220px-vercheresGreetings, my fellow port swillers!

Regular friends of teh decanter will know that ol’ Robbo is in the midst of his biennial rereading of the great Francis Parkman’s magnum opus , his History of France and England in North America, Volumes I and II.   (I always finish up with his Conspiracy of Pontiac, even thought it was an earlier, stand-alone book, because it rounds out the timeline nicely.)   I may say that I seem to derive ever more satisfaction from these books with each re-reading.

At any rate, within the past couple days, I again came across one of my very favorite little vignettes in the saga, the story of the heroic 14 year old girl, La Madeleine de Verchéres on the Canadian frontier in the early 1690’s.  (The pic to the right is of a statue erected to her somewhere around 1919, in the modern town of Verchéres, Quebec.  You can see it pretty well on Google’s street-view if you are so inclined.)

I posted Parkman’s telling of the tale here a couple years ago, but my fellow port swillers will forgive me for serving it up again since I wanted to bring it to the attention of a certain other fourteen year old gel who I know is a regular reader.  (I recently got her to try True Grit, which I think she liked.  She may find this story even more inspiring and exciting, since it’s actual history, not fiction.   And in my opinion, at least, when it comes to real frontier gals, Madeleine knocks Laura Ingalls Wilder into a cocked hat.)

Anyway, here’s Parkman:

Many incidents of this troubled time are preserved, but none of them are so well worth the record as the defense of the fort at Verchéres by the young daughter of the seignor.  Many years later, the Marquis de Beauharnais, governor of Canada, caused the story to be written down from the recital of the heroine herself.  Verchéres was on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, about twenty miles below Montreal.  A strong blockhouse stood outside the fort, and was connected with it by a covered way.  On the morning of the twenty-second of October [1693], the inhabitants were at work in the fields, and nobody was left in the place but two soldiers, two boys, an old man of eighty, and a number of women and children.  The seignor, formerly an officer of the regiment of Carignan, was on duty at Quebec; his wife was at Montreal; and their daughter Madeleine, fourteen years of age, was at the landing-place not far from the gate of the fort, with a hired man named Laviolette.  Suddenly she heard firing from the direction where the settlers were at work, and an instant after Laviolette cried out, “Run, Mademoiselle, run!  Here come the Iroquois!”  She turned and saw forty or fifty of them at the distance of a pistol-shot.  “I ran for the fort, commending myself to the Holy Virgin.  The Iroquois who chased after me, seeing that they could not catch me alive before I reached the gate, stopped and fired at me.  The bullets whistled about my ears, and made the time seem very long.  As soon as I was near enough to be heard, I cried out, To arms! To arms! hoping that somebody would come out and help me; but it was of no use.  The two soldiers in the fort were so scared that they had hidden in the blockhouse.  At the gate, I found two women crying for their husbands, who had just been killed.  I made them go in, and then shut the gate.  I next thought what I could do to save myself and the few people with me.  I went to inspect the fort, and found that several palisades had fallen down, and left openings by which the enemy could easily get in.  I ordered them set up again, and helped to carry them myself.  When the breaches were stopped, I went to the blockhouse where the ammunition is kept, and here I found the two soldiers, one hiding in a corner, and the other with a lighted match in his hand.  “What are you going to do with the match?” I asked.  He answered, “Light the powder, and blow us all up.” “You are a miserable coward,” said I, “go out of this place.” I spoke so resolutely that he obeyed.  I then threw off my bonnet; and after putting on a hat and taking a gun, I said to my two brothers: “Let us fight to the death.  We are fighting for our country and our religion. Remember that our father has taught you that gentlemen are born to shed their blood for the service of God and the king.”

The boys, who were twelve and ten years old, aided by the soldiers, whom her words had inspired with some little courage, began to fire from the loopholes upon the Iroquois, who, ignorant of the weakness of the garrison, showed their usual reluctance to attack a fortified place, and occupied themselves with chasing and butchering the people in the neighboring fields.  Madeleine ordered a cannon to be fired, partly to deter the enemy from an assault, and partly to warn some of the soldiers, who were hunting at a distance.  The women and children in the fort cried and screamed without ceasing.  She ordered them to stop, lest their terror should encourage the Indians.  A canoe was presently seen approaching the landing-place.  It was a settler named Fontaine, trying to reach the fort with his family.  The Iroquois were still near; and Madeleine feared that the newcomers would be killed, if something were not done to aid them.  She appealed to the soldiers, but their courage was not equal to the attempt; on which, as she declares, after leaving Laviolette to keep watch at the gate, she herself went alone to the landing-place.  “I thought that the savages would suppose it to be a ruse to draw them toward the fort, in order to make a sortie upon them.  They did suppose so, and thus I was able to save the Fontaine family.  When they were all landed, I made them march before me in full sight of the enemy.  We put so bold a face on it, that they thought they had more to fear than we.  Strengthened by this reinforcement, I ordered that the enemy should be fired on whenever they showed themselves.  After sunset, a violent north-east wind began to blow, accompanied with snow and hail, which told us that we should have a terrible night.  The Iroquois were all this time lurking about us; and I judged by their movements that, instead of being deterred by the storm, they would climb into the fort under cover of the darkness.  I assembled all my troops, that is to say, six persons, and spoke to them thus: “God has saved us today from the hands of our enemies, but we must take care not to fall into their snares tonight.  As for me, I want you to see that I am not afraid.  I will take charge of the fort with an old man of eighty and another who never fired a gun; and you, Pierre Fontaine, with La Bonte and Gachet (our two soldiers), will go to the blockhouse with the women and children, because that is the stronger place; and if I am taken, don’t surrender, even if I am cut to pieces and burnt before your eyes.  The enemy cannot hurt you in the blockhouse, if you make the least show of fight.”  I placed my young brothers on two of the bastions, the old man on the third, and I took the fourth;  and all night, in spite of wind, snow and hail, the cries of “All’s well” were kept up from the blockhouse to the fort, and from the fort to the blockhouse.  One would have thought that the place was full of soldiers.  The Iroquois thought so, and were completely deceived, as they confessed afterwards to Monsieur de Caliéres, whom they told that they had held a council to make a plan for capturing the fort in the night but had done nothing because a constant watch was kept.

“About one in the morning, the sentinel on the bastion by the gate called out, “Mademoiselle, I hear something.”  I went to him to find what it was; and by the help of the snow, which covered the ground, I could see through the darkness a number of cattle, the miserable remnant that the Iroquois had left us.  The others wanted to open the gate and let them in, but I answered, “God forbid.  You don’t know all the tricks of the savages.  They are no doubt following the cattle, covered with skins of beasts, so as to get into the fort, if we are simple enough to open the gate for them.”  Nevertheless, after taking every precaution, I thought that we might open it without risk.  I made my two brothers stand ready with their guns cocked in case of surprise, and so we let in the cattle.

“At last, the daylight came again; and, as the darkness disappeared, our anxieties seemed to disappear with it.  Everybody took courage except Mademoiselle Marguérite, wife of the Sieur Fontaine, who being extremely timid, as all Parisian women are, asked her husband to carry her to another fort.  He said, “I will never abandon this fort while Mademoiselle Madelon [sic] is here.”  I answered him that I would never abandon it; that I would rather die than give it up to the enemy; and that it was of the greatest importance that they should never get possession of any French fort, because, if they got one, they would think they could get others, and would grow more bold and presumptuous than ever.  I may say with truth that I did not eat or sleep for twice twenty-four hours.  I did not go once into my father’s house, but kept always on the bastion, or went to the blockhouse to see how the people there were behaving.  I always kept a cheerful and smiling face, and encouraged my little company with the hope of speedy succor.

“We were a week in constant alarm, with the enemy always about us.  At last Monsieur de la Monnerie, a lieutenant sent by Monsieur de Calliéres, arrived in the night with forty men.  As he did not know whether the fort was taken or not, he approached as silently as possible.  One of our sentinels, hearing a slight sound, cried, “Qui vive?”  I was at the time dozing, with my head on a table and my gun lying across my arms.  The sentinel told me he heard a voice from the river.  I went up at once to the bastion to see whether it was Indians or Frenchmen.  I asked, “Who are you?”  One of them answered, “We are Frenchmen:  it is La Monnerie, who comes to bring you help.”  I caused the gate to be opened, placed a sentinel there, and went down to the river to meet them.  As soon as I saw Monsieur de la Monnerie, I saluted him, and said, “Monsieur, I surrender my arms to you.”  He answered gallantly, “Mademoiselle, they are in good hands.” “Better than you think,” I returned.  He inspected the fort, and found everything in order, and a sentinel on each bastion.  “It is time to relieve them, Monsieur, said I:  “we have not been off our bastions for a week.””

– Francis Parkman, Count Frontenac and New France, Chapter XIV “The Scourge of Canada”.

I love this story.  I really do.   All the courage, coolness and nobility displayed by young Madeleine are downright inspirational.   Indeed, I’d back her against a hundred modern, feminist “Grrrrl-power” types any day.  Especially, not to get apocalyptic about it or anything, if the excrement hits the ol’ fan, as it seems increasingly likely to do in the not so distant future.

I mentioned taking a firearms course a few months back, to which teh gel responded enthusiastically.  At the time, the idea was more theoretical noodling than anything else, but I am that much more persuaded that we ought to put it into concrete practice.

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