Remembering Ephraim Williams

I’m halfway through teaching a Winter Study course entitled “CIA and the War on Terror,” and when I was asked to talk briefly to other classes, I chose to speak about the Kennedy assassination. Talking about John F. Kennedy’s (JFK) tragic death made me think of Ephraim Williams, killed in the “Bloody Morning Scout” of the French and Indian War in 1755.

I asked the class if any of them ever thought about Williams: who he was, where he was killed and how he came to found the College. Only dead silence and blank stares came in response.

I am a great admirer of Ephraim Williams, but am aware of how quickly we seem to move away from our past in these fast-paced times. People are amazed when I tell them that my grandfather, who died in 1950 at the age of 98, often spoke to me about seeing Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train pass through his home town in Ohio when he was 12 years old. I last talked to him in June 1950, between my junior and senior years at the College.

Well, according to the impressive plaque in Griffin Hall, Room 3, Ephraim Williams was born on February 24, 1714 (o. s.) in Newton, Mass. I like that date, because it means that next month with be Ephraim’s 300th birthday, and gives reason enough to think about him. I suppose with the name Gregg, I should favor the Gregorian calendar date, which is March 17, 1715, but somehow I prefer February.

Williams was well educated, a good dresser and a reader (he carried ten books with him on the campaign where he was killed). Never married, he made a will leaving funds to establish a school that should carry his name. Thus, West Hoosac became Williamstown when the school was first set up.

Under Britain’s colonial rule, Williams was active in training local militia, rose to the rank of colonel, and was much admired by his men. In September 1755, Williams found himself one of Sir William Johnson’s senior troop commanders in a campaign to drive French and Native American forces from forts along Lake Champlain at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Johnson, a long-time trader and landowner, was Britain’s chief official in dealing with the Iroquois Confederacy. Over several decades, Johnson had become very friendly with Hendrick, a noted Mohawk chief, who had visited London in 1710.

Hendrick was with Johnson at the foot of Lake George as they debated tactics to be used against a formidable French and Native American force commanded by Baron Dieskau. An impressive statue on the site of the Battle of Lake George shows Hendrick arguing with Johnson, who wanted to split his forces and send a detachment of about 1,000 men, under Ephraim Williams’ command, several miles south to reinforce newly constructed Fort Henry. “They are too many to be killed, but too few to fight,” said Hendrick. At this time well into his seventies and overruled by Johnson, Hendrick agreed to lead the Mohawk contingent of Williams’ force.

Williams and Hendrick rode straight into an ambush laid by Dieskau. A premature shot from one of Dieskau’s Native Americans allies gave away the ambush before all of the British and Mohawk force had entered the killing zone. Williams quickly had his horse shot from under him. Seeking to rally his troops he stepped up on a rocky outcropping, and was shot dead. Hendrick was killed later in the day. His femur was preserved by the Mohawks, and a later measurement indicated that Hendrick was six feet four inches tall.

Enough of the Williams’ and Hendrick’s forces were able to escape back north to warn Johnson of Dieskau’s attack. Dieskau himself was wounded, and only Johnson’s intervention kept him from being killed and scalped by Mohawks seeking to avenge Hendrick.

In 1756, a year after Williams’ death, a blockhouse built in West Hoosac near the site of the Williams Inn was attacked by Native Americans, who killed and scalped three of its defenders.

Ephraim Williams lived, fought and died in what was then the western frontier of our country, an area terrorized by the French and Native Americans. Williams’ will established a free school which became Williams College in 1793, indicating that he took great satisfaction from conveying benefits “to those as yet unborn.”

We all owe Ephraim Williams a great deal. Please give a thought to him on his upcoming birthday.

For those interested in reading about Ephraim Williams and the times he lived in, I recommend White Savage, a biography of William Johnson, written by Fintan O’Toole.

Donald Gregg ’51 lives in Armonk, NY.


Comments (2)

  1. I am glad that I read this. I never knew any of it when I attended Williams. The idea of western MA and the Lake George/Ticonderoga region being the Frontier is interesting; I’ve read about a NH hero, General John Stark, making several treks on foot to fight in the war and it’s interesting to learn more about that era. And I also liked your comment about your grandfather seeing the Lincoln funeral train; my mother has told me of seeing Civil War veterans in holiday parades in the 1930s; this is a very young country.

  2. Great synopsis, and like many, I never learned about the history behing Williamston, until I walked up to the war memorial near the Greyock Quad with my son (route 7/22). Besides the typical wars, I saw a list of local names associated with the French Indian War, way before the founding of this country. One then appreciates the long history behind Williamstown. I did read about Ephraim then.

    As another tidbit of history, I read somewhere that the Massachusetts border had not been set (I gather that GPS-Google had not been developed yet). Harvard objected to the founding of Williams College. This might explain the location of the college in a tri-state intersection, as means to placate Harvard’s concerns

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