During opening weekend on May 9 – 10 at Fort Ticonderoga, visitors stepped into New France in 1756 as French soldiers returned by bateaux from posts down Lake Champlain. This event kicked off the 2015 season at Fort Ticonderoga and captured the site’s epic story on land and water. The Living History event traced the footsteps of French soldiers as they struggled to guard the unfinished earth, stone, and log walls of Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga) in the midst of construction. It investigated the situation and factors that brought a French army across an ocean and up the lakes and rivers through the wilderness of Canada.
Three bateaux of Fort Ticonderoga interpretative staff and re-enactors were scheduled to row and sail on the morning of May 9, 2015 from Crown Point to the Ticonderoga peninsula; a total of 14 miles, just as the French soldiers did during their final stride to Carillon on May 9, 1756. The night before, they set up camp at the Crown Point State Historic Site using 18th-century style methods, tools and material. On the morning of May 9, it was established that they would be fighting prevailing winds, which would only get stronger as the day progressed.
Visitors experienced the Living History Event from the shores of Ticonderoga, unacquainted with the trials and tribulations of the Fort Ticonderoga interpretative staff and re-enactors prior to their arrival on the afternoon of May 9.
Fort Ticonderoga’s interpretative staff members have provided the first-hand perspective of their experiences recreating the French soldiers of 1756.
Getting Ready for Launch
“The night we all arrived at Crown Point to camp was really exciting from a personal perspective,” said Gibb Zea, Fort Ticonderoga’s Artificer Tailor. “I was able to see the fruit of all my labors come together for an event after an entire winter of creating 1756 specific attire. We set up camp at the ruins of Fort Saint-Frédéric, on the very same ground where thousands of soldiers slept 259 years ago. This was a riveting opportunity. Just like the soldiers then, we didn’t necessarily know where we were going because there wasn’t a mapped route to follow; we just knew to go down the lake until we hit Ticonderoga.”
“Our staff members have come from across the eastern seaboard, and from a variety of different backgrounds. Some had not even stepped in a bateau before this day,” said Shaun Pekar, Fort Ticonderoga’s Artificer Shoemaker. “This was going to be a truly immersive experience that would enable all of our staff to develop a more in-depth understanding of exactly what we’re trying to interpret to the public this year. It was intentional for all of Fort Ticonderoga museum staff to be in one bateau rather than spread throughout the three – this enabled us to kick off the season with a dynamic set of team-building skills that we will be able to bring to our visitors throughout the season.”
“We launched at 5:30 from Crown Point, to try to get ahead of the strong winds predicted for mid-afternoon,” said Zea. “The row itself was a great lesson in teamwork. It was a strenuous feat, but we made sure to rotate so that everyone had a break. After two to three hours, we established a good rhythm by syncing to the sound of the oars hitting the oar locks. We were running like a well-oiled machine.”
“Bateaux are a speedy build, but not the most watertight vessels, and certainly are not meant to last long,” said Pekar. “They were equipped with fascines (bundles of sticks) to lie across the floor of the bateaux, in order to keep soldier’s equipment dry from the inevitable water leakage. We rotated roles in our boat – some rowed while others had to continuously bail out all of the water.”
“Cameron Green (Fort Ticonderoga’s former Assistant Director of Interpretation) did a great job recreating the role as the officer. When we arrived at Crown Point the night before, we all set Cameron’s camp up for him, just as the soldiers would have done for their officers in the 18th century. He helped with the rowing, but made sure to maintain the ‘officer attitude’ and took several naps at the bow of the boat. It really felt like I was thrown back into 1756,” said Zea. “Another throwback occurred during our first break on shore, just after the first bateau of re-enactors turned back to Crown Point due to high winds,” said Zea. “Ron Videau (Fort Ticonderoga’s Assistant Military Programs Supervisor) found a piece of 18th-century pottery; indication that someone had stopped in this very spot in the 18th century.”
“As the day progressed, the winds began to really pick up. At points it got frightening – waves began to break up to the gunnels,” said Zea. “The deal breaker to turn back occurred around 12:30 pm when we realized we had just spent the last hour crossing a 150-yard bay, which should have taken only minutes. At this point we had made it about 55% of the way; it became quite clear that we wouldn’t be able to arrive to Fort Ticonderoga before dark.”
“It took 7 hours to get 6 miles and less than 2 hours to return,” said Zea. “The sail back was very relaxing; we rested our muscles and enjoyed the breeze. It was a good opportunity to reflect on the beautiful views and overall profound experience. We were pulled by another bateau that was equipped with a mast and sails. We would have put up our own sail, but we decided to toss our mast poles during the row to lighten our load. We were so determined to make it to Ticonderoga, that we also tossed our fascines and half of our drinking water (3-4 gallons).”
“Trying to recreate this event exactly how it happened in 1756 is sort of like a balancing act. The schedule for the public in comparison to the way historical events went can vary at times,” said Pekar. “These are the modern limitations as museum professionals. We could have waited for the winds to die down and continued our row to Ticonderoga, but we wouldn’t have made it in time for the public. Doing these events isn’t just for us – we need to make sure that our visitors can get an insight into the soldier’s lives as well. Careful planning goes into the structure of a reenactment or living history event to ensure that both the re-enactor and the visitor get the full experience.”
“This experience was undeniably successful. Even if the public can’t see it, it helps staff to build an understanding of a particular aspect of the 18th century,” said Pekar. “The weather may have prevented us from completing our row, but Fort Ticonderoga staff members most certainly have gained the 18th-century perspective of this event, and can be fully prepared to describe it to the public from an empirical approach.