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The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

The Massacre at Fort William Henry

Declared War and French Dominance

British Ascension (1758)

Summary

The fall of Fort William Henry and the ensuing "massacre" of the surrendered English on August 8, 1757 is one of the most famous incidents in American history. As dramatized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans , the fall of the fort was an incredible tragedy of epic proportions, an illustration of the nobility of the British and the savagery of both the French and the Indians, and an example of brutal primal rage. The real picture is more complicated.

On August 2, 1757 Major General Daniel Webb learned of a concentration of French forces preparing to attack Fort William Henry, which was on the southern end of Lake George along the route to Montreal. With the poor foresight typical among the British officers up to that point in the war, Webb decided to retreat, leaving Lieutenant Colonel George Munro in charge. When Munro, who was left to defend the fort with 2,300 men (only 1,600 of whom were fit for battle) learned that Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was preparing to attack the fort with over 7,000 men, he appealed to Webb for reinforcements. Though Webb had a good number of ready and able reinforcements at his side, he refused Munro's request, and sent back a letter advising Munro to settle on the best possible terms. Amazingly, Munro held out against the French for four days. But the odds were virtually impossible, and he finally capitulated on August 9.

The British troops were disarmed as a condition of surrender, and made to march from the fort. As the inhabitants of the fort streamed out, the Ottawa, Abenaki, and Potawatomi Indians who fought with the French fell upon the British. The massacre began with the helpless—the wounded and sick men that had been in the fort's hospital and were carried out last. Women and children, most likely families of the soldiers, were also murdered. Other victims included black and mulatto servants, Indian allies of the British, and retreating soldiers who were in sight when order broke down.

While the Indians attacked, the French did nothing to stop the massacre or go to the assistance of those who were being slaughtered. Montcalm excused his behavior with the following words: "I have been obliged here to gratify the Indian nations, who will not leave without me, and am obliged to pass my time with them in ceremonies as tiresome as they are necessary." Montcalm did attempt to restore hostages that the Indians carried off, and he was successful at rescuing many of them.

The number of casualties of the massacre continues to be disputed. It is certain that the French underestimated the death toll, and the English wildly overestimated it, both for propaganda purposes. Contemporary historians normally place the number at over 200, with over 300 captives taken.

Commentary

The massacre at Fort William Henry became a vital part of American history, though Hawthorne's version often took precedence over the real facts. The massacre also became a cornerstone of colonial propaganda against the Indians, much the way the Battle of the Alamo was used to justify the ##Mexican War# {history/american/mexicanwar}# in 1846. While the massacre at Fort William Henry is less problematic than the Alamo, the "villains" of Fort William Henry had clear reasons for their behavior.

When the French recruited the Ottowas, Potowatomis and Abenakis to fight in the battle for the fort, they promised them the opportunity to plunder the fort after the battle was won. This clause was crucial to the Indians because a number of devastating forces—-including smallpox and starvation brought on by the disruptions of European settlers and the war—made every opportunity to get food, supplies, and money crucial for their survival. Indians were not usually paid by either the British or the French, except in gifts of rum, blankets, clothing, and trade goods. Depending on the Indian nation, "plunder" might be interpreted as including the opportunity to gather scalps from the enemy. As they had at Oswego, the French usually turned their backs while the Indians engaged in their scalping.

But at Fort William Henry, the French made other plans. In their negotiations with the British as to rights of surrender, they allowed the British to remove most of their personal belongings and goods from the fort. No Indians were present at these negotiations. As the troops filed out of the fort with all of their supplies, the Indians grew infuriated. The British were leaving with their only spoils of war, and it appeared as though the French had deceived them. The Indians reacted violently, by attacking the helpless sick and wounded at the end of the train, and chaos quickly broke out.

The Indians who seized scalps from the sick at the back of the train were indeed punished brutally for their actions—the scalps were infected with smallpox, which was transferred to the Indians and their communities, further weakening the Indians. But both the British and colonials used the massacre for years after the war as an example of the "savagery" of the Indians and a justification for seizing their lands. The truth, unfortunately, isn't quite so simple.

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