From On Campus, 2010. This is a slightly expanded
version of the article that ran in print.
MARK E. RONDEAU
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Who, really, was Ephraim Williams Jr.?
A 1901 booklet by retired General William A. Pew, published by Williams College, presents Williams as a paragon of all
virtues, particularly martial ones, and an exemplar of greatness.
Williams was one of New England’s fine and sturdy sons. He was tall and well-proportioned, in many ways resembling Washington,
but handsomer and more at ease in society,” Pew writes. “An ideal officer, punctilious in dress and deportment,
solicitous in his care for officers and men.”
Such myth grows from nuggets
of truth but as usual the reality is, as we postmoderns know all too well, more complicated.
The essential biographical facts are simple enough, however.
Williams commanded Fort Massachusetts at a spot four miles east of the college that now bears his name.
He was instrumental in the eventual settlement of West Hoosac township, now Williamstown. He was killed near Lake George in
the first battle of the French and Indian War, but famously included in his second and definitive will that part of his estate
should “be appropriated towards the support and maintenance of a free school” in West Hoosac township if the town
adopted his name.
Steering clear of hagiography, a careful examination of
Williams’ life in the context of his times reveals several endearing traits, as well as human foibles.
A member of an elite colonial family in Western Massachusetts, Williams was widely
traveled and widely read, but unlike many of his kin, he did not attend college. He was a devout Protestant, but owned a book
favorably depicting the explorations of Catholic priests of the particularly despised Jesuit religious order. A good British
subject from Tory stock, Williams took along on his last military campaign “two works of radical Whiggism.”
Williams was a friend to Native Americans and, more than seeing them simply
as allies against the French, put a bequest for their spiritual welfare in his first will. A land speculator, he was constantly
on the move, frequently in Boston jockeying for influence and advantage for himself, his family or his military units. He
was also a man who bought and sold slaves, a practice legal in Massachusetts during his lifetime.
He knew disappointments, both military and personal, and was not above a petulant letter when denied
a military promotion he had been led to expect — or a sharp reference in the cover letter of his will toward the
young woman who rejected his marriage proposal and so would receive nothing.
A restless spirit
Ephraim Williams Jr. was born on Feb. 24 1715 in Newton,
His mother died in childbirth in 1718, shortly after the birth of her
second child, Thomas. The two boys were sent to grow up with their maternal grandparents. Ephraim Sr. in May, 1719, married
Abagail Jones. They had six children together.
Of the two boys, Ephraim apparently
wasn’t his grandfather’s favorite, for he gave much more money in his will to Thomas, who became a physician.
By all accounts, however, Ephraim had a warm relationship later on with his brother and his half-brothers and sisters.
Ephraim completed his basic education — probably in a village school
— and at age 18 traveled for three years in Europe. His half-sister Abagail wrote that he gained “universal acquaintance
with the world, having traviled 3 years abroad into all nations.”
1737, Ephraim Sr. moved with his second wife and their children to Stockbridge to be one of four white families settled at
the Indian mission there. The families were meant to serve as neighbors and exemplars to the Native Americans.
Ephraim Jr. moved to Stockbridge in 1742, at the age of 27. Otherwise, we know little
about his activities in these years. However, one gets the impression that the young Willliams — though indeed physically
sturdy and personally dependable — was a restless spirit, trying to find his place in the world. In addition to the
intellectual curiousity reflected in his library, supporting this view are his constant travels and the fact that he remained
Williams definitively embarked on a military career at age 30 in 1745
with a commission as captain and took over a line of forts along the northern border of Massachusetts, constructed due to
the outbreak of hostilities between England and France. He spent much of his time recruiting soldiers from among the settlers.
He supervised the completion of Fort Massachusetts and moved his headquarters
there in 1746. He was not at the fort on August 19, however, when 950 French and Indians attacked the 22-soldier garrison,
burning it to the ground. The surviving colonial soldiers and their families were marched off to Quebec.
None of Williams’ biographers conjecture about his reaction to this catastrophe, nor does any surviving
correspondence even mention it, but it must have weighed heavily on him. He carried on, however, and took command of the rebuilt
Fort Massachusetts in 1748.
A minister friend from Hatfield wrote him that summer:
“I can’t forget you at Fort Massachusetts but frequently paint you on my mind sometimes laughing and in a merry
humour, sometimes thinking and sollid.”
Less than two weeks after this
letter was sent, Williams demonstrated his courage in leading a rescue of a small detachment of his men caught in an ambush
by French and Indians outside the confines of the fort.
Fitch, the first president of Williams College, came to Williamstown in 1791, when several of the old soldiers from Fort Massachusetts
were still alive. Fitch writes of Williams in command at the fort: “He frequently entered into the pastimes of his soldiers,
upon an equal footing with them: and permitted every decent freedom; and again, when the diversions were over, he, with ease
and dignity, resumed the Captain.”
Williams’ concern for his soldiers
and sense of justice is evident in the letter to his cousin Israel Williams in July 1755 with which he enclosed his second
will, the one making provision for a school in West Hoosac. Ephraim requests that four soldiers who were owed wages be paid,
noting that he had the money from the treasury but could not find the men.
This letter and the second will were written in Albany, N.Y. Williams was now a colonel in an expedition under Gen. William
Johnson during the French and Indian War to capture the French outpost at Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and he and his men
were delayed there along the way. Perhaps Williams had a premonition of his death.
Six weeks later on September 8, now at camp on the southern shores of Lake George, the English got word of French troops
and their Indian allies in the vicinity, possibly threatening the English supply base at Fort Edward. Williams led a force
of about 1,000 soldiers and 200 Indians south from the encampment. In what came to be known as “The Bloody Morning Scout,”
the French forces ambushed the English and Williams took a musket ball through the head.
That his force was ambushed was considered a mark against Williams’ military judgement, the spur for Gen.
Pew’s booklet in the founder’s defense. A more balanced appraisal of Ephraim Williams Jr. comes from Wyllis E.
Wright in his “Colonel Ephraim Williams: A Documentary Life” (1970).
“He was not a great man and certainly not a great military commander. But he was a man one would have been glad
to know and to count among one’s friends” he writes. “Those who knew him liked him.”
However, the reason Williams is remembered today and others are not is that “he thought and felt
for the future.”
“It is noticeable in his will that most of his
family bequests were not to his cousins, but to his cousins’s children,” Wright notes. “He left ten times
more to his nephew as to his brother Thomas. And in particular he left his residuary estate “for the benefit of those
unborn,” and the benefit is with us still.”