Press-Republican

July 29, 2013

Historic marker placed at Pike's Cantonment

By JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — It was 200 years ago this week when British Col. John Murray and his troops raided Plattsburgh and burned an abandoned American encampment west of the village on the Saranac River.

At a ceremony on Saturday, the Town of Plattsburgh and the Battle of Plattsburgh Association remembered Murray’s Raid and the role it would play in the Sept. 11, 2014, battle on Cumberland Bay.

“This is so fantastic,” said Town of Plattsburgh Supervisor Bernard Bassett as he unveiled a new interpretive sign at the site on Route 22 that describes both Pike’s Cantonment and Murray’s Raid.

“This (recognition of Pike’s Cantonment) is another piece that adds to our local history and to the community,” he said. 

“There’s so much more we need to learn (about the cantonment) that was almost lost.”

EMPTY GROUND

Pike’s Cantonment was a military encampment that stretched from the wooded area east of Route 22 all the way down to the Saranac River. More than 2,000 soldiers spent the winter of 1812-13 at the site after a failed attempt to march on Montreal in November 1812.

Town of Plattsburgh Historian Jerry Bates described the events leading up to the formation of Pike’s Cantonment, including American attempts to end the War of 1812 quickly with attacks at Detroit and Niagara, followed by the activity on Lake Champlain.

“By the time they reached Plattsburgh (following skirmishes at Lacolle, Que.,) there was nothing prepared for their return (to their home posts),” he said. 

“All they had was this empty ground, a place to stay but nothing to camp with.”

DESERTED CAMP

The troops began to construct dozens of cabins during those early winter days, but more than 200 died from measles, typhoid and other illnesses caused by the horrid conditions.

Most of the surviving troops marched from Plattsburgh in the spring of 1813, leaving a deserted encampment behind. 

Battle of Plattsburgh Association President Keith Herkalo told of the ensuing events that led to Murray’s Raid and the burning of Pike’s Cantonment.

In his energetic and enthusiastic style, he reviewed the status of the war in 1813, describing changes in command and the placement of troops in Burlington rather than Plattsburgh, which was a major supply point for American forces.

AMERICAN SPY

“In June of 1813, a British vessel came down the lake unmolested, all the way to Cumberland Bay,” Herkalo said, noting how the vessel “peeked into Cumberland Bay” and returned to Canada with the news that Plattsburgh was unprotected.

The British were also aided by an American,  Joel Ackley, who was feeding information to the British commanders about the lack of a military presence in Plattsburgh.

On the morning of July 31, 1813, a British fleet with more than 900 soldiers and officers invaded Plattsburgh and advised the residents that they would not be harmed if they did not interfere with the British activities.

While in town, the British learned of the abandoned encampment west of the village and proceeded there. They used pine tar to set each and every cabin on fire, establishing the cantonment’s place in history.

TROOPS LOST

More than a year later, as British troops developed a strategy to surround American troops on land while the naval battle was heating up on Cumberland Bay, the British tried to find the ruins of Pike’s Cantonment as a prime location to cross the Saranac River.

However, the troops became lost and ended up crossing the river 7 miles upstream from Plattsburgh at Morrisonville, effectively removing them from the battle. 

That miscalculation was a significant factor in the eventual American victory during the Battle of Plattsburgh.

DESTINATION POINT

The new interpretive sign, which was funded by the Lake Champlain Basin Program and the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership, summarizes those two events.

“I like the positioning (of the sign),” Bassett said. “You can read the board, look over the hill and imagine what happened (at the cantonment).”

The recognition of Pike’s Cantonment is another key to establishing Plattsburgh as a “destination point” for people interested in history, the town supervisor noted.

He said he would like to one day see a small parking lot placed near the cantonment, so people will be able to stop and better understand the site.

An archaeological dig at the cantonment is currently in its second year, and Herkalo said he could envision the dig continuing for many years with an opportunity for the public to personally witness the activities on site.

Email Jeff Meyers: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com