city,” had become polarized adjectives, the one conveying primitive barbarity, the other white supremacy.
Things began to ramp up on Lake George in the summer and fall of 1756. Both sides were carrying out raids, but mostly to annoy and test each other. The most effective of these were led by Captain Robert Rogers on the English side. He had converted a militia company of New Hampshire woodsmen into an band of guerrilla fighters. They dressed in buckskin britches and green jackets to blend with the forest, and were capable of sudden surprise attacks from behind trees in Indian fashion, over-running enemy positions and then fading back into the woods. “Rogers Rangers,” as they were known, bivouacked on an island in the Hudson River adjacent to Fort Edward, now a state historical park. Their exploits grew legendary; in 1940, a popular novel was written about them called “Northwest Passage” by Kenneth Roberts, followed by a movie (not recommended) of the same name starring Spencer Tracy.
Finally the French decided to strike back in full force. A new commander appeared on the scene, Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, himself a legendary soldier in France. Collecting a large force of some six-thousand regulars and militia especially armed with heavy artillery plus sixteen hundred Indians, he planned a frontal assault and siege of Fort William Henry. On August 1, 1757, Montcalm’s army began to ascend the lake in more than two-hundred long boats. When scouts reported this large force about to fall upon Fort William Henry, Colonel Munro sent a message to Fort Edward, begging for immediate reinforcements, Three thousand troops had just arrived there under command of Colonel Daniel Webb. Webb’s dithering, and then refusal to reinforce, was one of the several “betrayals” that led to the tragedy about to happen.
On August 3, Montcalm landed his army before the fort and deployed his heavy artillery. His plan was to bombard the fort day and night until the earthworks and log palisades were shredded, and then pour his infantry in through the breaches. The English responded, perhaps too soon, with their own limited artillery. Trying to knock out Montcalm’s well-protected cannon, many of their mortars burst from too rapid firing. For the next six days, the unrelenting French edged their batteries ever closer, constantly pouring heavy cannon fire on the slowly deteriorating fortifications. Meanwhile, Colonel Monro sent desperate messages for help from Fort Edward, but Colonel Webb continued to demur. Fearing that he too was about to be attacked, he claimed that all his troops were needed to defend his own fort. Moreover, Webb’s final message of refusal was actually intercepted by the French who now knew the English had no chance of holding out. On August 9, a white flag was indeed raised above the broken parapets of Fort William Henry, inviting the French commander to meet Colonel Monro. Montcalm’s offer was amazingly generous. The French general was a gentleman of honor in the old-school chivalric tradition. His terms were simply that if the English peaceably surrendered the fort, they could march free back to Fort Edward “with all the honors of war.” Furthermore, they could take with them all their personal belongings and even their weapons. They need only promise not to re-engage in the conflict again for eighteen months. The defeated English thankfully accepted
On the other hand, the Indian allies of the French, mostly Iroquois, Ottawa and Abenaki from Canada, were decidedly not pleased with these terms. They had come from far away to join in this attack with the promise of much booty and scalps. From their cultural point of view, they too felt betrayed. That afternoon, as the defeated English marched away, the disappointed Indians held a war council. Montcalm, addressing them as “mes enfants,” tried to assuage their anger, but to no avail. The Indians began to sack the just captured fort, taking for themselves as much loot as they could find. They then broke into the cellar hospital and brutally scalped the English wounded still in bed. Some even began digging in the fort’s fresh new cemetery and scalped the corpses. But the worst was yet to come. The still walking soldiers with their many women and children had assembled below the fort just to the east in preparation for the march to Fort Edward.
The Indians suddenly charged among them, ripping away their clothing and other belongings while killing, scalping, and capturing at random. Chaos reigned. It was every man for himself as those who could ran off into the woods in all directions with the Indians in pursuit. The exhausted survivors, including Colonel Monro who finally made it to Fort Edward, claimed that some fifteen hundred of their company had been slaughtered or kidnapped. Scholars ever since have disagreed as to the exact number, but the latest evidence discounts such a high figure, understandably and emotionally exaggerated by those who had just escaped the horror. It’s now agreed that no more than one-hundred seventy were actually killed, and as many captured and held for ransom. Montcalm himself tried to intervene and halt the massacre, but was never forgiven by Colonel Monro. This was the final “betrayal” of Fort William Henry, whether or not the Frenchman was truly guilty.[i]
In 1965 while excavating for the Holly Tree Motel on Birch Street just off route 9 about a mile below the fort, a makeshift grave site was uncovered including twenty-eight skeletons almost all of which had simply been interred in the raw earth without coffins. Buttons and other artifacts indicated that the remains were all of eighteenth-century persons, mostly soldiers. One male skeleton in particular showed grim evidence of the ferocity of his death. It was headless, and cuts on the cervical vertebrae showed that he had been decapitated.
Cooper’s 1826 novel certainly impressed the tragedy ever more graphically in the American imagination. However, a single euphuistic detail in the story especially aroused the melancholy sentiment remarkable at that time. It was the scene where lovely Cora, fictional daughter of Colonel Munro, having been taken prisoner by the venomous Huron chief, Magua, is almost rescued by Hawkeye and his good Mohican companions, Chingachgook and Uncas (supposedly the last of their tribe which in reality had nothing to do with this event, but which Cooper confused with the Mahicans, another tribe that had allied with the English, and whose early hunting grounds were actually around West Hoosac). Nevertheless, in Cooper’s fictional account, Cora is brutally stabbed and slain.[ii] Indeed, nothing so touched the hearts of sentimental Americans at that time as the image of a beautiful woman meeting violent death.
No one realized the larger symbolic implications of Cooper’s narration more than did the Hudson River painter Thomas Cole. In fact, he painted several versions of the scene in the late 1820s, always depicting a tiny figure of Cora dressed in pure white, either imploring her swarthy captor whose knife is raised to kill her, or already lying mortally struck at his feet. As Cooper described, this occurred on a rocky Adirondack plateau. The artist then melodramatically magnified the mountain setting so that it completely overwhelms the murder itself which is barely visible, only as a white speck in a vast and gloomy geological landscape. Teetering bluffs and giant boulders from which droop shattered trees appear to menace the diminutive dot. Yet the fact that it’s white seems to indicate that a spark of innocence and purity, a seed waiting to be resurrected has been planted in this chaotic desolation. It’s as if Cora’s sacrifice is an appeal to America’s destiny, ever to oppose adverse savagery, and finally bring the full light of civilization into this dark primordial wilderness.
Next installment: 1758 & 1759: ENGLAND’S TRIUMPHANT YEARS
[i] Ian K. Steele, Betrayals: Fort William Henry & the Massacre (Oxford U. Press, NewYork) 1990. Another person implicated in Montcalm’s “betrayal” was the French Canadian “General of the Indians,” St. Luc de la Carne, who, after 1763, decided to serve the English similarly as “General of the Indians.” Once more he was implicated in a “betrayal,” this time by General John Burgoyne who accused him of desertion during the Battle of Saratoga – as will be noted in Installment 14.
[ii] The most dramatic scene in the last two film versions of the story has the women, first Cora in the 1936 movie, and then her sister Alice in the 1991 remake, leaping to their deaths over the edge of a mountain precipice rather than succumbing to the vile Magua. This was not the way either dies in the book. The dramatic cliff leap was a pure Hollywood invention, much more gripping however than Cooper’s conventional knife murder. One wonders why that otherwise imaginative author didn’t think of it.