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The Last Adirondack Mammoth

... F & I War Fiction

The following article, originally published in the Dec.-Jan.-Feb. 1984/85 issue of the now defunct Barkeater magazine, is historical FICTION! There is no such journal! It is Tim Cordell's attempt at bringing to the public forefront, the obscure Battle on Snowshoes!

Exceptional new documentary on this saga!

Narrator's Note. In October 1975, I found the remains of a tin box buried behind our cottage, just south of the Village of Lake George. Inside the box were papers which had been wrapped in oil-soaked leather. Even though the oilskin and papers were partially decomposed, much of the writing was legible and I was able to fill in most of the gaps in the narration through patience and common sense. At first, I thought the papers were a diary or journal, but I now believe that they comprise a report by Ranger Lt. William Phillips to Captain (later Major) Robert Rogers of Rogers' Rangers. It is dated April 1758. Because of what I assume are missing sections and aware of the strangeness of 18th century style to the modern reader, I have "translated" the notes into the modern idiom, in the form of a narrative.

March 13, 1758,  Saturday

Lt. Phillips was surrounded. He had been surrounded before in skirmishes with Rogers' Rangers, but never like this. He knew that he and his 18-man flanking party could not withstand the 300 Indians and coureur de bois pressing in from all sides.

After assurances of "good quarters," Lt. Phillips surrendered. Nevertheless, he and his party were taken and fastened to trees by the Indians, for the purpose of being shot or hewn to pieces. Phillips got one hand free, took out a pocket knife, which he opened with his teeth, cut the rope that bound him, and escaped.

Never before had Phillips known such terror. The four-foot snow cover made rapid flight impossible. The weather was cold, but the sweat from enormous exertion and fear coursed into Phillips' eyes until he lurched, half blinded, into low branches that ripped and pulled at his face, arms, and torso. Phillips fell, and when he tried to get up, couldn't. He had no breath left. He lay in a small depression made by a downed white pine, and he was not alone. Lying under the windfall was a dead Ranger, with all of his accoutrements intact, including his musket. Phillips recognized the man, a private in McDonald's advance guard. Since he had crawled under and died in a hidden spot, the enemy had passed him by.

As soon as he began to breathe steadily, Phillips put on the dead man's snowshoes and gathered up his cartridge bag, powder horn, and musket. He had just finished strapping on the blanket and back pack when the snow at his feet erupted from the slap of a musket ball. After surviving the disastrous "Battle on Snowshoes," Lt. Phillips' personal battle for survival was only now beginning.

There were three pursuers, two Indians and a French coureur de bois. "Three hounds from hell" Phillips thought, as he wheeled and began to pick up momentum on the awkward snow-shoes. The Indians stopped to collect the dead Ranger's topknot, but the French partisan ignored the prize and began pursuit in earnest. Even on snowshoes the deep snow proved to be a major impediment, but Phillips took heart in the thought that it was just as deep and onerous for his pursuers.

Gaining his second wind, Phillips began to hit his stride, moving towards the setting sun, moving west into the heart of the great Adirondack wilderness. All night Phillips headed west, guided by Sirius, the Dog Star, which he glimpsed through the tops of the enormous white pines. By daybreak, he was in that part of the Adirondacks never before seen by a white man. An hour after daylight Phillips had to stop for rest and food. There was some parched corn in the back pack, and he ate a handful, washing it down with two handfuls of snow.

Without conscious thought, Phillips had been formulating a plan. He now began to focus his thoughts on the plan. To head west had been the only course open to him. North was enemy country and to head south would mean risking capture from enemy scouting parties. His only choice was to travel west by southwest, try to pick up the North (Hudson) River, and follow it to Fort Edward.

While reviewing this route in his mind, he began to feel uneasy. Sitting rock still for five minutes, Phillips became convinced that he was still being followed. He knew it was time to make a stand or, rather, an ambush. Picking a likely spot, a grey outcropping of rock twenty feet high, Phillips made tracks leading around the opposite side of the rocks. He removed his snowshoes and climbed up into a crevice in the rocks from which he could look back on his eastern trail. Preparing for the ambush was done by rote, the Ranger way: check priming of the loaded musket, have a cartridge out and between his teeth for the second shot, and the bayonet unsheathed and on a small ledge next to him. Phillips sat, wedged between the rocks, for an hour.

They came softly, warily, the first Indian, the Frenchman, then the final Indian, covering their rear. Luckily, they were not spread out side to side, but moving in single file with about 20 yards separating them. They moved a few yards to the right of the very obvious snowshoe trail made by Phillips. Their party would pass broadside to the grey rocks, about 25 yards out.

Letting the first Indian go by, Phillips shot the Frenchman point blank, in the side of the head. He then immediately crouched down, tore off the top of the cartridge with his teeth, primed the musket, and loaded by dumping in the powder and dropping the ball down the barrel. There was no time and no room to ram down the charge. Still crouching, Phillips tilted the musket and gratefully heard the ball roll down the barrel and seat itself. Boom. The lead Indian fired at the movement of the musket and the ball chipped a section of the granite above and behind Phillips' head.

Thinking that Phillips' musket was unloaded, the other Indian ran up the rock glacis from the right, hoping to get a shot at Phillips through a small, forward-facing crevice. Phillips was startled by the sudden appearance of the painted enemy before him. Instinctively he pointed his musket and fired, driving the Indian back and out to land flat on his back in the snow. Phillips fixed his bayonet and bolted out of his cul de sac, bearing to his right to put distance between himself and the remaining Indian, who must surely be reloaded by now.

Phillips scuttled behind a large pine and waited, unmoving. The silence was total: no wind, no birds, only the ringing in his ears. There was no visible movement. Phillips began to imagine that the Indian had somehow gotten behind him. The short hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he began to feel shivers of fear move across his belly. But it was impossible! He dare not move, to turn his head to verify that it was only his imagination. Irrational panic was taking over. Phillips pictured the Indian coming up on him from behind and he knew that if he turned and looked, his enemy would be there. The instant Phillips jerked his head around to see his phantom pursuer, a musket ball tore through the bottom of his back pack horizontally, right to left. He instantly twisted to his left, around the trunk of the pine. From the haze of the blue smoke, he could see that the shot came from a thicket to his right. The Indian had made a half circle, but was never even close to getting behind him. Phillips cursed himself and vowed to trust his senses and not the demons of his own fear. It was now an impasse. The Indian knew where Phillips was and Phillips had a pretty good idea where the Indian was. The Indian did not know that Phillips' musket was empty.

Phillips waited all day, not moving from midmorning until almost sundown. For a Ranger, not moving for six hours was no great feat, but now sundown was near, and he did not want to attempt spending the night with his enemy only 60 yards away and his phobic imagination ready to take over in the dark. It was now time to settle the issue, and Phillips decided to rush his enemy with the bayonet. Without snowshoes, he knew that the "charge" would be nothing of the kind, but he would rather not live if it meant spending the long dark night in fear. Impulsively, Phillips jumped out from behind the tree. Halfway to his objective, he bogged down in the deep snow, waiting for the bullet that had to come. In a fury, he leaped and lunged through the snow, his musket held high and tilted sideways to deliver the bayonet horizontal to the rib cage.

When Phillips reached the spot where the Indian should be, he was in a killing frenzy. There was no Indian. It took him a few seconds to register this bizarre development. The savage had cleared out, and Phillips cautiously tracked him for a half mile towards the east. It seemed that his enemy had been having second thoughts about spending the night in a state of impasse. As Phillips backtracked to his snowshoes, he noticed two things: his pack was empty of corn, and a low overcast was covering the sky. The two enemy dead yielded only some pemmican and enough black powder to fill his horn.

Phillips started off on what he calculated was a west by southwesterly course, unsure since he could not fix nor could he navigate by sun or stars for the next three days and nights, since the storm, bringing a mixture of snow and freezing rain, lingered, and refused to clear. The second night, Phillips became disoriented and walked in circles all night. He had wasted a day, possibly two, and he was hungry. During all of his escape march, Phillips had seen no game nor even sign of game. Even snowshoe hares were mysteriously absent this winter. It seemed as if all the world were dead in this awful, trackless wilderness.

On the fifth night, Phillips heard an animal sound far off in the blackness of the mountains, and he was not fearful because the animal, no matter what it was, represented food. On the sixth morning, Phillips moved off under another grey, overcast sky. Within the hour he crossed a small frozen river. He knew that this could not be the Hudson because it was only 30 yards wide. Phillips was becoming discouraged. He knew he must strike the Hudson and use it as a guide to Fort Edward. He doggedly marched on that day in a gloomy and very hungry state. By mid-afternoon, he was still on the move when he heard a strange noise on the opposite side of a small hill which he was about to climb. The sound was a loud swoosh, swoosh intermixed with that of splintering wood. Phillips crabbed sideways up the hill. He was careful to be as quiet as possible, and he hunkered down as he reached the top of the hill. The noise had not ceased while he made his ascent, and he cautiously peered over the hill into the west wind.

The mammoth in the valley below did not really frighten William Phillips, but it made him uneasy. Being half Indian, he had heard the ancient legends concerning "mountains that moved," huge strange animals that lived in the great northern forests. After staring at the mammoth fully for five minutes, Phillips realized that the great shaggy beast was an elephant. He had never seen an elephant nor even a picture of one, but a British soldier at Fort Edward who had seen duty in India had described an elephant and Phillips believed he was seeing one now. The cause of the great swooshing noise was now apparent. In order to get at its diet of grasses and shrubs, the mammoth used its great curved tusks to plow the snow cover away, swinging its head from side to side.

The animal that Phillips was observing was a female and one of the last of her kind in North America. She had been one of a small herd that had managed to survive and breed in the central Adirondacks because the climate and food supply approximated the post-glacial habitat the animals required. The Wooly Mammoth was an over-specialized animal that had become extinct throughout the temperate and sub- arctic world because the climate had warmed over the preceding 10,000 years. The most favorable factor for the continuance of this small herd, however, was the absence of the predator "man" in the Adirondacks. Although some Indian tribes claimed the land, very few hunted or traveled through that absolute wilderness of the high peaks and central regions. Of course, Phillips didn't know any of this, but he knew that, even though he was starving, he would not hunt the mammoth. He figured the animal was 40 hands (13 feet) at the shoulder and that his .75 calibre musket would not be a powerful enough gun for a kill. He had already decided to give the mammoth a wide berth, when he detected a movement on the edge of the woods, to the right of the feeding animal. What appeared to he a large boulder floundered out and began to run to the big female. It was, Phillips realized, a calf. It approached its mother, swinging its trunk back over its head, and began to nurse. No sound had been made by either animal during the entire short scenario that Phillips had witnessed. The female continued browsing and slowly moving along while her calf nursed. As far as Phillips could determine, there were no other mammoths in the vicinity; he was correct in his belief, for the male who had sired the calf had died 17 months before and there were no other males on the continent outside of Alaska, where four small herds lingered on.

Phillips surprised himself by a snap decision to take the calf. The problem would be to deter- mine how to eliminate the big female. His empty stomach encouraged some fast scheming. It was some time before Phillips decided on a course of action; then he withdrew, quietly, to some thick woods a quarter of a mile away. That night, he was startled by the sounds of ice breaking up and moving. It must be a large river - the Hudson! Although he had not yet seen it, he knew it must be close to the valley of the mammoths.

The next morning, Phillips began implementing his hunting plans. After collecting a half dozen small round stones from a nearby stream, he carefully withdrew the charge from his musket. Because of the size of the small mammoth he reloaded with a triple charge (7 drams) of powder from his horn. Over this, he placed a light wad of linen cut from his shirt. Next a .72 calibre ball was rammed home, topped by the six smooth, nickel-sized stones and another wad of linen. "That should do it," he thought, just as another stomach cramp reminded him of his prospective day's work. The first part of the hunt was spent reconnoitering the area surrounding the clearing where the animals grazed. Skirting the hills to the southwest, Phillips was overjoyed to find himself on a high ledge overlooking what must be the ice- choked Hudson.

Since he knew he must be many miles from Fort Edward, Phillips decided to proceed with the hunt, then use the river as his guide to the fort. The palisade on which he stood gave him a new idea. The first problem of the hunt was to separate the female from her calf. This proved to be a minor consideration, since the calf generally kept to the edges of the clearing, while the big animal plowed even farther in its continuous search for food beneath the snow. Phillips watched and waited from the same hill from which he had first sighted the mammoths the day before. The big mammoth was intent on snowplowing as Phillips slid down the hill to the bottom of the clearing. Slowly, he moved to his right, towards the calf. Phillips knew the success of his plan would depend on timing and luck. The calf had never seen nor smelled a human before, and its kind had no reason to fear any other animal, but it watched warily as the snow-shoed hunter approached. Phillips wanted to get as close as possible to the calf before firing while simultaneously maintaining his avenue of escape.

As Phillips closed to within 50 yards, the calf raised its trunk and bellowed once to its mother. At the same instant, Phillips raised his musket and fired. The calf dropped as if tripped and died instantly in the snow. Phillips wheeled and ran, splay-footed, as fast as he could in the cleared snow, moving towards the Hudson. The female mammoth had looked up when the calf bellowed, lifting her trunk to catch the scents on the wind. The loud report of the musket be- wildered her. She saw the man turn and run from her calf; she began to move towards the intruder as she had chased wolves away in the past. Moving by the calf she smelled blood. Her rage centered on the figure struggling to escape on his awkward snowshoes. All members of the elephant family move at a walk, whether fast or slow; they are incapable of a gallop. But a mammoth can eat up yardage even at a fast walk, and it was gaining on Phillips. As it got nearer, the mammoth coiled its trunk in order to present its tusks unimpeded, and Phillips began to hear it pounding close behind him.

Once again, William Phillips was in a desperate run for his life, but this time nothing could stop the enormous animal that was now only a few yards behind him. The land started to rise slightly as the man and the mammoth neared the tall pines at the edge of the clearing. Phillips knew that the crest palisade was only a few yards from the entrance to the pines, and he lunged forward in a last desperate effort to realize his plan. The mammoth lowered its head to avoid the dead branches as she and the man entered the pines. Even in the relative darkness of the woods, Phillips could see the lighter edge of the cliffs 20 yards further. The smell of the alien animal just behind him caused Philips to fling himself sideways at the last possible moment. As he painfully tore through small pines and branches, he could hear the mammoth desperately trying to stop and turn on him. Unable to control its forward momentum, the mammoth made a titanic effort to slow its massive skidding bulk. It seemed an eternity between the time the mammoth went over the cliff and the moment when Phillips heard the loud crash of the animal breaking through the jagged ice of the Hudson. The mammoth had uttered no sound in its fall and Phillips worried that it had failed to travel over the palisade as he had planned. But the impact of the animal on the ice had echoed through the river valley, and Phillips passed out momentarily as he lay beneath a tall white pine. The mammoth carcass was half-submerged and already a quarter mile downstream. Eventually, it would decay, break up, and perhaps reach the Atlantic in its southern journey.

Before dark, Phillips managed to build a fire, waiting patiently as the strips of meat he had cut from the small mammoth cooked. He knew from experience that he must show great will- power by only eating small portions of the meat, since his shrunken stomach would reject any large amount of food. After eating, he slept soundly, and the next day began his journey down the Hudson with an ample supply of meat. The greater part of the small mammoth's carcass was left to the wolves who would inevitably find it and scatter the bones.

... The report ends here, but an entry in the records of Fort Edward by Lt. Stark states that "Saturday, May 15, 1758, Lt. Phillips arrived at the Fort, haggard but looking well fed."

Post Script

After the French and Indian War, Phillips, familiarly known as "Bill Phillips" lived for a time in Rumford, New Hampshire, where he married Miss Eleanor Eastman, by whom he had a son. About 1784, his wife joined the Shakers at Centerbury, but Phillips said he "could not dance, and would not join." He, afterwards, lived a moving, unsettled life of fishing, hunting, and stealing. Sometimes he worked as a blacksmith. Other times at day's labor. He lived a while with his wife's brother Stitson Eastman, but at length became a pauper, and according to the usage of the time was "bid-off" to be supported at the town charge. After moving from household to household, he gained residence in Northfield, where he died about the year 1819, aged, as was supposed, about a hundred years.

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