New England's Great Warpath offers concentration of forts, battlefields

Posted: Sunday, September 08, 2002

ORWELL, Vt. -- Pine trees murmur as they are jostled by a breeze coursing over a rocky promontory high above Lake Champlain -- spectral whispers, perhaps, of European, American and Indian warriors who fought in the Lake Champlain Valley during two 18th-century wars.

''This valley is so peaceful now,'' says Elsa Gilbertson, administrator for Mount Independence and two other historic sites in Vermont. ''It's hard to believe it was the site of so much strife and contention.''

The watery corridor stretching from the Hudson River settlement at Albany up Lake Champlain toward the Canadian border was one of the most strategically significant regions on the ontinent during much of the 18th century.

Now it's a favorite destination for a different army -- travelers who visit restored forts, ruins of military encampments and battlefields strewn throughout this bucolic slice of America.

There is no region in North America containing a greater concentration of military installations built during the 1700s, says archaeologist David R. Starbuck, who has performed digs at many of them and written about his finds in a book titled ''The Great Warpath: British Military Sites from Albany to Crown Point.''

Sites on the New York state side of the warpath include the Saratoga Battlefield; the ruins of a Hudson River camp where Rogers' Rangers were based during the French and Indian War; remnants of French and British forts at Crown Point, N.Y.; the restored Fort William Henry and Fort Ticonderoga, and Lake George Battlefield. In Vermont are Mount Independence and the Hubbardton Battlefield.

History is alive on the Great Warpath -- with exhibits, battle re-enactments and special events each year. Roads leading to the old military sites take travelers on winding routes with magnificent views of Lake Champlain, Lake George or the Hudson River, flanked by the Green Mountains to the east and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to the west.

Many visitors will do a loop -- driving up one side of Lake Champlain and then down the other, staying at a campground or other lodgings while visiting old military sites.

''They station themselves in some central site and make the rounds. I see them. Some are on pilgrimages,'' Gilbertson says.

The story of Mount Independence is inexorably linked with that of Fort Ticonderoga. Originally built by the French, who called it Fort Carillon, Fort Ti was captured by the British during the French and Indian War. After the American colonies rose up against the British, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys seized Fort Ti in 1777.

The Americans strengthened Fort Ticonderoga, built a new fortification across the lake on a promontory called Rattlesnake Hill and renamed it Mount Independence. Their strategy was to control Lake Champlain and thwart British plans to drive a wedge through the northern Colonies.

A British fleet sailing from the north in October 1776 turned back when they spotted thousands of troops at both forts. About 9,000 American troops went back to their farms, and many of those who remained were ill. When a force commanded by Gen. John Burgoyne laid siege in July 1777, the Americans fled -- some down the lake in boats and others east through the woods of what is now Vermont.

While Fort Ti was eventually restored and became a popular tourist attraction, Mount Independence slipped into obscurity. For several decades this hill was nothing but pastureland and forest. Ruins from the vast American camp were scattered across the hill, but little attention was paid to them.

In the 1960s, three Middlebury College students camped on Mount Independence and prepared descriptions of possible archaeological sites for a group of local history buffs. Starbuck began conducting digs here in the 1980s.

The state of Vermont erected a visitors' center at Mount Independence in 1996, with exhibits showing artifacts dug up at the old camp and paths that take visitors past remains of the fortifications. The old stone ruins and noncommercial nature of the site do a fine job of communicating the right mood.

The same can be said of Crown Point, about nine miles to the north. That was the second stop on our recent tour. Picnic tables are set out there, not far from the skeletal ruins of barracks of the old British fort.

We had lunch at the water's edge, in the shadow of a bridge that arches high over Lake Champlain and connects Vermont with New York state. We admired the expanse of sparkling water opening up before us and the blue-tinted mountains in the distance. My mind wandered back into time, contemplating all the history this peninsula has seen. I imagined the four-story French citadel built here in 1737 and the French settlement outside the fort's gates. I imagined the French blowing up the citadel and fleeing as a mighty British force approached in 1759. And I imagined Burgoyne sailing past here in 1777, en route to evict American troops at Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.

Our third and final stop was Fort Ticonderoga, perched on a peninsula where Lake George empties into Lake Champlain. The parking lot there was packed. Families with children were thrilled by the sight of people dressed like Colonial soldiers firing their muskets, and by the stirring cadences of a fife and drum corps. Amateur history buffs ogled artifacts at the fort's museum.

Our day went too quickly. It was time to return to my parents' home in Fair Haven.

As we drove down the New York state side of Lake Champlain, I was tempted to go right past the turnoff into Vermont and continue to old military sites farther south. But I didn't. I'll save them for another day. The spirits of the Great Warpath will always beckon.

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