9.6.08

Madeleine de Verchères

I have been doing some articles on the people who founded Canada. Today I enter the story of another heroine Madeleine de Verchères. Like Jehanne courage was required at a young age.

Founding a colony is hard, thankless work; founding a colony amongst a hostile indigenous population is doubly hard. Sometimes it takes a cool head and a bit of courage in order to stave off tragedy. The affair of Madeleine de Verchères is just one such episode. France did not send it's weakest to New France, she sent her best and bravest to establish the colony.

Below is a narrative written in 1716 for the Governor of New France, the Marquis de Beauharnois by Madeleine, in her own words.

October 22-30, 1692

I was five arpents away from the fort of Verchères, belonging to Sieur De Verchères, my father, who was then at Kebek by order of M. Le Chevalier De Callières, governor of Montreal, my mother being also in Montreal. I heard several shots without knowing at whom they were fired I soon saw that the Iroquois were firing at our settlers, who lived about a league and a-half from the fort. One of our servants called out to me:

"Fly, mademoiselle, fly! the Iroquois are upon us!"

I turned instantly and saw some forty-five Iroquois running towards me, and already within pistol shot. Determined to die rather than fall into their hands, I sought safety in flight. I ran towards the fort, commending myself to the Blessed Virgin, and saying to her from the bottom of my heart: "Holy Virgin, mother of my God, you know I have ever honoured and loved you as my dear mother; abandon me not in this hour of danger! I would rather a thousand times perish than fall into the hands of a race that know you not."

Meantime my pursuers, seeing that they were too far off to take me alive before I could enter the fort, and knowing they were near enough to shoot me, stood still in order to discharge their guns at me. I was under fire for quite a time, at any rate I found the time long enough! Forty-five bullets whistling past my ears made the time seem long and the distance from the fort interminable, though I was so near. When within hearing of the fort, I cried out: "To arms! To arms!"

I hoped that someone would come to help me, but it was a vain hope. There were but two soldiers in the fort and these were so overcome by fear that they had sought safety by concealing themselves in the redoubt. Having reached the gates at last, I found there two women lamenting for the loss of their husbands, who had just been killed. I made them enter the fort, and closed the gates myself. I then began to consider how I might save myself and the little party with me, from the hands of the savages. I examined the fort, and found that several of the stakes had fallen, leaving gaps through which it would be easy for the enemy to eater. I gave orders to have the stakes replaced, and heedless of my sex and tender age, I hesitated not to seize one end of the heavy stake and urge my companions to give a hand in raising it. I found by experience that, when God gives us strength, nothing is impossible.

The breaches having been repaired, I betook myself to the redoubt, which served as a guard-house and armoury. I there found two soldiers, one of them lying down and the other holding a burning fuse. I said to the latter:

"What are you going to do with that fuse?"

"I want to set fire to the powder," said he, "and blow up the fort."

"You are a miserable wretch," I said, adding: "Begone, I command you!"

I spoke so firmly that he obeyed forthwith. Thereupon putting aside my hood and donning a soldier's casque, I seized a musket and said to my little brothers:

"Let us fight to the death for our country and for our holy religion. Remember what our father has so often told you, that gentlemen are born but to shed their blood for the service of God and the king!"

Stirred up by my words, my brothers and the two soldiers kept up a steady fire on the foe. I caused the cannon to be fired, not only to strike terror into the Iroquois and show them that we were well able to defend ourselves, since we had a cannon, but also to warn our own soldiers, who were away hunting, to take refuge in some other fort. But alas! what sufferings have to be endured in these awful extremities of distress! Despite the thunder of our guns, I heard unceasingly the cries and lamentations of some unfortunates who had just lost a husband, a brother, a child or a parent. I deemed it prudent, while the firing was still kept up, to represent to the grief- stricken women that their shrieks exposed us to danger, for they could not fail to be heard by the enemy, notwithstanding the noise of the guns and the cannon. I ordered them to be silent and thus avoid giving the impression that we were helpless and hopeless.

While I was speaking thus, I caught sight of a canoe on the river, opposite the fort. It was Sieur Pierre Fontaine with his family, who were about to land at the spot where I had just barely escaped from the Iroquois, the latter being still visible on every hand. The family must fall into the hands of the savages if not promptly succoured.

I asked the two soldiers to go to the landing place, only five arpents away, and protect the family. But seeing by their silence, that they had but little heart for the work, I ordered our servant, Laviolette, to stand sentry at the gate of the fort and keep it open, while I would myself go to the bank of the river, carrying a musket in my hand and wearing my soldier's casque. I left orders on setting out, that if I was killed, they were to shut the gates and continue to defend the fort sturdily. I set out with the heaven-sent thought that the enemy, who were looking on, would imagine that it was a ruse on my part to induce them to approach the fort, in order that our people might make a sortie upon them.

This is precisely what happened, and thus was I enabled to save poor Pierre Fontaine, with his wife and children. When all were landed, I made them march before me as far as the fort, within sight of the enemy. By putting a bold face upon it, I made the Iroquois think there was more danger for them than for us.

They did not know that the whole garrison, and only inhabitants of the fort of Verchères, were my two brothers aged 12 years, our servant, two soldiers, an old man of eighty, and some women and children.

Strengthened by the new recruits from Pierre Fontaine's canoe, I gave orders to continue firing at the enemy. Meantime the sun went down and a fierce northeaster accompanied by snow and hail, ushered in a night of awful severity. The enemy kept us closely invested and instead of being deterred by the dreadful weather, led me to judge by their movements that they purposed assaulting the fort under cover of the darkness.

I gathered all my troops - six persons - together, and spoke to them thus: "God has saved us to-day from the hands of our enemies, but we must be careful not to be caught in their snares to-night. For my part, I want to show you that I am not afraid. I undertake the fort for my share, with an old man of eighty, and a soldier who has never fired a gun. And you, Pierre Fontaine, with La Bonté and Galhet (our two soldiers), will go to the redoubt, with the women and children, as it is the strongest place. If I am taken, never surrender, even though I should be burnt and cut to pieces before your eyes. You have nothing to fear in the redoubt, if you only make some show of fighting."

Thereupon, I posted my two young brothers on two of the bastions, the youth of 80 on a third bastion and myself took charge of the fourth. Each one acted his part to the life. Despite the whistling of the northeast wind, which is a fearful wind in Canada, at this season, and in spite of the snow and hail, the cry of "All's well," was heard at close intervals, echoing and re-echoing from the fort to the redoubt and from the redoubt to the fort.

One would have fancied, to hear us, that the fort was crowded with warriors. And in truth the Iroquois, with all their astuteness and skill in warfare were completely deceived, as they afterwards avowed to M. De Callières, They told him they had held a council with a view to assaulting the fort during the night, but that the increased vigilance of the guard had prevented them from accomplishing their design, especially in view of their losses of the previous day (under the fire maintained by myself and my two brothers).

About an hour after midnight, the sentinel at the gate bastion, cried out:

"Mademoiselle! I hear something!"

I walked towards him, in order to see what it was, and through the darkness, aided by the reflection from the snow, I saw a group of horned cattle, the remnant escaped from the hands of our enemies.

"Let me open the gates for them," said the sentry.

"God forbid," I answered, "you do not know all the cunning of the savages; they are probably marching behind the cattle, covered with the hides of animals, so as to get into the fort, if we are simple enough to open the gates."

I saw danger everywhere, in face of an enemy so keen and crafty as the Iroquois. Nevertheless, after adopting every precaution suggested by prudence under the circumstances, I decided that there would be no risk in opening the gate. I sent for my two brothers, and made them stand by with their muskets loaded and primed, in case of a surprise, and then we let the cattle enter the fort.

At last the day dawned, and the sun in scattering the shades of the night seemed to banish our grief and anxiety. Assuming a joyful countenance I gathered my garrison around me and said to them:

"Since, with God's help, we have got through the past night with all its terrors, we can surely get through other nights by keeping good watch and ward and by firing our cannon hour by hour, so as to get help from Montreal, which is only eight leagues off."

I saw that my address made an impression on their minds. But Marguerite Antoine, the wife of Sieur Pierre Fontaine, being extremely timorous, as is natural to all Parisian women, asked her husband to take her to another fort, representing to him that while she had been lucky enough to escape the fury of the savages the first night, she had no reason to expect a like good fortune for the coming night; that the fort of Verchères was utterly worthless, that there were no men to hold it, and that to remain in it would be to expose one's self to evident danger, or to run the risk of perpetual slavery or of death by slow fire. The poor husband, finding that his wife persisted in her request and that she wanted to go to Fort Contrecoeur, three hours distant from Verchères, said to her: "I will fit you out a good canoe, with a proper sail, and you will have your two children, who are accustomed to handle it. I myself will never abandon the fort of Verchères, so long as Mademoiselle Magdelon (this was the name I went by in my childhood) holds it."

I spoke up firmly then, and told him that I would never abandon the fort; that I would sooner perish than deliver it up to our enemies; that it was of the last importance that the savages should never enter one of our French forts; that they would judge of the rest by the one they got possession of, and that the knowledge thus acquired could not fail to increase their pride and courage.

I can truthfully say that I was on two occasions, for twenty-four hours without rest or food. I did not once enter my father's house. I took up my station on the bastion, and from time to time looked after things on the redoubt. I always wore a smiling and joyful face, and cheered up my little troop with the prospect of speedy assistance.

On the eighth day (for we were eight days in continual alarms, under the eyes of our enemies and exposed to their fury and savage attacks), on the eighth day, I say, M. De La Monnerie, a lieutenant detached from the force under M. De Callières, reached the fort during the night with forty men. Not knowing but the fort had fallen, he made his approach in perfect silence. One of our sentries hearing a noise, cried out: "Qui vive?"

I was dozing at the moment, with my head resting on a table and my musket across my arms.

The sentry told me he heard voices on the water. I forthwith mounted the bastion in order to find out by the tone of the voice whether the party were savages or French. I called out to them:

"Who are you?"

They answered: "French! It is La Monnerie come to your assistance."

I caused the door of the fort to be opened and put a sentry to guard it, and went down to the bank of the river to receive the party. So soon as I saw the officer in command I saluted him, saying:

"Sir, you are welcome, I surrender my arms to you."

"Mademoiselle," he answered, with a courtly air, "they are in good hands."

"Better than you think," I replied.

He inspected the fort and found it in a most satisfactory condition, with a sentry on each bastion. I said to him:

"Sir, kindly relieve my sentries, so that they may take a little rest, for we have not left our posts for the last eight days."

I was forgetting one circumstance which will give an idea of my confidence and tranquility. On the day of the great battle, the Iroquois who were around the fort, were sacking and burning the houses of our settlers and killing their cattle before our eyes, when I called to mind, about one o'clock in the afternoon, that I had three sacks of linen and some quilts outside the fort. I asked my soldiers to take their guns and accompany me while I went out for the clothes; but their silence and sullen looks convinced me of their lack of courage, so I turned to my young brothers and said to them:

"Take your guns and come with me! As to you," I said to the others, "keep your fire against the enemy while I go for my linen."

I made two trips, in sight of the enemy, in the very place where they had so narrowly missed taking me prisoner, a few hours before. They must have suspected some plot under my proceedings, for they did not venture to try to capture me, or even to take my life with their guns. I felt then that when God overrules matters, there is no danger of failure....

This is a simple and truthful account of the adventure which secured for me His Majesty's favour, and which I would not have undertaken to put in writing had not M. Le Marquis De Beauharnais, our governor, whose one care is to protect our colony against the incursions of the barbarians, and to promote therein the glory of France, by rendering the name of her illustrious monarch formidable to all her enemies and respected and loved of all his subjects, induced me to prepare this detailed narrative. Our governor, in his wisdom, is not content with constraining all the tribes by whom we are surrounded to hold us in respect and fear, and keeping the enemies of the state at a distance of four or five hundred leagues. His indefatigable devotion to the most weighty matters is interrupted only by the attention he gives to the more striking events which have occurred since the establishment of this colony, using them on occasion with the goodness and distinction of manner which are natural to him, in order to encourage every subject of His Majesty to seek distinction by performing heroic deeds, whensoever the opportunity presents itself.



*French measurement of length, approximately 58.4713 meters (approximately 191.835 feet).

Seigneurial System of New France.

A high school report on Madeleine de Verchères in French may be found here...

Vive Le Roy.
Brantigny

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