The French and Indian War battle won here by green Colonial troops is just a footnote in most history books. But the way Randy Patten sees it, the New England farmers who fell during an ambush that opened the fighting didn’t need to be buried a second time, 250 years later.
In the 1990s, a businessman was granted permission by the town of Lake George to fill in his vacant, sloping property. The land borders the wooded ravine where about 1,000 British Colonial troops and 200 of their Mohawk Indian allies were ambushed by a larger force of French and Indians on the morning of Sept. 8, 1755.
The ravine was part of the route for a wilderness road traveled by such 18th century figures as Paul Revere, Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
“This [businessman] is dumping on historical ground, or what’s left of it, anyway,” said Patten, a 61-year-old retired state police investigator and former member of the New York commission that promoted the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War from 2005 through 2010.
It’s often been that way in Lake George, where history can be uncovered with the simple turn of a shovel or obliterated with the bucket of a backhoe.
In October, state archaeologists announced that they had discovered 10,000-year-old Native American artifacts just inches below the ground near the state-owned beach on the lake’s southern end. At nearby Fort William Henry, numerous artifacts and skeletal human remains have been found since the original 1750s fortification was reconstructed as a tourist attraction 60 years ago. Archaeologists believe hundreds of soldiers are buried under what’s now the asphalt parking lot shared by the fort and the neighboring resort hotel.
Yet despite its rich history, Lake George’s efforts to preserve remnants of its Colonial past often have fallen short, bested by economic development interests in a southern Adirondack town where tourism is the only industry. In the early 1970s, the ruins of a French and Indian War fort were bulldozed to make way for a new hotel on the village’s southern end, despite pleas by local preservationists to save at least a portion of the site.
Patten said another historic parcel was damaged when, starting in the late 1990s, businessman Anthony Tomasovic dumped tons of soil, trees and road debris on his 2.8-acre property fronting a commercially zoned stretch of Route 9. At some point, the fill began cascading into the ravine where the ambush known as the Bloody Morning Scout is believed to have happened along the Military Road, built by New England militiamen just days before the battle.
Patten is convinced many of the scores of casualties from the first musket volleys of the ambush were buried afterward in the ravine where the Mohawks from New York and provincial militiamen from Massachusetts and Connecticut were bushwhacked at the start of the Battle of Lake George, eventually won by the Colonials. For proof, he points to after-battle reports and soldier journals that record the dead being buried “where they fell” in the days following the battle.
Patten, local historians and at least one town planning board member raised concerns about the ravine site after Tomasovic first applied in the mid-1990s for a permit to fill in his property. Nevertheless, the planning board approved his application in 1996, allowing Tomasovic to begin clearing trees and dumping soil on the property.
In 2004, a study completed by the Warren County Historical Society under a grant from the federal battlefields preservation program stated that within 10 years Tomasovic’s project and other commercial development along Route 9 “will completely obliterate any evidence of this battlefield as well as the graves of those slain during the action and buried as they fell.”
In December, the town’s planning and zoning director sent Tomasovic a letter ordering him to cease fill operations on his property. The letter was written two days after The Associated Press first began inquiring about Tomasovic’s property.
The town’s letter didn’t mention any issues regarding the dumping of soil on the battle site, only focusing on concerns over stabilization of the high, approximately 250-foot-long embankment that now looms over the ravine along the property’s back side.
Tomasovic said he had finished fill work at the property last year, before receiving the letter. He has yet to build anything on his property, but says he still has plans for the parcel. He refused to divulge details.
Tomasovic defended his work at the property, pointing to a neighboring commercial property that was built decades ago, also by dumping fill into the ravine. Anyone building a business in an area as steeped in history as Lake George can’t help but run into preservation issues, he said.
“All of Lake George is a historic site,” Tomasovic told The Associated Press. “Everywhere you build there, you’re going to find something historic.”
No official archaeological digs have been conducted in the ravine, and none are planned.
Patten feels something should be done to honor the common soldiers who died and are buried in the ravine.
“They were the first Americans to battle a professional foreign army,” he said. “They deserve better.”