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19th century view of tourists at Cooper

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Toponomy, or the Study of Place Names

By Anthony F. Hall

Thursday, March 24, 2011

When asked why he called the lake “Horicon” in his novel, ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ James Fenimore Cooper replied, “The French name was too complicated, the American too commonplace, and the Indian too unpronounceable to be used in a work of fiction.” Cooper himself, however, was accused of employing unpronounceable Indian names. According to Mark Twain, one should probably pronounce “Chingachgook,” “Chicago.”

Today, it is common knowledge that Father Isaac Jogues deserves the credit for giving the lake the name it bore for more than a century: Lac du St. Sacrement. It was not always thus. For many years the origin of the French name was a mystery. Jacques Gerhard Milbert, a French naturalist who visited the lake while traveling through America in the decade after the Napoleanic wars, believed that “Lake George was called Lake of the Holy Sacrament because all the Canadian churches on its shores used its clear water for their services.” On the visit to Lake George that inspired “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cooper was told that only its waters were considered pure enough for the holy rite of baptism, and that quantities were exported abroad to be used for that purpose.

We now know that it was named Lac du St. Sacrement by Jogues in 1646 because he reached the foot of the lake on the Eve of Corpus Christi. Father Jogues returned to Montreal in August where he reported his discovery to the “abbe,” who duly recorded it in his annual report to his superiors in Paris. Those reports, known as “The Jesuit Relations,” constitute the best history of the French in the new world. No one bothered to examine them, however, until 1842, when Francis Parkman began the studies which culminated in his masterpiece, a seven-volume history of the conflicts between France and Britain in North America. If Father Jogues deserves the credit for giving the lake its French name, Parkman deserves the credit for solving the mystery of its origin.

James Fenimore Cooper

Andiato-rocte. Lac du St. Sacrement. Lake George. The changes in its name are proof, if proof were needed, of the historical significance of Lake George. “I am building a Fort at this lake which the French call St. Sacrement,” William Johnson wrote in a letter dated September, 1755. “I have given it the name of Lake George, not only in honor to his Majesty but to ascertain his undoubted dominion here.” Parkman dismisses this as a pretty compliment to “a dull Hanoverian King,” and Johnson himself as a toad. Well, perhaps. But Johnson was at least right about this: British dominion over Lake George was in doubt.

The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 had fixed the northern boundary of British North America at Split Rock, on Lake Champlain, between the present hamlets of Essex and Westport. (That treaty terminated the War of Spanish Succession, a war which Britain and her allies won largely because of the genius of Winston Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough). France, however, regarded the settlement as provisional, awaiting final disposition on some other field of battle. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1748, was equally inconclusive. Johnson therefore marched north with 3000 colonials and 250 Indians in order to assert Britain’s claim on Northern New York. He successfully repelled Dieskau’s counter attack, but failed to take advantage of the opportunity to seize Crown Point; France retained control of Lake Champlain which meant that New York was still vulnerable to an invasion from Canada. The Battle of Lake George was thus little more than a border incident. That is not to say that it was of no consequence. Voltaire had warned, “a cannon shot fired in America could give the signal that sets Europe ablaze.” The shot that did so may well have come from one of Johnson’s guns.

The Battle of Lake George fed the tensions between Great Britain and France, and those tensions erupted into the Seven Years’ War. That war, like the majority of Britain’s wars, was fought to prevent the domination of the European continent by a single power, and only incidentally to determine control of North America. “Canada was won in Germany,” said William Pitt the elder, Britain’s wartime leader. (Had Frederick the Great, Britain’s continental ally, been defeated in Central Europe,  producing a slight shift in the European balance of power, Lake George might still be called Lac du St. Sacrement.) Nevertheless, when news of Wolfe’s victory at Quebec reached London, “All was joy,” according to Thomas Babington Macaulay. For a moment, the long contention between Whig and Tory ceased. From that brief respite from faction, Pitt drew this conclusion: “Unanimity did not breed success. Success bred unanimity.” Now that’s an instructive moral, one that politicians less bold than Pitt ought to find fortifying.

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