James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans tells a gripping tale of the bloody conflicts that roiled the Lake George region in the middle of the 18th century. In particular, the novel gives a stirring, if inaccurate, description of the Siege of Fort William Henry (August 3-9, 1757) during the French and Indian War and its immediate aftermath.
The Siege was conducted by a French and Indigenous force led by Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm against the British-held Fort William Henry at the south end of Lake George in what is now Warren County, NY. The fort on the frontier between the British Province of New York and the French Province of Canada, was garrisoned by a poorly supported force of British regulars and provincial militia led by Lieutenant Colonel George Monro.
After several days of bombardment and increasing casualties on the British side, Monro surrendered to Montcalm, whose force included nearly 2,000 Indigenous warriors from various Native American tribes. The terms of surrender allowed the withdrawal to Fort Edward and specified that the French military protect the British as they withdrew.
In one of the most notorious incidents of the war, Montcalm’s Indigenous allies violated the terms of surrender and attacked the departing unarmed British column as it left the fort. They killed and scalped numerous soldiers and civilians, women, children, servants, and slaves captive, and killed sick and wounded prisoners.
Early accounts of the events called it a massacre and implied that as many as 1,500 people were killed, although it is unlikely more than 200 people (less than 10% of the British fighting strength) were actually killed.
Fort William Henry was never rebuilt and lay in ruins for about 200 years until the 1950s when excavations at the site led to its reconstruction as a tourist destination.
The Lake George Battlefield Park Alliance and the French & Indian War Society at Lake George are hosting a joint program entitled “James Fenimore Cooper: History & Fiction in ‘The Last of the Mohicans’,” to be presented by Dr. Nick Junkerman, Associate Professor of English Literature at Skidmore College. The event will be held beginning at 7 pm on Thursday, August 3 (the anniversary of the siege) at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center in Lake George, NY.
Professor Junkerman’s talk will explore the differences between the historical events that took place in the summer of 1757 and the fictional version of those events that Cooper depicts in his 1826 novel. He’ll also explain how these historical events figure into the plot of the novel as a whole and will describe how Cooper weaves a complex tale of friendship, war, hatred, and love among British, French, and Native American characters.
Finally, Junkerman will consider the long history and immense popularity of Cooper’s novel, and discuss why it might continue to matter to us almost two hundred years after its publication.
Nick Junkerman is Associate Professor of English at Skidmore College. His research and teaching focus on early American literature. He has published articles on early American writing, art, and religion, and is currently completing a book manuscript about miracles in early New England.
The program is free to the public. Due to space limitations, those planning to attend should reserve their space in advance by registering at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustrations, from above: A map from the time of the Siege of Fort William Henry in 1757; and a hand-drawn map depicting the area of the Siege of Fort William Henry in 1757 by James Gabriel Montresor (Library of Congress).