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Abigail May’s Visit to Ticonderoga in July 1800

Late last month, we hosted the Fifth Annual Fort Ticonderoga Teacher Institute. This year’s Institute titled “Last of the Mohicans: Early American History and Literature” used the novel The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper to explore themes related to the French siege and capture of Fort William Henry in August 1757.

While the majority of the week focused on the history of the 1757 French campaign against Fort William Henry, we spent the last day and a half of the Institute focusing on the early 19th-century history of Ticonderoga at the time Cooper wrote his classic novel. The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. It was also the year William Ferris Pell built the Pavilion here on the Ticonderoga peninsula.

Over 75,000 visitors make the trek to Fort Ticonderoga each year from all fifty states and from numerous other countries. Visitors have been touring the Ticonderoga peninsula, soaking in the history and scenic beauty, since the end of the American Revolution. In fact, we often think of George Washington as the first tourist to visit Fort Ticonderoga. His visit came in July 1783. Future presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison also visited the Ticonderoga peninsula, traveling north from Philadelphia in the spring of 1791.

Needlework of the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga
This needlework of the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga is dated 1801, the year following Abigail May’s visit to Fort Ticonderoga (Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum. Photo by Gavin Ashworth)

During the first quarter of the 19th century, visiting Ticonderoga as a part of the “Northern Tour” was firmly established. One of the earliest records of a visit to Ticonderoga by someone on this “Northern Tour” comes from Abigail May, who visited in July 1800.

Abigail May was from Boston and 24 years old in the summer of 1800. She, along with her mother and a younger brother, traveled to Ballston Spa in May 1800 in search of a cure for an undisclosed malady in the natural springs there. In mid-July, another guest at the Aldridge House at Ballston Spa invited Abigail to accompany a number of other guests on a trip to Lake George. In the days before trains, steamboats, and even improved roads, the journey proved difficult and challenging.

Painting of the Ruins of Fort Ticonderoga, New York
“Ruins of Fort Ticonderoga, New York” based on a painting by Thomas Cole, 1831 (Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum)

The caravan of travelers departed from Ballston Spa in a combination of two- and four-wheeled carriages, with at least two gentlemen traveling on horseback. After a quick stop in Saratoga Springs, the group continued to present-day Schuylerville, “2 miles from the spot where General Burgoyne surrender’d.” The overnight accommodations were in a “house that did not promise much… Our room communicated with the one occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Bowers—indeed the partition was so thin we could hear even a whisper…we three Girls had two beds in this room.”

The following day, the group crossed the Hudson by ferry and continued to Sandy Hill (modern day Hudson Falls). From there, they rode “through a wild interesting country, to Queensbury, on the banks of Lake George—the first view of this Lake is most noble—A long sweep of mountains, extending as far as the eye can reach embosoming this smooth tranquil piece of water….”

Overnight accommodations here “had very much the appearance of a gaol—we however had a good dinner of Bass and Perch.” The next morning seven members of the party traversed the length of Lake George in a boat with four oarsmen. After rowing fourteen miles, the party stopped “and had a fire kindled, fish caught, and cook’d, which with our cold provision gave us an excellent dinner.”

The boat arrived at Ticonderoga at the north end of Lake George at eight o’clock that evening “hungry, tired, sleepy and wet.” Following a night in a rustic inn where the entire party had to share one room, they boarded a “wagon to cross to Lake Champlain…. Our driver a smart shrewd young man satisfied our curiosity as to “what’s that” and “what’s this”—the old French war was described, and we were shown vestiges of that calamity, but how shall I convey any idea to you of the delight I experienced, when the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga, and Lake Champlain appear’d in view—never in my life did I see such a prospect—our waggoner stop’d—to the right and in front of us, lay the Lake smooth and tranquil—its banks romantically sloping to its verge—and in a much higher state of cultivation than the borders of Lake George—a distant range of blue almost indistinct mountains, in the back ground, on our left lay the ruins, much more magnificent  then I supposed existed in our new country, built of stone, and the stone alone remaining—wood, glass, all devour’d by the insatiable monster—but the chimnies are intire, the walls of the houses, and peaks of the roof—the windows and door frames—the ramparts, fortifications yet remain—but overgrown with nettles and weeds, such a scene of desolation I never beheld—we alighted, I paced over the stones awe struck—this, said our guide was the house of the commanding officer.”

“Carillon and the Ruins of Ticonderoga” drawing
“Carillon and the Ruins of Ticonderoga” c. 1840 (Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum)

May commented “Our guide though he knew a great deal—but I wish’d he knew more, I wanted to know every particular, of a spot that interested my feelings so much—but could obtain very imperfect information.”

The party dined at the inn on the peninsula run by Mrs. Charles Hay, the mother of the party’s guide around the ruins of the fort. At four o’clock in the afternoon, the party returned by wagon to Lake George and again headed south. Abigail May arrived back at Ballston Spa two days later.

Thankfully, getting to Ticonderoga is not so arduous today. We look forward to seeing you at Ticonderoga in the near future!