Champlain’s excursion into Lake Champlain forged the way for the inevitable exploration of the region by the French from the north. Dutch and British traders penetrated from the south. Native people allied with those Europeans they deemed most likely to further their own territorial interests. The Abenakis, Hurons and Montagnais sided with the French, the Iroquois with the British.
Standing on the bluff above the Saranac River in Plattsburgh in front of the statue of Samuel de Champlain, one can follow his gaze out over the lake and envision the waves of explorers, fur traders, soldiers and settlers who passed by, intent on gaining control or a livelihood from the Lake Champlain waterway. An early engagement took place a few miles to the north in 1666, when a French officer stationed at Fort Saint Anne across the water on Isle la Motte lost his life in Mohawk raid at the mouth of theGreat Chazy River, that now bears his name. Reciprocal raids unfolded in three wilderness wars known by the names of British monarchs -- William, Anne and George -- because the French eventually lost the final French and Indian War (Seven Years War), ceding Canada to Britain in 1763. This final conflict played out largely to the south, in the upper reaches of Lake Champlain and Lake George. But in late October of 1759, as General Amherst’s fleet swept the French from the lake, three French xebecs were scuttled beneath Cliff Haven. A cannon salvaged in 1968 has been restored and placed on display in the lobby of Clinton County Community College, overlooking the site.
Travelers enjoyed safe passage along Lake Champlain, but only for a while. In 1774, the British garrison at Crown Point had to move south to Ticonderoga when the barracks burned in a laundry fire. That same year, British forces built a stockaded garrison house at the southern end of Point au Fer, south of Rouses Point. This they lost to the Americans as the summer of 1775 unfolded and Revolutionary forces moved north into Canada. That campaign failed and the American troops limped back to Crown Point, burning the post on the way south. The British promptly took over and stayed until 1796, keeping watch over the narrow navigation channel. A raised causeway across swampy ground makes Point au Fer more accessible than it was in those days, and the earthworks described as “Old Fort” on Seneca Ray Stoddard’s 1893 map of Lake Champlain are still visible in the landscape.
Visit Bluff Point for a commanding view of the stretch of water where Benedict Arnold outmaneuvered a British fleet in the Battle of Valcour, early in the war. Especially if there’s a cold wind from the north, Arnold’s strategy unfolds at your feet. His fleet sixteen little ships had made their way north from Whitehall to face a British fleet of 29 boats. They met on October 11, 1776 on a cold, “winter lake,” deep blue and rent with whitecaps. The British inflicted considerable damage to the American fleet on the first day of the battle. Arnold then brought his navy into the shelter of Valcour Bay, where the fierce north wind prevented the British from pursuing. Instead, they formed a blockade. Under the cover of night and a dense fog, the American ships crept through the British line, reassembling at Schuyler’s Island for another battle. The fleet broke up. Arnold and some of his men escaped overland to Crown Point, as three enemy ships led a lively pursuit up the lake to Ticonderoga. The British dallied for a month, before returning to St. John’s. Great Britain controlled Lake Champlain once again, but too late in the season to take advantage of it. Such is the changeable North Country weather that a blanketing fog can follow close on the heels of a chill northern gale.
In the 1777 campaign the British moved south along Champlain, pausing to drive the Americans from Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, to fight battles at Hubbardton and Bennington, and finally meet defeat at Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolutionary War.