La Luzerne portrait courtesy of Independence National Historic Park
A few months ago I came across a 1788 handwritten letter by a French nobleman, the Chevalier de La Luzerne, that was being auctioned in a gallery in Boston. I was astounded, to say the least.
After many years of looking for items related to the history of the town of Lake Luzerne, this was the first time I came across something by Luzerne himself—the man who is our town’s namesake.
I purchased the letter to donate to the Hadley/Lake Luzerne Historical Society. I really believed that was the end of it until I discovered a painting of Luzerne by the renowned artist Charles Wilson Peale at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I found that I could acquire a very good digital reproduction of the painting and have it printed on canvas. And this led to what I now call the What’s in a Name Project.
Between these two events, it dawned on me that I had never thought about the name of the town in which I had summered for almost three decades. It’s a place where my daughter and now granddaughter enjoy the beauty of the Adirondacks, where our historical cottage has been the focus of summer adventures and winter dreams.
But who was La Luzerne? Why was the town named after him in 1808? If I, a historian, didn’t know how to answer this question, how would anyone else? And so began my research.
Anne César de La Luzerne, born in 1732, served as the French Minister to America during the critical years of the American Revolution, 1779–1784. Luzerne spent his early career in the military. In 1776 he entered diplomatic service and was named the Ambassador to Bavaria. After this service, he was appointed to America during its most turbulent years, helping the young country financially and strategically throughout the Revolutionary War. He then returned to Paris and was soon awarded the prestigious post of Ambassador to Great Britain, where he served from 1788 until his death in 1791.
Luzerne’s diplomatic achievements guided the critical role the French played during the American Revolution. Without French support, the United States could not have won its independence from England. The Continental Army’s victory at the turning-point Battle of Saratoga encouraged France in 1778 to sign a formal Treaty of Friendship and Commerce. It recognized American independence and promised military and financial assistance. In 1781, a French fleet defeated the British in the Battle of the Chesapeake, and French troops were instrumental in helping George Washington win the related last major battle of the war at Yorktown.
Luzerne’s close personal relationships with the leading patriots and almost every member of the Continental Congress enabled him to influence American policy and strengthen the alliance. He used his personal talents—along with the authority of Louis XVI and the French foreign minister, Vergennes—to prevent America from reconciling with Britain. Luzerne pushed hard to unite the newly formed states and win congressional support for the army. He helped persuade America to forego a second invasion of Canada and actively promoted a “Southern strategy” that led to the final victory at Yorktown.
Recognizing Luzerne’s importance, George Washington wrote to him in March 1783: “The part your excellency has acted in the cause and the great and benevolent share you have taken in the establishment of her independence, are deeply impressed on my mind, and will not be effaced from my remembrance, or that of the citizens of America.”
The hamlet of Lake Luzerne is on the eastern shore of the Hudson River just above the confluence of the Hudson and Sacandaga Rivers. The bridge between Hadley and Lake Luzerne spans the narrowest section of the Hudson—a few hundred feet south of Rockwell Falls. Native Americans traveled through this area for centuries on a trail connecting the Mohawk and Champlain Valleys. Although there were place-names for the falls and the spot where the rivers converged, there was no permanent settlement and no name for what became the present-day hamlet.
After the French and Indian War, when the Crown issued patents to colonists who had supported the victorious British effort, residents began to arrive, mostly New Englanders. The largest land patents were awarded to Ebenezer and Edward Jessup in 1767.
This entire area became Westfield, the western-most portion of the large town of Queensbury. In 1792, it separated from Queensbury and, on April 10, was incorporated and officially named Fairfield.
Lester Thomas speculated in his 1979 history of the town, Timber, Tannery and Tourists, that this name may have come from the Jessups, who were from Fairfield, Connecticut. Yet by then, the Loyalist Jessups had already been forced to emigrate to Canada and had their lands confiscated and sold under New York’s forfeiture and seizure laws. Perhaps the name of Fairfield—rather than Westfield—was used by the Jessups prior to their removal.
Even more curious is the renaming of the town to Luzerne on April 6, 1808. A county in Pennsylvania was also named after Luzerne in 1786. This is more understandable, since the Chevalier de La Luzerne had lived in Pennsylvania for four years and knew many of the members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. But there doesn’t seem to be any connection with Fairfield’s leaders. One writer has speculated that the name change was mandated by the US Post Office, which was confusing Fairfield in Washington County (now Warren County) with Fairfield in Herkimer County. There must have been someone or a group that recognized the value of Luzerne’s contribution to our country’s independence and decided to honor him in the most obvious way.
The New York State Legislature authorized the change in response to a petition, either from the town or the county. Sadly, a fire in Albany later destroyed the pertinent records of the action. The Luzerne name lasted for over a century and a half. Then the name was further modified to Lake Luzerne in 1963 to enhance the town’s image and appeal as a tourist destination.
Over the last decade, attention has been paid to the appropriateness of place-names—and, more specifically, which historical figures’ names should be removed from schools, buildings, roads and more. I live in Fairfax County’s Lee District, not too far from Robert E. Lee High School and a stone’s throw from Jefferson Davis Highway. These names have been changed.
I believe names matter. Changing a place-name is not an attempt to erase history; rather, it is recognition that we should honor those historical figures that embody the positive values we now believe are important to preserve. But removing names of so-called heroes whom we no longer respect and wish to honor is only half the effort. We should also reaffirm those historical figures who believed in and fought for the values we now cherish.
Lake Luzerne is named after such a person. The Chevalier de La Luzerne, along with his compatriots Lafayette, Rochambeau, De Grasse and others, was part of the indispensable French effort that made American independence possible. With the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution only a few years away, the town’s namesake is a direct connection to our nation’s founding. We should take pride in the name and do more to help residents and visitors understand and appreciate it as part of our heritage.
This is the rationale for the What’s in a Name Project being undertaken by the Hadley/Lake Luzerne Historical Society. Last summer, Dr. David K. Allison, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and co-editor of The American Revolution: A World War, joined me in a program to recognize the enduring importance of Luzerne. In addition to formally presenting the 1788 handwritten Luzerne letter to the historical society, a framed reproduction of the Peale portrait of Luzerne was unveiled to be displayed at the Town Hall. Dr. Allison and I also hosted a meeting of town historians from Warren and Saratoga Counties to explore the ways our region was involved in the American Revolution and how those events and experiences relate to our towns’ current identities.
The historical society has produced a brochure written by Dr. Allison and me, outlining Luzerne’s role in American history and a timeline of our town’s name. It is also developing Luzerne-related programs and activities as part of its 50th anniversary celebration and the town’s observance of the upcoming United States Semiquincentennial.
Dr. Richard Dressner is a former deputy director of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, professor of American History, and vice president at three State University of New York campuses.