Was there ever a more egregious representation of “manifest destiny” than this 1872 painting entitled “American Progress” by John Gast? We see here a diaphanous ” Columbia” carrying school books in one hand and a telegraph wire in the other, arrogantly thrusting herself forward like a battleship figurehead. She flies above an earthly parade of pioneers who’ve crossed the Mississippi River and are advancing into the unknown wilderness beyond . Your sacred national duty, the air-born lady declares to them, is to spread modern civilization (and all its invented gadgetry from the enlightened eastern seaboard) into the heart of wild west darkness. I submit that that’s still America’s archetypal obligation, even today in international politics. Can we ever not assume psychologically that east is always back and west forever out?
In a series of forthcoming but leisurely intermittent mini-cyber lectures, I’d like to make the case that our Williamstown community, by virtue of its geographic location during the eighteenth century, played a significant role in shaping the very notion of “manifest destiny.” Indeed, Ephraim Williams, the founder of our town and its prestigious college, was one of the earliest martyrs in what some have called “America’s First World War,” fought amongst all the European powers, but most decisively between England and France in North America from 1755 to 1763, after which a unique Anglo-American hybrid civilization emerged which led to our inexorable conquest, not only of the whole western continent – but, at least culturally, of much of the rest of the world.
Allow me to display a map showing Just how strategically located our town was during the eighteenth century. It began as a tiny English settlement then called West Hoosac near the river named after the Mahican word for “Place of Stones.” By deliberate political intent, West Hoosac was founded right at the edge of a territory claimed by the English but disputed by the French during the imperialist expansions of both these European nations in the early 1700s. However, most of the area north and west on the map, whichever power claimed it, was thickly forested, and inhabited mostly by Indians and a few white trappers. If burdened armies would penetrate this vast area, they could only do so by traversing navigable water routes or by following ancient Indian trails already cut through the
dense wilderness. Thus, whichever military power controlled these routes, also controlled the surrounding lands as well. By 1755, the routes marked in red on the map were nominally British, while those in blue were French. The latter commanded the Saint Lawrence waterway through southern Canada and were pushing west and south via Lake Champlain and Lake George. The British on the other hand were driving north and west in competition. One can clearly see from the map just how important the original Mohawk Trail, which underlies most of present-day highway route 2, was to this expansionist endeavor. Running from Boston Through Deerfield, and then up along the Hoosic River just north of Williamstown and on to Albany, NY, it was the principal east-west avenue for bringing British arms to bear against the aggressive French advances south especially on Lake George, which, as we shall see, led to several heated confrontations between 1755 and 1757.
Perpendicular to the Mohawk Trail, were two north-south avenues, the western one, navigable from New York by way of the Hudson River as far north as Fort Edward just below Lake George, and a second route which present day route 7 follows from Norwalk, CT on Long Island Sound, north along the Housatonic River through Massachusetts, crossing the Mohawk Trail at Williamstown, and continuing to Bennington, VT, then over to Hoosick Falls, NY, Cambridge, Schuylerville, and on to Lake George. The French, however, were in control of that part of the route that ran along the eastern bank of the lakes. Present route 4 more or less follows this part of the trail. Along the short fifteen and a half mile stretch between Fort Edward, NY and Lake George, now traversed by NY route 9 but known at the time as the “Great Carrying” or “Great Portage” Place, occurred some of the bloodiest battles between the British and French from 1755 and 1763, and then between British and Americans in 1777. The armies on each side included large numbers of Indian allies as well as professional European soldiers and colonial militia. One of the first of their deadly encounters involved Ephraim Williams, newly appointed as brevet colonel in command of Massachusetts volunteers sent against the French on Lake George in 1755. He owned property in West Hoosac and was now leading his troops to reinforce Fort Edward when unexpectedly ambushed and tragically killed just south of the Lake in a brief engagement called for some reason the ”Bloody Morning Scout.” A monument to this event along with Colonel Eph’s original grave marker, still stand today off route 9, a few miles north of Fort Edward.
Finally, this history is also the hasty story of Benedict Arnold. While George Washington never slept in Williamstown, Benedict Arnold did! Furthermore, Arnold was about to become a great hero following the evening and night he spent in Nehemiah Smedley’s Tavern on Main Street in Williamstown on May 6, 1775. His service in the cause of American independence then soared even more brilliantly just two years later at Saratoga, only thirty-four miles away from Williamstown. Fortunately for us, his subsequent and infamous downfall took place elsewhere. Our town bears no blame for that – and may rightfully be proud that we hosted him only during his moments of illustrious patriotism.
Next installment: EPHRAIM WILLIAMS’ LAST STAND