During a recent discussion concerning pre-Civil War roads in the Adirondacks I mentioned to a friend that I am amazed by the number of people who insist on calling certain roads “Old Military Roads” even though they never had a military purpose.
My friend told me he heard that a hunter once found the remains of an old cannon somewhere near Terror Lake deep in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. His point, I think, was that the cannon must have been abandoned in the course of some American military expedition along a long-vanished woods road.
I asked him if he knew who had found the cannon. He didn’t. A few days later he sent me an email to inform me that one of his friends knew the identity of the hunter who discovered the cannon. He promised to track the guy down and question him closely. A few days passed before his next email. He had contacted the hunter and it turned out he had not seen the cannon himself but had heard about it from someone else.
The argument that discovery of lost cannon establishes some military usage of certain Adirondack roads has been around for at least 100 years. Alfred Donaldson discussed this phenomenon at some length in his History of the Adirondacks (1921). His point was that the three northern Adirondack roads commonly labeled old military roads, i.e., the roads from Chester to Russell, from Westport to Hopkinton and the Albany Road from Fish House to Russell, were not built by soldiers and had essentially no military purpose. Donaldson supported this contention by referring to maps of the era and by careful analysis of when those roads were constructed.
Donaldson handily dismissed the theory that the discovery of a cannon establishes a road’s military credentials. He was aware that two old cannon barrels had been discovered near Tupper Lake. Based on their location and condition he surmised they were from Sir John Johnson’s retreat to Canada in 1776. Johnson’s loyalist band was traveling along a Mohawk trail as there were no roads at that early date through the Central Adirondack wilderness.
Because the tales of old cannon seem so persistent I set out to discover how many bonafide Adirondack cannon discoveries have been reliably documented. So far as I can determine only three military cannons have ever been discovered anywhere in the Adirondack wilderness. It turns out that Sir John Johnson was probably responsible for all three.
The first two, both large 14-pounders, were found about five miles apart just south of Tupper Lake. These are the cannon mentioned by Donaldson. [See also, “Cannon abandoned near Tupper in 1776 now at Johnstown,” Tupper Lake Free Press, October 07, 1937]
The third, a small swivel gun that fired a 1-pound ball, was more recently discovered along the old Bartman Road near Bakers Mills. Sir John and his loyalist troops may have abandoned this cannon during the course of their 1780 raid on Johnstown. Glenn Pearsall wrote about this here at the Adirondack Almanack in 2015.
That’s it. All the documented abandoned cannon are associated with the American Revolution, none with the War of 1812. Nonetheless there are still plenty of people who are sure American soldiers dragged heavy cannon along wilderness roads during or just after the War of 1812.
Photo of cannon abandoned in 1776 by Sir John Johnson.