French & British Military Conflict (1664-1763)

Why Lake Champlain was important

Between 1664 and 1763, the Champlain Valley witnessed a continuous struggle between the French and British Empires for control of Lake Champlain and its tributaries. These water routes were strategic highways that provided access into the interior of the Northeast in a period when the only viable means of transportation in a rugged land was by water. Expeditions and forts were continually raised in defense of rival claims of the Champlain Valley and its waterways. Armies and war parties transported themselves on Lake Champlain in fleets of canoes, bateaux, radeaux, row galleys, schooners, and sloops. This period came to an end after the French and Indian War, when Britain assumed control of most of France’s territorial claims in North America.

The French, British, and Iroquois

Conflicts between the French and the British began to arise after 1664, when the British captured the colony of New Amsterdam from the Dutch. The Dutch struggled to regain control of New Amsterdam, but they were permanently driven from North America by 1675. British royal grants to Massachusetts in 1620 and to New York in 1664, confirmed by a treaty in 1665, also gave the British vague claims to the Champlain Valley. Taking note of French expansion south into the Champlain Valley, the British sent scouts to find out the extent of the French operations on Lake Champlain. The British managed to avoid direct conflict on Lake Champlain at this time, by cleverly playing upon the traditional ill will the Iroquois bore against the French and urged their Indian allies to actively oppose French expansion into Lake Champlain. Until 1690, the British minimized direct contact with the French; all conflicts appeared to be struggles between the French and the Iroquois.

By 1664, the Iroquois grew bolder, attacking isolated French farms and towns and spreading fear throughout New France. The increased threat led to the rebuilding of Fort Richelieu and the construction of several new fortifications along the St. Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers. A regiment of veteran French regulars was sent from France in 1665 to establish the military power of New France and to crush the Iroquois in the Mohawk Valley, even though the Iroquois were attempting to make peace with the French at that time. In January 1666, the French made a daring mid-winter raid on the Iroquois villages of the Mohawk Valley. Nearly 600 troops wearing snowshoes trekked over a frozen Lake Champlain, then overland to the Hudson Valley. By February, however, the troops had become lost following their Indian guides and found themselves near the Dutch village of Schenectady instead of the Iroquois settlements on the Mohawk River.

The troops eventually had a minor skirmish with the Mohawk, then retreated northward with the Iroquois in pursuit. Sixty soldiers died of starvation and exposure or were taken prisoner by the Iroquois before the French returned to Canada in March 1666. New France did not, however, abandon its plan to crush the Iroquois villages. Some of the French regulars were sent to Isle La Motte to build a fort that was later named Fort St. Anne, the southernmost French outpost of that time. This fort was intended to defend the colonists in the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Valleys from Iroquois war parties.

In September 1666, the French organized 1300 troops and 300 bark canoes and bateaux for an expedition to the Mohawk Valley. The army moved south on Lake Champlain, left some troops with provisions to build a stockade fort at Ticonderoga, portaged to Lake George, and proceeded to its southern end, where they hid their boats for the return trip. The French army then marched to the Mohawk River and burned four Iroquois villages. This drastic action lead to a peace treaty between the French and the Mohawk in the spring of 1667.

Questions over the control of Lake Champlain arose as tensions escalated in Europe, where James II, supported by French King Louis XIV, and William of Orange were engaged in a struggle for the British crown. New France decided in 1688 to fortify Crown Point on the western side of Lake Champlain to prepare for renewed fighting. In 1689, King William’s War (1689-1697) broke out, and the colonists became involved in a brutal struggle to decide whether Lake Champlain should be English or remain French.

French officials had spent several years developing elaborate proposals to attack the English colonies via Lake Champlain. In June of 1689, Louis XIV finally approved an assault, but 1300 Mohawk Iroquois invaded Canada at the urging of the English before the plan could be put into action, destroying the village of La Chine on the island of Montreal. Beginning in February 1690, the French responded to this English-backed raid with a series of attacks on English settlements in New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

As the French planned an ambitious invasion through the Champlain Valley, the British colonies prepared to meet the attack. In March 1690, the English established a small stone fort at Chimney Point, directly across the lake from Crown Point. Other English parties were sent to the mouth of Otter Creek and to Fort Chambly on the Richelieu River. The British also planned an attack, with one force moving north on Lake Champlain and another traveling by sea to face Quebec on the St. Lawrence River. The plans of both the French and the British ultimately failed, however, due to bad luck and poor planning.

Although both sides formulated grand plans of major expeditions, King William’s War never really progressed beyond the activities of raiding parties on Lake Champlain. Finally, in 1697, the Peace of Ryswick ended the hostilities. By 1700, the governors of both New France and the Colony of New York had granted land to settlers in the Champlain Valley. Peace in the Champlain Valley ended when the European War of Spanish Succession resulted in Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) in North America. In 1702, the British Queen Anne succeeded her brother-in-law, William III, and war was declared anew between England and France. In 1703 the French in Canada proposed to destroy all of the English settlements along the entire New England frontier, and the British revived their plan of 1690 to attack Canada using Lake Champlain. Once again Lake Champlain was chosen as the primary invasion route, and raids were routinely carried out in the region. These raids led hundreds of people to abandon the frontier settlements in New France, New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Peace did not return to the region until the signing of The Treaty of Utrecht, signed on April 11, 1713. This treaty obliged France to give up her rights of sovereignty over the Five Nations and made Split Rock on Lake Champlain the southern limit of New France, a boundary which the colony never accepted. English and French colonists saw clearly that they would never be able to share jurisdiction over Lake Champlain. Control over this important waterway was necessary to ensure the safety of the colonies from enemy attack.

Warfare resumed in the Champlain Valley again in 1723, but this time it was a conflict between Native Americans banished from New England and English colonists. Native Americans had come to settle in New France along the frontier of the wilderness that separated them from their former homeland. From 1723 to 1725, the celebrated Indian chief Gray Lock was the scourge of English settlements along the Connecticut River.

FPO Engraving of Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point. (Proud 1759)

With anxiety growing over the French claim to the Champlain Valley, King Louis XV of France approved the construction of a log stockade fort opposite Crown Point in 1731. The fort was built at Chimney Point and called Pointe a la Chevelure. The English colonies protested the fort as an encroachment into their territory shortly after its construction. The French ignored the protest, however, and Louis XV approved the construction of a redoubt on Crown Point in 1734, later named Fort St. Frederic. By 1742, this fort was second in size and armament only to the French stronghold at Quebec. That same year the lake’s first major sailing vessel, a sloop of 45 tons, was built at Crown Point. The vessel, named St. Frederic, was used to transport supplies from Chambly to Crown Point.

By 1744, England and France became entangled in the War of Austrian Succession, which became known as King George’s War (1744-1748) in North America. Fort St. Frederic served as a military base for French assaults into New England and New York, which intensified in the fall of 1745, when a French party of 509 regulars and Indians attacked and destroyed Saratoga. Large-scale French raids from Fort St. Frederic continued through 1747. In 1748 France and England signed the Treaty of Aux-la-Chapelle, ending the war, but the two countries failed to clarify the boundary between New France and the English colonies. Fort St. Frederic remained a French stronghold, terrifying the English colonies.

In 1754 the French renewed their raids with an assault on British Fort Number 4, located in New Hampshire along the Connecticut River. This event marked the beginning of the conflict known as the French and Indian War (1754-1763) in North America. The conflict spread to Europe in 1756, where it was known as the Seven Years War. In 1755, New York and the New England colonies organized an army to eliminate the French presence on Lake Champlain. The English colonies assembled nearly 4,000 troops at Albany, in addition to hundreds of bateaux and canoes. The English built a road from the Hudson River to Lake George in order to transport supplies and watercraft to the Champlain Valley. While the English were constructing forts along the frontier road, the French, informed of the British approach, assembled an expeditionary force of 2,500 troops to build a fortification at Ticonderoga, later called Fort Carillon. From this base the French rowed to South Bay and marched overland to the southern end of Lake George, where they attacked the British. Vastly outnumbered, the French were defeated at the Battle of Lake George.

That winter the two forces planned their strategies for the upcoming campaign, but the well-organized plans fell apart once summer arrived. Military activity on Lake Champlain consisted mostly of French vessels moving troops and supplies from the northern end of the lake to Crown Point, Chimney Point, and Ticonderoga. The vessels consisted of canoes, barges, bateaux, small sailing galleys, and St. Frederic. The skirmishes that did occur during the 1756 season were between spies on reconnaissance missions. The daring Rogers Rangers, a New Hampshire regiment, even carried vessels around the mountains west of Ticonderoga into Lake Champlain north of the fort to spy on French movement in the Champlain Valley.

In March 1757 the French launched an assault by an expedition of 1,600 men on Fort William Henry, constructed by the British in 1755 on Lake George. The French attacked the lightly garrisoned fort and burned its outbuildings and all of the British vessels, but they failed to capture the fort itself. In August the French renewed their siege of Fort William Henry, this time taking the fort within a week. The aftermath of the victory turned into a massacre when hundreds of unarmed British troops, women, and children were killed at the hands of New France’s Native American allies. After the atrocity, the Native American warriors returned to Canada through the Champlain Valley with their plunder.

The remains of the British force retreated into the Hudson Valley, leaving the French in control of Lake Champlain and Lake George. In early July 1758, a force of 6,367 British regulars and 9,024 provincial troops gathered at the ruins of Fort William Henry. Their plan was to attack Fort Carillon and Fort St. Frederic, then to advance to Montreal. In a splendid show of military power, the English army crossed Lake George in approximately 900 bateaux and 135 whaleboats with their artillery on a number of pontoon rafts. The massive British army slowly approached Fort Carillon, which was only occupied by approximately 3,500 troops. The British commander James Abercromby made a tragic blunder, however, by insisting that the well-fortified stronghold be taken by a frontal assault in broad daylight after learning that a large French reinforcement would be arriving shortly. Nearly 2,000 British troops were killed or wounded in this ill-fated attack. The British army, discouraged and confused, abandoned its provisions and wounded during their retreat to the southern end of Lake George.

The spring of 1759 saw the gathering of another British and provincial army on Lake George with the objective of driving the French from Lake Champlain. This British expedition was led by a more cautious commander-in-chief, Major General Jeffery Amherst. The British left their new fortification of Fort George, located at the southern end of Lake George, with over 11,000 troops in another impressive flotilla.

Although the French troops at Carillon were nearly equal in number to the previous year, their rations were short and disease had ravaged the men inside the fort. The calm, precise, and methodical management of the British troops and artillery forced the small 400-man French army to retreat to Crown Point by bateaux and three sloops. The British army moved most of their fleet overland to Lake Champlain and recovered the vessels intentionally sunk by the French during their retreat. The fighting was now concentrated in the Champlain Valley.

A small French naval fleet on Lake Champlain hampered the British advance. The larger vessels of the French fleet included the 10-gun schooner La Vigilante (Vigilant) and three sloops or xebecs named La Musquelongy (Muskellunge), La Brochette (Pike), and L’Esturgeon (Sturgeon). All of the vessels were constructed at St. Jean at the northern end of the lake between 1757 and 1759. The sloops carried eight guns each and a crew of 40 to 50 men. After the British moved most of their fleet into Lake Champlain, they quickly began the construction of two radeaux. Expecting a fight, the British then advanced to Crown Point, but to their surprise they found that Fort St. Frederic had been destroyed and abandoned. The British immediately set out to build a larger fortification in its place called Fort Crown Point. After gaining intelligence about the size and strength of the French fleet, the British constructed the 6-gun radeau Ligonier at Crown Point, the 20-gun brig Duke of Cumberland, and sloop Boscawen. The British fleet now consisted of LigonierDuke of CumberlandBoscawen, two small radeaux, three row galleys, and a large number of bateaux and canoes.

In October 1759 the British naval fleet trapped the three French sloops and two long boats in Cumberland Bay. The French decided to scuttle two of their sloops and disable the third before walking back to Isle-aux-Noix. Only the two long boats escaped the British trap. Boscawen‘s crew recovered some of the sunken war materials and the two French sloops, which gave the British control of Lake Champlain. In November the British fleet was sent to Fort Ticonderoga to be laid up for the winter at the King’s Dock.

The 1760 campaign brought about the final collapse of the French Empire in North America. The British strategy involved a three-pronged attack on the French forces in Canada. One force moved west on the St. Lawrence River from the North Atlantic. The second force moved eastward from Lake Ontario toward Montreal, and the third force followed the easiest route, through Lake Champlain.

On the morning of August 11, 1760, the assembled British fleet at Crown Point departed to begin the assault on Canada. This diverse fleet included one brig, four sloops, three radeaux, three row galleys, two long boats, 263 bateaux, twelve canoes, and 41 whaleboats. The British army consisted of 3,300 troops. On their trip north, the fleet lost one whaleboat and seven bateaux due to bad weather conditions. After reaching Isle-aux-Noix, the radeau Ligonier and the row galleys maintained a constant fire on the French fort and vessels to protect the British troops during the landing. Once on shore, the British constructed a breastwork nearly 1.6 km (1 mi) long on the eastern shoreline of the mainland and erected four gun batteries. The British captured the remaining vessels of the French fleet and the fort, but most of the French troops escaped and retreated to Montreal. On their way, the French burned everything behind them, including the town of St. Jean. The British plan was successful, and, on September 8, 1760, the French signed the articles of surrender.

At the end of 1760, most of the British fleet and the captured French vessels were taken to Ticonderoga for winter storage. The forts on Lake Champlain were not abandoned, but their garrisons were dramatically reduced. Supplies for the forts largely came from the Hudson Valley and were transported on Lake Champlain. In October of 1761, while delivering provisions to Crown Point, the radeau transport vessel Grand Diable sank during a storm and was not recovered despite several attempts to do so. After the Treaty of Paris between England and France was signed in 1763, the lake became a highway for the transport of communication, supplies, troops, travelers, and early settlers.

Early Settlement in the Champlain Valley (1763-1775)

The only settlement in the Champlain Valley between 1609 and 1755 was that of exiled Northeastern Indians, Jesuit missionaries, French soldiers, and settlers who generally stayed near the forts and outposts. All of these settlements were short-lived, since the threat of renewed warfare always loomed in the future. However, during the years of peace following the French and Indian War, settlements started to appear throughout the Champlain Valley as the colonial governors of both New York and New Hampshire granted large tracts of land. These land grants often conflicted, since both New York and New Hampshire had once claimed jurisdiction over the area between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain. After an appeal to the British government, it was determined that New York had legitimate claim to the land. New York then tried to force settlers with New Hampshire titles to pay for their land a second time. Those affected sought legal aid, but, when that failed, they organized an illegal militia, the Green Mountain Boys, who kept New York officials off their land.

Mostly landlords settled on the western side of Lake Champlain with tenants to take up and clear the land, then build dams, sawmills, and gristmills in close settlements. Many of the landlords and tenants were former soldiers who had served in the valley and had been given land by the King in return for their military service. The settlers on the eastern side of the lake, however, were generally land speculators or self-made men. The most notorious land speculators were the Allen brothers, Ethan and Ira, of Litchfield, Connecticut. The Allen brothers accumulated thousands of acres of land on the eastern side of the valley through purchases of land grants issued by the governor of New Hampshire.

The settlements on both sides of the lake were very small and widely spread throughout the valley. They were generally close to tributaries of Lake Champlain, which provided the settlers with power and transportation. There were very few roads, so the settlers depended heavily upon small watercraft and rafts to transport themselves and products to the Quebec market. Most settlers were involved in extracting resources from the virgin forests of the Champlain Valley, but their daily lives were soon interrupted by the next military conflict.