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The Iroquois Subdued

It was the special task of Tracy and Courcelle to rid the colony of the Iroquois scourge. The Five Nations1 had heard with some disquietude of the body of trained soldiers sent by the French king to check their incursions and crush their confederacy. At the beginning of December 1665, the Marquis de Tracy received an embassy from the Onondagas. They desired to enter into a peace negotiation, and one of the most noted chiefs, Garakonthie, delivered on that occasion a long and eloquent address to the viceroy. A treaty was signed by them on behalf of their own and two of the other tribes, the Seneca and the Oneida. But meanwhile the Oneida did not cease from hostilities, and the Mohawks also continued their bloody raids against the French settlements. Courcelle therefore decided to march at once against their villages beyond Lake Champlain, in what is now New York state and to teach them a lesson. But he did not know the nature of a winter expedition in this northern climate. Leaving Quebec on January 9, he reached Three Rivers on the 16th, and proceeded to Fort Saint-Louis on the Richelieu, where he had fixed the rendezvous of the troops. The cold was very severe, and many soldiers were frozen at the outset. On January 29 the little band, five or six hundred French and Canadians, left Fort Saint-Louis, unfortunately without waiting for a party of Algonquins who should have acted as scouts. It was a distressing march. The soldiers had to walk through deep snow, and the unfamiliar use of snowshoes was a great trial to the Europeans. At night, no shelter! They had to sleep in the open air, under the canopy of the sky and the cold light of the glimmering stars. Having no guides, Courcelle and his men lost their way in that unknown country. After seventeen days of extreme toil they found that, instead of reaching the Mohawk district, they were near Corlaer in the New Netherlands, sixty miles distant. The vanguard had a brush with two hundred Iroquois, who slipped away after killing six French soldiers and leaving four of their own number dead. The governor could go no farther with his exhausted troops and was forced to retrace his steps. The retreat was worse than the forward march. The supply of provisions failed, and to the suffering from cold was soon added hunger. Many soldiers died of exposure and starvation. In reading the account of the ill-fated expedition, one is reminded of the disastrous retreat of Napoleon's army in 1812 through the icy solitudes of Russia. By this sad experience the military commanders of New France found that they had something to learn of the art of making war in North America, and must respect the peculiarities of the climate and country. Nevertheless Courcelle's winter expedition had made an impression on the minds of the Iroquois and had even surprised the Dutch and the English. The author of a narrative entitled Relation of the March of the Governor of Canada into New York wrote: 'Surely so bold and hardy an attempt hath not happened in any age.'

Apparently the Five Nations were somewhat uneasy, for in March the Seneca sent ambassadors to the Marquis de Tracy to ratify the treaty signed in December. In July delegates came from the Oneida tribe; they presented a letter written by the English authorities at Orange which assured the viceroy that the Mohawks were well disposed and wished for peace. A new treaty of ratification was accordingly signed. But the lieutenant-general wanted something more complete and decisive. He demanded of the delegates a general treaty to include the whole of the Five Nations, and stated that he would allow forty days for all the Iroquois tribes to send their ambassadors to Quebec. Moreover, he instructed Father Beschefer to go to Orange with some of the Oneida delegates for the purpose of meeting the ambassadors and escorting them to Quebec. Unfortunately, a few days after the priest's departure, news came that four Frenchmen on a hunting expedition had been killed near Fort Sainte-Anne by a party of Mohawks, and that three others had been taken prisoners. One of the slain was a cousin of Tracy, and one of the captives his nephew. Father Beschefer was at once recalled and Captain de Sorel was ordered to march with some two hundred Frenchmen and ninety Indians to strike a blow at the raiders. Sorel lost no time and had nearly reached the enemy's villages when he met Tracy's nephew and the other prisoners under escort of an Iroquois chief and three warriors, who were bound for Quebec to make amends for the treacherous murder recently perpetrated and to sue for peace. Under these circumstances Captain de Sorel did not think it necessary to proceed farther, and marched his men home again with the Iroquois and the rescued prisoners. On August 31 a great meeting was held at Quebec in the Jesuits' garden. The delegates of the Five Nations were present, and speeches were made enlarging on the desirability of peace. But it soon became apparent that no peace could be lasting except after a successful expedition against the Mohawks. Tracy, Courcelle, and Talon held a consultation, and the intendant submitted a well-prepared document in which he reviewed the reasons for and against a continuance of the war. In Talon's mind the arguments in favor of it had undoubtedly the greater weight. Tracy and Courcelle concurred in this opinion. Thirteen hundred men were drafted for an expedition--six hundred regular soldiers, six hundred Canadians, and a hundred Indians. All was soon ready, and on September 14, the day of the Exaltation of the Cross, Tracy and Courcelle left Quebec, at the head of their troops. It was a spectacle that did not fail to impress the Iroquois chiefs detained in Quebec. One of them, deeply moved, said to the viceroy: 'I see that we are lost, but you will pay dearly for your victory; my nation will be exterminated, but I tell you that many of your young men will not return, for our young warriors will fight desperately. I beg of you to save my wife and children.' Many who witnessed that martial exit of Tracy and Courcelle from the Chateau Saint-Louis, surrounded by a staff of noble officers, must have realized that this was a memorable day in the history of New France. At last a crushing blow was to be struck at the ferocious foe who for twenty-five years had been the curse and terror of the wretched colony. What mighty cheers were shouted on that day by the eager and enthusiastic spectators who lined the streets of Quebec!

On September 28, the troops taking part in the expedition were assembled at Fort Sainte-Anne. [Footnote: On isle La Mothe at the northern end of Lake Champlain.] Charles Le Moyne commanded the Montreal contingent, one hundred and ten strong; the Quebec contingent marched under Le Gardeur de Repentigny. Father Albanel and Father Raffeix, Jesuit priests, the Abbe Dollier de Casson, a Sulpician, and the Abbe Dubois, chaplain of the Carignan regiment, accompanied the army. Three hundred light boats had been launched for the crossing of Lakes Champlain and Saint-Sacrement. Courcelle, always impetuous, was the first to leave the fort; he led a vanguard of four hundred men which included those from Montreal. The main body of the army under Tracy set out on October 3. Captains Chambly and Berthier were to follow four days later with the rear-guard.

The journey by water was uneventful; but the portage between the two lakes was hard and trying. Yet it was nothing compared with the difficulties of the march beyond Lake Saint-Sacrement. One hundred miles of forest, mountains, rivers, and swamps lay between the troops and the Iroquois villages. No roads existed, only narrow footpaths interrupted by quagmires, bristling with stumps, obstructed by the entanglement of fallen trees, or abruptly cut by the foaming waters of swollen streams. Heavily laden, with arms, provisions, and ammunition strapped on their backs, French and Canadians slowly proceeded through the great woods, whose autumnal glories were vanishing fast under the influence of the chill winds of October. Slipping over moist logs, sinking into unsuspected swamps, climbing painfully over steep rocks, they went forward with undaunted determination. At night they had to sleep in the open on a bed of damp leaves. The crossing of rivers was sometimes dangerous. Tracy, who unfortunately had been seized with an attack of gout, was nearly drowned in one rapid stream. A Swiss soldier had undertaken to carry him across on his shoulders, but his strength failed, and if a rock had not stood near, the viceroy's career might have ended there. A Huron came to the rescue and carried the helpless viceroy to the other side. The sufferings of the army were increased by a scarcity of food. The troops were famishing. Luckily they came upon some chestnut-trees and stayed their hunger with the nuts.

At last, on October 15, the scouts reported that the Mohawk settlements were near at hand. It was late in the day, darkness was setting in, and a storm of wind and rain was raging. But Tracy decided to push on. They marched all night, and in the morning, emerging from the woods, saw before them the first of the Mohawk towns or villages. Without allowing a moment's pause, the viceroy ordered an advance. The roll of the drums seemed to give the troops new strength and ardor; French, Canadians, and Indians ran forward to the assault. The Mohawks, apprised of the coming attack, had determined beforehand to make a stand and had sent their women and children to another village. But, at the sight of the advancing army, whose numbers appeared to them three times as great as they really were, and at the sound of the drums, like the voice of demons, they fled panic-stricken. The first village was taken without striking a blow. The viceroy immediately ordered a march against the second, which was also found abandoned. Evidently the Iroquois were terrified, for a third village was taken in the same way, without a show of defense. It was thought that the invaders' task was finished, when an Algonquin squaw, once a captive of the Iroquois, informed Courcelle that there were two other villages. The soldiers pushed forward, and the fourth settlement of the ever-vanishing enemy fell undefended into the hands of the French. The sun was setting; the exertions of the day and of the night before had been arduous, and it seemed impossible to go farther. But the squaw, seizing a pistol and grasping Courcelle's hand, said, 'Come on, I will show you the straight path.' And she led the way to the town and fort of Andaraque, the most important stronghold of the Mohawks. It was surrounded with a triple palisade twenty feet high and flanked by four bastions. Vessels of bark full of water were distributed on the platforms behind the palisade ready for use against fire. The Iroquois might have made a desperate stand there, and such had been their intention. But their courage failed them at the fearful beating of the drums and the appearance of that mighty army, and they sought safety in flight.

The victory was now complete, and the army could go to rest after nearly twenty-four hours of continuous exertion. Next morning the French were astonished at the sight of Andaraque in the light of the rising sun. instead of a collection of miserable wigwams, they saw a fine Indian town, with wooden houses, some of them a hundred and twenty feet long and with lodging for eight or nine families. These houses were well supplied with provisions, tools, and utensils. An immense quantity of Indian corn and other necessaries was stored in Andaraque-'food enough to feed Canada for ten years'--and in the surrounding fields a plentiful crop was ready for harvest. All this was to be destroyed; but first an impressive ceremony had to be performed. The army was drawn up in battle array. A French officer, Jean-Baptiste Dubois, commander of the artillery, advanced, sword in hand, to the front, and in the presence of Tracy and Courcelle, declared that he was directed by M. Jean Talon, king's counselor and intendant of justice, police, and finance for New France, to take possession of Andaraque, and of all the country of the Mohawks, in the name of the king. A cross was solemnly planted alongside a post bearing the king's coat of arms. Mass was celebrated and the Te Deum sung. Then the work of destruction began. The palisades, the dwellings, the bastions, the stores of grain and provisions, except what was needed by the invaders, the standing crops-all were set on fire; and when night fell the glaring illumination of that tremendous blaze told the savages that at last New France had asserted her power, and that the soldiers of the great king had come far enough through forest and over mountain and stream to chastise in their own country the bloodthirsty tribes who for a quarter of a century had been the terror of the growing settlements on the St Lawrence.

On their return march the troops suffered great hardships. A storm on Lake Champlain upset two boats and eight men were drowned. Tracy reached Quebec on November 5. The expedition had lasted seven weeks, during which time he had covered nine hundred miles. The news of his success had been received with joy. Since the first days of October the whole colony had been praying for victory. As soon as the destruction of the Iroquois towns was known, prayers were changed to thanksgiving. The Te Deum was solemnly chanted, and on November 14 a mass was said in the church of Notre-Dame-de-Quebec, followed by a procession in gratiarum actionem. New France might well rejoice. A great result had been attained. True it was that the Mohawks, panic-stricken, had not been met and crushed. in a set encounter. None the less they had had their lesson. They had learned that distance and natural impediments were no protection against the French. Their towns were a heap of ashes, their fields were despoiled, their country was ruined. The fruit of that expedition was to be eighteen years of peace for New France. Eighteen years of peace after twenty-five years of murderous incursions! Was not that worth a Te Deum?

After his return Tracy ordered one of the Iroquois detained at Quebec to be hanged as a penalty for his share in the murder of the French hunters. He then directed three other prisoners, the Flemish Batard [Footnote: A half-breed Mohawk leader.] and two Oneida chiefs, to go and inform their respective tribes that he would give them four months to send hostages and make peace; otherwise he would lead against them another expedition more calamitous for their country than the first one. At length, in the month of July of the following year, ambassadors of the Iroquois nations arrived at Quebec with a number of Iroquois families who were to remain as hostages in the colony. The chiefs asked that missionaries be sent to reside among their tribes. This petition was granted. New France could now breathe freely. The hatchet was buried.


1 The Iroquois league consisted of five tribes or nations--the Mohawk, the Cayuga, the Seneca, the Onondaga, and the Oneida.]


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Chronicles of Canada, The Great Intendant, A Chronicle of Jean Talon in Canada 1665-1672, 1915

 

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