Tag Archives: Crown Point State Historic Site

Mysteries At Crown Point

Crown Point State Historic Site lies at the tip of a peninsula, jutting northward into Lake Champlain, a place at one time quite remote with a unique history at the crossroads of war, laced with more than a few tales of folklore, mystery, and imagination befitting the Halloween season.

A calico patchwork in fall of orange, red and gold, the Adirondack Mountains flank the western shore of the lake while the Green Mountains of Vermont rise along the eastern side, just beyond the farmland of the valley floor.  It is a majestic, glorious landscape with a sky so expansive, it is a daily reminder of our small place in this universe, a place where young 18th century soldiers who once manned this stone fortress must have felt far removed from the rest of the world they knew

As twilight approaches, the breath and expanse of this geography folds into itself as the darkness envelops the mountains and lake.   The mere depth of the night is unnerving enough but without the benefit of sight, sounds are amplified in the deep black of the understory of the trees. Owls calling above and rustling in the brush below are reminders of how vulnerable we seem in the vast darkness of this wilderness even today.

Located in Essex County, Crown Point has been on both the historic State and National Registers of Historic Places since 1976, significant as the location of ruins of the French-built Fort St. Frederic (1734) and the British fort, H.M. Fort at Crown Point (1759), the largest fortification erected on the North American continent at the time.  The French and British fought bitterly for decades over control of this place – precisely because of the sightlines the majestic landscape could afford those who wanted command of the waters of Lake Champlain, pointed like a silver dagger from Canada into the heart of Colonial New England.

NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation endeavors to preserve the Crown Point ruins in their current state as part of the 1910 stewardship agreement when New York State was gifted the property.  One of the defining features of the site are the officers and soldiers’ barracks in the British parade grounds, stones silently stacked and hidden behind the fort walls.  The structures are missing stairways, second story flooring and roofs; there is an ethereal quality upon viewing them, when conscious of the intended permanence of these structures and the ravages of time since people lived, worked, suffered and died within.

Take the darkness of night, mix with centuries old ruins, top off with harrowing local lore and this proves to be the perfect elixir of sinister, spooky, and spine-chilling. Visitors to the Haunted Histories at the Forts scheduled for October 29 will be welcomed with cider and donuts donated by local orchards and greeted with the first of many true, but unexplained tales at the site. 

Visitors to a previous Haunted Histories at the Forts events hear tales of some of the mysteries at and around the Lake Champlain historic fortress.

Present day meets the past in the most unfortunate of coincidences – this is not the first epidemic witnessed at Crown Point. The winter of 1775-76 found Boston in the throes of a smallpox epidemic.  Many know of the story of the artillery recovered from Crown Point and how General George Washington used the guns to drive out British troops during the Siege of Boston; however less well known, is at the time of liberation, the city was also ravaged by a pandemic of smallpox.

Most British troops had been inoculated or had the smallpox previously and were immune. In Europe, where smallpox was pervasive, most would have been exposed to the disease and likely had antibodies to protect them. 1 This protection was not the case for Indigenous peoples nor the colonists, and the disease persisted in Boston throughout the beginnings of the war, peaking in July 1775 and gradually subsiding by September of that year.  At that time, little was known about virology, and isolation was used as the primary control of transmission.

But then as now, that was only the first wave of the epidemic in the Colonies.  During the summer of 1775, the Continental Army launched the ill-fated Northern Campaign in an attempt to dislodge British forces in Canada.  Crown Point became the launching pad for these Patriot attacks directed at British-controlled Montreal and Quebec on the St. Lawrence River.

The second wave of the epidemic came in the midst of this campaign in 1776.  Patriot Major General John Thomas, Commander of the Army in Quebec, died of the disease in the summer of 1776 as the disease-weakened Continental Army was repelled from Quebec.  By that point, an estimated 3,000 men of the Northern Army were sick, most with smallpox.2 After a five-month siege on Quebec, defeated, diseased colonial troops withdrew to Crown Point where a hospital was set up. 

William Scudder, an officer serving in the New York 4th Regiment during the campaign, wrote in his journal:

“In June, I had the command of some batteaux…that were loaded with provisions to go to Crown Point, where our army then lay, under the command of General Sullivan, having retreated from Canada, – an such a scene of mortality was exhibited at that place, I never had beheld.  The hospital I judged to be about one hundred and fifty feet in length; on the lower floor in two ranges on each side, the poor sick and distressed soldiers.  Their disorder was chiefly the small-pox – Some groaning and begging for water, some dying and other dead and sewed up in their blankets; let it suffice to say, that by the middle of the afternoon they would begin to carry the dead from the hospital; I counted twenty-one carried out at one time, and it was common to bury fifteen or twenty in a day.” 3

Archeologists have been working at Crown Point from the mid-1950’s to the present.  In addition to first-hand accounts of those laying their final rest here, there are the Fort St. Frederic parish birth and death records of the French that inhabited the site prior to both the British and Colonial occupations.  Despite all the historical records, and the extensive archeological work throughout the 21st century, no evidence of human remains have ever been found. The French were Catholic, which prohibited them from burning the bodies, and even if the diseased soldiers had been disposed of by incarceration, there would be carbon remains.  No reasons can be found to explain this mysterious absence.

It’s not only the history that cannot be explained, but the mountains and lakes that surround Crown Point that are just as elusive and mystifying, as evidenced proven by both news reports and stories local inhabitants have passed down through generations.

Long before any European settlers arrived in the area, both the Abenaki and the Haudenosaunee native people had stories about a large creature inhabiting the lake. It was called Ta-to-skok by the Abenaki, a word meaning creature with two tusks. Early in the 18th century, Abenakis warned French explorers about disturbing the waters of the lake, so as not to disturb the serpent.

Samuel de Champlain’s diary reveals the following entry:

“. . . [T]here is also a great abundance of many species of fish. Amongst others there is one called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them.”

Never one to miss a trick, showman P. T. Barnum offered a reward of $50,000 in 1873 for “hide of the great Champlain serpent to add to my mammoth World’s Fair Show.” 4 No one ever claimed it.

The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism lists many 19th century sightings, with 1873 being a particularly robust year.  A New York Times story reported that a railroad crew had seen the head of an “enormous serpent” in Lake Champlain, with bright silvery scales that glistened in the sun. In July that same year, Clinton County’s Sheriff, Nathan H. Mooney, reported an “enormous snake or water serpent” he thought was 25 to 35 feet long. Then in August, the steamship W.B. Eddy encountered Champ by running into it. The ship nearly turned over, according to many of the tourists on board. Never one to miss a trick, showman P. T. Barnum offered a reward of $50,000 for “hide of the great Champlain serpent to add to my mammoth World’s Fair Show.” 4

The stories continue through the decades, marked by a roadside sign upon entrance to the neighboring town, Port Henry, where they celebrate Champ Day each summer, hoping to catch sight of him again. 

Fun folklore or relative of Nessie, world famous occupant of the Scottish Loch Ness?  Fast-forward to contemporary times, and a quick Google search on Champ turns up what may be the only existing photo of his presence, taken by Sandra Mansi in 1977 while vacationing in northern Vermont.  5

A 1977 photograph allegedly showing the mysterious Lake Champlain beast, taken by Sandra Mansi. Below, the Champ sign outside Port Henry.


Ronald Kermani, a former investigative reporter for the Times Union, whose family has a camp on Lake Champlain. He has spent summers here for the past five decades and told of his experience, at 7:10 a.m. on July 2, 1983, when he was fishing in a rowboat with a girlfriend.

He said he saw a creature about 30 feet away with “three dark humps — maybe 12 inches thick — protruding about two feet above the surface … two or three feet apart.”

Kermani wrote: “We watched in disbelief for about ten seconds. The humps slowly sank into the water. There was no wake, no telltale sign of movement. Unexplained. Eerie. Unsettling.”

He did not get a picture because he did not have a camera. Ever since, Kermani, who is retired and lives in Guilderland, has carried a camera in the boat with him when he is out on the lake — just in case. 6

It’s not just below the surface that menaces. In the mountains to the west of the peninsula are indigenous burial grounds.   Coot Hill near Port Henry has long been a reported locus of visions, vengeful murders, and accumulation of gruesome accidents.  Maybe they should have looked for property elsewhere to settle.

There’s not enough space to even address the French werewolves, apparitions appearing in the parade grounds, drowned Scottish soldiers or sounds that emerge and then follow a person as they try to retreat.  History books can explain some, but not all.   Coupled with deep darkness and imagination, that makes for a chilling trapse across the grounds at Crown Point, particularly in the dark of night.  For the Haunted History event, 18th century costumed interpreters will portray the restless soul of French settlers, who would have arrived at Fort St. Frederic with stories of their own to tell.

Keep your friends close and your flashlight on!


Post by Lisa Polay, Site Manager, Crown Point State Historic Site.

SOURCES

1 Gil Jr.l, Harold B. Colonial Germ Warfare.  Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Spring 2004.

2 Fenn, Elizabeth A. The Great Smallpox Epidemic.  History Today. Vol 53: Issue 8. August 2003.

3  The Journal of William Scudder, an officer in the late New York Line, who was taken captive by the Indians at Fort Stanwix, on the 23rd of July, 1779, and was holden a prisoner in Canada until October, 1782, and then sent to New York and admitted on parole. Evans Early American Imprint Collection

4  Lake Champlain Region (ROOST), https://www.lakechamplainregion.com/heritage/champ

Grondahl, Paul Champ:  Hook, Line and Sinker,. Albany Times Union. Dec 28, 2012.

6 Grondahl, Paul Champ:  Hook, Line and Sinker, Albany Times Union. Dec 28, 2012

New York’s Forgotten Patriotic Vow

It was 245 years ago this month that, shortly after the start of the Revolutionary War, a bold declaration of American liberty rang out.

No, it was not the Declaration of Independence, which came from Philadelphia in in July 1776 and became a widely celebrated national holiday. This earlier, largely-forgotten declaration came from northern New York along the shores of Lake Champlain.

On June 15, 1775, not far from what is now Crown Point State Historic Site, 31 men from the Northeast signed a so-called “Declaration of Principles,” vowing they would “never become slaves,” calling for a “union” of the states, and giving their allegiance to the newly formed Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Among those who publicly embraced armed resistance to the British Crown in the name of a new government was the document’s author, a man who went from one of the Revolution’s earliest battlefield heroes to its most despised traitor five years later.

That man was Benedict Arnold (1740-1801), and the path to his infamous treason in New York stretches from that now largely forgotten declaration, issued from the state’s northern frontier in what is now Essex County, to an infamous meeting with a spy along the shores the Hudson River— now within Rockland Lake State Park—where he agreed to betray the Revolution and deliver the river’s critical West Point fortress to the British.

In the five years between those two events, Arnold distinguished himself by buying the Revolution a critical year at the naval Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in 1776. The following year, he contributed to the relief of Fort Stanwix after the Battle of Oriskany in the Mohawk Valley and was instrumental in the decisive American victory at Saratoga.

His earlier role in capturing Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775 to the south of Crown Point had provided Patriot forces with desperately needed heavy cannon that later helped drive British troops out of Boston. That victory set the stage a month later for Arnold, as commander at Ticonderoga, to issue written principles from Crown Point to rally support for the Patriot cause. 

At the time, Arnold and the other men who signed the declaration did so at great personal risk, as it targeted them personally as potential traitors to Great Britain when the punishment for treason was death.

Flush from success at Ticonderoga, here is what Arnold wrote and he and other prominent early supporters, who came from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and what later become Vermont, signed.

Benedict Arnold’s Declaration of Principles

Crown Point, 15th June, 1775

Persuaded, that the Salvation of the Rights and Liberties of America, depends, Under GOD, on the firm Union of its Inhabitants, in a Vigorous Prosecution of the Measures necessary for its Safety And Convinced of the Necessity of preventing the Anarchy and Confusion which attend a Dissolution of the Powers of Government, WE, the Freeman, Freeholders, and Inhabitants of the Province of New York, being greatly alarmed at the avowed Design of the Ministry to raise a Revenue in America; and, Shocked by the bloody Scene now Acting in the Massachusetts Bay, DO, in the most Solemn Manner Resolve never to become Slaves; and do Associate under all the Ties of Religion, Honour, and Love to our Country, to Adopt and endeavour to Carry into Execution whatever Measures may be Recommended by the Continental Congress; or Resolved Upon by our Provincial Convintion for the purpose of preserving our Constitution and opposing the Execution of the Several Arbitrary and oppressive Acts of the British Parliament; Untill a Reconciliation Between Great Britain and America, on Constitutional Principles Which we most Ardently Desire Can be obtained And that we will in all Things follow the Advice of our General Committee Respecting the purposes aforesaid, The Preservation of Peace and Good Order, and the Safety of Individuals, and private party.


Click on this slideshow of images from the Crown Point State Historic Site, near where the Declaration of Principles was issued 245 years ago shortly after the start of the Revolutionary War.

Arnold’s words may have been largely forgotten, but his ultimate fate remains relatively well known. As the war went on, he felt slighted and upset from being passed over for promotion, with other officers getting credit for his accomplishments. Arnold could be brusque and headstrong, which alienated some. He borrowed heavily to support a lavish lifestyle.

And while military governor of Philadelphia, Arnold married a woman named Peggy Shippen, who came from a prominent city family loyal to British King George III. His new wife introduced him to one of her former suitors _ the British spy Major John Andre.

Arnold had been given command of West Point by George Washington, on the advice of his trusted advisors, Albany resident and General Philip Schuyler and Robert Livington of the Hudson Valley . (The residences of both men are now state Historic Sites.)

Once his plot with Andre to surrender West Point was found out, Arnold fled to the safety of British lines, where he was made an officer and fought against his former comrades. After the war, he lived in Canada and England, before dying in London in 1801 at age 60.

Benedict Arnold, from a 1776 mezzotint by artist Thomas Brown, and now in the Anne S.K. Brown Collection at Brown University.

A historical marker at the site in Rockland Lake State Park where Benedict Arnold met with Major John Andre to plot the surrender of the American fort at West Point. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Use this map to locate Crown Point and the other historic places in New York State described in this story.


Signatories of the Crown Point declaration had a variety of fates. One of its most prominent signers, William Gilliland, was an Irish immigrant and New York City merchant who was the first European to settle the lands west of Lake Champlain. He was founder of the town of Willsboro, and at one point, controlled about 50,000 acres in the region between Crown Point and Plattsburgh, leasing some of it out to tenant farmers and developing gristmills and sawmills.

In spite of Gilliland’s wealth and influence, as well as his signing of the Crown Point declaration and his financing of Patriot militia, he was mistrusted because of “unfounded allegations relative to his loyalties,” likely due to disagreements  and entanglements involving Arnold and Ethan Allen, commander of the Green Mountain Boys, a militia from Vermont, as recounted in documentary sources.

With both sides suspecting that he was secretly supporting the other, Gilliland was confined to Albany during part of the war. The aftermath destroyed Gilliland’s vast fortunes, stripped him of his lands and left him destitute by the time he died in Willsboro in 1796 at age 62. He is buried in the town that still bears his name.


But most other signers of the Crown Point declaration fared better. Among them was Dirck Swart, a Dutchess County native and a member of the Albany Committee of Correspondence from Saratoga, according to information collected by the Fort Ticonderoga Museum

These committees were shadow governments organized by Patriot leaders on the eve of the Revolution. They shared plans for strategy and by the early 1770s they wielded considerable political power.

Swart owned a tavern in Stillwater, Saratoga county, and his home still stands in the village. The residence was built in 1757 and remains among the oldest extant dwellings in Saratoga County. It was from Swart’s home that Arnold began his 1777 march to relieve Patriot forces at Fort Stanwix.

After the war, he was the town’s first postmaster, served as the Saratoga County Clerk, and was elected to the state Assembly.  In 1788, he was a delegate to the state convention to accept the new U.S. Constitution.

At age 70 in 1804, Swart died a venerable and respected citizen, having prospered in the new country that he had helped launch by signing that bold statement from Crown Point.


Cover Photo: Crown Point State Historic Site (Photo Credit- NYS Parks) All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for New York State Parks


Signers of the Crown Point Declaration of Principles by State

New York

  1. Benedict Arnold
  2. John Corbin
  3. Zadok Everest
  4. Joseph Franklin
  5. William Gilliland
  6. Charles Graham Jr.
  7. Ebenezer Hyde
  8. Benjamin Kellogg
  9. Robert Lewis
  10. Moses Martin
  11. Ebenezer Marvin
  12. Martin Marvin
  13. Daniel McIntosh
  14. Elisha Painter
  15. George Palmer
  16. William Satterlee
  17. Thomas Sparham
  18. Dirck Swart
  19. Thomas Weywood
  20. Hugh Whyte

Massachusetts

  1. Jonathan Brown
  2. Ezra Buell
  3. James Noble

Connecticut

  1. John Watson Jr.
  2. Samuel Keep

Vermont (this state was created a year after the Crown Point Declaration)

  1. John Grant
  2. Issac Hitchcock
  3. Robert Lewis
  4. David Vallance
  5. Samuel Wright

State Unclear

  1. Francis Moor
  2. James Wills

Source: Fort Ticonderoga Musuem

Bird Banding at Crown Point State Historic Site

The small girl skipped ahead of her family on the grassy path toward the bird banding station, a couple of picnic tables covered with a canopy, with two tents pitched nearby.   Five rows of mist netting were strung along alleys in the dense brush, with hopes that birds would fly into them and get caught so that they could be studied, banded, and released.  Master bird bander Gordon Howard sat at one of the tables with a tiny bird in his hand, a book open in front of him.   He gently stretched the wing feathers to look for different color patterns and signs of wear to help him determine the age of the bird.

The girl and her family walked up to Gordon, and he smiled and explained what he was doing.   When he was finished, he asked if she would like to hold and release the brightly colored male yellow-rumped warbler.  She nodded her head, and Gordon showed her how to gently wrap her small fingers around the bird’s neck and body so that it would not be injured.  A broad smile spread across her face as she felt the soft, warm feathers and the rapidly beating heart of the bird.  Her parents took pictures, and then Gordon told her to gently toss the bird into the sky and let go.  The warbler flew from her hand right back into the hawthorn shrubs and began feeding, preparing for its migration further north.   Although the bird had left her hand, the memory never left the child.

Bird banding began at the Crown Point State Historic Site 41 years ago by J.M.C. “Mike” Peterson.  Spring migrant birds have been monitored here every year since for two weeks in early to mid-May.   Over 17,000 individual birds of 106 different species have been banded here, with each bird receiving a small metal band with a unique identifying number that is placed around its leg like a bracelet.  Information on each bird that is banded, such as species, sex, age, and condition, is forwarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees all bird banding in the United States.  If the bird is ever found again, the band number can be reported to the USFWS and much can be learned about the bird’s movements.  The current main banders are Gordon Howard, Gary Lee, and Tom Barber, with help from several other banders and a number of volunteers.  Visitors are welcome from 7 AM to 5 PM every day of the season, which runs this year from the afternoon of May 6 to the morning of May 22.  Educational programs about birds and bird banding are offered to school groups, birding clubs, and civic organizations.  Reservations for these are arranged by contacting Gordon by email at ghoward@clemson.edu.

Bird banding has several values, including education, determining bird longevity, and figuring out migration routes.   The Crown Point peninsula that juts north into Lake Champlain is an excellent place to capture and study migrating birds, because birds concentrate here to feed and rest on their journey northward each spring.  Many of these songbirds wintered in South or Central America, and are migrating to their summer breeding ranges in New York, New England, and Canada.

If you go to visit, the best time of day is early to mid-morning.  Calm, dry days are usually better than windy, wet days.  Park in the lot by the museum, and walk up the blacktop road toward the barns.   Then follow the signs that direct you onto the grassy path to the banding center which is tucked in by the brushy edge.  Wear casual clothes and boots or shoes that can handle mud.  Bring your family, a camera, binoculars, and your sense of wonder.

Post by Ellie George, volunteer with the Crown Point Bird Banding Association

Photos were supplied with one time use permission from the photographers Ellie (Eleanor) George and Thomas Barber.
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