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.
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