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Battle of Lake George

No one delighted more in the free and easy life of the frontier than did Colonel William Johnson. He was a typical colonial patroon, a representative of the king and a friend of the red man. The Indians trusted him implicitly. He had studied their character and knew well their language. He entered into their life with full sympathy for their traditions and was said to possess an influence over them such as had never been gained by any other white man. For a long time he lived at Fort Johnson, a three-storey dwelling of stone on the left bank of the Mohawk, and later at Johnson Hall, a more spacious mansion several miles farther north. Here all who came were treated with a lavish hand, and the wayfarer found a welcome as he stopped to admire the flowers which grew before the portals. Within were a retinue of servants, careful for the needs of all. When hearts were sad or time went slowly, a dwarf belonging to the household played a merry tune on his violin to drive away gloom from the wilderness mansion.

On one occasion, however, Johnson's hospitality was taxed beyond all bounds. This was at Fort Johnson in the year 1755, just after he had been made a major-general in the colonial militia. The French from Canada had already been making bold encroachments on territory claimed by the English to the north and the west. They had erected Fort Duquesne at the junction of the Alleghany and Monongahela rivers, where the great city of Pittsburgh now stands; they had fortified Niagara; and now they were bidding defiance to all the English colonists between the Alleghany Mountains and the sea. War had not been declared in Europe, but the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies, only too eager to stay the hand of France in America, planned a series of blows against the enemy. Among other things, they decided that an attempt should be made to capture the French stronghold of Fort Frederic at Crown Point on Lake Champlain. The officer selected to Command the expedition to be sent on this enterprise was William Johnson, now a major-general of the colony of New York.

It flashed at once across Johnson's mind that his redskin friends could aid him in the undertaking; so he sent messages with all speed to the tribes, asking them to gather at his house. Eleven hundred hungry Indians answered the summons. From all quarters they came in, taking up their residence for the time being upon his broad domain. Johnson's bright and genial face clouded as he looked upon the multitude of guests and saw his food supplies vanishing and every green thing that grew upon his fields and meadows being plucked up. But he bore it all good-naturedly, for he was determined to win their support. Seated on the grass in squads, according to their tribes, they listened while he addressed them and told them of their duties to the English crown. With rising eloquence he said that they were bound in their allegiance to the English as though with a silver chain. 'The ends of this silver chain,' he added, 'are fixed in the immovable mountains, in so firm a manner that the hands of no mortal enemy might be able to move it.' Then as he bade them take the field, he held a war belt in his hands and exclaimed with fervor:

'My war kettle is on the fire; my canoe is ready to put into the water; my gun is loaded; my sword is by my side; and my axe is sharpened.'

Little Abraham, sachem of the lower Mohawk valley, took the belt from him, Red Head, a chief of the Onondagas, made reply, telling him that from every castle warriors would follow him to the north. A war dance followed, and a large body of the Six Nations were ready for the fray.

No doubt young Joseph Brant was in this great audience, listening to the speeches of his elders. He was only thirteen years of age at the time, but the spirit of the war-path was already upon him. The zealous appeals of the major-general must have stirred him greatly, and it may well be that this lad, with youthful frame and boyish features, here received an impulse which often sustained him in later years during his long career of active loyalty on behalf of the English cause. As it happened, Joseph was soon to be in active service. On August 8, 1755, Johnson's expedition left Albany, and a week later arrived at the great carrying-place between the Hudson and Lac St Sacrement, as Lake George was then called. At this point Fort Lyman [Footnote: Afterwards named Fort Edward.] had been built the same summer. Thence the major-general set out, with fifteen hundred provincials and three hundred Indians, on his journey northward. King Hendrick, a chief of the Mohawks, led the tribesmen, and under his direction a number of braves were being tested for the first time. One of these--we may imagine the boy's intense delight--was young Joseph Brant.

On reaching Lac St Sacrement Johnson made a halt and took up a strong position on the shore. Soon reinforcements arrived under General Phineas Lyman, his second in command. Johnson re-named the lake. 'I have given it,' he says, 'the name of Lake George, not only in honor of His Majesty, but to assert his undoubted dominion here.'

Meanwhile Baron Dieskau, the commander of the French forces, having landed at South Bay, the southern extremity of the waters of Lake Champlain, was moving down through the woods. His army was made up of a large body of French Canadians, Indians, and regular soldiers of the regiments of La Reine and Languedoc. He marched by way of Wood Creek, and was bent on making a vigorous attack on Fort Lyman. But when he arrived at a point about midway between Fort Lyman and Johnson's camp on Lake George, his Indians became unruly, declaring that they would march no farther south nor venture off the soil that belonged to France. There was nothing for Dieskau to do but to change his plans. Swerving in a north-westerly direction, he struck the new road that Johnson had made to the lake. This he followed, intending to fall upon the English forces wherever he should find them.

Johnson's scouts, prowling to the southward, detected this move. Back to the encampment they brought the news of Dieskau's approach and the English leader at once made ready to defend his position. Trees were felled; the wagons and bateaux were brought up; a strong breastwork was built across the new-cut roadway; cannon were put in position to play upon the advancing enemy. Then discussion took place as to the advisability of making a sortie against the foe. It was suggested that five hundred men would be sufficient, but at the mention of this number King Hendrick, the Indian leader, interposed. What, indeed, could such a paltry handful do in the face of the oncoming Frenchmen?

'If they are to fight,' he said, 'they are too few; if they are to be killed, they are too many.'

In the early morning, September 8, 1755, a force of twelve hundred set forth, only to learn the wisdom of Hendrick's advice. Dieskau was proceeding cautiously, hoping to catch the English in a trap. He sent out flying wings of Indians and Canadians, while his French regulars formed the centre of his force. As the English advanced along the road, they found themselves suddenly attacked on both sides by the enemy. A stiff struggle then took place in which Johnson's men were badly worsted. King Hendrick's horse was shot down, and before he could free himself from his saddle he was slain by a bayonet thrust. Retreat now became necessary, and by a steady movement the English fell back upon their camp. There they determined to make a decisive stand. Dieskau, emboldened by the success of his previous advance, led his troops towards the lake in battle array. His progress, however, was stopped by the rude barricade which had been piled across the road, and by eleven o'clock the second engagement of the day was already being fought.

Brant has described his feelings when, as a mere boy, he received his baptism of fire upon this battle-ground. When the clatter of the musketry fell upon his ears, his heart jumped and an indescribable fear seemed to take possession of him. His limbs trembled, and in despair he looked for something to steady him in the ordeal. Near by grew a slender sapling, and he clutched at this and held on tenaciously while the bullets went whizzing by. After a few volleys had been fired he regained his natural poise and took his place beside the old fighters who were holding their own against a savage attack. From this moment he acquitted himself with valor in the battle, and, youth though he was, he fulfilled his desire 'to support the character of a brave man of which he was exceedingly ambitious.'

At length the French troops began to recoil before the sweep of the English cannon. Dieskau received a severe wound and the ardor of his followers was visibly cooled. At four o'clock the English general thought the opportune moment had arrived to make a sortie, and his men climbed over the rampart and drove the French to flight in every direction. The wounded Dieskau was made prisoner and borne to the camp of his enemy. Johnson's leg had been pierced by a bullet, and in this condition he was carried to his tent.

As the two generals lay helpless on their litters, several redskins entered the tent and scowled upon the recumbent Dieskau. 'These fellows have been regarding me with a look not indicative of much compassion,' said the French commander. 'Anything else!' answered Johnson, 'for they wished to oblige me to deliver you into their hands in order to burn you, in revenge for the death of their comrades and of their chiefs who have been slain in the battle.' Then he added: 'Feel no uneasiness; you are safe with me.'

This affair at Lake George was only an opening battle in the Seven Years' War between France and England which was waged in three continents and closed in America with the fall of Montreal in 1760. For his victory over Dieskau William Johnson was made a baronet, and thus became Sir William Johnson. He continued to offer his services until the war ended; and during the memorable campaign of 1759, while Wolfe and Amherst were operating in the east, he was sent with Brigadier Prideaux to effect, if possible, the capture of Fort Niagara. The expedition ascended the Mohawk in June, crossed over to Oswego, and thence followed the south shore of Lake Ontario to its destination. The French fort stood at the mouth of the Niagara where it enters Lake Ontario, and was under the command of Captain Pouchot. No sooner had this officer heard of the English approach than he sent to Presqu'Ile and other points in the west asking that reinforcements should be dispatched with all haste for his relief.

The English investing army consisted of twenty-three hundred regulars and provincials, together with nine hundred Indians from the tribes of the Six Nations. At the very outset Prideaux was accidentally killed by the premature bursting of a shell from a coehorn and Johnson had to take command. Acting with vigor he prosecuted the siege until July 24, when firing in the distance told that help for the besieged would soon be at hand. Straightway Johnson selected one-third of his men and marched to meet the relieving force, which was led by Captain D'Aubrey and comprised eleven hundred French and several hundred redskins from the western tribes. The conflict which ensued was short but desperate. The Six Nations, posted on the flanks of the English line, fought valiantly, and, largely owing to their valor, the French were put to rout. On the same day Pouchot capitulated. By this success the chain of French forts stretching from the St Lawrence to Louisiana was snapped near the middle. Although Brant's deeds have not been recorded, it is stated on good authority that he was with Sir William Johnson on this occasion and that he bore himself with marked distinction.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The War Chief of the Six Nations, A Chronicle of Joseph Brant, 1915

 

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