James Fenimore Cooper may have perpetuated enduring myths about Native Americans, but after reading The Last of the Mohicans (1826) recently, I found his knowledge of local history to be a particular strength of the narrative. He peppers his prose with footnotes that bring the reader back to the present time, making mention of mineral springs that were to become Upstate spas, and Adirondack landmarks like Bloody Pond that we passed by just two weeks ago on the Way to Lake George.
In describing a ruined forest blockhouse, Cooper makes the following illuminating digression in a lengthy footnote:
"Some years since, the writer was shooting in the vicinity of the ruins of Fort Oswego, which stands on the shores of Lake Ontario. His game was deer, and his chase a forest that stretched with little interruption, fifty miles inland. Unexpectedly, he came upon six or eight ladders lying in the woods within a short distance of each other. They were rudely made, and much decayed. Wondering what could have assembled so many of these instruments in such a place, he sought an old man who resided near for the explanation.
During the war of 1776 Fort Oswego was held by the British. An expedition had been sent two hundred miles through the wilderness to surprise the fort. It appears that the Americans, on reaching the spot named, which was within a mile or two of the fort, first learned that they were expected, and in great danger of being cut off. They threw away their scaling ladders, and made a rapid retreat. These ladders lay unmolested thirty years, in the spot where they had been thus cast."
The expedition alluded to by Cooper was made in the closing months of the war. The troops marched in the dead of winter under Col. Marinus Willet, a superb officer whose force was too small to take the fort by storm so they planned to use the scaling ladders to mount the walls at night. They were discovered, and the ladders discarded where Cooper says he found them decades later. The British only handed the frontier fort over to the Americans in 1796.