Present-day Fort Ticonderoga is a restored eighteenth century military post that guarded the portage between Lake Champlain and Lake George. Between 1755 and 1781, French, British, and American soldiers garrisoned the fort, which was of great strategic significance in the French and Indian War (1754-1760) and the American Revolution (1775-1783). Since 1909, the Fort Ticonderoga Museum has been open to the public as a private, nonprofit educational institution. Its facilities include the restored fort, museum collections, and the Thompson-Pell Research Center, a library specializing in eighteenth century American warfare.
Fort Road, Box 390
Ticonderoga, NY 12883
ph.: (518) 585-2821
fax: (518) 585-2210
Web site: www.fort-ticonderoga.org
Fort Ticonderoga is located on a small peninsula where the waters of Lake George flow by way of the La Chute River into Lake Champlain. These two lakes are part of a grand inland waterway connecting New York and Canada. It begins with the St. Lawrence River, which carries water from the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean. From Montreal on the banks of the St. Lawrence, an eighteenth century traveler could place his canoe in the Richelieu River and paddle south to the head of Lake Champlain. After navigating this large lake, which forms the modern boundary between New York, Vermont, and Canada, the traveler would arrive at Ticonderoga and carry his canoe overland to Lake George to avoid a series of waterfalls in the La Chute River. From there he could continue south, and after another short portage, reach the Hudson River, which would eventually deposit him in New York City before it emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, the entire distance between Montreal and New York City, covering more than 380 miles, could be traversed with minor interruptions by the waters of the channel.
In the wars of the eighteenth century, the channel provided a path for invasion and conquest by waterborne armies. Ticonderoga, because it controlled the passage between Lake Champlain and Lake George, was a hotly contested region: whoever controlled it also controlled the flow of people and goods to the north and south. At the outset of the French and Indian War, French soldiers from Canada fortified this portage, and it took the British several tries and one infamous defeat to dislodge them. In May, 1775, the colonists’ first offensive operation in the American Revolution took place here when Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys captured the small British garrison stationed at the fort. Ticonderoga remained a flashpoint in the Anglo-American conflict until General John Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga in 1777.
Long before the arrival of Europeans, the native inhabitants of this region used the portage between Lake Champlain and Lake George. The Iroquois called it “Ticonderoga”–meaning “between two lakes”–and traversed it when trading or warring with Indians to the north. The first European to visit Ticonderoga was Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who accompanied a group of Canadian Indians warring with the Iroquois in 1609. Champlain left Quebec with eleven other Frenchmen and more than three hundred Indians, but as the group moved further into enemy territory, it dwindled to only three Frenchmen and about sixty Indians. Near Ticonderoga, Champlain and his party encountered a war party of about two hundred Iroquois. In the ensuing battle, the Frenchmen held back until they could use their firearms to full effect. Startled by the European strangers and their weaponry, the Iroquois quickly withdrew. In his diary Champlain wrote about his great victory, but little did he realize how quickly European technology and interests would enter into the age-old rivalries surrounding Ticonderoga.
During the next one hundred fifty years, Ticonderoga remained an avenue for commerce, diplomacy, and occasionally war. As the European empires in North America took shape, French merchants in Montreal and their Dutch counterparts in Albany traded across this route. Imperial powers in London and Paris prohibited such interaction, but Indians along the New York-Canadian frontier carried furs from Montreal to Albany in exchange for clothing, tools, weapons, and rum. The French established posts at the northern end of Lake Champlain, and the Albany Dutch pushed north to the southern shore of Lake George, but most of the Champlain Valley remained a middle ground of Indians and Europeans plying their wares. Occasionally tensions flared, and a raiding party or army would pass through Ticonderoga to wreak havoc to the north or south. Schenectady and Saratoga, two outlying settlements of Albany, suffered devastating attacks by French and Indian forces in 1690 and 1745 respectively, while the British launched unsuccessful invasions of Canada through the channel in 1691 and 1746.
The escalating tensions between the British and French in North America led the French to extend their hold on Lake Champlain. In 1731, they built Fort St. Frédéric at Crown Point, another important peninsula on the southwestern shore of Lake Champlain only sixteen miles north of Ticonderoga.
The French and Indian War broke out in 1754. In 1755, in the aftermath of George Washington’s 1754 defeat in the Ohio Valley, the British began fortifying the northern approaches to New York. Construction began first on Fort Lyman (named for the colonel of the Connecticut regiment doing most of the work) near the falls of the Hudson River, on the site of earlier Forts Nicholson (1709) and Lydius (1731-1745). After William Johnson’s victory in the Battle of Lake George on September 8, 1755, the British provincials began to build an advanced post near the site of the battle. Johnson ordered the two posts named for the king’s sons, Forts Edward and William Henry, and the adjacent lake for the king himself.
Ticonderoga was the most important terrain between Crown Point and Lake George. Both armies had reconnoitered the strategic Ticonderoga peninsula during the summer of rising tensions in 1755. The French succeeded first in occupying the position. The peninsula was fortified by troops on the retreat from the debacle at Lake George. On September 20, 1755, Governor-General Philippe de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, gave orders to young engineer Michel Chartier de Lotbinière to begin laying out a fort. It was called Fort Vaudreuil at first, but the vernacular name for the peninsula, Carillon, stuck better than a courtier’s effort to flatter his patron. Legend has it that “Carillon” came from the bell-like chiming sound from the nearby waterfall, but recent scholarship has shown that the name actually derives from a Franco-Spanish retired officer and fur trader, Phillippe de Carrion du Fresnoy. The French continued to work on this structure during 1756 and 1757, cementing their hold on Lake Champlain.
The British, who suffered numerous defeats along the New York frontier in the early years of the war, did not challenge the French position at Ticonderoga until 1758. William Pitt’s plan for the 1758 “Irruption into Canada” called for General James Abercromby, the British commander in chief in North America, to lead an army of 20,000 provincials and an additional 7,000 regulars into Canada by way of the Champlain Valley. The several colonial governments were unable to raise their quotas of men, however, and Abercromby marched toward Carillon with roughly 16,000 men. He enjoyed a five-to-one superiority over the French garrison at Carillon, which was commanded by the Marquis de Montcalm. Shortly after the British forces landed at the northern end of Lake George on July 6 and began their brief march to the fort, one of Abercromby’s most important field commanders, Lord George Howe, was killed in a skirmish with some French troops. This loss deprived Abercromby of an important source of advice; he had depended on Howe for all the logistical and tactical planning for the campaign.
Abercromby believed the French numbers to be stronger than they were, and reports by French soldiers captured by the British on July 6 caused him to fear reinforcement by members of an expedition to the Mohawk Valley led by Chevalier de Lévis, which was racing to come to the assistance of Montcalm and Carillon. Abercromby made the decision to attack. On the morning of July 8, 1758, he sent his troops into a frontal assault against the French entrenchments that guarded the approach to the fort. Abercromby and his engineer, Matthew Clark, had developed a carefully crafted plan to bring artillery into position so that it could open flanking fire upon the French lines in precise coordination with the assault by the massed British troops at 1:00
Abercromby paid for this botched attack with his job. The following year found Jeffrey Amherst in charge of British operations in North America and facing the same task of dislodging the French from Ticonderoga. Amherst collected an army of about eleven thousand soldiers in Albany and started north in June, 1759. The garrison at Carillon, about four thousand strong, had orders to abandon the fort once the enemy appeared, since the French could no longer spare the men and supplies necessary to maintain it. When Amherst and his forces arrived in late July, the French followed orders and retreated, blowing up the fort’s powder magazine in their wake. The resulting explosion did considerable damage to the magazine in the Southeast Bastion and to the East Barracks. Most of the rest of the fort remained intact, however, if somewhat damaged by fire. British provincials were able to make repairs in short order, once the fires were put out, but the East Barracks and powder magazine were never rebuilt.
The British finally had their toehold on Lake Champlain, and from Ticonderoga they continued northward to conquer New France. In 1759 and 1760, Amherst’s men repaired the fort and rechristened it Fort Ticonderoga, but with British victories farther north, its importance faded. For the remainder of the war, Ticonderoga remained a communications and supply link between Albany and Canada. After the fall of Quebec, the British reduced the number of troops there to a mere handful. By the early 1770’s, contemporaries were reporting that the fort was in a ruinous state with a garrison of only forty-two men.
In April, 1775, Fort Ticonderoga was a poorly manned frontier post crumbling in disrepair. The importance of its location within the channel, however, had not changed. Thus, shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord, colonial forces hatched schemes to capture Ticonderoga and invade Canada. In Massachusetts, a Connecticut militia officer named Benedict Arnold brought plans before the Committee of Safety for attacking Ticonderoga and using its guns in the siege of Boston. In Connecticut, another militia officer named Samuel Holden Parsons drew up similar plans. In the Vermont country southeast of Lake Champlain, Ethan Allen organized his irregular patriot force, the Green Mountain Boys, for the same task.
In May, the Green Mountain Boys joined with the men recruited from Massachusetts and Connecticut, making a total of about two hundred men. Arnold and Allen agreed to share the command, but Allen quickly dominated the expedition because his Green Mountain Boys dominated the force. In the predawn hours of May 10, this small army stole across the lake to Ticonderoga and surprised the British garrison, easily overpowering the sentries and other soldiers asleep in their barracks. Captain William Delaplace, the fort’s commander, appeared after being roused by Allen’s calls to “come out, you old rat.” When Captain Delaplace asked under what authority Allen acted, the quick-tempered patriot responded. “In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” Faced with no other choice, Delaplace surrendered the fort, and the patriots had easily won their first offensive operation of the American Revolution.
During the rest of 1775, the colonists used Ticonderoga as a base for extending their grip on Lake Champlain. The day of Allen’s victory, the patriots also seized Crown Point and its garrison of thirteen men. Shortly thereafter, Arnold captured a British schooner at the head of the lake. In the fall, the colonists launched their invasion of Canada. The army of the Northern Department in the autumn of 1775 was commanded by Major General Philip Schuyler, with Brigadier General Richard Montgomery as second in command. Schuyler fell ill as the army began to lay siege to St. Johns. He returned to Ticonderoga to manage the northward flow of supplies, and Montgomery took over field command, including the successful sieges of Chambly (October 18, 1775), St. Johns (November 2, 1775), and Montreal (November 13, 1775). The British, however, managed to turn back the American assault on Quebec, and the year ended with the colonists removing Ticonderoga’s guns and transporting them and the guns from Crown Point east to assist George Washington in the siege of Boston.
The defeated and desperately ill American army retreated from Canada and began to dig in at Ticonderoga in June, 1776. The army, commanded by Schuyler and then by Horatio Gates, began fortifying the peninsula and the opposite shore in what is now Vermont. The French lines were rebuilt, and the old French fort was strengthened as the western anchor of American defenses. An eastern anchor was built at Mount Independence, so named after the army received the news of Congress’s declaration in late July, 1776.
The successful defense of Ticonderoga–which, to officers on both sides, meant the narrow pass in the lake in addition to the old fort–in the autumn of 1776 cannot be understood without attention to both posts on opposite sides of Lake Champlain, as both fell under the same command and supply structure. By October, as Canadian governor Sir Guy Carleton’s eight thousand-man combined army-navy force came pouring south after the Valcour action, the American defenders numbered some thirteen thousand. After Carleton withdrew, however, the American army withdrew as well. Gates headed to Philadelphia to lobby Congress, and Colonel Anthony Wayne was appointed commander of some three thousand ill, ill-fed, and ill-equipped troops at Ticonderoga. Many of his men spent the terrible winter of 1776-1777 in tents pitched on the old French lines, surrounded by the relics of Abercromby’s army. Wayne wrote that Ticonderoga “appears to be the last part of the world that God made & I have some ground to believe it was finished in the dark.” He reported that his soldiers, for want of better vessels, drank out the plentiful skulls available on the battleground and pitched their tents with “the shin & thigh bones of Abercrombies men.”
Both the British and the colonists realized the value of naval supremacy on Lake Champlain, and both sides spent most of 1776 building ships. Benedict Arnold commanded a fleet that included a sloop, three schooners, and numerous smaller lakecraft. His fleet was built in Skenesborough (now Whitehall) and rowed north to Ticonderoga, where the ships were masted, rigged, and outfitted. One of Arnold’s gunboats, Philadelphia, now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, was armed with a seventeenth century Swedish bow-gun from the Ticonderoga artillery complement. The British constructed a larger flotilla at the north end of the lake to assist in a planned invasion of New York to be commanded by Carleton. On October 11, Arnold’s fleet engaged in a four-hour battle with the larger British fleet near Valcour Island, in the north end of the lake. The outnumbered colonists fought bravely and executed a brilliant retreat under cover of darkness. The British, however, caught up with Arnold as he headed south and inflicted more damage on the Continentals.
Of the fifteen ships originally under Arnold’s command, only four returned to Ticonderoga; the rest were either sunk or abandoned. The British regained control of Lake Champlain, but the Continentals had bought precious time. Arnold’s fleet had delayed Carleton’s advance. Carleton’s armed naval vessels probed the strength of the American lines at Ticonderoga from less than a mile away and then withdrew north in early November, 1776. The colonists’ cause had survived another year.
In the campaign of 1777, the British returned in force to challenge the Continentals’ hold on Ticonderoga. This time the invading army was led by General John Burgoyne, who had orders to march from Canada to Albany and secure the Champlain Valley on his way. Burgoyne had more than seven thousand British regulars and German mercenaries in his command. The colonists at Ticonderoga, led by Major General Arthur St. Clair, were powerless to stop Burgoyne’s advance without a naval presence on the lake.
Burgoyne arrived at Ticonderoga in early July. He had brought sufficient artillery to subdue the Continental forces, and he ordered a battery installed atop Mount Defiance, a hill overlooking the fort from the south. The Continentals thought such a task impossible because of Mount Defiance’s steep elevation, but Burgoyne proved them wrong. After learning that the guns were in place, St. Clair conferred with his officers on July 5 and decided to vacate the fort without a fight. The Continentals retreated in great haste, scampering across a bridge that night to the Vermont side of the lake. (Burgoyne’s German troops considered this floating bridge, which had been built during the late winter of 1777, to be one of the engineering wonders of the New World.) St. Clair later faced a court-martial for his decision, but the court exonerated him because of the general assumption that Ticonderoga could not be defended against enemy artillery installed on the elevations around it.
The British held Ticonderoga briefly during the summer and fall of 1777 as Burgoyne continued his march south. It served as a convenient spot for holding American prisoners of war and an important link in British supply lines. Hoping to distract Burgoyne, Continental general Benjamin Lincoln ordered a raid on the fort in September, 1777. Colonel John Brown led a small force that accomplished little other than freeing some American prisoners and capturing some British soldiers. After Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October, the British burned Ticonderoga and retreated northward. The fort once again fell into the colonists’ hands, but they failed to garrison it for the remainder of the war. In 1780 and 1781 British officers and soldiers stopped briefly at Ticonderoga while engaging in sporadic warfare and peacemaking along the New York-Canadian frontier. A small force led by British General Barry St. Leger in 1781 was the last to use the fort as a military base. Washington visited Ticonderoga in July, 1783, during the long wait for a treaty of peace to be concluded. In September, 1783, the United States officially acquired the fort and garrison grounds by the Treaty of Paris ending the war. In 1785, the federal government turned over to the states unneeded military posts–thus turning over Ticonderoga to New York State.
In 1790, the state legislature assigned the fort and garrison grounds to the Regents of the University of the State of New York. In 1802, the legislature confirmed action by the Regents and granted an undivided interest in the property to Columbia University, in New York City, and Union College, in Schenectady, the two institutions of higher learning in New York State. After the War of 1812 ended, pressures for settlement on the western shores of Lake Champlain prompted the two colleges to “cash in” their land endowment. William Ferris Pell, a prominent New Yorker with an interest in the Champlain Valley, seems to have leased the garrison grounds for some years and then, in 1820, purchased the property and the ruins of the fort. In 1826, Pell constructed a building known as the Pavilion near the fort, with the King’s Garden nearby; this house later became a hotel, although there is some reason to think that it was intended as a hotel from the outset. In any case, after the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, heritage tourism increased rapidly. The Pavilion became a hotel on the “Northern Tour” after William Ferris Pell’s death in 1839.
Since 1826, the destiny of Fort Ticonderoga has been linked to the presence and future of the Pavilion, the imposing Greek Revival summer home built in the shadow of the fort on the shore of the lake. For nearly two centuries, the fort and the Pavilion together have shaped the sensibilities of millions of American and Canadian travelers about the meaning of their common history and landscape.
The ideological connections between the house and the fort are rooted in the early nineteenth century affinity for sublime landscapes enhanced by ruins. At Ticonderoga, the sublime wilderness of the Adirondacks meets the picturesque landscapes of the Hudson River. Thomas Cole’s earliest signed oil painting, Gelyna: A View from Ticonderoga; James Fenimore Cooper’s great novel The Last of the Mohicans, describing the French setting off to attack Fort William Henry from Fort Carillon; and William Ferris Pell’s summer home and landscaped grounds, the Pavilion–all three created in 1826–are significant documents of the first formal American landscape aesthetic.
Locals used the old fort as a quarry and salvage yard, taking its stone, window frames, and other materials for their homes, cellars, and barns. In 1904, English architect Alfred C. Bossom (later Lord Bossom of Maidstone) began planning the restoration of Fort Ticonderoga. In 1908, Stephen H. P. Pell began work on the restoration of the fort. Pell received much support, especially financial support, from his wife, Sarah G. T. Pell, a pioneering preservationist, philanthropist, and suffragist. While Pell and Bossom restored the fort, she and Bossom restored the Pavilion. She also worked on the restoration of the King’s Garden with Marian Cruger Coffin, the first woman to graduate with a degree in landscape architecture in the United States. In 1909, Fort Ticonderoga was opened to the public in a ceremony attended by President William Howard Taft and other dignitaries. Work continued through much of the twentieth century, with reconstruction of the fort’s walls, buildings, and grounds.
Today, Fort Ticonderoga and its eighteenth century “dependencies”–Mount Defiance, Hope, and Independence; the Carillon Battlefield; the Pavilion; and the King’s Garden–are preserved and managed by a private, nonprofit educational association. It offers the public a museum devoted to the lives of soldiers, civilians, and Indians in this region during the eighteenth century. In addition to its collections, the fort hosts tours, reenactments, demonstrations, and other special programs related to life and culture in the colonial Champlain Valley. Scholars may also use the Thompson-Pell Research Center, a library of thirteen thousand volumes specializing in manuscripts and published resources related to the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Along with nearby historical sites at Crown Point and Fort William Henry, Fort Ticonderoga offers visitors an excellent opportunity to experience life in the Champlain Valley at a time when European soldiers, colonists, and Indians struggled to control one of the most important natural highways in North America.
Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, 1927- . This illustrated scholarly journal provides primary sources and strong interpretations of the fort’s history. Copies are found in most major university libraries and in state historical societies in the Northeast. Back issues and subscriptions are available. Hamilton, Edward P. Fort Ticonderoga: Key to a Continent. 2d ed. Ticonderoga, N.Y.: Fort Ticonderoga, 1995. A comprehensive study of Ticonderoga that provides much analysis of its role in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Pell, Stephen H. P. Fort Ticonderoga: A Short History. Reprint. Ticonderoga, N.Y.: Fort Ticonderoga Museum, 1990. Another brief history of the fort.