OSWEGO, NY – The sights, sounds, and smells of camp and garrison life during the French and Indian War will return to Fort Ontario State Historic Site in Oswego on June 30 and July 1.
From 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on June 30, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 1, visitors will experience the colorful military life of camps of British, French and Native American troops and warriors who fought each other at Oswego in the 1750s.
Paul Lear, site director of Fort Ontario Historic Site, notes that this year marks the 253rd anniversary of an important battle fought at Fort Ontario in 1759, and the construction of the second Fort Ontario.
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.
A special treat is in store for children as Shari Crawford, early American activities specialist and teacher, will present her 18th Century Toys and Games program on Saturday and Sunday.
Children will be able to try their hand at stilts, trundling hoops, two-balls, bat and trap, shinny, marbles, cups and balls, skittles, dog and bone, and quoits.
Crawford has conducted programs for adults and children on open fire cooking, clothing and laundry, and English country dance at historic sites, schools, scout camps, and adult day camps around New York State.
A member of the Brigade of the American Revolution, Crawford has published articles on many aspects of 18th century life (www.18thcenturytoysandgames.com).
“Oswego was once the scene of international rivalry between the French and British, and was 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.
Lear describes these events leading up to the 1759 battle:
“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, the French commander-in-chief, the Marquis de Montcalm, led 4,000 troops and Indians and along with more than 25 pieces of heavy artillery, and managed to get ashore at Baldwin’s Bay without detection. Quickly siege operations began against Fort Ontario. The fort fell to the French on Friday, the 13th.
“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 trader’s 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.”
In 1758, Colonel John Bradstreet returned 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 Lake Ontario near the fort 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,” said Lear.
The second Fort Ontario was built in 1759 by General Thomas Gage, the earthworks of which still exist today.
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.
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.
This year a small recreated field fortification will be constructed south of the fort to represent a section of the 1759 field fortifications; barrels of flour and salt pork that were intended for the British troops at Niagara and were used as temporary field defenses will be included in the defensive line. As in past years, a broken battlefield of logs, stumps, brush and debris will be recreated.
In addition to Perkins’ commentary, color copies of 18th century military maps obtained by Randy Patten from the British Archives will be on display during the event. Robert Nipar will represent the Royal Engineers with an outstanding impression of 18th century military engineering.
“The 1759 British victory at Fort Ontario secured Johnson’s rear guard and supplies and prevented the lifting of the siege of Fort Niagara,” continues Lear. “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 June 30 and July 1, military drills, artillery firing, ceremonies, cooking, engineering and medical displays, guard duty, lectures, a court martial, 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.
For more information on Fort Ontario and the June 30 – July 1 event, visit www.fortontario.com. For Oswego County visitor information, call 1-800-248-4FUN or go to www.visitoswegocounty.com