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The narrow channel between Crab Island and the NY shore. It was here the French scuttled their small fleet in 1759.
Incident at Cliff Haven: October 12, 1759
Warfare in earnest came to the shores of Crab Island in October, 1759. Lake Champlain and Lake George had figured prominently in this bloody conflict. The waterways continued in their vital role as the only means of transport through the wilderness. Combatants had traveled past the island in massive armadas and solitary native canoes. Now, as this latest conflict was drawing to its dramatic conclusion, the sheltered bays off Crab Island were to witness a dramatic event that would leave its secrets hidden for over 200 years.
By September 1759, the French presence on the lakes had been greatly reduced. Forts Carillon and St. Frederic had been abandoned to the British. Lord Jeffrey Amherst was driving relentlessly north towards Canada, determined to erase the last vestiges of French power from the lakes. The French determined to make a stand at Île-aux-Noix in the Richelieu River. It was deemed critical to stop the British juggernaut from advancing down the river towards Montreal and Quebec.
The scene was set for an incident at Cliff Haven.
The scuttling of the French Fleet
Despite having lost the forts to the south, the French were still a formidable threat to Amherst's plan. Still in possession of a naval force of some size, the French could make things very difficult as Amherst drove towards the north with his army. Any vessel had to navigate the narrow stretches of the lake. Attacks from armed vessels could do much damage to ships loaded with troops. Lord Jeffrey knew he had to destroy the French fleet.
Setting out on the afternoon of October 11 from Crown Point, Amherst's fleet consisted of the 155-ton, 20-gun brig Duke of Cumberland, 115-ton, 16-gun sloop Boscawen, 6-gun Radeau Ligonier and several batteaux and row galleys.1
The French naval force was made up of the schooner La Vigilante, 10 4 and 6 pounders and swivels, and three unusual sloop-like vessels called xebecs. Named for fish found in the region, the La Masquinongé, La Brochette, and L'Esturgeon, carried an assortment of armament, some of it captured from the British at Fort William Henry by Montcalm in 1757.2
The British fleet was separated early on, the brig and sloop easily outdistancing the cumbersome radeau, batteaux and row galleys. Rowing all night long, the crew of one of the batteaux became confused and ended up being captured by the French near the Four Brothers Islands. Fighting contrary winds, the British on the rest of these small vessels ended up spending the next 5 days at Ligonier Bay near Willsboro. Meanwhile, the larger sailing vessels continued their search for the French ships. After much maneuvering off the coast of Grand Isle and running aground near Bixby and Young Island, the British finally caught sight of the French xebecs entering Cumberland Bay. La Vigilante had escaped and was hiding near Isle la Motte, anxiously awaiting the other less maneuverable vessels. They would never arrive...
French fleet commander D'Olabaratz called a hasty council with the captains of the other two vessels. They were anchored in the narrow channel between Crab Island and the New York shore. The awkward xebecs would never be able to out maneuver the British vessels. Under the best of conditions they were difficult to sail. The fickle winds of Cumberland Bay put them in a hopeless position.
The decision was made to scuttle the three ships and escape on foot to Canada. Hurriedly, the masts were cut, and cannons, swivels and other armament were thrown overboard. Other cannons were spiked to render them useless. The French crew fled through the forest towards Canada. Nine days later, they arrived at Île-aux-Noix.
The next morning the British arrived off the shores of Crab Island. Amherst landed some of his troops on the island, he may have come ashore himself. La Masquinongé was the least damaged of the three vessels, having been run aground rather than sunk. She was repaired and taken as a prize to join the British fleet. By October 26 the vessel, renamed the Amherst, was at Crown Point. She was now in the service of His Britannic Majesty. The next day, the Boscawen, Amherst and some 200 men in batteaux were sent to raise the two remaining vessels from the depths off Cliff Haven and Crab Island. Successful in their attempt to raise the ships, these sloops also became part of Amherst's fleet.3
Much of the armament from the vessels had wisely been thrown overboard. Vessels could be raised, it was another thing to locate and raise guns from the depths. For another 209 years, these guns would lay hidden in the channel between Crab Island and the high cliffs of the New York shore.
Recovery of the artifacts
Finally, in September 1968, three young divers found the cannons along with several anchors, a large swivel gun, muskets and a saber. Unfortunately, some of the artifacts did not receive necessary treatment for their preservation after such a long period in the lake. The muskets and the saber were severely damaged as a result. The swivel gun was eventually placed in the Clinton County Historical Museum. One of the impressive cannons is on display at Clinton County Community College on Bluff Point in Plattsburgh. The other resides at the Crown Point State Historical Site.4
1 Russell P. Bellico, "Sails and Steam in the Mountains: A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain" (Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, NY: Revised Edition 2001) 98
On November 11, 2002, Crab Island was featured in a WPTZ/Lake Champlain Basin Program Champlain 2000 feature story.
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