Tag Archives: St. Lawrence River

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

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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.