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Knox’s Oxen at Ft. Ticonderoga (Addendum) (Myths of the Revolution)

In my previous two-part series (which began here), I described how it is a myth that Col. Henry Knox dragged by oxen his Noble Train of Artillery from Ft. Ticonderoga in upstate New York to the American siege lines outside Boston. It turns out, Knox primarily used horses, not oxen. This false information that was repeated in history books and featured in several paintings was the result of early historians analyzing only Knox’s letters and not his diary, for Knox had first written to both his wife and to Gen. George Washington that he was going to bring the artillery by ox-drawn sleighs. But after Knox wrote those two letters, he negotiated for the oxen, but the would-be contractor George Palmer tried to price-gouge Knox. So, Knox broke off the negotiations and used horses instead. Nevertheless, later historians and painters perpetuated Knox’s original plan of oxen as fact, leading to a common myth of the early American Revolution.

In my previous blog post’s analysis, I declared one famous painting (shown below) to be an example of a mythical depiction of the artillery expedition, given the ox-drawn sleighs featured. Yet, could I have been wrong about this painting? Perhaps…

Noble Train of Artillery

The Noble Train of Artillery by Tom Lovell — Reproduced with kind permission of the Dixon Ticonderoga Company. All Rights Reserved.

Look at that painting more closely, especially the top left. Notice the fort? (See a close up of it on the right, click it to enlarge.) 

Noble Train of Artillery (close up of Ft. Ticonderoga)

Close up of The Noble Train of Artillery by Tom Lovell, showing the fort.

This must be Ft. Ticonderoga, there in the background of the painting. While it could be argued that it was instead Ft. George, this is highly unlikely, as the painting itself was commissioned by the Dixon-Ticonderoga company, and so the fort depicted must be Ft. Ticonderoga. 

In the first post of this series, I wrote: “The first step of this arduous expedition was to transport the artillery by gondola (a small boat) a short distance on Lake Champlain, where they were then dragged by cattle over land and over a bridge to nearby Lake George.” Or, explicitly from Col. Knox’s diary:

[Dec] 6th [1775]. Employ’d in getting the Cannon from the fort [Ticonderoga] on board a Gundaloe [long boat or gondola] in order to get them to the bridge.
[Dec] 7th [1775]. Employ’d in getting the Cannon from the bridge to the landing at Lake George.

Elsewhere in Knox’s diary, there is a receipt:

Fort George Dec. 16. 1775
Recd of Henry Knox twenty six dollars which Capt John Johnson paid to different Carters for the use of their Cattle, in dragging Cannon from The Fort of Ticonderoga to the North Landing of Lake George
Wm Brown Junr Lieut

So we know Knox had some “cattle”, which could have meant “oxen”, at the start of the expedition at Ft. Ticonderoga, just as the picture above depicts. Comparing to Knox’s diary excerpts above, the cattle/oxen were probably used on Dec 7, 1775 (maybe Dec 6 too), to drag the guns from the landing (somewhere on Lake Champlain) to and over some bridge to Lake George. 

By the way, there is a stream that connects Lake George to Lake Champlain, but it was probably frozen in early Dec 1775. Regardless, it was (and still is) a thin stream, difficult to pass even if its ice was strong enough to bare the weight of the cannon. Hence the need to take a land route, over some bridge.

Where exactly the Lake Champlain landing was, and likewise where that bridge was, is unknown. There are few good maps of that area in 1775, as it was mostly wilderness. Below, I give two proposed routes by which the Noble Train of Artillery began its journey on Dec 6–7, 1775, but these are just educated guesses (the yellow line is my best guess).

Ft. Ticonderoga Expedition: Routes for Day 1 and Day 2

Ft. Ticonderoga Expedition: Probable and Possible Routes for Day 1 and Day 2 (click to enlarge)

Bottom line: that Knox conducted his Noble Train of Artillery by oxen remains a myth–he used horses (augmented by a few oxen here and there, again see the last blog posts). But “cattle” were indeed used on the first day or two of the expedition, and these “cattle” may have in fact been oxen, making the painting by Tom Lovell as depicted above to be entirely plausible. 

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About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.

2 Responses to Knox’s Oxen at Ft. Ticonderoga (Addendum) (Myths of the Revolution)

  1. Mike says:

    I’m from Ticonderoga and when you mention the stream that connects Lake George to Lake Champlain, no boat would ever be able to go up a waterfall. The La Chute river has two waterfalls. A little one, close to the beginning, by Lake George. Then there is a larger waterfall halfway in the “stream” that now produces power for the town. Also, the routes depicted might not me that way. There were many fields that they could have traveled through (with them being covered with snow) to make a more direct route to Lake George. I’m no historian, like my father, but I do know a little bit about the geography of Ticonderoga.

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