Tag Archives: French Canada

Role Models and Heroines – Madeleine de Vercheres

Much is made today of the need for strong female role models for young girls. The academics and critics have succeeded in convincing the public at large that there are not enough heroic women to inspire the next generation of girls. They naturally ignore the mothers of these girls, insisting that there must be other, greater paradigms of feminine glory at every turn which they can aspire to become. When these people turn to history for models for modern girls, they tend to mythologize the heroines of the past. They claim these women “broke with the customs” of their times in order to blaze their own trail in a “man’s world.”

In this way they are the victims of their own desire to eradicate knowledge of true history. They have forgotten that it was not strange in the American West for women to own, use, and know guns as well as men did. Women served in the American War for Independence as well, such as the famous “Molly Pitcher” – Mary Hays McCauley – and Deborah Sampson. One frontier heroine of the Americas, however, was perhaps more daring than even these bold women, in part for the fact that she performed her heroics at a much younger age.

Born on March 3, 1678, Marie Madeleine Jarret de Verchéres grew up in a military seigneury along the St. Lawrence River. A military seigneury was a plot of land granted to officers in the army, as it was known at the time, the army of New France. The French soldiers were persuaded to settle on the land as habitants while the officers, called “seignurs,” remained in command of the fort or stockade.

The stockade Madeleine called home was the property of her father, the Sieur François Jarret de Verchéres. Within the Verchéres fort were the manor house, where Madeleine’s family lived, the blacksmith’s shop, the blockhouse, and the cabins of the habitants. The habitants, men and women, worked in the fields, both for their own food and on behalf of the Verchéres family.

Madeleine was the second oldest child in the family, followed by twelve year old Louis and ten year old Alexandre. The youngest of the six children were a boy, Jean, and two girls, Angélique and Cathèrine. François, the oldest of the Verchéres children, had died at the battle of La Prairie in 1691 as part of a campaign against the belligerent Iroquois Nation. He was greatly missed by the whole family, though they admired his courageous example.

The Iroquois were a confederation of northeastern Native American tribes. The head tribe was that of the Mohawks, from which we get both the name and the distinctive hairstyle. Unlike the Hurons and the Algonquin, the Iroquois were not on good terms with the French. Allied with the British, the Iroquois had adopted their biases and hatreds for the Catholic French settlers. On top of this, the Iroquois were enemies of the Hurons and the Algonquin, Indian tribes which had united with the French. Any friends of those tribes were enemies of the Iroquois.

This animosity led to many battles between the French and the Iroquois. But by 1692, matters seemed to be improving. Governor de Frontenac had returned to New France. To protect his people from Iroquois attacks, he had patrols sent out and fought battles against the hostile Indians. Having dealt with near-famine the year before due to increased Iroquois activity, the French settlers in the St. Lawrence area were pleased with the coming harvest. Reports said that the Iroquois were far away and would not trouble their region.

In October of 1692, Madame de Verchéres had to attend to business in Montreal. With the Sieur de Verchéres away already, in her absence one of the children would have to command the fort as it belonged to the Verchéres family and they must maintain their authority over it. Because she was the oldest of the remaining children, Madeleine was the only choice for this position. This would be unremarkable in the annals of history except for one small detail: Madeleine was fourteen years of age.

While Louis and Alexandre were to be left with Madeleine, the three youngest children would accompany Madame de Verchéres on her journey. The older children saw their mother and younger siblings off before they returned to manage the seignury. For the next two days, all was quiet. But on the morning of October 22, 1692, while overlooking the seignury from the St. Lawrence River, Madeleine and the family’s old manservant spied a number of Iroquois creeping up on the fort. The two ran back and gained the safety of the stockade in time, closing the gates behind them immediately afterward.

Most of the male settlers were not so fortunate. The habitants working in the fields had been left woefully unprotected by the sergeant in command of the fort’s militia. Feeling secure in the lack of Indian activity over the past months, the sergeant had taken six of his men out on a hunting trip. As a result only two soldiers remained in the fields to guard the habitants, while two more were left to guard the stockade. This meant that the men in the fields were easy targets, and many were killed or captured by the Iroquois that morning.

Inside the fort, Madeleine sent Alexandre to one of the bastions – a watchtower on the stockade wall – to monitor the situation and allow any habitants who ran back entry into the fort. Then she, Louis, and the elderly manservant filled a gap that had developed in the palisades. All the while they wondered why the small cannon, kept in the stockade to be used to warn the neighboring seigneuries of an attack, had not yet been fired.

Madeleine learned the reason for the cannon’s silence when she went to the blockhouse to load the muskets she and the others would need for the defense of the fort. The two militiamen on guard in the stockade had retreated to the blockhouse when the attack began. Madeleine found one of the two with a lit match. In his terror, he planned to blow the fort up rather than face torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois, a plan his compatriot agreed was best.

Flabbergasted at their weakness, Madeleine rebuked the soldiers swiftly and fiercely. Sending them to the bastions, she set about her own work. When her brothers and the manservant joined her, Madeleine told them to order the habitant women and children to retreat to the blockhouse, where they would be safest. Meanwhile she, her brothers, the manservant, and the two militiamen would guard the fort.

It was not long after this that, looking out through one of the loopholes in the fort’s walls, Madeleine saw an Indian dragging a boy across the ground. She fired her musket, but was promptly knocked backward by the weapon’s recoil. Experienced with a pistol, she had never used the much larger gun before.

This is one of many details in Madeleine’s story which puts the lie to the academics’ and critics’ claims that women were not expected to fight. Indeed, fighting was considered a man’s profession, and rightly so. But on the frontier, with the threat of attack ever a possibility, the men knew that their women must be able to protect themselves if anything should happen to remove them from the scene. Madeleine’s familiarity with loading muskets and her ability to shoot demonstrates that her family’s status, wealth, and position in New France’s society did not prevent them from teaching her the critical art of self-defense.

Because of the swiftness of the attack, Madeleine did not have time to change out of her simple dress and moccasins. The only thing she had time to do was snatch an old military hat from a peg in the blockhouse after loading the muskets and jam it on top of her neatly tied-up hair.

Many modern filmmakers would be shocked by this. They would be so tied down to the contemporary belief that women were held back by the customs of the times, and therefore expected to be simpering damsels who stayed at their sewing or baking rather than learning how to use a gun or withstand a siege. Were certain directors and scriptwriters to make a film about Madeleine, they would probably show her chafing under her younger brothers, who would be put in command of the fort in her place despite their younger ages simply because they were boys and she a girl.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. All three children had withstood an Indian attack some two years earlier. During that attack, their father had also been absent. Their mother, however, had commanded the militia and the people in the fort until the siege was lifted. Madeleine had experienced the terror of an Iroquois siege before, and had had a perfect role model for how to withstand one in the future. She was no simpering damsel, nor was she a firebrand who learned to use a pistol in secret while smiling forcedly over her sewing. She was a lady born and bred on the frontier, trained to defend herself and those under her care by her parents.

A battle-tested frontier girl, Madeleine knew that survival in New France depended as much on wits as it did on weapons. She therefore understood that, if the Iroquois decided to directly attack the fort they would easily overwhelm her small band of defenders. So she ordered her group to make it sound and appear as though they had a full garrison of grown men protecting them. Wary of the noise as the guards called “All is well!” and the shots fired intermittently from the loopholes, the Iroquois held off on a direct attack, falling for the ruse.

If this were the extent of her courage, it would be enough, but Madeleine did more. The same day that the siege began, she and the guards watched from the bastions as neighbors of the Verchéres rowed down the St. Lawrence River and into sight of their fort. These were the Sieur Pierre Fontaine, his wife, and three of their children. They had heard the cannon shot Madeleine had ordered, but were unable to row to a better defended fort because of the distance. Pierre Fontaine brought his wife and three children to the Verchéres seignury because it was closer.

At the risk of her own life, Madeleine walked down to the riverfront to collect the family, her only defense a pistol. Boldly she escorted Fontaine and his family back to her fort, despite the threat of Indian attack. The militiamen had been too afraid to do the deed, balking at her order to rescue the Fontaines. And so Madeleine walked out to rescue the family herself.

Madeleine did not sleep during the first two days of the siege. Since the militiamen had proved to be such cowards, she kept them in the blockhouse with Fontaine as their commander at night, unwilling to trust them as sentries in the dark. Thus it was that she stood guard on the bastions with her brothers and an elderly manservant through the nights, rotating shifts with Fontaine and the militiamen during the days. On the sixth night of the siege, a habitant youth managed to escape from the Iroquois camp and return to the fort. He told Madeleine that the Iroquois, tired of waiting for the French to show themselves, planned a large scale attack on the seignury the next morning. With nothing left to do but prepare to fight for their lives, Madeleine and her small garrison prayed and committed themselves to God, knowing they could never withstand such an attack without help.

The attack never came. Another prisoner who had escaped from the Indians managed to secure help from Montreal. The next day, after a week-long siege, Madeleine and her command were overjoyed to receive French reinforcements. When they learned a French force was coming down the river to aid the fort, the Iroquois had quietly and quickly left the seignury. Neither Madeleine nor the others had heard them go.

Madeleine de Verchéres fades from history after this almost superhuman event. It seems that the Verchéres seignury was never seriously threatened by the Iroquois again. For her heroism in directing the defense of the fort, Madeleine was awarded a life pension by the French crown when she became an adult. At the request of a later governor of New France, she related the story of how she had withstood the Iroquois. She married, but the union apparently remained childless. The only following incident we know of in her life before her death is the story that she saved her husband, Pierre Thomas Tarieu de la Pérade, when he was assaulted by an Indian in 1722.

There are no great memorials dedicated to her memory, no films paying tribute to her bravery. Only in a small park in Verchères, Quebec, is there any physical reminder of Madeleine de Verchéres. It is a bronze statue of a young girl wearing a dress, a set of boots, and an officer’s hat. She is holding a musket, which is pointed at the ground.

Madeleine de Verchéres is not held aloft by the academics or critics as the ideal of a courageous woman, but she should be. Much can be learned from this daring young heroine of the New World frontier. It is a sad shame that, when role models for girls are demanded so vociferously, one magnificent heroine remains lost to the general public. It remains to be seen if anyone will ever champion her memory in the future. Let us hope that someone does succeed in raising her back to the public consciousness. She is a heroine who should not be forgotten.

Book Review: Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill

Image result for Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. BrillOn October 22, 1692, a military seigneury (fort) in New France (now Canada), was put under siege by a large band of Iroquois Indians.  This seigneury was the property of one Sieur François Jarret de Verchéres.  However, the Sieur de Verchéres was not within the stockade when the attack occurred.  Neither was his wife, Madame de Verchéres.  His oldest son was killed in battle a year before.  The oldest of his remaining children was the only commander the fort had.

That child was fourteen year old Marie Madeleine Jarret de Verchéres.

It is hard to find a great deal of information about Madeleine de Verchéres these days.  You will find a few paragraphs on different websites which will tell you that Madeleine directed the defense of her family’s fort for a whole week until reinforcements came from Montreal.  If you are lucky the articles will mention that her younger brothers, twelve year old Louis and ten year old Alexandre, were in the fort with her.

But to really become immersed in the story, there is only one source I know of to which I can direct you:  Madeleine Takes Command, by Ethel C. Brill.

Written in 1946, Mrs. Brill’s book must at some time have gone out of print.  Today one can acquire a good copy of the novel through Bethlehem Books; a company which reprints children’s fiction that otherwise would be lost to us.  Officially, the book is for ages ten and up.  But a real reader will snatch up any sheaves bound in almost any cover; so the book is really “for kids from one to ninety-two.”

I was young when I was first handed Madeleine Takes Command.  But even now I remember how I felt while reading the book.  History came alive through the pages.  I saw the stockade, smelled the bread baking, and heard the birds singing.  I saw the savage Iroquois prowling about the fort out of shooting range, heard the cannon in the fort roar.  I watched the St. Lawrence course past the stockade and saw the leaves on the trees turn from green to autumnal gold.

Oh, plenty of things flew over my head, it is true.  The French words were always a big barrier; I never did learn to pronounce some of them properly. Never having a head for furniture, some of the fixtures mentioned in the novel baffled me.  I even had trouble understanding just what moccasins were!  With nothing to reference them to, my picture of such things was incomplete or vague.

But I could not misunderstand Madeleine’s courage and integrity in the face of terrible danger.  Her willingness to protect not only her family’s fort and those within, but the other seigneuries along the St. Lawrence, was equally relatable.

For seven whole days Madeleine, her younger brothers, the family manservant, and two militiamen held the fort.  Because the militiamen had retreated to the blockhouse to blow up the fort at the first sign of attack, Madeleine never assigned them to guard duty on the fort’s bastions at night.  Only she, Louis, Alexandre, and the manservant stood vigil during darkness; during the day, they rotated with the militiamen.  It was the only sleep they received.

At the end of the week relief came from Montreal.  Madeleine surrendered her command to the leader of the force sent to rescue the stockade, and after this she fades from history.  But in a small park in Verchéres, Quebec, you will find a bronze statue.  It is of a girl wearing a simple dress, a captain’s hat, and moccasins.  She is facing the St. Lawrence River and holding a musket, which is pointed at the distant ground.  A sentry from a bygone day, she watches the river.  Her stance is proud, courageous.  It is daring.

It is Madeleine de Verchéres.

I suppose the story of Madeleine de Verchéres is a bit awkward for some to hear today.  Madeleine never traded in her skirt for a set of britches; she defended the fort in her everyday dress.  The only differences in her outward appearance were the musket she carried and the captain’s hat she snatched on her way out of the blockhouse – not to mention a cloak to keep her warm at night or during a storm.  Otherwise, she looked like what she was: a fourteen year old girl of the nobility of New France – which, in Old France, would probably not have been considered especially noble.

Also, there is the matter of the Iroquois attack itself.  While the French were not always kind to the Indians, for the most part they did more good than harm.  The French did not intentionally spread disease among the Indians, as the British preferred to do.  They intermarried with the Indians freely, seeing no distinction between a full-blooded Indian, a full-blooded Frenchman, and a man of French/Indian heritage.  Contrast this with the English, who called the children of Indians and whites “halfbreeds” or “breeds” for short.  Also, the French government coexisted with the Indians, never forcing their way into any tribal territory but proclaiming it the Indians’ own land.  The States do not have such a good initial track record, sadly.

All this, however, has been forgotten.  If it was not overwritten two centuries ago by British bias, it has been buried by the current intolerances of a New Age.  We are so quick to forget in this generation, and that will be our undoing if we are not careful.

So on this day, the first day of the siege which Madeleine and her little band withstood, I recommend to you the book which I know and love so well.  Madeleine Takes Command tells the story of Canada’s forgotten heroine, one who can be an inspiration to girls everywhere…if they are introduced to her.  I promise you that the book is worth the read and will make a great gift for any young girl you know.

Au revoir, mes amis!

The Mithril Guardian

Marie Madeleine Jarret de Verchères – The Canadian Girl Who Saved a Fort

220px-Vercheres

Marie Madeleine Jarret de Verchères is a heroine of Canada whose mighty deeds have been largely forgotten over time. The daughter of French aristocrats who had settled in Verchères (now part of Quebec, Canada), Madeleine grew up in a fort along the St. Lawrence River.

In October of 1692, Madeleine and her younger brothers, Louis and Alexander, were at the Verchères fort. Their father was away from the fort and their mother had just gone to Quebec on business, taking her younger children with her. Most of the men in the fort were out working in the fields, and many of the fort’s soldiers were standing guard over them. The fierce Iroquois, a tribe of Native Americans who hated the French, had been attacking French settlements during this time and it was unwise for settlers to go outside their colonies alone or without arms.

October 22, 1692, began calmly and quietly, as had the day before. But it was not to remain quiet. Midmorning had barely arrived when a large band of Iroquois braves suddenly attacked the fort. Most of the male settlers were killed where they worked in the fields, and the guards died similarly. As the oldest member of the Verchères family present in the fort, Madeleine assumed command of the people there. She closed the fort’s gates and told her younger brothers and an old soldier, who had remained inside the fort due to his age, to take up arms and prepare to defend the settlement.

Rushing to the blockhouse powder room to get a gun, Madeleine found that there were two other soldiers, whose duties had kept them in the fort, in the powder room already. To her horror and disgust, she learned that at least one of the soldiers was preparing to blow up the powder room in order to destroy the fort. This was to prevent the Iroquois from getting inside the colony, where they would kill them and the remaining settlers – almost all of whom were women with infants and young children.

Madeleine gave the two soldiers a furious scolding, reprimanding them harshly for their cowardice in despairing of their situation. She ordered the two out of the blockhouse, then got the gun and powder she had come for and left. She directed the defense of the fort, her only forces being her two brothers, the old soldier, and a few other able settlers. The little group stood off the Iroquois until help arrived from Montreal a week after the siege began.

Some reports and retellings of Madeleine de Verchères’ story say that she did not sleep for the first two days of the siege. They also say that she went about her warrior’s duties with a pleasant smile and attitude to keep up the courage of the other women in the fort, who were not only afraid for their lives and the lives of their children but were also grieving for their husbands and sons who had been slain in the fields by the Iroquois.

At the time of the attack Madeleine de Verchères was fourteen years old.

Madeleine de Verchères fades from history after this event. Little is known about the rest of her life other than the facts that she was awarded a pension by the French crown for her heroism and that she married a man named Pierre Thomas Tarieu de la Pérade in 1706. It is said that Madeleine again showed her strength of character by saving her husband’s life in 1722 when he was assaulted by an Indian. It appears that her marriage remained childless.

She died August 8, 1747, and a statue of her stands in Verchères, the only reminder of the fourteen year old colonial girl who led the defense of her family’s settlement – and won.

May she never be forgotten!

Until next time!

The Mithril Guardian

References:

Encyclopedia Americana: Vol. 28, 2002, page 16.

Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill.