The true story behind The Last of the Mohicans


On the 260th anniversary of the fall of Fort William Henry, Richard Eggington examines the historical background to James Fennimore Cooper’s classic tale.

The Last of the Mohicans is often thought of as one of the classic tales of the American West – even though it was set in the east, almost a hundred years before the concept of the West fully emerged. Nevertheless it has many of the hallmarks of the classic Western tale: the brave, lone woodsman; noble, and savage, red men and bungling military authorities.

Much of the story’s power derives from the way it intermingles a thrilling fictional narrative with the disturbing account of a real-life tragedy. As a result, it has made millions of people aware of the awful saga of the siege of Fort William Henry, but in the same way our understanding of what happened may be coloured by the fiction. When we think of the Fort we are prone to envisage the terrified Cora and Alice Munro trapped within its besieged walls – even though no such people existed.

August 2017 marks the 260th anniversary of the siege of Fort William Henry. It is also 25 years since the release of the last, and most spectacular, movie adaptation, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Thus, it is a good time to reflect on the true nature of the events that took place during that bloody and violent phase of American frontier history.

The War

During the previous century both Britain and France had established substantial colonial interests in North America. The English colonies had begun in 1607 and over the following decades had rapidly expanded as waves of settlers fled England to escape religious intolerance, famine and poverty. As much as they were glad to leave, the government in England was happy to see them go. Even though the colonies expanded to occupy all the land between the Atlantic and the Appalachian Mountains, England (Britain, as it became in 1707) maintained a laissez-faire attitude towards its American colonies.

In contrast, France never sought to settle New France, later to become Canada, in the same way. The land was too densely forested and plagued by long severe winters, to make agriculture viable. They found instead that huge wealth could be extracted from the territory by a small number of Frenchmen forming alliances with the native Indians. In return for basic European goods the tribes would trade huge quantities of highly valuable furs for export back to Europe.  A French Canadian population would emerge as trading posts grew into cities, but it was tiny compared to the English colonies to the south.

Whereas the booming English population pushed back and displaced the native peoples in what is now the USA, the French sought to nurture the Indians in what today we might term a partnership arrangement. Although that had many strengths its one key weakness was that the French, hugely outnumbered by the native tribes, were never able to control or rule them. In a sense, they had a tiger by the tail.

This difference in approach was one of two key reasons why the separate “empires” had largely ignored each other up to the middle of the 18th century. This began to change when both sides needed additional land, targeting the fertile Ohio valley country just west of the Appalachians. France needed its Indian partners to expand trapping into that country as the supply of furs was beginning to diminish; and the English colonists needed more land for an ever-expanding population.

Tentative forays into the Ohio valley country sparked tension, which led to conflict and laid the foundations for all-out war.

The Lake Champlain Corridor

The second reason that the French and English had remained separate was the natural geographical boundary that divided them. A long chain of mountains sweeping up from the Appalachians and extending through what are now the Adirondacks of New York, the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, formed a daunting barrier.

Though not all that high, these mountains were closely packed, densely forested and rugged. Difficult enough to traverse alone, they were effectively impassable for an army. The only exception to this was a broad pass which extended from the headwaters of the Hudson river in the south up towards the St Lawrence in the north. This pass was, however, filled with water. Rivers and streams fed through two substantial lakes which stretched from one forested shore to the other.

The larger lake, Lake Champlain, was to the north and the smaller, Lake George, marked the southern boundary. It was through this watery corridor that both sides looked to strike at the other, even though for large parts of the pass their armies would need to travel by boat.

Scenic Lake George occupies the southern extent of the Lake Champlain corridor

In September 1755, a substantial armed force of British and colonial troops had clashed with a similar body of French at the southern end of Lake George. It was a short and inconclusive, though fierce, battle and it prompted the British to build a substantial fort, Fort William Henry, on the Lake’s southern shore. A further fort some eleven miles to the south, Fort Edward, helped protect the approach through a widening valley towards the capital at Albany.

Fort William Henry was built in the classic European style, constructed of earthworks and logs. It was not especially large and much of its garrison lived outside of the Fort in an “entrenched camp”. It was protected at each corner by large bastions jutting outwards, which gave defenders a good angle to fire upon anyone seeking to storm the walls. However, this traditional fort design was potentially vulnerable to a modern artillery bombardment from a distance.

Contemporary plan of Fort William Henry

Britain’s half-hearted attitude to its American colonies seemed to be echoed in its early military endeavours, with a series of humiliating reverses. In contrast these successes had emboldened the French and in the summer of 1759, under their new Commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, they resolved to strike a mortal blow at the British by sweeping down the Lake Champlain corridor and pushing on to take Albany. Fort William Henry would stand in the way.

At dawn on the morning of August 3rd 1759, lookouts at the Fort were astonished to see, sailing briskly towards them on the Lake, some two hundred and fifty boats transporting near to 6,000 French and Canadian troops, complete with artillery; accompanied by around 250 Indian war canoes bristling with up to 2,000 warriors.

French Indian Allies

One peculiar and controversial feature of the North American war was the readiness of the Indian trading partners of the French to fight alongside them against the British. They were ferocious warriors and had already been deployed with devastating effect at the Battle of the Monongahela.

But this willingness to fight was not borne out of loyalty to the French. The Indians fought alongside, but not for the French. Indeed, the French had to offer bribes and inducements to secure Indian participation. In this operation against Fort William Henry they had been promised that after victory was secured, they would be free to seize whatever booty or proceeds of war they wished. On a secular level this meant weapons, food and supplies, but, more importantly to the Indians, it offered the opportunity to regain spiritual power lost to their enemies (which included the English colonists) in previous conflicts. Though it was abhorrent to European observers, the reclaiming of spiritual power through killing and scalping an enemy was a fundamental tenet of Indian religion and a moral imperative to each warrior.

The siege

Immediately on disembarking his force at the southern tip of Lake George, Montcalm’s men encircled the fort and cut the road to Fort Edward. They then began the process of digging siege trenches from which Montcalm’s superior artillery would pound the Fort into submission.

The Scots-Irish commanding officer of the Fort, Colonel George Munro, was under no illusions about his predicament. He was sure that the Fort would not withstand a protracted bombardment and his small garrison of around 2,000 men was inadequate to go on the attack. His only hope was in sending a message to his superior, General Webb at Fort Edward. He knew Webb had 3,000 troops under his command and if he were to bring them up swiftly, their combined force might be enough to drive off their French attackers.

Munro dispatched a runner to Webb and waited anxiously for his return as the French gunners got closer and the bombardment got worse. On 7th August he received Webb’s letter of reply, but it was devastating news for two reasons. Firstly it was delivered from Montcalm’s HQ as the British runner had been captured by French and Indian scouts in the woods. Secondly, Webb told Munro that he saw no good reason for coming to his relief and advised him to seek terms of surrender.

Webb’s refusal to go to Munro’s rescue has earned him considerable criticism, though it may have been a pragmatic acceptance that if his own troops were to fall alongside Munro’s the French would face no resistance in marching on the Albany.  Whatever the reasons it left Munro with no other option but to surrender.

The Aftermath

The terms offered by Montcalm were generous even by the standards of European chivalry. The British would be granted safe passage from the Fort and allowed to leave with their personal effects, arms and regimental colours. They would be free to return via Albany provided they agreed not to fight again for eighteen months. Satisfied with this honourable deal Munro arranged for his command to leave the Fort the following morning, August 10th. What followed would ensure that this would become one of the most notorious days in American colonial history.

While Montcalm had achieved his aim and was more than satisfied with the result, this was not exactly what the Indian warriors had come for. They had been promised bounty and revenge. Incensed by what they saw as a betrayal, the Indians poured down on Munro’s command as they were heading south towards Fort Edward. Soldiers and civilians alike were robbed, kidnapped and murdered. Exactly what the boundaries of this were remains open to debate, but contemporary accounts published in East Coast papers reported that this had been a wholesale massacre with up to 500 killed. Revisionist historians argue that the evidence supports a much lower figure of casualties, perhaps as few as 25 dead. An accurate number may be somewhere in the middle.

But this was one of those events where the perception of what happened was more significant than the precise facts. Outrage and horror at the barbarities of the French Indian allies had a galvanising effect on the colonies and boosted recruitment to colonial militias. Among those and in the English army a simmering desire for revenge would colour their later conduct in the War. The French authorities themselves were shamed by what happened and the practice of recruiting significant numbers of Indian warriors was never repeated to the same extent. It was turning point also for the Indians who were no longer prepared to fully believe French promises.

The more immediate consequence was that although he had taken the Fort, Montcalm was unable to press on to Albany. Satiated by their trophies the Indians returned to their villages and those troops recruited from the small Canadian population drifted back northwards to take in a desperately needed harvest.

In a wider context this moment was a turning point in the War, which became subsumed into a global conflict through which Britain and France sought to establish supremacy as European superpowers. A new government under William Pitt would prioritise the defeat of the French in North America as the best way of destroying France’s power, while the French became bogged down in European land conflicts. Major deployment of British regular troops, supported by the increasingly dominant Royal Navy, would enable the British to seize the French stronghold of Louisburg and push on down the St Lawrence to take Quebec in September 1759, signalling the end of New France and the British conquest of North America.

Or ….

A modern day reconstruction of Fort William Henry on the southern shore of Lake George.

Richard Eggington.

Richard is the author of The American West, now available.

See also Richard’s article on Custer’s Last Stand.