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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.

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet, never, in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of Me.

by Emily Dickinson