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Madeleine De Vercheres

That a child of fourteen years should of her own accord assume control of a fortification and keep at bay a horde of bloodthirsty Indians for a full week seems incredible, yet such is the well-authenticated record of the little heroine of Castle Dangerous. It was in the month of October, 1692. Seigneur de Vercheres was the owner of a large tract of land on the south bank of the St. Lawrence, about twenty miles from Montreal. He and his tenants, to secure themselves against the attacks of the Iroquois, lived in a fort with four bastions connected with a blockhouse.

Owing to the fact that this seigniory was in the path of the Indians when making their raids upon the French settlements, the Vercheres' fortification was aptly styled "Castle Dangerous."

De Vercheres and his wife were away from home, and the tenants were engaged in their work upon their respective lands. The only occupants of the fort were Madeleine and her brothers, aged ten and twelve respectively, two soldiers, a serving-man, a few women, and a decrepit old man of eighty years. She was expecting a visit from a young friend recently arrived from Paris, and, eager to greet her, she went to the river's bank to watch for the canoe that would bring her over to the fort. While thus engaged the alarm was given by the serving-man that the dreaded Iroquois were approaching, and a few rods distant she saw a band of fifty braves stealthily creeping upon her with a view to intercepting her retreat to the fort. With the bullets flying about her, she rushed to the gateway and gave the order "To arms!" The inmates were panic-stricken, and she discovered one of the soldiers in the act of preparing to blow up the magazine and thus destroy them all, rather than submit to the torture that he felt certain the Indians would inflict upon them if captured alive. And they saw no other fate awaiting them if they presumed to oppose their slender garrison against such overpowering numbers.

Madeleine severely rebuked the soldier for his cowardice, and immediately assumed command of the place. She at once set about to repair the breaches in the fort. Tossing aside the child's bonnet she was wearing at the time, she put on a hat and shouldered her musket. With the coolness of a veteran she stationed her garrison at the points of vantage, not omitting her two young brothers, each of whom was provided with a gun. She appears to have overlooked nothing. She fired the only cannon in the fort to alarm the settlers and thus warn them against being surprised by the Indians. The fort had every appearance of being completely manned and prepared to resist any attack that might be made upon it, as indeed it was if courage and determination would make up for the want of numbers. When her preparations were thus completed, she discovered the friend whom she had been expecting approaching the fort in a canoe in company with her parents. A certain death, perhaps a fiendish torture, awaited them un-less by some device she could rescue them. With remarkable presence of mind, she boldly marched alone to the river's edge and escorted her visitors back to the fort. She had rightly conjectured that the Indians would think this a ruse to draw them from their shelter and subject them to the fire from the fort. It was a terrible risk, one that her soldier companions, fearful of the tomahawks and scalping-knives of the watchful foe, had refused to undertake. The danger increased with the nightfall, for the Indian mode of warfare favored a night attack. Her garrison had been strengthened by Monsieur Fontaine, who had accompanied his daughter in the canoe. Madeleine stationed him and the two soldiers in the blockhouse to allay the fears of the frightened women, while she and the old man and her young brothers assumed the more perilous positions and manned the four bastions. All night long at regular intervals the cry of  "All's well" was heard, while the Indians were planning their attack. Dismayed at the watchfulness of the supposed strong garrison, the savages shrank from the task.

For seven long days and nights Madeleine kept up this appearance of strength and readiness to repel the attack. For seven long days and nights the red warriors watched for an opportunity to surprise the inmates of the fort, but the brave little commander was ever on the alert. Occasionally an impatient brave would venture x near the fort, and invariably he was greeted with a shot from the garrison. This was sometimes followed by a wild shriek and a plunge in the grass or bushes which told the story that the bullet had found its billet. Madeleine took no rest but such short naps as she could snatch by resting her head upon a table. The long vigil would have sorely tried a stronger frame than hers, but she bore up bravely under the strain and so encouraged the others by her example and cheering words that they all determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible before they would yield an inch to their persistent enemy.

In the meantime many of the tenants had been either massacred or taken prisoners, but one of the number had made good his escape to Montreal and reported the brave resistance the besieged fort was making although surrounded by the infuriated savages. A lieutenant was immediately dispatched with forty men to relieve the inmates of the fort, if any of them still survived, which seemed impossible. They landed in the dead of night, and no sooner had they hauled their canoes upon the bank than they heard the challenge, "Who are you?" in the childish tones of the watchful little Madeleine, whose heart leaped with joy as she heard the welcome response, "We are Frenchmen." She immediately posted her sentry and went to meet the lieutenant, and in true soldier-like style she greeted him with, "Monsieur, I surrender to you my arms." They escorted her back to the fort, and upon examination everything was found in perfect order.

When recounting the war-like deeds of our country, the historian cannot afford to omit from the roll of honor the name of Madeleine de Vercheres, for no general's tunic ever shielded a braver heart than that which beat within the breast of the little heroine of Castle Dangerous.


Heroines of Canadian History, By W. S. Herrington, 1910

 

Canadian Heroines


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