Champlain Among The Mohawk, 1609


On June 28, 1609, Champlain set out from Quebec with a party of French soldiers and hundreds of Indian warriors. A week later they entered “the country of the Iroquois.” Champlain and his party paddled their canoes south from the St. Lawrence Valley up the river of the Iroquois, known today as the Richelieu River. He wrote, “No Christians but ourselves had ever penetrated this place.” Eventually most of the French and Indians decided to turn back, daunted by what lay ahead, but Champlain pressed on with a war party of only 60 Indians and two Frenchmen at his side. It was a courageous decision. Others would have called it foolhardy to the point of madness.


Champlain and his allies made a portage of about a mile around the rapids on the Richelieu, well into Iroquois country. At the end of each day, the expedition built a semicircular fort on the edge of the river. Some took bark from trees to make wigwams, while others felled big trees to make an abatis of tangled branches around their camp, leaving only the riverbank open as a line of retreat. They sent forward a party of three canoes and nine men to search four or six miles ahead. The scouts found nothing, and all retired for the night. This was one of the first occasions when European soldiers traveled with a large Indian war party in North America.


On July 14, 1609, they reached the large lake from which the river flowed. Champlain exercised his right to name it Lake Champlain on his map, as he and his two French companions may have been the first Europeans to see it. He reckoned its length at 80 to 100 leagues, and later amended his estimate to 50 or 60 land leagues, which is roughly correct. He explored both sides of the lake, saw the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east, and to the west sighted the Adirondacks, which are visible from the eastern shore. On the many maps created by Champlain, this lake was the only place where he put his name on the land.


As they moved further south, tensions mounted. On the evening of July 29, 1609, they approached the lake’s southern end; on their right they passed a low peninsula with willow trees and a sandy beach below a steep eroded bank. Beyond the beach Champlain saw a promontory projecting into the water. His Indian allies knew it well. The Iroquois called it “the meeting place of two waters”: tekontató:ken or, to European ears, Ticonderoga. The name came from two big, beautiful lakes. Lake George to the south and west was 200 feet above Lake Champlain, draining into it from a height greater than Niagara Falls. The water flowed downward through a run of falls and rapids that the French called a chute, entering Lake Champlain at Ticonderoga. For many generations past and to come, Ticonderoga served as one of the most strategic locations in North America, a key to anyone who wanted to control the long chain of lakes and rivers running from the St. Lawrence to the Hudson. For the Mohawk, it was also a sacred and magical place.


In the night of July 29, as Champlain’s party rounded the promontory of Ticonderoga, their bow paddlers saw shadows stirring on the water ahead of them. As they stared intently into the darkness, the shadows began to assume an earthly form. They were boats of strange appearance, larger than northern birch-bark canoes, and filled with men. The Indians instantly identified them: Mohawk!


Each group sighted the other at about the same time. Both taken by surprise, they turned away and moved in opposite directions. “We retreated into the middle of the lake,” Champlain later wrote. The Mohawk landed on a sand beach between the promontory of Ticonderoga and Willow Point to the north, where a fringe of willow trees still flourishes near the water’s edge, and built a small fort or barricade.


Champlain and his allies remained afloat on the lake and lashed their canoes together with poles so as not to become separated in the night. “We were on the water,” he wrote, “within bow-shot of their barricades.” Songs and cries pierced the night. The Mohawk shouted insults at their enemies. “Our side was not lacking in repartee,” Champlain recalled. As dawn approached, both sides prepared for battle. In the darkness before first light, Champlain’s Indian allies paddled around the promontory and landed in a secluded spot where they were not under observation. “My companions and I were always kept carefully out of sight, lying flat in the canoes,” he wrote. His allies sent scouts ahead to watch the Mohawk fort. The rest assembled in their fighting formation and moved forward toward the Mohawk barricade.


The three Frenchmen remained carefully hidden behind them. Each prepared his weapon, a short-barreled, shoulder-fired arquebus à rouet, Champlain’s highly developed wheel-lock weapon that did not require a smoldering matchlock, which might have betrayed their position. Champlain dangerously overloaded his arquebus with four balls. On Cape Cod in 1605, his weapon had exploded in his hands and nearly killed him. But overloading was highly effective in close combat, so he accepted the risk.


At first light the Mohawk warriors mustered quickly and came out of the fort, many of them wearing wooden armor that was proof against stone arrowheads. Both forces assembled in close formation on opposite sides of a clearing between the water and the woods.