Fort William Henry Massacre, Cultural Legacy
FORT WILLIAM HENRY MASSACRE, CULTURAL LEGACY
Writers, artists, and filmmakers have made the 1757 siege of Fort William Henry into a cultural icon, imprinting their visions of that event on American society, culture, and identity. The portrayals of the siege and subsequent massacre illustrate how the events in a war can take on a larger meaning in the nation's history and consciousness.
During the French and Indian War, two English forts were of particular interest to the French. Fort Edward, along New York's Hudson River, and Fort William Henry, on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, were about twenty miles from each other. In early 1757 the French, under the command of General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, were preparing to attack Fort William Henry. Lieutenant Colonel George Monro, commander of the fort, had only 2,000 men under his command within it. On the French side, there were 8,000 soldiers and hundreds of Indians, among them Huron, Algonkin, Seneca, Cayuga, Ottowa, Chippewa, Delaware, and Shawnee. Monro sent word to Major General Daniel Webb at Fort Edward that reinforcements were needed. Webb decided against sending any men, but his messenger was intercepted by General Montcalm's soldiers.
The attack began with cannon and mortar on August 7. Inside the fort, where many were sick with smallpox, women and children were hidden in the safest part. The French sent a truce flag and an officer asking Monro to surrender the fort. Learning that no reinforcements were on the way, Monro agreed to surrender. Terms of the surrender included safe passage to Fort Edward, but the Indians defied Montcalm's orders and killed hundreds. When Montcalm finally put a stop to the slaughter, the Indians were upset that they could not take further revenge on their British enemies.
In the nineteenth century, the attack and massacre became part of American myth. Perhaps the most famous story of the attack is James Fenimore Cooper's historical novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). The hero of the novel is a woodsman named Hawkeye, who was raised as a Mohawk and shares many adventures with his friends, the Mohican chief Chingachgook and his son Uncas. The battle and surrender of the fort serve as the backdrop to an adventure story of both historical and fictional characters.
In the novel, a group of British, including General Monro's daughters, Alice and Cora, are being escorted from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry by a British major and an Indian scout, Le Renard Subtil. In the woods they meet Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas. Hawkeye and the Mohicans help the party escape an ambush planned by the scheming Le Renard. After another attack by Le Renard and his men, the British party is captured. Le Renard wants Cora to become his bride as revenge against Monro; then, he says, he will free the others. She refuses. Hawkeye and the Mohicans rescue Cora and the rest of the party and lead them to Fort William Henry just as the attack on the fort is beginning. After the surrender of the fort, Le Renard captures
Alice and Cora. With Heyward and Monro, Hawkeye and the Mohicans plan a daring rescue. Le Renard takes Cora as his wife, but she is killed by another Indian before the rescue takes place.
Cooper's story was the basis for several movies. The 1992 film directed by Michael Mann dramatically captures the events leading up to Fort William Henry's capture. It also creates a love affair between Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and Alice. In this telling of the story, Cora kills herself rather than live as an Indian bride.
The Fort William Henry massacre has also given inspiration to painters. Thomas Cole (1801–1848), the founder of the Hudson River School style of painting, depicted several scenes from Cooper's book, using the Hudson River Valley as his backdrop. The human figures in the paintings are more like bit players on the grand stage of nature. One 1827 canvas depicts a tense scene of Indians standing in a circle on a mountain ledge. The events have been subsumed by the grandeur of the landscape. In Cole's vision, our cultural impression of the French and Indian War and of Indians in general is intricately connected with nature. The woods are a mysterious place where the white man is a novice and the Indian is at home.
The Fort William Henry massacre, and the events leading up to it, has shaped cultural attitudes toward Indians in conflicting ways. Cooper's novel refers to the dangerous "savages" and shows their willingness to kill. The book creates a lasting impression of the untrustworthiness and dangerousness of Indians in general. Time and again since the early nineteenth century, Indians have been portrayed as revenge-seeking troublemakers looking to scalp their enemies.
Yet The Last of the Mohicans also highlights the friendship between Hawkeye and Chingachgook. At the close of the novel, the two woodsmen grasp hands as Hawkeye proclaims that the Indian is not alone. Despite their different skin colors, Hawkeye says, God put white men and Indians on the same path. This sense of common ground has also found expression in American culture.
The Fort William Henry massacre, and artists' interpretations of it, helped shape Americans' view of themselves as a heroic and honorable people. On the other side of that pride are conflicting feelings toward Indians, who both helped and hindered the newcomers to the land.
Eckert, Allan W. Wilderness Empire: A Narrative. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.
Yaeger, Bert D. The Hudson River School: American Landscape Artists. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1996.
Richard Panchyk and
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