June 17, 2013
The French and their Indian allies will emerge from the woods near Fort Ontario on June 29 and 30 and recreate the failed 1759 surprise attack on Fort Ontario in Oswego. The failed attack spelled the beginning of the end of French Canada. (Photo by Fort Ontario State Historic Site.)
OSWEGO, N.Y. - The sights, sounds, and smells of camp and garrison life during the French and Indian War will greet visitors to Fort Ontario State Historic Site in Oswego the weekend of June 29 and 30. Encampments of British, French and Native American troops and warriors who fought each other at Oswego during the 1750s will be displayed from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 29, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, June 30.
Battle recreations will take place at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sunday.
"This year marks the 250th anniversary of the end of the French and Indian War (1754 - 1763) and the beginning of Pontiac's Rebellion (1763 - 1766), during which Indian nations along the frontier attacked British outposts in an effort to curb western expansion by European-American settlers," said Paul Lear, Superintendent of Fort Ontario State Historic Site. "Fort Ontario served as a key staging point for troops moving west to fight the Indians during Pontiac's Rebellion which ended with the Treaty of Fort Ontario in 1766."
George Mercer, a descendant of British Colonel James Mercer, recently discovered his ancestor's papers in the family library in England. He will present his insights into the life and death of Colonel James Mercer at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday. Fort Ontario fell to the French when its commander, Colonel James Mercer, was killed by a cannonball during the French and Indian attack on the fort in August 1756.
Steve Perkins, who specializes in French military history of the French and Indian War, will provide color commentary and narration during Saturday's 2 p.m. and Sunday's 11 a.m. battle recreations.
Shari Crawford, an early American activities specialist and teacher, will present her 18th century toys and games program on Saturday and Sunday. Some of the toys and games include stilts, trundling hoops, two-balls, bat and trap, shinny, marbles, cups and balls, skittles, dog and bone, and quoits. Crawford has conducted this and other programs such as open fire cooking, clothing and laundry, and English country dance for adults and children at historic sites, schools, scout camps, and adult day camps around New York. A member of the Brigade of the American Revolution, Crawford has published articles on many aspects of 18th century life.
"Oswego was once the scene of international rivalry between the French and British, and the location of one of the most important trading posts in North America," said Lear. "Sometimes up to 300 traders operated out of Oswego with their own semi-permanent village of 70 log huts, situated in the vicinity of what is now Water Street."
The first Fort Ontario was built in 1755 and was a simple eight-pointed wooden stockade. Along with Fort Oswego (built 1727) and Fort George (built 1755), these lonely outposts of the British lost about 400 men or half of their garrisons to disease, starvation and exposure during the terrible winter of 1755-56. Reinforced in the spring, the British and colonial troops were constantly harassed by scalping parties of Canadians and Indians. Most of these attacks originated from a secret advance French base established at "Cabin Cove," today's Sunset Bay. Fort Ontario was attacked by the French and Indians in May and June but held out.
In a massive attack in August, 1756, French commander-in-chief the Marquis de Montcalm led 4,000 troops and Indians, and along with more than 25 pieces of heavy artillery, managed to get ashore at Baldwin's Bay without detection. Quickly siege operations began against Fort Ontario. The fort fell on Friday, Aug. 13. After British commander Colonel James Mercer was cut in two by a cannonball, the other two forts quickly surrendered. All three forts were destroyed, the traders' village leveled, and a new British fleet taken. Of the 1,700 prisoners, 100 to 150 were massacred and scalped by the natives and Canadian militia who had broken into the rum supply.
Colonel John Bradstreet returned in 1758 with 2,000 colonial troops, and used Oswego as his launching point in his successful campaign to take Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario). A large victory cross erected by Montcalm's troops two years earlier was chopped down by Iroquois warriors. A replica of that cross may be seen today overlooking the lake near the parking area. This highly important campaign was a decisive blow to the French who found their supply lines cut off to the western posts, and helped to turn the war in favor of the British.
The second Fort Ontario, the earthworks of which still exist today, was built in 1759 by General Thomas Gage.
This year's event will center on the campaign of 1759 when the British, under Sir William Johnson and Brigadier General John Prideaux, were besieging Fort Niagara. Left behind at Oswego to guard communications and begin construction of the second Fort Ontario were Lt. Col. Frederick Haldimand and about 1,300 men of the Royal Americans and New York Provincials.
A French and Indian attacking force of 1,200 under the famous Sulpician missionary Abbe Piquet and Duc de La Corne had left Fort La Presentation on the St. Lawrence River, and secretly got their troops ashore east of Oswego where they quickly wiped out a party of wood cutters.
"When approaching a temporary field fortification that Haldimand had recently erected, Piquet halted his force to exhort them to victory and say a prayer, while urging his men to give no quarter to the English. This ruined any chance of surprise and gave the defenders a chance to prepare for attack," said Lear.
Several determined assaults were made by the French and Indians in the two-day battle. The British were too strong to dislodge, and the French, believing they were in danger of being cut off from their bateaux, panicked, and made a frantic rush to regain their boats, even knocking down Piquet when he tried to stop them. Narrowly escaping death in this action was Captain Herkimer, either Nicholas of later Revolutionary War fame or his father, who, when out in his bateau was fired upon more than 150 times by the enemy. Captain Thomas Sowers, an important British engineer, was wounded. He later drew a plan of the new fort and the field defenses he had helped defend. British losses were at least 21 killed and wounded while French lost about 30 killed and many more wounded.
"Even the French believed that had the attack continued without Piquet's stopping them, the British and provincials would have been quickly overrun," said Lear.
The 1759 British victory at Fort Ontario secured Johnson's rear guard and supplies and prevented the lifting of the siege of Fort Niagara. But, conditions at this remote frontier outpost remained wretched at best; winter proved a more formidable enemy than the French - 135 men died of scurvy out of a garrison of 613. In 1760 General Jeffery Amherst and over 12,000 troops encamped at Fort Ontario and prepared for the final offensive against Canada resulting in the capture of Montreal. Oswego was also the setting for much of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel "The Pathfinder."
On both days, military drills, artillery firing, ceremonies, cooking, engineering and medical displays, guard duty, lectures, candle making, sewing, and other living history demonstrations will be held at the old fort. Regular admission prices will be charged; children 12 years of age and current members of the Friends of Fort Ontario will be admitted free.
Questions about the Oswego County Public Information Office?