Grim images recently appeared of the large-scale internment of unclaimed, or unknown, dead in New York City, buried in long trenches. Images like these are difficult to see at any time, and even more so as the world faces grave threats to public health and we fear for the safety and health of our families. Affecting scenes like this remind us of the cyclical nature of history, how utterly bound we are to its orbit. The burial of unclaimed bodies has been a feature of public life for centuries, especially in large cities like New York where potter’s fields were established to bury those whose bodies were unclaimed early in colonial history. To see this in progress is still to glimpse something most of us try to avoid as we go about with our lives. The sadness of mass death is compounded by the realization that the deceased had no family that could collect them, or worse than that, their family was not contacted at the time of their death. But the circumstances of their burial does not mean that those people are forgotten. History, in fact, is how those buried alone or unknown have survived; their deeds, their acts, their characters, live on, if not at the time of their death, then through those that knew them in life. Many people who suffered the shame of being buried in a potter’s field are remembered and celebrated today thanks to the power of history.
One such individual features prominently in the story of Fort Ticonderoga. A figure so significant his name crosses the lips of museum staff on a daily basis, and thousands of people from across the world learn of his life and work, despite being buried alone in a common grave, the casualty of epidemic disease far from his place of birth. This is Michel Chartier de Lotbinière, the designer of Fort Ticonderoga.
Lotbinière was born in Québec in 1723, his mother died and his father joined the priesthood shortly after, leaving him to be taught by Jesuits. Eventually, he joined the colonial troops in Canada, traveling across the breadth of France’s New World empire, from the Atlantic Coast to as far west as Michilimackinac, between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. In 1750 he traveled to France where he studied military engineering and toured the fortresses of the French frontier, designed and built by the master, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. He even corresponded with Benjamin Franklin about his experiments with electricity.
As war broke out in North America between the French and British, Lotbinière was ordered south. His orders, dated September 20, 1755, instructed him to survey Fort Saint-Frédéric at Crown Point then journey to the juncture of Lake du Saint Sacrement (Lake George) and Lake Champlain. At this place, already described as Carillon, he was to use his skills and knowledge of engineering to build a new fortification to cover Crown Point and block the approach of the British to New France.
Surveying the ground through an impenetrable wood, Lotbinière began to lay out what would first be known as Fort Vaudreuil in honor of the Canadian Governor. The fortification was more familiarly known as Fort Carillon, and later by the English Fort Ticonderoga, using the Iroquoian word for the area. Manpower, supplies, and the working season meant that work on the fort proceeded slowly. His progress was dogged by the criticism of French officers, who claimed work was purposefully delayed to line the pockets of Lotbinière, emblematic of the corruption and self-interest of the Canadian aristocracy. During the war, Lotbinière was denied the position of chief engineer for New France, however, Governor Vaudreuil awarded him with the new seigneurie of Alainville on Lake Champlain in 1758. He continued to serve in Québec and in the defense of Isle aux Noix, on the Richelieu River, until the fall of New France in 1760.
Following the end of fighting in North America, he faced a problem. Lotbinière had acquired significant landholdings in the colony, including a number along Lake Champlain. He traveled back to France but was unable to secure any assurances while the broader war still raged across Europe. Following the peace of 1763, he faced the unhappy realization that his Lake Champlain seigneuries were now in territory deemed part of the Province of New York. By the early 1770s, he traveled to England to make a claim for his lands and for a greater role in colonial society that the British administration of Québec was denying him. Officials were slow to make a decision, but in 1776 the Board of Trade finally rejected his claims to the Lake Champlain seigneuries. By this time, the issue was somewhat moot as the British government hardly had control over lands that now fell within the bounds of the new State of New York, one of the United States that declared independence that summer.
Lotbinière traveled back to France, and then to Massachusetts under nominal instructions from Louis XVI’s foreign minister the Comte de Vergennes. Without accomplishing much, he was back in France by 1777, corresponding with Benjamin Franklin and lobbying the French government to reclaim Canada, perhaps his only hope of recouping his landholdings and status. The French government made him a Marquis and awarded him with the Croix de Saint Louis, but with little else he traveled back to North America. Arriving in the new United States he continued to lobby for his lost properties from a third national government, and again to no avail.
The wars of the late 18th century had shattered his life and family. The British conquest stripped him of land, and the American Revolution drove a wedge between him and his son, who supported the new British administration of Canada, while Michel had worked with the French and the Americans. He eventually cut ties with most of his family while in New York in the 1790s. In the end, it was not war, but infectious disease that brought an end to Lotbinière’s long and complex life.
New York suffered from a major epidemic of Yellow Fever beginning in 1797 that ravaged the city. Yellow Fever had already struck the capital, Philadelphia, in 1793, killing thousands and fueling fear of foreigners and groundless rumors about its origins. New York, too, reeled under the disease. The city purchased a new plot of land in the northern suburbs of the city as a potter’s field, or the burial ground for unclaimed or unknown dead. Today, this spot is known as Washington Square Park. It was here that Lotbinière was likely laid to rest, with no headstone or monument to his memory as one of the foremost engineers of New France, whose work has shaped the history of the North American continent.
The graves from earlier potter’s fields in Manhattan were moved to Ward Island to be reinterred, and in 1868 the city purchased Hart Island, which is still used for this purpose today. The Washington Square graveyard may have contained as many as 20,000 burials, casualties of Yellow Fever, neglect, and circumstance. Lotbinière is one of these. His daughter Marie later married Samuel McKay, the first French instructor at Williams College, in Massachusetts. At her request, he had engraved on her memorial a tribute to her father Michel that reads:
“The right honble Chartier Marquis de Lotbinière died N York Oct 7th 1798 Aged 75 His remains were buried in Potters field This was inscribed at the special request of his departed daughter Now Mouldering in this dust.”
These words remind us that no matter the circumstances of death, and burial, people are remembered by their deeds, their connections, and the impact they have made on others. Whether beneath a towering mausoleum or in the anonymity of the potter’s field, we are all alike in death. As another towering figure in American history eloquently noted in 1863, “it is for us the living” to ensure that those that have passed are not forgotten.