On 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