Saturday, February 04, 2017

Charles Huault de Montmagny - The Great Mountain of New France

"Onontio - Great Mountain."
Charles Huault de Montmagny
(AD 1599-1654)
The conventional mythology propagated in many modern, politically-sensitive works of history claims that the first European settlers of North America intruded upon a pristine wilderness and brutalized a peaceful native population. But anyone who has studied the primary-source history of the early colonial period knows this to be a gross misrepresentation. Perhaps nowhere was this absurd notion less true than in New France, a vast region roughly equivalent to eastern Canada.
     When the French planted their first firm settlement on the St. Lawrence River at Quebec in 1608, they could not have known that the century to come would be one of blood and fire. Within a year of their arrival, the tiny colony, led by the fearless explorer Samuel de Champlain, was already entangled in the endless cycle of war and vengeance raiding that plagued the native tribes of the region. Immediately befriended by the Algonquin, Montagnais, and Huron nations that routinely traded along the St. Lawrence, the French were cajoled into assisting these tribes against their traditional enemies, the Iroquois Confederacy. With the aid of a few French musketeers, the allied tribes were quickly able to win two stunning but ultimately fruitless victories over Iroquois war parties.
      When Champlain died at Quebec on Christmas Day 1635, his fledgling colonies along the St. Lawrence were in a precarious condition. Trade with the Dutch colonies along the Hudson River had given the Iroquois access to European-style arms and they soon learned to wield the musket or arquebus with deadly precision. Emboldened by their new weaponry and enflamed by their insatiable desire for revenge, the Iroquois raided up and down the St. Lawrence, destroying the villages of their enemies, killing and capturing innumerable Algonquins, Montagnais, Hurons, and French.
      Charles Huault de Montmagny was the man chosen to succeed Champlain as governor of New France during this time of tumult. Born in Paris in 1599, Montmagny was educated by the Jesuits and studied law at the Universite d’Orleans. He joined the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem in 1622, thus gaining his knowledge of things martial from no lesser masters than those who trained him in religion and the law.
      When he arrived in New France in 1636, Montmagny was faced with an imminent and growing menace posed by the Iroquois as well as a brilliant opportunity to propagate the Catholic faith among the tribes. As a Montagnais chief explained to the new governor:
“We have two powerful enemies who are destroying us, one is ignorance of God, which is killing our souls; the other is the Iroquois, who are slaughtering our bodies.”
Montmagny was determined to protect the Indian allies to the utmost of his ability and to make certain that those who wished to be initiated into the Catholic faith could be instructed under the auspices of the valiant Jesuit missionaries.
      His first test was not long in coming. In August of 1637, an Iroquois war party some 500 strong began ambushing Huron canoes in the vicinity of the new French settlement at Three Rivers. To put the size of this force into perspective, it is well to remember that the entire French population in the whole vast expanse of Canada at the time amounted to only a few hundred. As it happened, Montmagny was present at Three Rivers at the time of this raid and quickly moved to put the place on a secure defensive footing. Expecting an attack, he gathered the terrified allied Indians within the redoubt and armed them with swords, poles, and knives. Though well-trained in European-style warfare, Montmagny did not disdain the rudimentary techniques of the Iroquois. Nor did he underestimate their ability to wage war via guile. When a lone Iroquois canoe appeared in the middle of the river, seemingly taunting the defenders of the redoubt, Montmagny restrained his few men and the Indian allies, correctly discerning an ambush. He dispatched a bark to reconnoiter and a skillful shot from a brass cannon caused the Iroquois hiding along the bank to withdraw. Wrote Fr. Paul le Jeune:
“He put everything in so good order, among both the French and the Savages that there was cause to praise our Lord for the method and resoluteness existing on both sides.”
      Over the next few years, the Iroquois focused their attacks on softer targets and Montmagny was able to spend more of his time and energy propagating the faith among the Indians. A Jesuit seminary was founded to educate the Huron and Algonquin children, and Montmagny did everything in his power to assist the missionaries in their work. Father le Jeune deemed him a “very remarkable example of piety,” leading by personal example. He attended the catechism classes held by the Jesuits, performed innumerable corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and acted as godfather for at least a dozen Indian neophytes.
      When several of the Montagnais who settled near the French contracted a deadly illness, Montmagny did not shrink from visiting their sick. When the son of convert Noël Nagabamat died from the illness, the bereaved chief said to Fr. le Jeune:
“Nikanis, thou shalt say to our Captain, that I thank him for having visited my son during his illness. Assure him that my heart is quite free and that I remember well the promise that I have given to God, to serve Him all my life.” 
 Fr. le Jeune reports that these words greatly affected Montmagny, whom he calls on this occasion, “the Knight of the Holy Spirit, so ready do I find him to perform saintly and courageous deeds and actions replete with the spirit of God.”
      Montmagny was also zealous in defending the newly converted Indians from those who objected to their Christian practices. When a pagan youth found his explicit advances rebuffed by a Christian Montagnais girl, his father entered the village and threatened death to those who believed in the Christian God. When the man refused to be appeased by the elders, he was brought before Montmagny who told him in no uncertain terms that he himself was a man who believed in Jesus Christ and loved prayer. Furthermore, he warned that any attack upon the Christian Indians was an attack upon him personally. Fr. Barthèlemy Vimont adds, “Such a sermon, preached in a Fort armed with cannon, had its effect.”
Map of the St. Lawrence Valley by Sanson, ca. 1650.
      The torture of prisoners among the tribes was a grim reality and Montmagny did all in his power to liberate captives whenever possible. When his allies the Algonquins captured an Iroquois after a sharp encounter, Montmagny ransomed the poor soul mere hours before his horrible death by fire. The grateful prisoner, realizing that he had been saved, repeated the word “Onontio” several times. This was the Indian appellation that Montmagny had gained, meaning “Great Mountain,” a literal translation of his name from the French and an apparent reference to his imposing stature.
      It wasn’t long before renewed Iroquois raiding forced Montmagny to again concentrate on defense. In 1641, a large Iroquois war party appeared near Three Rivers bearing two French prisoners. The Iroquois claimed that their mission was a peaceful one—to trade the French prisoners and forge a treaty—but their true motives were soon laid bare. The alliance they sought was a separate peace with the French, leaving the Iroquois a free hand to ravage their traditional enemies, the Hurons, Montagnais, and Algonquins. Discerning this, Montmagny nonetheless refused to abandon his allies. However, he was not so quick to cast aside even a tenuous chance at peace. He gave presents of knives, blankets, mats, robes, and hatchets to the Iroquois chiefs, respecting the traditional practice of the country, and offered a comprehensive peace that included the allies of the French. This partially placated the Iroquois, but it soon became evident that they were holding out for an even greater prize—a gift of arquebuses. Doubting their good faith, Montmagny refused to grant this request. In response, the Iroquois war party raised an Algonquin scalp above their camp signifying war and began firing upon the French boats that had come out to parley. They raged that Onontio had not given them arquebuses to eat, meaning that he had not given them the requested present. Fr. Vimont reported:
“Their insolence made Monsieur the Governor resolve to give them arquebuses to eat, but not in the way that they asked.”
      Commanding from a bark in the river, Montmagny ordered the French vessels to discharge their cannon upon the Iroquois fort. The Iroquois, however, had contrived a clever strategem to escape the barrage. Hidden in the woods behind their encampment, they had constructed another fort to which they had retreated during the bombardment. When the French ships approached afterwards to inspect the damage, they were met by a hail of shot from Iroquois arquebusiers firing from behind trees on the shoreline. Montmagny’s own ship was hit by numerous balls, but not seriously damaged. When night fell, the Iroquois escaped into the forest.
      After this encounter, Montmagny sought to better secure the settlements against Iroquois raiders by fortifying the mouth of the Richelieu River, the main thoroughfare which carried Iroquois canoes to the St. Lawrence. This project had barely commenced when an Iroquois raiding party descended upon the workers and few soldiers garrisoning the place. Montmagny, who had been aboard ship, rushed to shore and entered the incomplete redoubt to command the defense. The Iroquois attacked with vigor, charging right up to the incomplete palisade wall and firing through the loopholes at the defenders inside. After a protracted struggle, the French were able to repulse the attack, but according to Fr. Vimont:
“Had not Monsieur the Governor been present, all the workmen would have been cut to pieces.”
      This small victory was immediately superseded by a disaster—the capture of Fr. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, and several other French and Huron converts by the Iroquois. These were brought to Iroquoia where they suffered the torments common to most prisoners captured in the wars of the eastern woodlands. At the spot where these poor souls were delivered to an earthly hell, Montmagny caused a high cross to be erected on the day of the exaltation of the Holy Cross.
      Sadly, the French still lacked the manpower to launch any sort of reprisal. The fort at the mouth of the Richelieu River proved only a temporary deterrent which the Iroquois raiders soon found ways to skirt. Throughout the mid-1640s, Montmagny consistently sought a way to achieve a true peace and in the summer of 1645, it appeared he had achieved it. During an exchange of prisoners, a freed Iroquois captive said:
“Onontio, it must be admitted that thou art good and that we are wicked, but our anger has departed; I no longer have any ardor except for peace and joy.”
Read more about this
fascinating era in history
in Iroqouis Wars I and II.
      But as with most peace treaties in the eastern woodlands, this one proved short-lived. Within a year, the Iroquois attacked the Algonquins, Hurons, and French with renewed ferocity, driving deep into the country of the Hurons and scattering the Algonquin and Montagnais tribes near Quebec. Yet by this time, Montmagny’s third term as governor had come to a close and he was recalled to France. With his departure, New France was left without a strong hand on the tiller during a time of acute crisis. Disaster quickly followed as the Indian allies of the French, along with many of their resident Jesuit missionaries, were almost completely annihilated by Iroquois attacks. But Montmagny witnessed none of this. Having returned to France, he later ventured to the West Indies, where he died in 1654.
      Montmagny’s foresight, diligence, personal courage, zeal for the propagation of the Catholic faith, and the reputation he forged among the Indians, had been crucial to the survival of the French colonies in Canada. Indeed, even after his departure in 1647, his successors continued to be called “Onontio,” a testament to the personal impact Montmagny had upon the Indians. In his ten plus years as governor of New France, he had shown himself to be a model Catholic executive, who guarded well those under his protection while greatly respecting the law and giving noteworthy attention to the spreading of the Gospel. Indeed, Charles Huault de Montmagny is an excellent exemplar of a Catholic office-holder and member of “the Church militant.”

I wrote this biographical article on Montmagny several years ago for the sadly departed periodical, Catholic Men's Quarterly. As historical pieces never go out of style, I figured I would reproduce it here.

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