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The Great Overland Raid

The Company now had permanent forts at Rupert, Albany, and Moose rivers on James Bay, and at the mouth of the Hayes river on the west coast. The very year that Churchill was appointed governor and took his place at the board of the Governing Committee, a small sloop had sailed as far north as Churchill, or the River of the Strangers, to reconnoiter and fix a site for a post. The fleet of trading vessels had increased even faster than the forts. Seven ships—four frigates and three sloops—were dispatched for the Bay in 1685. Radisson, young Jean, and the four Frenchmen went on the Happy Return with Captain Bond bound for Nelson. Richard Lucas commanded the Owner's Good Will. Captain Outlaw, with Mike Grimmington as mate, took the big ship Success, destined for Albany. Captain Hume, with Smithsend for mate, took his cargo boat, the Merchant Perpetuana. The Company did not own any of these vessels. They were chartered from Sir Stephen Evance and others, for sums running from £400 to £600 for the voyage, with £100 extra for the impress money. The large vessels carried crews of twenty men; the smaller, of twelve; and each craft boasted at least six great guns. In March, after violent debate over old Bridgar's case, the Committee reinstated him at £100 a year as governor at Rupert. Phipps went as governor to Port Nelson. One Nixon was already stationed at Moose. Bluff old Henry Sargeant, as true a Viking as ever rode the north seas, had been at Albany for a year with his family—the first white family known to have resided on the Bay. Radisson had been reappointed superintendent of trade over the entire Bay; and he recommended for this year 20,500 extra flints, 500 extra ice-chisels for trapping beaver above the waterfalls, and several thousand extra yards of tobacco—thereby showing the judgment of an experienced trader. This spring the curious oaths of secrecy, already mentioned, were administered to all servants. It may be inferred that the Happy Return and the Perpetuana were the heaviest laden, for they fell behind the rest of the fleet on the way out, and were embayed, along with Outlaw's Success, in the ice fields off Digges Island in July. It was the realm of almost continuous light in summer; but there must have been fogs or thick weather, for candles were lighted in the binnacles and cabins, and the gloom outside was so heavy that it was impossible to see ten feet away from the decks in the woolly night mist.

Meanwhile the governor at Albany, Henry Sargeant, awaited the coming of the yearly ships. It may be guessed that he waited chuckling. He and Nixon, who seem to have been the only governors resident on the Bay that summer, must have felt great satisfaction. They had out-tricked the French interlopers. One La Martinière of the Company of the North had sailed into the Bay with two ships laden with cargo from Quebec for the fur trade; and the two Hudson's Bay traders had manipulated matters so craftily that not an Indian could the French find. Not a pelt did La Martinière obtain. The French captain then inquired very particularly for his compatriot—M. Radisson. M. Radisson was safe in England. One can see old Sargeant's eyes twinkle beneath his shaggy brows. La Martinière swears softly; a price is on M. Radisson's head. The French king had sent orders to M. de Denonville, the governor of New France, to arrest Radisson and 'to pay fifty pistoles' to anyone who seized him. Has His Excellency, M. Sargeant, seen one Jean Péré, or one M. Comporte? No, M. Sargeant has seen neither 'Parry'—as his report has it—nor 'a Comporte.'

La Martinière sailed away, and old Sargeant sent his sentinel to the crow's nest—a sort of loft or lighthouse built on a high hill behind the fort—to hoist the signals for incoming boats and to run up the flag. He had dispatched Sandford or 'Red Cap,' one of his men, a little way up the Albany to bring him word of the coming of the Indian canoes; but this was not Sandford coming back, and these were not Indian canoes coming down the Albany river from the Up-Country. This was the long slow dip of white voyageurs, not the quick choppy stroke of the Indian; and before Sargeant could rub the amazement out of his eyes, three white men, with a blanket for sail, came swirling down the current, beached their canoe, and, doffing caps in a debonair manner, presented themselves before the Hudson's Bay man dourly sitting on a cannon in the gateway. The nonchalant gentleman who introduced the others was Jean Péré, dressed as a wood-runner, voyaging and hunting in this back-of-beyond for pleasure. A long way to come for pleasure, thought Sargeant—all the leagues and leagues from French camps on Lake Superior. But England and France were at peace. The gentlemen bore passports. They were welcomed to a fort breakfast and passed pretty compliments to Madame Sargeant, and asked blandly after M. Radisson's health, and had the honor to express their most affectionate regard for friend Jean Chouart. Now where might Jean Chouart be? Sargeant did not satisfy their curiosity, nor did he urge them to stay overnight. They sailed gaily on down-stream to hunt in the cedar swamps south of Albany. That night while they slept the tide carried off their canoe. Back they had to come to the fort. But meanwhile some one else had arrived there. With a fluttering of the ensign above the mainmast and a clatter as the big sails came flopping down, Captain Outlaw had come to anchor on the Success; and the tale that he told—one can see the anger mount to old Sargeant's eyes and the fear to Jean Péré's—was that the Merchant Perpetuana, off Digges Island, had been boarded and scuttled in the midnight gloom of July 27 by two French ships. Hume and Smithsend had been overpowered, fettered, and carried off prisoners to Quebec. Mike Grimmington too, who seems to have been on Hume's ship, was a prisoner. Fourteen of the crew had been bayoneted to death and thrown overboard. Outlaw did not know the later details of the raid—how Hume was to be sent home to France for ransom, and Mike Grimmington was to be tortured to betray the secret signals of the Bay, and Smithsend and the other English seamen to be sold into slavery in Martinique. Ultimately, all three were ransomed or escaped back to England; but they heard strange threats of raid and overland foray as they lay imprisoned beneath the Château St Louis in Quebec. Fortunately Radisson and the five Frenchmen, being on board the Happy Return, had succeeded in escaping from the ice jam and were safe in Nelson.

What Jean Péré remarked on hearing this recital is not known—possibly something not very complimentary about the plans of the French raiders going awry; but the next thing is that Mr Jan Parry—as Sargeant persists in describing him—finds himself in 'the butter vat' or prison of Albany with fetters on his feet and handcuffs on his wrists. On October 29 he is sent prisoner to England on the home-bound ships of Bond and Lucas. His two companion spies are marooned for the winter on Charlton Island. As well try, however, to maroon a bird on the wing as a French wood-runner. The men fished and snared game so diligently that by September they had full store of provisions for escape. Then they made themselves a raft or canoe and crossed to the mainland. By Christmas they had reached the French camps of Michilimackinac. In another month they were in Quebec with wild tales of Péré, held prisoner in the dungeons of Albany. France and England were at peace; but the Chevalier de Troyes, a French army officer, and the brothers Le Moyne, dare-devil young adventurers of New France, asked permission of the governor of Quebec to lead a band of wood-runners overland to rescue Péré on the Bay, fire the English forts, and massacre the English. Rumors of these raids Smithsend heard in his dungeon below Château St Louis; and he contrived to send a secret letter to England, warning the Company.

In England the adventurers had lodged 'Parry' in jail on a charge of having 'damnified the Company.' Smithsend's letter of warning had come; but how could the Company reach their forts before the ice cleared? Meanwhile they hired twenty extra men for each fort. They presented Radisson with a hogshead of claret. At the same time they had him and his wife, 'dwelling at the end of Seething Lane on Tower Hill,' sign a bond for £2000 by way of ensuring fidelity. 'Ye two journals of Mr Radisson's last expedition to ye Bay' were delivered into the hands of the Company, where they have rested to this day.

The ransom demanded for Hume was paid by the Company at secret sessions of the Governing Committee, and the captain came post-haste from France with word of La Martinière's raid. My Lord Churchill being England's champion against 'those varmint' the French, 'My Lord Churchill was presented with a catt skin counter pane for his bedd' and was asked to bespeak the favour of the king that France should make restitution. My Lord Churchill brought back word that the king said: 'Gentlemen, I understand your business! On my honor, I assure you I will take particular care on it to see that you are righted.' In all, eighty-nine men were on the Bay at this time. It proved not easy to charter ships that year. Sir Stephen Evance advanced his price on the Happy Return from £400 to £750. Knight, of whom we shall hear anon, and Red Cap Sandford, of whom the minutes do not tell enough to inform us whether the name refers to his hair or his hat, urged the Governing Committee to send at least eighteen more men to Albany, twelve more to Moose, six more to Rupert, and to open a trading post at Severn between Nelson and Albany. They advised against attempting to go up the rivers while French interlopers were active. Radisson bought nine hundred muskets for Nelson, and ordered two great guns to be mounted on the walls. When Smithsend arrived from imprisonment in Quebec, war fever against the French rose to white-heat.

But, while all this preparation was in course at home, sixty-six swarthy Indians and thirty-three French wood-runners, led by the Chevalier de Troyes, the Le Moyne brothers, and La Chesnaye, the fur trader, were threading the deeply-forested, wild hinterland between Quebec and Hudson Bay. On June 18, 1686, Moose Fort had shut all its gates; but the sleepy sentry, lying in his blanket across the entrance, had not troubled to load the cannon. He slept heavily outside the high palisade made of pickets eighteen feet long, secure in the thought that twelve soldiers lay in one of the corner bastions and that three thousand pounds of powder were stored in another. With all lights out and seemingly in absolute security, the chief factor's store and house, built of whitewashed stone, stood in the centre of the inner courtyard.

Two white men dressed as Indians—the young Le Moyne brothers, not yet twenty-six years of age—slipped noiselessly from the woods behind the fort, careful not to crunch their moccasins on dead branches, took a look at the sleeping sentry and the plugged mouths of the unloaded cannon, and as noiselessly slipped back to their comrades in hiding. Each man was armed with musket, sword, dagger, and pistol. He carried no haversack, but a single blanket rolled on his back with dried meat and biscuit enclosed. The raiders slipped off their blankets and coats, and knelt and prayed for blessing on their raid.

The next time the Le Moynes came back to the sentinel sleeping heavily at the fort gate, one quick, sure saber-stroke cleft the sluggard's head to the collar-bone. A moment later the whole hundred raiders were sweeping over the walls. A gunner sprang up with a shout from his sleep. A single blow on the head, and one of the Le Moynes had put the fellow to sleep for ever. In less than five minutes the French were masters of Moose Fort at a cost of only two lives, with booty of twelve cannon and three thousand pounds of powder and with a dozen prisoners.

While the old Chevalier de Troyes paused to rig up a sailing sloop for the voyage across the bottom of James Bay to the Rupert river, Pierre Le Moyne—known in history as d'Iberville—with eight men, set out in canoes on June 27 for the Hudson's Bay fort on the south-east corner of the inland sea. Crossing the first gulf or Hannah Bay, he portaged with his men across the swampy flats into Rupert Bay, thus saving a day's detour, and came on poor old Bridger's sloop near the fort at Rupert, sails reefed, anchor out, rocking gently to the night tide. D'Iberville was up the hull and over the deck with the quiet stealth and quickness of a cat. One sword-blow severed the sleeping sentinel's head from his body. Then, with a stamp of his moccasined feet and a ramp of the butt of his musket, d'Iberville awakened the sleeping crew below decks. By way of putting the fear of God and of France into English hearts, he sabred the first three sailors who came floundering up the hatches. Poor old Bridger came up in his nightshirt, hardly awake, both hands up in surrender—his second surrender in four years. To wake up to bloody decks, with the heads of dead men rolling to the scuppers, was enough to excuse any man's surrender.

The noise on the ship had forewarned the fort, and the French had to gain entrance thereto by ladders. With these they ascended to the roofs of the houses and hurled down bombs—hand-grenades—through the chimneys, 'with,' says the historian of the occasion, 'an effect most admirable.' Most admirable, indeed! for an Englishwoman, hiding in a room closet, fell screaming with a broken hip. The fort surrendered, and the French were masters of Rupert with thirty prisoners and a ship to the good. What all this had to do with the rescue of Jean Péré would puzzle any one but a raiding fur trader.

With prisoners, ship, cannon, and ammunition, but with few provisions for food, the French now set sail westward across the Bay for Albany, La Chesnaye no doubt bearing in mind that a large quantity of beaver stored there would compensate him for his losses at Nelson two years before when the furs collected by Jean Chouart on behalf of the Company of the North had been seized by the English. The wind proved perverse. Ice floes, driving towards the south end of the Bay, delayed the sloops. Again Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville could not constrain patience to await the favour of wind and weather. With crews of voyageurs he pushed off from the ship in two canoes. Fog fell. The ice proved brashy, soft to each step, and the men slithered through the water up to the armpits as they carried the canoes. D'Iberville could keep his men together only by firing guns through the fog and holding hands in a chain as the two crews portaged across the soft ice.

By August 1 the French voyageurs were in camp before Albany, and a few days later de Troyes arrived with the prisoners and the big sloop. Before Albany, Captain Outlaw's ship, the Success, stood anchored; but the ship seemed deserted, and the fort was fast sealed, like an oyster in a shell. Indians had evidently carried warning of the raid to Sargeant, and Captain Outlaw had withdrawn his crew inside the fort. The Le Moynes, acting as scouts, soon discovered that Albany boasted forty-three guns. If Jean Péré were prisoner here in durance vile, his rescue would be a harder matter than the capture of Moose or Rupert. If the French had but known it, bedlam reigned inside the fort. While the English had guns, they had very little ammunition. Gunners threw down their fuses and refused to stand up behind the cannon till old Sargeant drove them back with his sword hilt. Men on the walls threw down muskets and declared that while they had signed to serve, they had not signed to fight, 'and if any of us lost a leg, the Company could not make it good.' The Chevalier de Troyes, with banner flying and fifes shrilling, marched forward, and under flag of truce pompously demanded, in the name of the Most Christian Monarch, Louis XIV, King of France, the instant release of Monsieur Jean Péré. Old Sargeant sent out word that Mister Parry had long since sailed for France by way of England. This, however, did not abate the demands of the Most Christian King of France. Bombs began to sing overhead. Bridger came under flag of truce to Sargeant and told him the French were desperate. It was a matter of life and death. They must take the fort to obtain provisions for the return to Quebec. If it were surrendered, mercy would be exercised. If taken forcibly, no power could restrain the Indians from massacre. Sargeant, as has been explained before, had his family in the fort. Just at this moment one of the gunners committed suicide from sheer terror, and Captain Outlaw came from the powder magazine with the report that there was not another ball to fire. Before Sargeant could prevent it, an underling had waved a white sheet from one of the upper windows in surrender. The old trader took two bottles of port, opened the fort gates, walked out and sat down on a French cannon while he parleyed with de Troyes for the best terms obtainable. The English officers and their families were allowed to retire on one of the small ships to Charlton Island to await the coming of the Company's yearly boats. When the hungry French rushed into the fort, they found small store of food, but an enormous loot of furs. The season was advancing. The Chevalier de Troyes bade his men disband and find their way as best they could to Quebec. Only enough English prisoners were retained to carry the loot of furs back overland. The rest were turned adrift in the woods. Of fifty prisoners, only twenty survived the winter of 1686-87. Some perished while trying to tramp northward to Nelson, and some died in the woods, after a vain endeavor to save their miserable lives by cannibalism.

The English flag still flew at Nelson; but the French were masters of every other post on the Bay.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Adventurers Of England On Hudson Bay, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914


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