Franco-American History and the Lachine Massacre
DL: This excerpt from Here To Stay, an 250-page as-yet- unpublished account of my 17th century Canadian ancestors, is the second most visited post on thememoirnetwork.com site. Who would have guessed? I am re-posting it for those of you who have an historical bent of mind or who might wonder how does a memoir writer write about the distant past. In this post, I refer to my francophone ancestors as Canadiens to distinguish them as a distinct group from anglophone Canadians who arrived with the Conquest in 1760.
In the evening of August 4, 1689, the night of the Lachine massacre, a violent rainstorm hovered above the Saint Lawrence and the Island of Montréal. Lightning flashed repeatedly across the sky and deafening thunder resounded above the seventy-seven houses of the community of Lachine. As the Canadiens slept in their isolated farms, fifteen hundred Iroquois stepped ashore, undetected by the sentries who had sought shelter against the fierce storm. Hidden by the night, warriors fanned out in small bands and readied themselves to attack isolated farmhouses.
They lurked on the edges of the woods, away from the dogs who might have given warning. These men dressed only in loincloths, their faces painted in grotesque shapes meant to frighten their victims, waited for the light of dawn to pillage the community.
About 10 miles downriver in Varennes, across Montréal Island on the south shore, my ancestor Louis Ledoux and his wife Marie Valiquet were abed—with their children nearby. Perhaps they awoke in the night to hear the thunder clashing and to see their small windows light up suddenly and then grow dark again.
As day broke, horrible war cries yanked the Canadiens upriver in Lachine from their sleep. Men and woman, knowing all too well what the cries meant, jumped out of bed and rushed for the muskets they always kept loaded against such a time. Already, their doors were being hacked down by tomahawks. The habitants were able to defend themselves for a short while, but it was only briefly–the number of Iroquois pitted against them was too large. Soon the grizzly warriors had broken down doors and were charging into the houses and axing their occupants. Blood flowed.
A dark moment in Franco-American history
But, by no means did the Iroquois want to kill all the residents. No, they seized some Canadiens, by far less fortunate than those who had been murdered immediately in their homes, to take as prisoners. Later, these luckless men and women would provide the bands of Iroquois with some entertainment. Soon, having been pillaged of goods the Indians desired–especially the alcohol, much of Lachine was in flames. From the forts around Montréal, soldiers and the few Lachine colonists who had escaped could sometimes see the Iroquois as they continued to have free run of Montréal Island. The warriors stayed on the island for several days, ransacking, burning, killing.
From Varennes, Louis and Marie had had only to look to the southwest to see smoke rising above Lachine. How many warriors were there, they must have wondered, and what else where they planning? Would the Iroquois reach Varennes?
The colonists of Varennes soon learned the details of what had happened, as did those of other villages all along the Saint Lawrence, and they retreated hastily into their log forts and waited there for the Iroquois. All day and all night, sentries scanned the landscape, and dogs were let loose outside the palisades to detect any movement on the edges of the forests.
In Montréal, Governor Denonville had 700 soldiers under his command, but he was not a man of action and did not dare counter attack. When the militia commander Saint-Simon ventured out he was called back by Denonville.
“Imbecile!”was how Saint-Simon later described Governor Denonville in his memoirs. In the long days that followed, the Iroquois grew drunk on the wine and the hard liquor they found in Lachine and lost all sense of strategy. Denonville could easily have overcome them had he ventured out. Instead, he chose to abandon his fellow countrymen to their unhappy fates.
In the nights that ensued, the colonist saw the bonfires of the Iroquois. These must not have been easy nights. Their husbands or wives or friends were being tortured. Some were burned slowly on a post set in a circle of faggots, awaiting a slow death that could be days in the coming; others were being eaten bit by bit as parts of their flesh were hacked off their bodies and shared among their captors.
As a result of the Lachine massacre, the settlement was almost entirely destroyed—its people gone and fifty-six of the seventy-seven houses destroyed. As survivors walked around the land that had once been their farms, they found guns and knives the Indians had left behind. Many of these were of English manufacture.
Eventually, when forty-two Canadien prisoners were exchanged for Indian captives, they returned to Lachine to tell grisly tales. During those first nights, forty-eight of the Canadien prisoners had been tortured and eaten. They themselves had escaped death, but many bore the marks of torture.
The people of Montréal island harbored a great hatred for the English colonists to the south whom they believed had incited the Iroquois to commit the atrocities of the Lachine massacre. They wanted revenge. In the following winter, the Canadiens would undertake a number of reprisal raids that would terrorize the New England colonies for the next several years.
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Resource: for more on the French in North America go to: http://frenchnorthamerica.blogspot.com/
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