Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: How Wild is the Adirondacks?

For some time I have been musing about the question of what we call wilderness, how we deem an area to be wilderness, what it means in the Adirondacks and what it means to me. Is Lost Brook Tract really wild? Can I think of something as wilderness when it is possible for me to run from the heart of it to a warm car and a coffee shop in an hour if I have to? This is complicated question.

Several weeks ago when I began these dispatches I resolved to write about the question of wilderness. Then last week came the most recent post from Steve Signell, our resident mapping expert, his topic being Adirondack land classifications. The debate it engendered in the comments section addressed the very subject I was just beginning to write about. Serendipity!

One of the comments on Steve’s post said this: “People this is all Wild Forest if we have to give it a label. There is nothing ‘Wilderness’ about the High Peaks Wilderness.” My reflexive response to that comment is disagreement. I experience plenty of what I would call wilderness in the High Peaks. But I think I know why the commentator said what he said. With eroded trails, numerous signs and markers, hoards of people, camping areas, bridges, dams and so forth, and with the knowledge that such as it is the High Peaks area is an artificial wilderness created and maintained by human beings, he has a point.But how much of a point?

It seems to me that there are three perspectives from which to investigate the question of wilderness in the Adirondacks: the scientific perspective – essentially what ecologists tell us; the anecdotal perspective – what stories and lore tell us; and the experiential perspective – do we experience wilderness? How do we say so? How does it feel? What takes us out of that experience, or takes away from it?

The scientific argument is more or less a slam dunk. UNESCO has designated the Adirondacks and the Lake Champlain Basin a Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest in the world. Ecologists tell is that the Adirondacks constitute one of the few intact biomes on the planet. Except for a handful of species, most of them from the top of the food chain, these mountains harbor many places with an ecosystem that is essentially as it was before the arrival of civilization. Moreover, it is an ecosystem that is considerably more complete than it was a century ago.

But while the ecological answer is gratifying it is not particularly intimate. Whatever the science may say, when I am in the woods an ATV, a couple of chainsaws or a pile of garbage can take me out of wilderness in a heartbeat. As a storyteller I am more interested in the experiential and anecdotal perspectives. This is a big subject and I’m going to take three dispatches to cover it. In the next dispatch I will write about the experiential perspective; following that I’ll write about the wildness of Lost Brook Tract itself. But I prefer to begin with the stories.

There are of course many stories that speak to the question of wilderness: that assume it, that exalt it, that reveal its beauties and terrors. These stories may not render truths about wilderness but they become part of the fabric by which we experience and value it. Some, like the tragic story of young Douglas Legg and the Santanoni Preserve, are well known. Some, like the story of Japanese Climbers that got lost trying to scale the front of Castle Rock, are obscure. Some, like the story of Verplanck Colvin’s discovery of Lake Tear, invite pithy comparisons, for example the fact that the Hudson’s source was discovered after the source of the Nile, Mississippi, Missouri and Columbia Rivers were found.

Perhaps my favorite story of just how wild these mountains are relates to a discovery of certain artifacts deep in the woods of the Western Adirondacks. How they got there makes for quite a story. It does not relate to Lost Brook Tract in a direct way, but it does involve territory I have described before, including the same area where the C-46 crashed. Like many stories of Adirondack lore it is beautifully intertwined with American history.

It was January of 1776 and colonists were at war with Great Britain, though independence had not yet been declared. At that point the question of whether to break with His Majesty King George was very much undecided. Northern New York was still sovereign British territory, recently won from the French following decades of war, and there were many strong loyalists opposed the Continental rebellion. One of the most influential of them was actively plotting to oppose the rebels, secretly accumulating arms and even raising and drilling his own army. American General Philip Schuyler, in possession of intelligence to this effect, ordered a force of 3,000 troops to stop his activities. Off they set, marching to Johnstown to disarm Sir John Johnson.

Sir John Johnson, 2nd Baronet of New York, was the son and heir of Sir William Johnson, one of the earliest and most famous of Adirondack personages. No doubt many of you are familiar with the story of Sir William, so I’ll give an abbreviated version. A landed man of means, he was the original Adirondack rusticator, establishing a summer residence called Fish House along the Sacandaga River (its location long ago submerged by the forming of the Sacandaga Reservoir). More important, Sir William was a key figure in British affairs in the colonies and in the French-Indian Wars because of his political and military acumen, ambition and most of all his unprecedented relationship with the Iroquois Confederacy.

Having settled in the Mohawk valley, Sir William learned the Mohawk language and Iroquois customs thoroughly (he would even partake of ceremonies in full Mohawk regalia). He engaged in much trade and commerce with the Six Nations and being atypically fair in his dealings he became their most trusted white ally. It was primarily through his connection to them that the Iroquois remained steadfast allies to the British in the French and Indian wars. Sir William commanded Iroquois and colonial militia forces during the last French-Indian War, earning a British victory at the Battle of Lake George and capturing Fort Niagara from the French. These accomplishments and others brought him the title of 1st Baronet of New York and appointment as British Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He held this post until 1774 when amidst rising continental tensions and in the midst of a difficult Indian conference at Johnson Hall, his home in Johnstown and headquarters of his offices, he was seized with a stroke and died. His titles, land and responsibilities were passed on to his son, Sir John.

Sir John was well regarded and savvy in his own right. He was also a fierce loyalist. He made it known to British military commanders that he could raise a battalion of five hundred Iroquois warriors to oppose the colonists. Thus it was that the American force marched to Johnson Hall in January of 1776 to disarm him. Knowing they were en route he acquiesced, relinquishing his arms and agreeing to a parole in return for desisting from any further anti-colonial rabble-rousing.

Of course his promise was an empty one. Allies and arms continued to come to Johnson Hall, some apparently coming from Canada via an ancient Mohawk Indian trail that wound through the hostile and unexplored wilderness to the north. Sir John undoubtedly knew of this trail; indeed his father Sir William had located Johnson Hall quite deliberately at the intersection of six Indian trails where for centuries there had been meetings, trade and celebration. The trail to Canada was one of them and was a chain of commerce.

In May of 1776 American military leaders were tipped off to the fact that Sir John had once again raised arms and forces. They immediately dispatched more troops, this time to arrest him and end his threat once and for all. Loyal allies in Albany sent word to Sir John and he made a quick decision. As a byproduct of the French and Indian War Johnson Hall had been fortified with block houses on either side as well as two cannon, one weighing 1,300 pounds and one 700 pounds, mounted at the entrance. But these defenses were no match for the army that was coming. The only option was a hasty retreat to Canada and the only possible route to take was the old Indian trail.

Accompanied by a party of three hundred Tory loyalists and an unknown number of Mohawk guides, Sir John Johnson fled to Canada following the ancient trail, becoming the first recorded white man to traverse the interior of the park. Convinced that they were pursued close behind, Sir John left quickly and traveled with haste. Apparently it had been a hard winter, for it is recorded that the party traveled in winter conditions, wearing snowshoes and using sleds to haul equipment and supplies.

As near as I can tell from the multiple sources through which I combed, the trail proceeded as follows. It began traveling north past Fish House, then along the Sacandaga River roughly following present-day Route 30, skirting the north end of Lake Pleasant, then bearing northwest near what is now Jessup River Road, continuing along the present Military Road right into the heart of the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. From here the route is unknown but it probably passed to the north of Cedar Lakes, turned due west to avoid the large ridge to the north and came into the Moose River Plains where it resumed a northward direction to the Fulton Chain of Lakes. Here the route is known again: up the Fulton Chain to Raquette Lake, to the outlet of the Raquette River and along the Raquette to Long Lake, up the eastern shore of Long Lake then west just north of its outlet, passing to the north of Anthony Ponds, proceeding northwest just below Tupper Lake, to the Grass River, up to the St. Lawrence and thence to Canada. This was a distance of somewhere around two hundred miles, through the harshest wilderness on the continent. The journey took them nineteen days. Anyone who has hiked around the West Canada Lakes and Blue Ridge Wilderness areas has a pretty good idea how forbidding this route was.

The story has it that the winter snowpack, deteriorating in the spring thaw, failed the party at the site of a large lake. There they abandoned their snowshoes in a pile before continuing. Hence the name we have for the lake to this day, Raquette Lake, “raquette” being the French word for snowshoes.

Even though there were plenty of Native Americans who used the route, the retreat of such a large party under adverse conditions in war time, over the kind of trail and terrain many of us know so well, makes for an impressive story. But as the saying goes, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

At the very beginning of the 20th century hunters in the wilds of the Western Adirondacks stumbled upon a find in the deeps woods just south of Tupper Lake. The exact circumstances are not recorded but one account makes “stumble” literal, as in someone tripped over it. It was a projectile shape sticking out of the ground. A quick examination revealed it to be not stone but metal, brass to be exact. Long story short, it was a cannon, sunk completely into the earth save for a few inches. A second cannon was found not far away. One weighed 1,300 pounds and the other 700 was pounds. A large beach tree growing through the remains of one of the wheels proved that the cannon had lain there for well over a hundred years. History records that the American troops found that the cannon were missing from Johnson Hall when they arrived. Sir John Johnson and party had dragged a ton worth of artillery more than 120 miles through the Adirondack wilderness on trails more primitive than what we hike on today.

The mind boggles at how they got those cannon that far. One presumes that they sledded them. But what did they do when the snowpack failed? If snowshoes were abandoned at Raquette Lake, then why not the cannon too? From the Fulton Chain of Lakes to the spot where the cannon were found the route is a water route and the typical method of passage would have been canoes made on the spot. Did they build a canoe that could hold a 1,300 pound cannon, carriage, wheels and all? Did they build a raft or a barge? If so they must have had a hell of a time on the Raquette River, which I would not describe as raft-friendly. Did they stay on land? No one knows.

Think about the fact that to do the trip in 19 days means a pace of about ten miles per day. I would challenge a contemporary hiker to put on a fifty-pound pack and do the same route at the same pace. It is an astounding effort to contemplate.

How does this tale, interesting as it is, inform the question of wildness? For one thing, the fact that the cannon were found in the twentieth century is telling (there is a story that the great guide Mitchell Sabattis knew of the existence of the cannon in the middle of the 19th century but no one knows for sure). But I’m more interested in the contemporary condition of the route itself. Certainly the water route up the Fulton chain is no longer wild, nor is Long lake or Raquette Lake (although many parts of Raquette Lake are unspoiled). But the land part through the West Canada/Blue Ridge/Moose River plains is as wild as it was in Sir John’s time. So is the part past Long Lake and headed to Tupper. Segments of the hike would be arguably wilder than they were then, as the Indian trail and its uses are long gone.

Consider the following – suppose that one decided to duplicate Sir John’s “cannonical” journey with the admittedly artificial choice to stay in the woods when traveling parallel to roads like Jessup River Road or when skirting populated waterways. How close could one come to Sir John’s wilderness experience? Well, other than a handful of old logging roads here and there one would come face to face with civilization very infrequently. Specifically it would be necessary to cross either Route 30 or Route 8, then the Limekiln Lake – Cedar River Road, then Route 28. That’s it. In a hundred and twenty miles one would cross two minor highways and a dirt road. Virtually the entire rest of the route to where the cannon lay would fool Sir John himself. Given that we are in the twenty-first century, that is a remarkable thing.

For those who would object to the artifice of avoiding roads and developed waterfront I would simply say that we have to go to some lengths to get to wilderness in any case. That’s a fact of the modern world. The point is that we can, we can avoid civilization almost altogether in the Adirondacks.

The Wilderness is either there to find or it isn’t.

It’s there.

Photo: Trail-less view in the Adirondack park.


Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




20 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    The Adirondacks are wild enough to get lost in forever with you dead body never being found. And that can happen in Wild Forest just as easily as it can happen in Wilderness.

  2. Paul says:

    Pete, I agree it is there. And you are more and more likely to find it in places like you have at Lost Brook. I think some of the wildest land in the Adiorondacks is found on private parcels like yours.

  3. JSB says:

    Another great installment!
    I end my week with your blog, and every time I read it I realize just how much I miss the North Country.

    A question arises: are the cannon in a museum?

    I thank you again for such excellent writing about an area I love so dearly.

  4. zymurgist says:

    Having myself studied Johnson and Brant’s evacuation route, I mostly concur with Nelson’s outline. However, I must point out that by stating it so concisely, Nelson essentially blasts a trail through a history wilderness. Most folks will lazily follow the trail he blazes and will miss so much that they could discover themselves.

    Where was Fish House? Ask the tour guides at Johnson Hall and they don’t know. White Savage doesn’t pin it down. Read several books and you will be unsure. Finally, stumbling unexpectedly onto Jeptha Simms and you will find what you’re seeking. Look what you know from your investigation without the trail. You will be much richer proceeding without a google search to Nelson’s blog. A blogger’s megaphone in the wilderness of history is as bad as ATV’s, chainsaws and garbage dumps in the Blue Ridge Wilderness Area.

  5. Adam says:

    Zymurgist, would you feel the same way about a professional historian’s work? I can see your point but not everyone has the time, resources, and know-how to do their own historical work.

    I wouldn’t presume to speak for the author or his intentions, but as a regular reader I have always been left with the impression that these dispatches are offered more as starting points for further thinking and not a final word.

  6. Pete Nelson says:

    Zymurgist:

    I agree with your point as far as it goes. However I take issue with two things.

    First is any sense that I intend this as is the last word as opposed to a tale told to entertain and perhaps provoke a sense of mystery and wonder. My post is replete with questions, not answers, many of them asked explicitly.

    Second, in that very post I’m pretty sure I characterized myself as a story teller, not a historian. I’m also quite sure I specifically referred to the story-telling perspective as anecdotal, not historical. “Anecdotal” is a meaningful word.. that ought to be clear enough, don’t you think? Not only that, but I also wrote that the anecdotal perspective may not represent truths but does represent part of the fabric about how we think about wilderness. I don’t mind criticism but I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as representing something I am not in fact representing.

    With that said I have in fact done serious historical research, know what that entails, and am careful to relate my stories as closely as I can to what is known or understood. I trust I have this particular story reasonably correct; while I did not write it from primary sources I didn’t source and rewrite it off a Wikipedia page either. I used multiple documents, mostly the work of historians, one in particular that I had not seen before even though I’ve known the basic story for years.

    I’m not sure what your specific objection to my account might be, but I would welcome comment or correction on any inaccuracies.

    As for Jeptha Simms, interesting that you would bring him up, for he was in fact not a professional historian but a story teller as well. His work certainly does not constitute a primary source and cannot be taken as gospel. None of that subtracts from his wonderful prose or from his expertise and authority concerning the Mohawk Valley.

    I think your strongest point, though perhaps stated a bit harshly, is well taken. My version of the story is entirely too concise, even perfunctory, if taken as a narrative of American History. And I agree that this is characteristic of the blogosphere. Fortunately I intend it as nothing more than a story, and said so.

  7. Pete Nelson says:

    Adam:

    Thanks for your comments. Perhaps you made clear in them something I did not do well enough myself, for surely I intend these dispatches as a starting point if anything, certainly not the final word. By the way, I’m working on a lengthy response to your comment on the other post concerning wilderness “truths.”

  8. Adam says:

    Pete, I am looking forward to continuing the conversation with you. I have been struggling with these issues and it is very helpful to hear multiple perspectives – especially those different from my own.

    What I perhaps failed to make clear in that other post is that I was expressing my opinion about how I see the situation (as viewed through a particular lens), and not being prescriptive.

  9. Pete Nelson says:

    Adam:

    I did not take your comments on the other post as prescriptive in any way. Rather I found them thoughtful and important. I hope to have my reply to them posted there within the hour.

  10. Joe Hackett says:

    As someone who now owns an incredible piece of the park; Peter has a unique take on the character of the land.

    I expect the same is true for landowners of most of the large, private tracts. Unfortunately, the wilderness charm of their estates has recently been threatened by the very state that declares such a distinction on the land. Ask the folks on Brandreth Park or Nahasanee about the current state of their once, grand wilderness, as a result of the ‘paddlers rights’ campaign.

    For some, I reckon their wilderness begins when the last signal bar on their cell phone is finally eclipsed. For others, it is only found where there’s no sign, scent or sound of the hand of man. It is the storyteller in all of us, that creates the wild state of the wilderness we wish for. It is an escape found only only in the mind of the escapee.

    Try though we may, it is unrealistic to expect to find a true, wilderness state in this state. Simply put, the hand of man is omnipresent. We can choose to ignore it, or pretend not to notice. But in our zest to get lost, it will always be there if we chose to look for it.

    Whether such evidence is just a faint scar from a woodsman’s blaze, found on the opposite sides of a virgin pine, or the discovery of a historic cannon in a backwoods bog (or a more unsightly, abandoned locomotive still mired in a similar mire); it is impossible in the modern age, to escape the hand of man.

    The controversy over the Lows Lake ‘Wanabee Wilderness’ is a perfect case in point. How can this landscape be considered a true wilderness with two major, manmade dams supporting the lake itself, not to mention the many maples still bearing scars from long ago taps, or the towering pines, still bearing glass insulators from long ago, telephone lines.

    It remains impossible to remove the scars of man from the land, whether it’s a jet contrail at sunrise or a blinking satellite in the dark skies, or a meandering mountain route laid out by road monkeys of along ago, logging crew. Only nature can erase such wounds, and it won’t happen in our lifetime.

    Wilderness is in and of itself, just another manmade blight which we have imposed on the land. Although it’s intended as a simple description, the use of the label has caused more divisions than all of the subdivisions ever proposed for the park, pre or prior to 1972.

    Hikers, paddlers and most other travelers prefer to travel exclusively in designated wilderness areas, which tend to attract the hordes, while adjacent Wild Forest lands often remain all but vacant. Today’s wilderness is just a state of mind, and fortunately there are storytellers such as Peter, that can still take us there.

  11. Joe Hackett says:

    As someone who now owns an incredible piece of the park; Peter has a unique take on the character of the land.

    I expect the same is true for landowners of most of the large, private tracts. Unfortunately, the wilderness charm of their estates has recently been threatened by the very state that declares such a distinction on the land. Ask the folks on Brandreth Park or Nahasanee about the current state of their once, grand wilderness, as a result of the ‘paddlers rights’ campaign.

    For some, I reckon their wilderness begins when the last signal bar on their cell phone is finally eclipsed. For others, it is only found where there’s no sign, scent or sound of the hand of man. It is the storyteller in all of us, that creates the wild state of the wilderness we wish for. It is an escape found only only in the mind of the escapee.

    Try though we may, it is unrealistic to expect to find a true, wilderness state in this state. Simply put, the hand of man is omnipresent. We can choose to ignore it, or pretend not to notice. But in our zest to get lost, it will always be there if we chose to look for it.

    Whether such evidence is just a faint scar from a woodsman’s blaze, found on the opposite sides of a virgin pine, or the discovery of a historic cannon in a backwoods bog (or a more unsightly, abandoned locomotive still mired in a similar mire); it is impossible in the modern age, to escape the hand of man.

    The controversy over the Lows Lake ‘Wanabee Wilderness’ is a perfect case in point. How can this landscape be considered a true wilderness with two major, manmade dams supporting the lake itself, not to mention the many maples still bearing scars from long ago taps, or the towering pines, still bearing glass insulators from long ago, telephone lines.

    It remains impossible to remove the scars of man from the land, whether it’s a jet contrail at sunrise or a blinking satellite in the dark skies, or a meandering mountain route laid out by road monkeys of along ago, logging crew. Only nature can erase such wounds, and it won’t happen in our lifetime.

    Wilderness is in and of itself, just another manmade blight which we have imposed on the land. Although it’s intended as a simple description, the use of the label has caused more divisions than all of the subdivisions ever proposed for the park, pre or prior to 1972.

    Hikers, paddlers and most other travelers prefer to travel exclusively in designated wilderness areas, which tend to attract the hordes, while adjacent Wild Forest lands often remain all but vacant. Today’s wilderness is just a state of mind, and fortunately there are storytellers such as Peter, that can still take us there.

  12. Paul says:

    “Hikers, paddlers and most other travelers prefer to travel exclusively in designated wilderness areas, which tend to attract the hordes, while adjacent Wild Forest lands often remain all but vacant. Today’s wilderness is just a state of mind, and fortunately there are storytellers such as Peter, that can still take us there.

    Joe, this is similar to the comment that I made in an earlier dispatch that Pete was referring to here. These things are mostly about labels. I also agree that “clarification” on navigation rights law if it allows recreational paddlers to access some areas will mean that more people will be able (or are able in case Phil is following this!) to access some of these otherwise “protected” private areas. Given the Adirondacks close proximity to populated areas the wilder areas will be overrun if folks can do it. I thought an earlier comment was a bit harsh but one point was spot on. As we “advertise” these places the masses will eventually come. They may come anyway. In my opinion at some point only a POSTED sign will protect some areas.

  13. Pete Nelson says:

    In Joe Hackett we have a preeminent authority on the wild state of the park. He leads to my next dispatch almost as though he’s read the draft. Everyone should read his comment.

    But while I agree that the imprint of humankind is all over the park, I am not sure that these imprints mean it’s not a wilderness. I agree that wilderness is an escape found in the mind of the escapee, but I don’t think that it exists only in the mind of the escapee. I think there is more to it than that.

    The discussion of the terms “Wilderness” versus “Wild Forest,” versus “Private Land,” is interesting. Joe makes an excellent point when he indicates how divisive those terms have been. I think he’s spot on. He is also right about Wild Forest areas being relatively ignored because their name is not “Wilderness,” although I’m sure some of that is the fact that the big, impressive mountains are almost all in Wilderness areas.

    To me “Wilderness” is about our stories, anecdotes and experiences and more than anything else. But whatever the State of New York has done to the term, I don’t think it’s simply fiction either. Pete Klein’s first comment is also persuasive to me and to anyone who has been deep out there.

  14. Paul says:

    “I agree that wilderness is an escape found in the mind of the escapee, but I don’t think that it exists only in the mind of the escapee. I think there is more to it than that.”

    Agreed. If there was not I think that Manhattan would be the top NYS “wilderness” in my book!

  15. Bill Ingersoll says:

    “He is also right about Wild Forest areas being relatively ignored because their name is not ‘Wilderness,’ although I’m sure some of that is the fact that the big, impressive mountains are almost all in Wilderness areas.”

    It would be news to me that the Wild Forests of the Adirondack Park are being ignored. Go to the Bear Creek Road trailhead in the Black River Wild Forest, or anywhere around Brantingham Lake in the Independence River Wild Forest, or to Fawn Lake and Mason Lake in the Jessup River Wild Forest, or to Rock Lake in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest, or Spectacle Lake in the Ferris Lake Wild Forest, and stand beside any snowmobile trail from the months of January through March.

    Go to Blue Mountain (in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest) and Lake George (Lake George Wild Forest) at any time of the year.

    Go to the Moose River Plains, part of which had to be recently reclassified as “intensive use” to justify existing management policies.

    Go to Bald Mountain in the Fulton Chain Wild Forest, near Old Forge.

    Go to Middle Saranac Lake, which is operated like a campground even though it’s actually part of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest.

    Go to Whiteface and Esther. The trail to these High Peaks beginning from Wilmington are in the Wilmington Wild Forest.

    Please go to these places, and test the theory that a Wild Forest suffers from disuse because it lacks the distinction of a Wilderness classification.

  16. Marion Weaver says:

    So… back to the beginning and JSB’s question: Are the cannon in a museum? If so, where?

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Marion, a great question. Perhaps another reader knows.

      I do not. The last references to them that I have seen, in multiple accounts, described them as being given to the Johnstown Historical Society with the promise that the Society would return them to their proper positions in front of Johnson Hall. However that does not seem to have happened.

      I have not been to Johnson Hall nor had I written them to ask. But I just did, inspired by your question. Let’s say what they say.

  17. Wanda Burch says:

    Pete – I thoroughly enjoyed your wonderful journey along the artifact trails of the Adirondacks. During a song writing workshop, led by Dan Berggren, at Great Camp Sagamore, I wrote a poem about John’s abandoned “racquettes,” and about the trek of the Loyalists out of their home into Canada.

    Forgive the pun, but the cannon story has been “shot full of holes,” confusing and unproven for many decades. Countless historians have attempted to unravel it, one of the best attempts to date by the late Barbara McMartin. Jeptha Simms, whose “history” was completely anecdotal, as noted by Pete, was comprised of stories from elderly men and women, most of whose memories were inaccurate at best and made up from already exaggerated tales at best. They were invaluable stories shared by a great story-teller. However, his stories provide interesting insight into the period’s history, shared by people defined, like all of us, by the gossip and stories of their day, and Simms should not be dismissed. He is often a good jumping off point for finding the real information and often there is a kernel of truth in his stories, enough to get started. The best primary documentation are the surviving and published Johnson Papers, archived documents in multiple universities, the colonial documents, original journals, and, for the later John Johnson history, his letters to and from Daniel Claus in the Claus manuscripts in Ontario, Canada. You need to be careful even with those if you are looking at the transcriptions and not the originals. Some of the transcriptions are badly done.

    Whatever happened to any of the actual 18th century cannon, we may never know. The cannon in question were placed in front of the Johnson blockhouse in the 20th century, and have a convoluted and difficult to follow history of their own. In fact, they took on a life of their own. Several people have tried to sort through the conflicting newspaper history of those. The Johnstown Historical Society was and still is their rightful owners. From 1906 till 1950, the historical society was the trustee of the house under the NYS Historic Trust. In the 1970s [1976] the badly deteriorated cannon were returned to the historical society by the historic preservation office of NYS Parks and Recreation, along with other nineteenth century items belonging to the historical society. Those cannon, despite their own anecdotal trail, never saw the 18th century. Their style is much later and they were cast. The historical society has never quite figured out what to do with them, since they are inaccurate and late. Johnson Hall’s primary documentation lists smaller, more portable brass cannon at Johnson Hall, designed for defense of the blockhouse during the French and Indian War, when the original blockhouse was constructed under agreement between Johnson and Clinton. The building became the “Indian” store and household slave quarters after the war and by the building date of Johnson Hall in 1763.

    Some of the summer guides might not have been able to speak about Fish house, but the primary staff, present at the site, would have concurred with the information in the above article. Fish House is under the water, submerged in the Sacandaga reservoir. The name, Fish House, is another term that evolved and was picked up by Simms in his anecdotal stories. The name “stuck” by the late 18th century and early 19th century. The original name was Mount Joy, a galleried summer house built in the meadow on the Sacandaga River. It is inventoried in the Johnson documents and items purchased for Mount Joy include fishing gear, hunting gear, a fully stocked kitchen, and sitting room items – and black leather drinking mugs. A famous Fish House punch was developed by an 18th century sporting society in Philadelphia and may have provided the anecdotal origins of the name “Fish House.” Hard to say. There are journaled comments from individuals who enjoyed Johnson’s hospitality stating their pleasure in their time spent shooting and hunting at Mount Joy.

    Kate Curry is the latest writer to attempt to sort through the anecdotal stories and the twisting turns of the Adirondack trails to find John Johnson’s “real” story and to trace his path. And to sort through the confusing tales of the cannon. She concluded that it is difficult. Her book should emerge soon, but meanwhile, as stated above, following the anecdotal and historic paths are adventurous fun. We do know that John emerged with his Johnson Hall regiment out of the forest and into Canada, half-starved, his leather garments practically glued to his skin, bearded, with his long hair tied with snake skins. That information is documented and presents a startling image of the John Johnson we barely yet know. One of my hopeful “retirement” projects is to accurately transcribe the fascinating letters and documents that make up the 8 microfilm reels of Claus documents. I hope I live that long.

  18. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    Dear Wanda:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful and informative comment. I would be fascinated to read Kate’s book. It would be fun to read your book, if you get to Sir John, so I hope you live that long too.

    Ah, the danger of secondary sources! I may not claim to be an historian, merely a story teller, but I still have a vested interest – deeply personal – to get the story as right as possible. Currently I am in the depths of the researching and writing about the early history of Adirondack surveying. In this case I am working mostly from primary sources – or certified copies thereof – and it makes an incredible difference in what I can say or do with confidence, regardless of whether my interpretations are all correct.

    With all that said, I would dearly love to learn more about the cannon because while the story may be “full of holes” (cute), I’m not completly understanding the cannon questions. You state “Those cannon, despite their own anecdotal trail, never saw the 18th century. Their style is much later and they were cast.” First of all, how much later is later? Second, all cannon of the era were cast, some bronze, some iron. Both metals were used in the Revolutionary War.

    Two cannon were found in the wilderness near Tupper Lake; of that there seems to be no question. If they were not Revolutionary War era, from whence could they possibly have originated? The last use of cannon anywhere in the region was the War of 1812, which seems an extremely unlikely cause for cannon to be deposited in that area (there would be some other clues, no doubt). Could these cannon have come from other than Johnson Hall, but still carried by Johnson’s party?

    I suppose I’ll have to wait for Kate’s book to learn the answers, but in the meantime, it’s a story and mystery that begs for the truth. Thanks for bringing more of that to light!

  19. jim smith says:

    Wow, as a lover of the Adirondacks and a lover of history, this is pretty special. Thanks Pete.