“It was in this scene of strife and bloodshed that the incidents we shall attempt to relate occurred, during the third year of the war which England and France last waged for the possession of a country that neither was destined to retain.”
Thus begins James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Published in 1826, it was the first novel based on America’s own, relatively recent history.
In August, 1757, after enduring a siege that had lasted six days, outnumbered three to one and deprived of any hopes of re-enforcements, Lt. Commander Munro, the Scots veteran charged with the defense of Fort William Henry, surrendered to the Marquis de Montcalm on the condition that the garrison be allowed to march out with the honors of war – flags, arms, but no ammunition. Montcalm agreed to escort the garrison to Fort Edward. The wounded were to remain at Fort William Henry until they were able to travel.
Somewhere between Lake George and Halfway Brook, the soldiers, along with women and children, were attacked by Indians allied with the French. It has been estimated that anywhere from 200 to 1,500 people were killed that day, and that at least 200 people were taken to Canada as captives.
In Last of the Mohicans, this is the attack in which Munro’s daughters are taken captive by the Hurons. Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas pursue them into Canada.
On Friday, August 12, Bruce W. Dearstyne will present “Last of the Mohicans Revisited” at the Fort William Henry Conference Center in Lake George.
According to the sponsors of the lecture, Dearstyne will discuss how “James Fenimore Cooper blended fact and fiction to create a novel that still resonates today. The history itself was exciting. But Cooper masterfully embellished it by introducing fascinating historical characters,descriptions of harrowing hand-to-hand combat, kidnapping, and rescue, and vivid descriptions of the northern New York wilderness.”
Writing in the New York History Blog recently, Dearstyne commented, “Last of the Mohicans was based on Cooper’s own incomplete and sketchy research into the events it describes. He took considerable liberties with history, including simplifying the colonial wars and presenting the stereotypes about Indians that were typical of his era.”
However “incomplete or sketchy” Cooper’s knowledge of the French and Indian War may have been, he was interested enough in its history to plan a visit to Lake George, which he finally did with a party of Englishmen in August, 1824.
Lord Edward Stanley, who would later become the Earl of Derby and Great Britain’s Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria, was a member of the party. According to his journal (published privately a hundred years later), the purpose of the visit was indeed to explore the scenes of the French and Indian Wars. They examined the ruins of the forts, “in which,” wrote Stanley, “are collected as relics buttons, bullets, tomahawks, etc.”
Cooper, Stanley and their friends stayed at the Lake House, the present site of Shepard Park. Built in 1801, the hotel had piazzas facing both the lake and the street. Lawns sloped gradually to the lake’s edge, where steamboats landed and an orchestra played in a summer house constructed on the docks.
From the piazza of the Lake House, Cooper could look out upon the scenes of the conflict, as a visitor in the 1840s noted: “From the Lake House, fronting the water, a comprehensive view of the historic grounds may be seen. In the distance is French Mountain. By the trees on the shore is the site of Fort William Henry; and further on the left, is the site of Fort George.”
The group climbed Prospect Mountain, and then boarded the Mountaineer for a voyage down the lake. They passed “immense forests on the banks,” wrote Stanley. In fact, much of the description of natural scenery, which is as important a part of the novel as the narrative and the characters, was based on impressions Cooper received during that trip. The climb up Prospect Mountain, for instance, was the inspiration for this scene from the beginning of the novel: “To the north stretched the limpid, and, as it appeared from that dizzy height, the narrow sheet of the”holy lake,” indented with numberless bays, embellished by fantastic headlands, and dotted with countless islands… Directly on the shore of the lake, lay the extensive earthen ramparts and low buildings of William Henry.”
In his novel, Dearstyne says, Cooper “exaggerated the aftermath of the conquest of the fort, which included killing and kidnapping some of the people who had surrendered.”
Even if the events that followed the surrender did not quite constitute a massacre, the contemporary accounts upon which Cooper based his version revealed something important about the Europeans’ and the Native Americans’ differing understandings of warfare, writes political scientist Eliot Cohen in Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War.
“Having imported European norms of warfare to the New World, English and French commanders struggled to impose them… For the English, (the so-called massacre) was an unconscionable violation of the laws of war. . . After all, the garrison had been granted surrender on honorable terms,” writes Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (and a member of Fort Ticonderoga’s Board of Directors.)
For the Native Americans, on the other hand, allowing the garrison to march out with the honors of war “must have seemed bizarre, indeed, incomprehensible. Prisoners were trophies, potential adoptees, sources of brutal entertainment, perhaps valuable sources of ransom,” Cohen writes.
For Cohen, the events that took place at Fort William Henry, and the way in which they were interpreted afterward, help illustrate the development of a distinctive, American Way of War. American armies learned to adapt to unforeseen and changing circumstances on and around Lake George in part by observing the behavior of their enemies. They would abide by the legal and conventional norms of warfare until, or unless, forced to do otherwise, “resorting to ruthless means when that appeared necessary.”
Since the novel was published in February, 1826, Cooper’s tale has been recast as nine feature films, two animated movies, three television series and a 1942 comic book, says Russell Bellico, the Hague summer resident who’s written frequently about the region’s military and maritime history.
According to Bellico, only one movie based on Last of the Mohicans was actually shot on Lake George, a silent film made in 1911.
The 1992 film by Michael Mann, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis, was filmed in North Carolina.
According to Mark Ricker, now an award-winning production designer who was at the start of his career when he was hired as a set dresser for Last of the Mohicans, Mann wanted to make the film on Lake George, but came to the conclusion that the region’s over-development made that impossible.
Nevertheless, Bellico writes, of all the versions made, Mann’s film is “the most authentic depiction of hostilities during the French and Indian War.” Bellico says that Mann “insisted on the use of flintlocks, black powder and realistic Native American dress and weapons.”
Dearstyne notes that the frequent reinterpretation of Cooper’s novel “shows the continuing power of the book to call attention to an important New York writer and to New York as an important place where history unfolded. It also reveals the power of fiction to spark interest in history.”
Dearstyne will discuss contemporary versions of the story when he gives his talk at Fort William Henry on August 12. The lecture begins at 7 pm and is free and open to the public.
Photos: Two illustrations by N.C. Wyeth from a 1919 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition of Last of the Mohicans, and James Fenimore Cooper. Provided by Lake George Mirror.
A version of this story was first published in the Lake George Mirror.