(Mitch) Samuel de Champlain’s arrival 400 years ago set forces in motion that would shape the fate of nations.
I’m Mitch Wertlieb.
On Mondays this month, we’re exploring "Stories from the Lake" to see how the lake and its people have shaped the history and culture of our region. Today we look at the struggle between European nations for control of the Champlain Valley.
The alliances Champlain forged with native tribes helped found Quebec and open new trading routes for France. But those same alliances also led to 150 years of war between Indian tribes on both sides of the lake, and a power struggle between France and Britain.
Why such contention over this bucolic lake and its waterways? Rich Strum is the director of interpretation and education at Fort Ticonderoga:
(Strum) It’s really geographic, and it has to do with Lake Champlain. If you think of the Lake’s and rivers as the interstate highway system of the 18th century, we’re on the equivalent of 1-89 or the Adirondack Northway, from Quebec city to New York City you can make that trip almost exclusively by water.
(Mitch) The first of European outpost was Fort St. Ann at Isle La Motte. It was riddled with diseases like scurvy that took the lives of many of the French regulars stationed there. Russell Bellico is a historian who’s written extensively about Lake Champlain.
Bellico says expeditions from Fort St. Ann identified other strategic areas the French-and British-hoped to secure. They built a wooden stockade fort at the narrows of Chimney Point in Addison. Four years later they built a stone fort across the lake in Crown Point, New York.
(Bellico) And this was actually south of the border that was agreed upon in the treaty of 1713 which was at Split Rock. So this was a thorn in the side of the English, but the French maintained this. They had a village. This was intended to be settled and they did have land grants to French settlers all along Lake Champlain in the next several decades.
(Mitch) During these conflicts the French and British struggled to gain native allies. Historian Colin Calloway says while the French were more dedicated to making pacts with tribes than the British were, the native people were very aware of what both the European powers were up to:
(Calloway) I think it is necessary to remember that the various Indian participants would be participating for their own reasons and not just as pawns of the English and of the French. Very often they are fighting according to their own agendas, keeping their homelands as free as possible from European dominance.
(Mitch) The last of the conflicts came to Lake Champlain most notably with the onset of the French and Indian War. The French had upped the ante by starting construction on a bigger and stronger fort-Fort Carillon-that we know today as Ticonderoga.
(Strum) We’re on the southwest side of Fort Ticonderoga. We’re looking south so we’re looking over Lake Champlain as it heads south towards Whitehall, with Mount Defiance off to our right, and Mount Independence in Vermont just to our left shore.
(Mitch) At the fort, Rich Strum explains how the Battle of Lake George convinced the French it was time to build a stronger outpost:
(Strum) The French needed a more advanced post, so they begin construction of this fort in 1755 At the same time, the British are doing the same thing at the southern end of Lake George, they’re building fort William Henry, so your front lines have just gotten a little bit closer after that battle in 1755.
(Mitch) Meanwhile, the French control of Fort Carillon lasted just two years, but during that time there was a major victory.
In 1758 British General James Abercrombie brought 16,000 men to attack the 5,000 French soldiers at the fort.
(Mitch) Mark Turdo is Assistant Curator at Fort Ticondergoa. He says the French were outnumbered, but prepared.
(Turdo) They had practiced this, what’s essentially known in the period as parapet firing. They had one soldier on the wall who would fire and soldiers behind him would be reloading and handing the muskets forward, and this increases the rate of fire that the French were able to offer, usually a well-trained solider in the period could fire around three shots a minute. We’ve talked about five or six shots a minute based on the research we did.
(Mitch) After the French victory the soldiers celebrated and wrote songs, like this one, about the improbable triumph.
(Victoire de Carillon)
(Mitch) But the British would come back the next year. Chris Fox is curator at Fort Ticonderoga and says this time the French decided to pull back:
(Fox) The difference was in 1759 because of shortages of food, and soldiers and other military materials in Canada. They decided that they would simply pull back to Crown Point and ultimately back to Canada in order to fight them with a larger army on ground of their own choosing.
(Guns and military drums)
(Mitch) The French evacuated most of their troops to Crown Point, but eventually left there as well and retreated into Canada. These maneuvers mark the origins of what would become the greater French influence in Quebec rather than the U.S., although to this day many areas of Vermont bear the names of the French presence spearheaded by Champlain’s arrival.
The balance of power south of Quebec had now shifted to the British, a force that would set into motion events that would ultimately give birth to a new country. But first, the native tribes of Vermont would be caught in the crossfire.
With the French retreated to Canada, the British moved more freely around the lake region, and a raid was commissioned on an Abenaki village. The order was given to Robert Rogers of New Hampshire. His men went north through Mississquoi Bay to the village of Odonack.
The village was burned but the British also suffered many losses, perhaps up to a third of the commanded troops. Colin Calloway says Rogers likely exaggerated the extent of his victory when he wrote that he killed several hundred Abenaki. Calloway say the only accounts come from Rogers himself and are likely unreliable.
(Calloway) It seems likely that far fewer Abenaki people died than Rogers claimed and that his victory was not as absolute as he would have liked it to be. Having said that, it was clearly a devastating blow to Abenaki people because for once, the English had managed to strike them in their home base. And that was something that the Abenaki people had tried to and been fairly successful in, avoiding for generations.
I’m Mitch Wertlieb. Next Monday, we’ll explore Lake Champlain’s role in the American Revolution. And join us this afternoon during All Things Considered when VPR’s Neal Charnoff continues the story with a look at the early settlements that developed around the military forts.
Our historical consultant has been Willard Sterne Randall, historian, author and professor at Champlain College.