More than 260 years have passed since the fall of Fort William Henry, an event which gave birth to the legend of the last Mohican.
When James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans, he skillfully mixed real historical events with the adventures of his fictional characters. That is one of the reasons why his story remains popular to this day. But where exactly is the line between history and Cooper’s storytelling?
Due to a different approach to colonizing New World, English and French possessions in America remained largely untroubled by each other during the early years of the colonization. While England was focused on agriculture needed to support their ever-expanding colonial population, French were more interested in trade with the native Indians. In exchange for European merchandise, they supplied French traders with furs that brought them fortune back in Europe.
The main reason for the different approach was geography. French colonies in North America were mostly located in present-day Canada, which was highly unsuitable for agriculture and unable to support large European population. French never had massive numbers of colonists like English did and thus never had a need to displace native population. Their trade allowed them to be in excellent relationships with almost every tribe they encountered.
On the other hand, English booming population was always in need of more space, mainly for growing food. This led to frequent clashes with the Indians, something that will haunt the United States throughout its history.
Trouble between French and English colonies begun to develop as both sides looked to expand into the area behind the Appalachian Mountains, the fertile Ohio Valley. The tensions slowly mounted as constant skirmishes became regular occurrences. Finally, the open war started with the beginning of the Seven Year War, the world’s first truly global conflict spanning five continents.
Early in the war, English constructed Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George in New York province, in 1755. The fort was to serve as a staging area for a planned invasion into French Canada. French were aware of this threat and in 1757 they launched an expedition to capture the fort. A force consisting of some 6,000 regular and colonial French troops and about 2,000 of their Indian allies under the command of General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm laid siege to the fort. The defenders, commanded by Colonel George Munro, were heavily outnumbered, as there were only 2,000 of them. Their only hope of resisting was General Daniel Webb, and his 3,000 troops, located in Albany. Colonel Munro quickly dispatched a messenger asking for help. The answer came a few days later, but not in a form he expected.
The runner sent by General Webb was captured by the French. General Montcalm, having read the message, decided to release him to the fort. The message was a disappointment for Colonel Munro and his men. Basically, Webb told them that he won’t risk his men by coming to their aid and that they should ask for favorable terms of surrender. With his walls breached, food and ammunition almost depleted and mounting numbers of wounded, Colonel Munro didn’t see an alternative and asked for terms.
General Montcalm proved to be very chivalrous and the English were allowed to exit the fort under arms and flags and retreat towards Albany, under the condition of not waging war against French for the next 18 months.
This didn’t sit well with the French allies. They were promised loot and trophies, and they got none, despite participating in the campaign and taking losses. Instead, they got to watch as the enemy exited the forth with full regalia and headed south. The sight was too much for them and they charged the English column. Indians were ruthless and as some of them fought retreating English soldiers, others entered the fort and started killing wounded soldiers and civilians who were waiting to be evacuated.
The exact number of killed and captured soldiers and civilians has never been determined, but according to early estimates, Indians massacred some 500 people. Other studies put the number much closer to 200 dead and missing. French watched helplessly as their allies slaughtered mostly defenseless Englishmen. After the battle, they destroyed the fort and retreated back to Canada.
This was the historic setting for Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. He masterfully incorporated real events into his writing and told us a story of love and courage in the face of terror. The massacre served as a galvanizing point for the English settlers, who poured into the ranks of the colonial militia, eager for revenge. On the other side of Atlantic, the British government decided to supply enough troops and resources to end the French threat once and for all, which they did in 1759 by capturing Quebec.