The Legacy of Fort William Henry: Resurrecting the Past

History meets tourism

The Legacy of Fort William Henry By David R. Starbuck University Press of New England, 2014 Softcover, 144 pages, $24.95
The Legacy of Fort William Henry
By David R. Starbuck
University Press of New England, 2014
Softcover, 144 pages, $24.95

Adirondack historians, including me, have given short shrift to the story of Native Americans in our part of New York. We have all paid too much attention to the generally shared assumption that the Adirondack region was used only seasonally by Indians who thus had no permanently established towns or villages here.

The surrounding river valleys were indeed more hospitable in the winter than the higher elevations in the Adirondacks, but that doesn’t mean that Indians didn’t know this region, use it, and have a variety of important connections with it.

One of the chief sources of evidence of Native Americans in the Adirondacks is archaeological. And one of the several virtues of The Legacy of Fort William Henry: Resurrecting the Past, by David R. Starbuck, is that this archaeological record—and how it was developed—is concisely explained. A professor of anthropology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, Starbuck has been studying the evidence buried beneath the surface at Lake George’s Fort William Henry for well over a decade. Among other things, Starbuck deftly establishes the significant and continuing presence of Indians on the shores of Lake George, a presence that can be traced back many centuries before Europeans ever saw this lake.

At the southern end of Lake George and thus presiding over the strategic transportation artery between the Hudson and the St. Lawrence, Fort William Henry played a pivotal role in the wars between the French and the British, both fighting with Indian allies, for control of eastern North America. Built by the British in 1755, it was subjected to a fierce French attack in 1757. Described colorfully though somewhat fancifully by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans, the French assault led to a British surrender and subsequently to the massacre of about 185 British prisoners by Canadian Indians. The French then burned the fort to the ground and abandoned the site. It was rebuilt as a tourist attraction in the mid-twentieth century. In the course of this reconstruction and throughout the decades since, thousands of artifacts have surfaced, some randomly, most as a result of scientific and meticulous archaeological excavation, much of the latter overseen and lucidly described in this book by Professor Starbuck.

Beginning with the reconstructions in the 1950s, signs of Indian presence on the site have been omnipresent. As Starbuck notes, “Native Americans were living in the area by at least 8000–6000 BC, and they were present almost continually until Europeans arrived.” Starbuck agrees that in recent centuries, at least, the Indian presence on Lake George was largely seasonal. But their use of this area in the warmer months was substantial. Evidence of cooking fires, tools, and pottery shows a significant and apparently nearly continual use of this site.

While Indian artifacts have been found that are many millennia old, they appear most numerous in what anthropologists term the Middle Woodland era, circa 200 B.C. to A.D. 1000. Between the end of the middle Woodland and the beginning of the European wars, apparently, Indian use of this area was much less frequent, though nonetheless significant.

The story of the Indian presence on the shore of Lake George is only the beginning of this book. Starbuck goes on to add intriguing chapters on the whole story of archaeology at Fort William Henry. The research on this site is important for several reasons, not just for what it tells us about the people who lived, and occasionally fought, at the south end of Lake George.

Until the mid-twentieth century, professional archaeologists had rarely been invited to participate in the privately financed reconstruction of historical sites. But at William Henry, local developers saw archaeology as fundamental to their goal, which was to build a tourist attraction that was both appealing and historically accurate.

Led by trained archaeologist Stanley Gifford, teams of college students began excavating in 1953. Almost immediately, they began to uncover a variety of artifacts from the time of French-British conflict: these included fragments of munitions, tools, eating utensils, and even human remains. Since these discoveries were both studied by trained archaeologists and eventually presented as educational displays for tourists, what happened at Fort William Henry in the 1950s constitutes a seminal chapter in the establishment of a working, productive relationship among academic archaeology, public history, and modern tourism.

Gifford and his crews worked on the site for two years, and their discoveries were incorporated into exhibits after the reconstructed fort opened in 1955. For about forty years, no further digging occurred, until it resumed in the 1990s as part of a class at Adirondack Community College (now SUNY Adirondack) in Glens Falls. Starbuck joined this effort in 1997. With the eager participation of both students and volunteers, excavations continued for four years at several sites on the fort property. Starbuck returned to the site in 2011 and conducted the excavations that led to this book. He precisely describes these digs and illustrates them with relevant photographs. All of this work produced enhanced exhibits.

Fragments of pipes, with their makers’ marks, have been found in many places on the fort grounds. Courtesy of University Press of New England
Fragments of pipes, with their makers’ marks, have been found in many places on the fort grounds.
Courtesy of University Press of New England

Some of the exciting finds following the latter excavations result from the implementation of forensic anthropology. This is the close examination of human remains, employing the latest laboratory techniques. One of the skeletons discovered at William Henry, for example, was shown, through DNA analysis, to be that of an Indian from the far West. This man was buried next to British soldiers and hence is thought to have been an ally. That a Native American from two thousand miles away was found to have been fighting alongside British soldiers on Lake George is a remarkable discovery. How and why this came to be remains a mystery. Nearly all the other skeletons proved to be Europeans, who died from disease or from a variety of ghastly wounds.

For the most part, what has been uncovered at the fort is a huge array of artifacts from the mid-1750s. Military hardware—including all sorts of shells and musket balls—and domestic stuff—pottery, plates, tools, pipes, buttons, buckles, cookware, and “all of the paraphernalia of daily life”—are carefully stored in hundreds of boxes.

Starbuck closes with a chapter on “Why Is Fort William Henry Relevant Today?” His answers are apt: visitors to the site are offered a much richer and informative experience than they would if all they could see was the rebuilt fort. The combination of artifacts and fort illuminate everyday details of an important and often neglected era in American history. The presence of Native Americans in our history and in our region becomes too obvious for us to continue to ignore. For these reasons (and more), the archaeology at Fort William Henry sheds new light on the history of this region. This book is a useful and well-produced reminder that there are corners of Adirondack history yet to be explored.