Combined Operations on Lake Ontario During the Seven Years' War: Part I

read at the Canadian Nautical Research Society, Ottawa, 16 November, 1988.


-prior to the 1750s, warfare between the French and british colonies had been confined to coastal areas and the Lake champlain corridor, the most direct route between the British and french colonies

-armies in the interior were small, and mostly non-professional [large expeditionary forces arrived in 1711 under Walker, and 1746 under d'Anville, but both operated only on the coast, and withdrew without ever contacting the enemy.

-military operations were sporadic, and inland navies non existent

-But during the seven years' war, the intensity of conflict escalated to unprecedented heights, tens of thousands of european regulars crossed the Atlantic, major annual campaigns became the norm...

that war broke out when the french chose to oppose Anglo-American expansion towards the Ohio valley in the mid-eighteenth century, they opened a new front deep in the interior of North America

-this led to the emergence of something new in North American military history, the use of small inland navies to control key nodes of the riverine transportation network that linked new France and British North America

It quickly became apparent that, in the struggle for control of the lakes of North America, shipbuilding was more important than fighting, since numerical and qualitative superiority generally proved to be decisive.

-this was particularly apparent during the first example of this lacustrine maritime conflict, when, in 1756, a French army commanded by Louis-joseph de Montcalm, marquis de Montcalm, crossed Lake Ontario to besiege and capture the British outpost of Oswego.

The absence of actual naval engagements during this campaign demonstrate in sharp relief the essential elements of logistics and construction, in a campaign that was won by the French in the shipyard and along their lines of communication before the Montcalm's army ever came in sight of the walls of oswego.

-the major engagements of the seven years war in the interior were fought in what I call the central theatre-- which extended from quebec to lake ontario, and comprised the seigneurial tract of Canada, its atlantic approaches, and the frontier zone between new france and new york.

-principal axes of advance lay along the river systems of the Hudson river-lake george-lake champlain-richelieu river and hudson river-oswego river-lake ontario-st lawrence river systems

-in the roadless wilderness, whichever side dominated these waterways held the initiative, since troops and sullies could be moved much more quickly and efficiently over the lakes and rivers than by land

-this meant that every campaign was amphibious

-success depended upon ability to control movement over waterways to transport troops, artillery, and supplies

-unlike at sea, always an alternative, you could walk, relative speed so different, that this was not really a practical alternative

-in the ohio valley, on the other hand, where the British had no alternative but to construct roads through the forests, British column took months to cross distances that their counterparts on the Lake ontario and lake champlain routes covered in days

-both powers erected forts at portages and river mouths

-forts, however, could be bypassed, and however strong their defences might be, gave their garrisons physical control only over the ground within range of their guns, and not an inch further during the siege of 1759, a british column simply marched past the fort to attack and defeat a french relief force from the west

-but in those areas where the rivers widened into lakes, ships could rove at will, and dominate hundreds of miles of communications routes

a ship can zip around and make a real nuisance of itself, a fort just sits there, fort frontenac and Oswego controlled important harbours, but could only be used as passive bases for operations Fort Niagara, at the foot of the niagara portage, occupied a strategic location, but could not actually control passage along the road to lake erie

-a single small warship, a floating battery that was frequently more heavily armed than many north american forts, could devastate convoys of bateaux and whaleboats that were used to carry men and supplies

-any power that could control one of the inland lakes could transport troops and artillery to besiege rival outposts, and prevent the enemy from attempting similar movements.

-and not only could an effective naval presence intercept an opposing attack, its mere existence could deter an offensive from being launched at all


-after the outbreak of the seven years' war, the control of lake ontario became a primary objective for both combatants,

-for the British, it would be useful, but not vital

-since british north america was not threatened with conquest, control over invasion routes was not absolutely necessary.

-lake ontario controlled french supply lines to the west, but french attacks in the west were aimed at marginal areas of the British colonies

-oswego was supplied by the Mohawk and Oswego rives, which were secure from interdiction by French naval forces

-so the British could maintain an effective presence in the region even when the french dominated the lake

-if control of lake ontario was merely a convenience for the British, it was of crucial importance to the french

-forts frontenac, niagara, and toronto, the french outposts on lake ontario, could only e supplied by way of the lake, which meant that the british needed only to blockade the outlet of lake ontario, or the individual posts, where were completely dependent upon the arrival of supplies from the central colony to starve them out

-the consequences of British control over Lake Ontario would not, however, end there, with the capture of 3 small forts

-for it was on Lake Ontario that a British advanced post lay astride French lines of communications to the west

-were this lifeline to be severed, the results would be catastrophic for New france

-the cutting of french links with the pays d'en haut would have made fort duquesne, the principal french outpost in the ohio valley, fall of its own accord,; along with the other western posts, choked off the western fur trade, gravely threatened the relationship of new france with its amerindian allies, and opened the way for an invasion of canada by way of the upper st lawrence.


-so in 1755, the British contemplated the capture of forts frontenac and niagara, while the french eyed oswego, and both sides prepared to take the offensive, and Lake Ontario became a combat zone in its own right. possession of a squadron was a prerequisite for success, and, at frontenac and niagara, improvised shipyards went into operation.

-The french occupation of the ohio valley had been made possible, in part, by their ability to transport men and supplies over lake Ontario to the west.

-at the beginning of the campaign of 1755, they were undisputed masters of the lake, and ran convoys of bateaux in plain sight of the garrison of Oswego with impunity.

-far from tempting to intercept the french, the British, who had no naval forces on the lake, were concerned by the possibility that the fort might be captured by a passing convoy.

-on 24 may, for example, when the garrison numbered only one hundred, thirty french bateaux, each carrying fifteen men bound for the ohio county passed in front of the fort.. they were followed two days later by 11 more, a force which, in the opinion of an english commentator, " with a single mortar might in a few hours have taken possession of the place"

-but this interval of uncontested french predominance proved fleeting

-as the war in north american intensified, and the british prepared to challenge the french for mastery of the lake

-on 28 may, reinforcements of British regulars arrived at Oswego, with orders to strengthen the fortifications and make preparations for an attack on fort niagara

-with them came the first contingent of shipwrights, who began to construct a british squadron

-a month later, 320 men were hard at work and the first british warship on lake ontario, the Ontario sloop, twelve metres long and mounting twelve swivels, had been launched.

in the course of the summer, she was joined by her sister ship, Oswego, and two small schooners, George and vigilant, all under the command of Captain houseman broadley, the senior births naval officer on lake Ontario.

although these vessels made several patrols about the lake in the course of the summer, they never encountered the French, and there were no naval engagements on lake ontario in 1755.

-across the lake at fort frontenac, the French were neither idle nor unaware of British intentions, and were mustering their own forces to attack oswego.

-in 1755, the French , who already had two small transports, Louise and Victor on the lake, decided to augment this force with two larger armed vessels, which were to both assist in the transport of men and supplies to the Ohio country, and "to serve to destroy those [ships] which the English have built at Oswego" note that the French and the British followed different shipbuilding strategies, the British built a large number of small, lightly armed ships, the French built a small number of larger, more heavily armed vessels.

-By the end of the summer, Hurault had been built, fitted out, and launched, and the construction of a second and larger schooner was under way.

-despite the rapid expansion of naval forces in the region and bellicose intentions of both combatants, the campaign of 1755 on the Lake Ontario frontier ended indecisively. the british abandoned their expedition to niagara, while the french shifted the troops earmarked for the siege of oswego to the Lake Champlain front to counter another british offensive.


-in the spring of 1756, the naval race resumed. the British laid aside their plans for an offensive, but resumed work on a squadron which they hoped would be strong enough to control lake ontario by the end of the year.

-the french, however, continued to plan an attack on oswego, spurred by the fear that the summer of 1756 would be their last opportunity to undertake the siege before the steadily increasing british naval strength made it impossible

-if, said the governor general of new france, pierre de rigaud de vaudreuil, the shipwrights of oswego were allowed to continue unmolested, their ships would soon be "so numerous and so strong that they will give the british superiority on lake ontario, which he believed to be their "principal goal, according to several intercepted letters"

-rather than passively awaiting the completion of the british squadron, Vaudreuil resolved to act first and seize the initiative.

-a number of metropolitan officer attached to his command were decidedly lacking in enthusiasm for the venture, as they believed that the British were already in a position to "oppose our landing, as they have a superior naval force on lake ontario"

-Vaudreuil, however, maintained that British naval superiority was a future threat rather than a present reality, and one which could be neutralized by the destruction of oswego

-were a french army to reach oswego, the capture of that fort and destruction of the shipyard was almost a certainty.

-Fort George, the old trading post that formed the core of oswego mounted only three guns, "which must not be fired for fear of bringing down the wall." worse, it was dominated by the heights to the east and west. two new forts were built to defend these hills, but Fort Ontario, on the east bank of the Oswego River, was badly designed and "defenceless against cannon,." while the other, Fort Oswego, on the hill that overlooked fort George from the west, was "by no means tenable" and considered to be "a work begun only, and what is done does rather more harm than good" and prior to the siege was used as a cattle pen.

-Vaudreuil confidently predicted that, in the event of an attack, the forts of Oswego would fall like a row of dominoes, one after the other. Many officers of the garrison shared this opinion

- with the fortifications incapable of resisting a serious attack, Oswego, in their opinion, "depended wholly for its defence upon a naval force upon the lake, sufficient to prevent the french from bringing artillery against the forts, which could only be done by water carriage.

-this opinion was echoed among the privates of the garrison, one of whom asserted that in 1756 "for our defences against large cannon, we entirely depended upon a superior naval force upon the lake"

-but a squadron of warships could not simply be wished into existence

-in order to built them it would be necessary to recreate european civilization in miniature in the heart of the north american wilderness, using personnel and equipment from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away.

-wood alone was available on the spot, and then only after it had been cut and handsawn into planks.

-everything else, canvass, rigging , cables, ironwork, etc, together with the small armies of specialists who built the ships, and the seamen and officers who would sail and fight them, had to come by small boat from montreal and albany

-of particular importance were the guns, since unarmed ships could not so much as leave the harbour, let alone advance french or british interests

-in 1755, logistics had seriously affected neither the French nor british shipbuilding, but within a year the availability or lack of material would come to dominate the naval race

-In the first year of the war, British supply lines along the mohawk and oswego rivers had been unmolested,

-in 1756,however, the french made every effort to interdict this route with small parties of Amerindians and much larger detachments of Amerindians, militiamen and regulars.

-as a result, while many small convoys arrived without incident, the British sent important stores only in heavily guarded convoys which ties naval construction to the rhythm of the transports

-after the arrival of a shipment of naval stores, shipbuilding raced ahead until the new material was consumed.

-then, the shipyard lay idle, until another convoy came down the oswego river

-in may of 1756, the first large flotilla of bateaux reached Oswego carrying provisions, and naval stores, and construction began on three new ships, london, halifax, and mohawk

-almost directly to the north of oswego, the french had also resumed naval construction, unhindered by the supply problems that plagued their british counterparts

-note that the french had been building ships on lake ontario since the 17th C, routine supply route, absence of correspondence

-men and material flowed steadily up the st lawrence to the shipyard at fort frontenac

-work proceeded smoothly, and early in the summer, La marquise de Vaudreuil was launched in time to take part in the only naval encounter of the campaign

-penned into their fort by roving bands of Canadians and Amerindians, the garrison of oswego was forced to rely upon maritime reconnaissance for intelligence...not a great hardship, since everything happened on or near the lake

-by late just, scouts in whaleboats had been involved in two skirmishes with french parties in canoes and bateaux

-the french schooners had not been involved in these encounters. although they had sighted the british squadron several times in the spring and early summer, as the french vessels were "occupied with transports to nIagara, [they] could not pursue the British"

-Nevertheless, on 27 June, 1756, the two small squadrons met in battle

-Ontario Oswego, and one of the small schooners were just west of modern prince edward county when they sighted Victor and Louise returning from their third cruise to fort Niagara

-both squadrons altered course, and advanced towards the other

-but as they drew nearer, the British lookouts noticed the two more french vessels, the heavily armed La Marquise de Vaudreuil and Hurault, bearing down on them

-after the newcomers had closed to within eight hundred metres, the British captains held a hasty council of war, at which "it was unanimously agreed that they were so much superior to us that it would be very imprudent to come into action with them"

-at the time of this encounter, the British ships were armed only with four 4s, 1 3, and 10 swivels each the british squadron then broke away and ran for Oswego, with the two french warships in hot pursuit

-but the french vessels, commanded by Réné Hippolyte Laforce, a Canadian merchant sea captain, never caught up with their counterparts

-since neither la marquise de vaudreuil nor Hurault was equipped with bow chasers, they lost time zig-zagging to fire their broadside guns

-the small schooner was left behind and captured, but the British sloops escaped 'by using their oars, after having thrown their dinghy and part of their baggage into the lake"

-a day later, the French vessels spotted the remaining british schooner off Sackett's harbour, and chased it back into Oswego.

-this was it as far as naval encounters were concerned

-the rival squadrons would not meet again until both were employed to transport prisoners and supplies from Oswego to Frontenac and Niagara

Continues on next page ...

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Copyright © 1988, 2001 D. Peter MacLeod

The bottom center image is a detail from David Rickman, Eastern Woodland Indians, middle of the eighteenth century, Department of National Defence.