Ephraim Williams (1714-1755) bears the distinction of being more remembered for the results of his death than what happened in his life. In this my second installment, I will discuss the latter, the events leading up to, and the battle in which Colonel Williams was killed.
I begin by quickly reviewing the situation in the New England colonies at the turn of the eighteenth century. The bitter civil wars that enflamed the British Isles during the previous hundred years, the struggle between the royalists and parliamentarians after the death of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, had so concentrated the nation’s attention, that interest in the colonies had considerably waned. By 1700, a bare three thousand soldiers protected the entire American seaboard including growing towns of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The thin red line of British civilization extending to the eastern Alleghenies was dangerously insecure, a fact that did not escape the covetous eyes of the French whose own colonial enterprise was expanding in Canada. Indeed, France had replaced Spain as the reigning power on the European continent. Her long ruling King Louis XIV decided that now was the time to challenge British hegemony overseas. He had already sent Jesuit missionaries to Canada to convert the Indians , in particular the Abenaki , who became known as the “St. Francis Indians.” Once inhabitants of eastern Allegheny forests but driven out by the English, they now had an added religious incentive to take revenge against the Protestant settlers who had usurped their former hunting grounds.
In 1704, the French struck a deadly blow deep in the heart of the English colonies. In February of that year a band of French and Indians sneaked on snow-shoes down the Mohawk Trail as far as Deerfield, Massachusetts, surrounded the town at night, and in the early morning with war whoops and slashing tomahawks swept through the small community killing and burning at random. By mid-day, some forty-six citizens including women and children were murdered, and a hundred nine more captured and forced to march for six weeks in snow and freezing cold to Canada where they were held for ransom. While many eventually were redeemed and did return, one woman, Eunice Williams, daughter of Pastor John Williams and distant relative of Ephraim, famously remained among the Indians, one of whom she married and by whom she had children. Her father, finally ransomed and returned to Deerfield was bitterly disappointed, not because his daughter remained a renegade, but because she had converted to “papism.”
In any case, the Deerfield massacre was a tocsin call for the British to defend their New England colonies against the French threat all along the trails. More troops were sent, local militias were raised (“papists” were pointedly excluded from enlisting) and forts were built at strategic locations. With the rise of a powerful Whig parliament in Britain and the accession of a stronger ruling dynasty, particularly under Hanoverian King George II who acceded in 1727, England embarked on an aggressive policy of colonization, urging ever more settlements further to the west. Wealthy investors like Ephraim Williams and his brothers were encouraged to purchase properties on the far frontier. To protect those along the extending Mohawk Trail, Fort Massachusetts was built in a bight of the Hoosic River, where the Trail crosses it twice. The Google Earth photo below shows just how strategic this location was. It’s now in the parking lot of the Price Chopper Supermarket on route 2 in North Adams where a monument marks the spot. The red dot shows where the fort once stood; the blue dots indicate the two river crossings on either side.
Notwithstanding, the fort was too close to a high ridge just to the north, allowing attackers to shoot into it from above, as French and Indians did in 1744, easily overpowering its small garrison. For a brief period the French fleur de lis then flew over our community until the fort was retaken and rebuilt in 1747, and put under the command of Major Ephraim Williams. The fort withstood another French attack in 1748 but was finally abandoned after the British won total victory over the French in 1763. During the 1930s it was again rebuilt as a tourist attraction, unsuccessfully as it turned out. The property was deemed more valuable for commercial exploitation, and so the fort disappeared for the last time. Below is an old postcard view of it looked in the 1930s. A full size reconstruction of the fort’s original barracks room is currently on display in Heritage State Park, North Adams.
I now return to the year 1755. The English were building ever more protective forts, two most importantly at either end of the “Great Carrying Place “ in New York, the fifteen or so miles of swampy land between the northern embarkation point of t he Hudson River, and the southern end of Lake George. All travelers including armies moving in either direction would need to portage their boats over this difficult stretch, usually requiring two or more marching days depending on how cumbersome their equipment; thus dangerously exposing themselves to enemy attack. Fort Edward commanded the Hudson River entry point and Fort William Henry would do the same for the southern landing of Lake George. Each was named after the princely progeny of King George II, and each guaranteed English control over this extremely strategic land link. The two maps below, one old the other new , should make this clear. Today, that once difficult portage distance can be traversed by car in just a few minutes over well paved NY route 9. How many modern travelers, speeding to enjoy what’s now a busy summer resort, give a thought to the blood that was spilled and lives that were lost along this incredibly historic bit of road? What if the other side had won and Lake George became instead a French-speaking Côte d’Azur?
In the late summer of 1755, Commandant Sir William Johnson was commissioned to build Fort William Henry, in preparation for leading an army down Lake George and attack the French stronghold at Crown Point on the eastern tip of Lake Champlain. At the same time, however, unbeknownst to him a French army under command of Marshall Baron Dieskau was heading south to attack Fort Edward (first called Fort Lyman after its then commander). Meanwhile newly appointed Colonel Ephraim Williams had arrived from Massachusetts with a regiment of militia and a contingent of Indians led by chief King Hendrick to aid in Johnson’s campaign. Suddenly the English learned of Dieskau’s plan, and Williams was quickly ordered to return to reinforce the Fort Edward garrison. Unfortunately, Dieskau divined this latter move, and so plotted an ambush of the English army as it passed southward.
On September 8, Williams’ army marched blindly into the trap, completely surprised by the French and Indians hiding in the thick forest on either side of the crude trail. Almost with their first volleys, Williams was fatally shot through the head as he stood on a rock still marked at the site. King Hendrick was also killed and all their troops scattered in confusion. Baron Dieskau and the French seemed to have won the day. Flush with this initial success, Dieskau turned to attack Johnson’s force working on the fort at Lake George, realizing that capturing the Lake George beachhead was the more valuable prize since it would give France control of all the Lake and thus the Great Carrying Place, rendering Fort Edward practically untenable. His initial assault was successful, but then Johnson rallied the English troops and in a series of sharp engagements on September 8 decisively defeated the French, even capturing Baron Dieskau.
Some two hundred dead from both sides were supposedly thrown into a swampy water hole just east of Route 9. It still exudes the dismal aftermath of that brutal battle. A marker appropriately identifies it as “Bloody Pond.” Another monument a few yards away across the same road a identifies where Ephraim Williams fell and his body first buried. Years later his remains were removed and re-interred with an appropriate epitaph in Williams College Thompson Chapel.
A curious addenda to this story is the fact that the famous American revolutionary fife and drum ditty, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” was actually written for British troops quartered in Fort Craillo, NY in 1755, by an army surgeon named Richard Shuckburgh. It was sung to the tune of a popular song in John Gay’s recent London hit musical, “The Beggar’s Opera,” and soldiers were invited to add new verses as they marched along singing in rhythm. One particular doggerel verse still recorded seems to poke fun at Ephraim Williams, whom the soldiers may have regarded as somewhat of a martinet, in any case a blundering military commander, no matter his heroic death in action. It goes like this:
Brother Ephraim sold his cow
To buy him a commission
And then he went to Canada To fight for the nation.
But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devoured.
Next installment: FOUNDING OF WILLIAMSTOWN & WILLIAMS COLLEGE
1. Wyllis E. Wright, Colonel Ephraim Williams: A Documentary Life, Pittsfield (Berkshire County Historical Society), 1970