State museum houses artifacts from French and Indian War
By ANDY FLYNN
Special to the OBSERVER
ROTTERDAM — It doesn’t look like a boat anymore, but the wooden remnants of a bateau in the cavernous New York State Museum storage facility help tell the story of Great Britain’s North American conquest during the French and Indian War.
The bottom of a bateau — one of two in the museum’s collection that were part of the Sunken Fleet of 1758 — now sits on a shelf. The boats were raised from the bottom of Lake George more than 50 years ago.
“We’re looking at an 18th century British bateau constructed during the French and Indian War by the British Army under Gen. (James) Abercrombie,” said New York State Museum Senior Historian Aaron Noble. “In 1758, Gen. Abercrombie leads a British expedition of approximately 15,000 British regulars and colonial militia to attack Fort Carillon, which is now better known as Fort Ticonderoga.”
On July 8, 1758, the British unsuccessfully attacked Fort Carillon, which was defended by French troops under the command of Gen. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. The British suffered more than 2,000 casualties.
“Gen. Abercrombie, even though he still has approximately a three-to-one advantage in terms of his manpower and his artillery is fully intact, he decides after the failed first attack to abandon his plans for Fort Carillon and retreats back to Lake George with his fleet of approximately 900 bateaux that had departed at the beginning of the expedition,” Noble said. “The British sink about 250 or 260 bateaux into Lake George so that the winter ice, when it set in on the lake, would both preserve the bateaux for later expeditions and it would also prevent them from being captured or destroyed by the French, if the French had decided to pursue them.”
The fleet was sunk about one mile north of the current Lake George beach on the southeastern end of the lake.
“The British had used the bateaux to get down to the southern end and then took an overland route to the Hudson River,” Noble said. “Presumably, that’s where they took most of the other bateaux in order to continue their trip down to the colonial headquarters down in Albany.”
A year earlier, the French destroyed the British Fort William Henry, an event that was popularized in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Last of the Mohicans” and a 1991 movie of the same name.
The bateaux measure about 32 feet long and 4 feet wide at the beam. They were used by the colonial armies fighting over North America along New York’s waterways, including Lake George, Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. The French and Indian War ended in 1763 with the British in control of Canada and the North American colonies, such as New York.
In July 1960, two 18-year-old skindivers — Robert LaVoy of Gens Falls and Fred Bolt of Lake George — discovered 14 of the Sunken Fleet bateaux, according to the Aug. 4, 1960 issue of the Ticonderoga Sentinel. Dozens more were discovered several years later.
“They are very rare, given that they are made of wood, and it’s 250 years since the end of the conflict,” Noble said. “No one intended to save them. They were made to be used and utilized in particular expeditions and they would be disposed of following the attacks or the expedition’s completion. Then they would be just left to rot. And these were, in fact, left to rot. They weren’t preserved out of any kind of sense of care by the British as they were retreating in 1758.”
For whatever reason, dozens of the bateaux didn’t get raised in 1759 before Gen. Jeffery Amherst captured Fort Carillon, which he renamed Fort Ticonderoga after the French abandoned it while moving north along Lake Champlain.
In the fall of 1960, under the direction of Adirondack Museum Director Robert Bruce Inverarity and with the cooperation of the New York State Museum, three bateaux were raised from the bottom of Lake George. Two of those are now in the New York State Museum’s collection.
Even though only the bottom of the boats remain, there is enough left of the artifacts to help Noble interpret the craft and tell the bigger picture of how important New York’s waterways were to the colonial powers fighting for North America during the French and Indian War, American Revolution and the War of 1812.
“Visually, it’s an interesting artifact,” Noble said, “because it doesn’t necessarily immediately jump out as a boat. It leaves a little bit to the visitor’s imagination, but it also allows you to tell a story using a three-dimensional object. So I can sit and tell someone about military campaigns and how they moved men and material overland and utilizing water routes because they didn’t have roads.”
Seven of the Sunken Fleet of 1758 bateaux – referred to as the “Wiawaka Bateaux Cluster” – were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. The Sunken Fleet is one of two Submerged Heritage Preserves on Lake George that opened to divers in 1993. The other is a motor launch shipwreck site called “The Forward.” The state of New York designated a third preserve in 1995, a 1758 floating gun battery called the “Land Tortoise.”