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Frontenac's Last Days

Though the English might withdraw from Quebec, New France always had the Iroquois with her. We must now pursue the thread of Frontenac's dealings with the savages from the moment when he replaced Denonville.

It requires no flight of the imagination to appreciate the rage Frontenac must have felt when, on returning to Canada, he saw before his eyes the effects of La Barre's rapacity and Denonville's perfidy, of which the massacres of Lachine and La Chesnaye furnished the most ghastly proofs. But in these two cases the element of tragedy was so strong as to efface the mood of exasperation. There remained a third incident which must have provoked pure rage. This was the destruction of Fort Frontenac, blown up, at Denonville's order, by the French themselves (October 1689). The erection and maintenance of this post had been a cardinal point in Frontenac's Indian policy; and, more particularly to aggravate the offence, there was the humiliating fact that Denonville had ordered it demolished to comply with a demand from the Iroquois. This shameful concession had been made shortly before Frontenac reached Canada. It was Denonville's last important act in the colony. On the chance that something might have occurred to delay execution of the order, Frontenac at once countermanded it and sent forward an expedition of three hundred men. But they were too late. His beloved fortress was gone. The only comfort which Frontenac could derive from the incident was that the work of destruction had been carried out imperfectly. There remained a portion of the works which could still be used.

Thus with regard to the Iroquois the situation was far worse in 1689 than it had been when Frontenac came to Canada in 1672. Everything which he had done to conciliate the Five Nations had been undone; and Dongan's intelligent activities, coinciding with this long series of French mistakes, had helped to make matters worse. Nor was it now merely a question of the Iroquois. The whole Indian world had been convulsed by the renewal of strife between Onontio and the Five Nations. Tribes long friendly to the French and in constant trade with them were being alienated. The Indian problem as Frontenac saw it in 1690 resolved itself to this: either peace with the Iroquois on terms which would prove impressive to the Huron, the Ottawa, and even to the savages of the Mississippi; or else uncompromising war. For under no circumstances could the French afford to lose their hold upon the tribes from whom they derived their furs.

Obviously an honorable peace would be preferable to the horrors of a forest war, and Frontenac did his best to secure it. To undo, as far as possible, Denonville's treachery at Fort Frontenac and elsewhere, he had brought back with him to Quebec the Iroquois who had been sent to France--or such of them as were still alive. First among these was a Cayuga chief of great influence named Ourehaoue, whose friendship Frontenac assiduously cultivated and completely won. Towards the close of January 1690 an embassy of three released Iroquois carried to Onondaga a message from Ourehaoue that the real Onontio had returned and peace must be made with him if the Five Nations wished to live. A great council was then held at which the English, by invitation, were represented, while the French interest found its spokesman in a Christian Iroquois named Cut Nose. Any chance of success was destroyed by the implacable enmity of the Seneca, who remembered the attempt of the French to check their raids upon the Illinois and the invasion of their own country by Denonville. Cannehoot, a Seneca chieftain, rose and stated that the tribes of Michilimackinac were ready to join the English and the Iroquois for the destruction of New France; and the assembly decided to enter this triple alliance. Frontenac's envoys returned to Quebec alive, but with nothing to show for their pains. A later effort by Frontenac was even less successful. The Iroquois, it was clear, could not be brought back to friendship by fair words.

War to the knife being inevitable, Frontenac promptly took steps to confirm his position with the hitherto friendly savages of the Ottawa and the Great Lakes. When Cannehoot had said that the tribes of Michilimackinac were ready to turn against the French, he was not drawing wholly upon his imagination. This statement was confirmed by the report of Nicolas Perrot, who knew the Indians of the West as no one else knew them--save perhaps Du Lhut and Carheil.1

The French were now playing a desperate game in the vast region beyond Lake Erie, which they had been the first of Europeans to explore. The Ottawa and the Huron, while alike the hereditary foes of the Iroquois, were filled with mutual jealousy which must be composed. The successes of the Iroquois in their raids on the French settlements must be explained and minimized. 'The Rat' Kondiaronk, the cleverest of the western chieftains, must be conciliated. And to compass all these ends, Perrot found his reliance in the word that Frontenac had returned and would lead his children against the common foe. Meanwhile, the Iroquois had their own advocates among the more timid and suspicious members of these western tribes. During the winter of 1689-90 the French and the Iroquois had about an even chance of winning the Indians who centered at Michilimackinac. But the odds were against the French to this extent--they were working against a time limit. Unless Frontenac could quickly show evidence of strength, the tribes of the West would range with the Iroquois.

In the spring of 1690 Frontenac dispatched a force of a hundred and fifty men to reinforce the garrison at Michilimackinac. On their way westward these troops encountered a band of Iroquois and fortunately killed a number of them. The scalps were an ocular proof of success; and Perrot, who was of the party, knew how to turn the victory to its best use by encouraging the Ottawa to torture an Iroquois prisoner. The breach thus made between the Ottawa and the Five Nations distinctly widened as soon as word came that the French had destroyed Schenectady. Thus this dreadful raid against the English did not fail of its psychological effect, as may be gathered from one of the immediate consequences. Early in August there appeared on Lake St Louis a vast flotilla of canoes, which at first caused the afflicted habitants to fear that the Iroquois were upon them again. Instead of this it was a great band of friendly savages from the West, drawn from all the trading tribes and bringing a cargo of furs of far more than the usual value. Frontenac himself chanced to be in Montreal at this fortunate moment. The market was held and concluded to mutual satisfaction, but the crowning event of the meeting was a council, at which, after an exchange of harangues, Frontenac entered into the festivities of the savages as though he were one of themselves (August 1690). The governor's example was followed by his leading officers. Amid the chanting of the war-song and the swinging of the tomahawk the French renewed their alliance with the Indians of the West. All were to fight until the Iroquois were destroyed. Even the Ottawa, who had been coquetting with the Seneca, now came out squarely and said that they would stand by Onontio.

Here, at last, was a real answer to the Lachine massacre. The challenge had been fairly given, and now it was not a Denonville who made the reply. There followed three years of incessant warfare between the Iroquois and the French, which furnished a fair test of the strength that each side could muster when fighting at its best. The Five Nations had made up their minds. The cares of diplomacy they threw to the winds. They were on the war-path, united and determined. The French, on their side, had Frontenac for leader and many outrages to avenge. It was war of the wilderness in its most unrelenting form, with no mercy expected or asked. The general result can be quickly stated. The Iroquois got their fill of war, and Frontenac destroyed their power as a central, dominating, terrorizing confederacy.

The measure of this achievement is to be sought in the difficulties which were overcome. Despite the eighty years of its existence the colony was still so poor that regularity in the arrival of supplies from France was a matter of vital importance. From the moment war began English cruisers hovered about the mouth of the St Lawrence, ready to pounce upon the supply-ships as they came up the river. Sometimes the French boats escaped; sometimes they were captured; but from this interruption of peaceful oversea traffic Canada suffered grievously. Another source of weakness was the interruption of agriculture which followed in the train of war. As a rule the Iroquois spent the winter in hunting deer, but just as the ground was ready for its crop they began to show themselves in the parishes near Montreal, picking off the habitants in their farms on the edge of the forest, or driving them to the shelter of the stockade. These forays made it difficult and dangerous to till the soil, with a corresponding shrinkage in the volume of the crop. Almost every winter famine was imminent in some part of the colony, and though spring was welcome for its own sake, it invariably brought the Iroquois. A third calamity was the interruption of the fur trade. Ordinarily the great cargoes descended the Ottawa in fleets of from one hundred to two hundred canoes. But the savages of the West well knew that when they embarked with their precious bales upon a route which was infested by the Iroquois, they gave hostages to fortune. In case of a battle the cargo was a handicap, since they must protect it as well as themselves. In case they were forced to flee for their lives, they lost the goods which it had cost so much effort to collect. In these circumstances the tribes of Michilimackinac would not bring down their furs unless they felt certain that the whole course of the Ottawa was free from danger. In seasons when they failed to come, the colony had nothing to export and penury became extreme. At best the returns from the fur trade were precarious. In 1690 and 1693 there were good markets; in 1691 and 1692 there were none at all.

From time to time Frontenac received from France both money and troops, but neither in sufficient quantity to place him where he could deal the Iroquois one final blow. Thus one year after another saw a war of skirmishes and minor raids, sufficiently harassing and weakening to both sides, but with results which were disappointing because inconclusive. The hero of this border warfare is the Canadian habitant, whose farm becomes a fort and whose gun is never out of reach. Nor did the men of the colony display more courage than their wives and daughters. The heroine of New France is the woman who rears from twelve to twenty children, works in the fields and cooks by day, and makes garments and teaches the catechism in the evening. It was a community which approved of early marriage--a community where boys and girls assumed their responsibilities very young. Youths of sixteen shouldered the musket. Madeleine de Vercheres was only fourteen when she defended her father's fort against the Iroquois with a garrison of five, which included two boys and a man of eighty (October 1692).

A detailed chronicle of these raids and counter-raids would be both long and complicated, but in addition to the incidents which have been mentioned there remain three which deserve separate comment--Peter Schuyler's invasion of Canada in 1691, the activities of the Abnaki against New England, and Frontenac's invasion of the Onondaga country in 1696.

We have already seen that in 1690 an attempt was made by John Schuyler to avenge the massacre at Schenectady. The results of this effort were insignificant, but its purpose was not forgotten; and in 1691 the Anglo-Dutch of the Hudson attempted once more to make their strength felt on the banks of the St Lawrence. This time the leader was Peter Schuyler, whose force included a hundred and twenty English and Dutch, as against the forty who had attacked Canada in the previous summer. The number of Indian allies was also larger than on the former occasion, including both Mohawks and Mohegans. Apart from its superior numbers and much harder fighting, the second expedition of the English was similar to the first. Both followed Lake Champlain and the Richelieu; both reached Laprairie, opposite Montreal; both were forced to retreat without doing any great damage to their enemies. There is this notable difference, however, that the French were in a much better state of preparation than they had been during the previous summer. The garrison at Laprairie now numbered above seven hundred, while a flying squadron of more than three hundred stood ready to attack the English on their retreat to the Richelieu. On the whole, Schuyler was fortunate to escape as lightly as he did. Forty of his party were killed in a hot battle, but he made his retreat in good order after inflicting some losses on the French (August 1, 1691). Although Schuyler's retreat was skillfully conducted, his original object had been far more ambitious than to save his men from extermination. The French missed a chance to injure their foe more seriously than they had done at Schenectady. At the same time, this second English invasion was so far from successful that the New France of Frontenac suffered no further attack from the side of Albany.

While Callieres and Valrennes were repulsing Peter Schuyler from Laprairie, the French in another part of Frontenac's jurisdiction were preparing for the offensive. The centre of this activity was the western part of Acadia--that is, the large and rugged region which is watered by the Penobscot and the Kennebec. Here dwelt the Abnaki, a tribe of Algonquin origin, among whom the Jesuits had established a mission and made many converts. Throughout Acadia the French had established friendly relations with the Indians, and as the English settlements began to creep from New Hampshire to the mouth of the Kennebec, the interval between the rival zones of occupation became so narrow as to admit of raiding. Phips's capture of Port Royal had alarmed some of the Abnaki, but most of them held fast to the French connection and were amenable to presents. It soon proved that all they needed was leadership, which was amply furnished by the Baron de Saint-Castin and Father Thury.

Saint-Castin was a very energetic French trader, of noble birth, who had established himself at Pentegoet on Penobscot Bay--a point which, after him, is now called Castine. Father Thury was the chief of the mission priests in the western part of Acadia, but though an ecclesiastic he seems to have exalted patriotism above religion. That he did his best to incite his converts against the English is beyond question. Urged on by him and Saint-Castin, the savages of the Penobscot and the Kennebec proceeded with enthusiasm to destroy the English settlements which lay within their reach. In the course of successive raids which extended from 1692 to 1694 they descended upon York, Wells, and Oyster Bay, always with the stealth and swiftness which marked joint operations of the French and Indians. The settlements of the English were sacked, the inhabitants were either massacred or carried into captivity, and all those scenes were re-enacted which had marked the success of Frontenac's three war-parties in 1690. Thus New England was exposed to attack from the side of Acadia no less than from that of Canada. Incidentally Canada and Acadia were drawn into closer connection by the vigor which Frontenac communicated to the war throughout all parts of his government.

But the most vivid event of Frontenac's life after the defense of Quebec against Phips was the great expedition which he led in person against the Onondagas. It was an exploit which resembles Denonville's attack upon the Seneca, with the added interest that Frontenac was in his seventy-seventh year when he thus carried the war into the heart of the enemy's country. As a physical tour de force this campaign was splendid, and it enables us, better than any other event, to appreciate the magnificent energy which Frontenac threw into the fulfillment of his task. With over two thousand men, and an equipment that included cannon and mortars, he advanced from the south shore of Lake Ontario against the chief stronghold of the Iroquois. At the portage the Indians would not permit their aged, indomitable Onontio to walk, but insisted that he should remain seated in his canoe, while they carried it from the pool below the fall to the dead water above. All the French saw of the stronghold they had come to attack was the flame which consumed it. Following the example of the Seneca, the Onondaga, when they saw that the invader was at hand, set fire to their palisade and wigwams, gathered up what property was portable, and took to the woods. Pursuit was impossible. All that could be done was to destroy the corn and proceed against the settlement of the Oneidas. After this, with its maize, had been consumed, Frontenac considered whether he should attack the Cayuga, but he decided against this extension of the campaign. Unlike Denonville, he was at war with the English as well as with the Iroquois, and may have thought it imprudent to risk surprise at a point so far from his base. While it was disappointing that the Onondagas did not wait to be destroyed by the cannon which with so much effort had been brought against them, this expedition was a useful proof of strength and produced a good moral effect throughout the colony as well as among the western tribes.

The events of 'William and Mary's War,' as it was known in New England, show how wide the French zone in North America had come to be. Frontenac's province extended from Newfoundland to the Mississippi, from Onondaga to Hudson Bay. The rarest quality of a ruler is the power to select good subordinates and fill them with his own high spirit. Judged by this standard Frontenac deserves great praise, for he never lacked capable and loyal lieutenants. With Callieres at Montreal, Tonty on the Mississippi, Perrot and Du Lhut at Michilimackinac, Villebon and Saint-Castin in Acadia, Sainte-Helene at the siege of Quebec, and Iberville at Hudson Bay, he was well supported by his staff. At this critical moment the shortcomings of the French in America were certainly not due to lack of purpose or driving power. The system under which they worked was faulty, and in their extremity they resorted to harsh expedients. But there were heroes in New France, if courage and self-sacrifice are the essence of heroism.

The Peace of Ryswick, which was signed in the year after Frontenac's campaign against the Onondagas, came as a happy release to Canada (1697). For nine years the colony had been hard pressed, and a breathing space was needed. The Iroquois still remained a peril, but proportionately their losses since 1689 had been far heavier than those of the French and English. Left to carry on the war by themselves, they soon saw the hopelessness of their project to drive the French from the St Lawrence. The English were ready to give them defensive assistance, even after word came from Europe that peace had been signed. In 1698 the Earl of Bellomont, then governor of New York, wrote Frontenac that he would arm every man in his province to aid the Iroquois if the French made good their threat to invade once more the land of the Five Nations. Frontenac, then almost on his death-bed, sent back the characteristic reply that this kind of language would only encourage him to attack the Iroquois with the more vigor. The sequel shows that the English at Albany overplayed their part. The reward of their protection was to be suzerainty, and at this price protection proved unacceptable to the Iroquois, whose safety lay in the equipoise of power between the rival whites. Three years later the Five Nations renewed peace with Onontio; and, though Frontenac did not live to see the day, he it was who had brought it to pass. His daring and energy had broken the spirit of the red man. In 1701 Callieres, then governor of New France, held a great council at Montreal, which was attended by representatives from all the Indian tribes of the West as well as from the Iroquois. There, amid all the ceremonies of the wilderness, the calumet was smoked and the hatchet was interred.

But the old warrior was then no more. On returning to Quebec from his war against the Onondagas he had thrown himself into an active quarrel with Champigny, the intendant, as to the establishment and maintenance of French posts throughout the West. To the last Frontenac remained an advocate of the policy which sought to place France in control of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Champigny complained of the expense and the Jesuits lamented the immorality which life in the forest encouraged among young men. It was an old quarrel renewed under conditions which Made the issue more important than ever, for with open war between French and English it became of vital moment to control points which were, or might be, strategic.

This dispute with Champigny was the last incident in Frontenac's stormy life. It remains to the credit of both governor and intendant that their differences on matters of policy did not make them irreconcilable enemies. On the 28th of November 1698 Frontenac died at the Chateau St Louis after an illness of less than a month. He had long been a hero of the people, and his friendship with the Recollets shows that he had some true allies among the clergy. No one in Canada could deny the value of his services at the time of crisis--which was not a matter of months but of years. Father Goyer, of the Recollets, delivered a eulogy which in fervor recalls Bossuet's funeral orations over members of the royal family. But the most touching valedictory was that from Champigny, who after many differences had become Frontenac's friend. In communicating to the Colonial Office tidings of the governor's death, Champigny says: 'On the 28th of last month Monsieur le Comte de Frontenac died, with the sentiments of a true Christian. After all our disputes, you will hardly believe, Monseigneur, how truly and deeply I am touched by his death. He treated me during his illness in a manner so obliging that I should be utterly devoid of gratitude if I did not feel thankful to him.'

There is a well-known portrait of Madame de Frontenac, which may still be seen at Versailles. Of Frontenac himself no portrait whatever exists. Failing his likeness from brush or pencil, we must image to ourselves as best we may the choleric old warrior who rescued New France in her hour of need. In seeking to portray his character the historian has abundant materials for the period of his life in Canada, though we must regret the dearth of information for the years which separate his two terms of office. There is also a bad gap in our sources for the period which precedes his first appointment as governor. What we have from Madame de Montpensier and Saint-Simon is useful, but their statements are far from complete and provoke many questions which must remain unanswered. His letters and reports as governor of Canada exist in considerable numbers, but it must remain a source of lasting regret that his private correspondence has perished.

Some one has said that talent should be judged at its best and character at its worst; but this is a phrase which does not help us to form a true estimate of Frontenac. He touched no heights of genius and he sank to no depths of crime. In essential respects his qualities lie upon the surface, depicted by his acts and illustrated by his own words or those of men who knew him well. Were we seeking to set his good traits against his bad, we should style him, in one column, brave, steadfast, daring, ambitious of greatness, far-sighted in policy; and in the other, prodigal, boastful, haughty, unfair in argument, ruthless in war. This method of portraiture, however, is not very helpful. We can form a much better idea of Frontenac's nature by discussing his acts than by throwing adjectives at him.

As an administrator he appears to least advantage during his first term of office, when, in the absence of war, his energies were directed against adversaries within the colony. Had he not been sent to Canada a second time, his feud with Laval, Duchesneau, and the Jesuits would fill a much larger space in the canvas than it occupies at present. For in the absence of great deeds to his credit obstinacy and truculence might have been thought the essentials rather than the accidents of his character. M. Lorin, who writes in great detail, finds much to say on behalf of Frontenac's motives, if not of his conduct, in these controversies. But viewing his career broadly it must be held that, at best, he lost a chance for useful co-operation by hugging prejudices and prepossessions which sprang in part from his own love of power and in part from antipathy towards the Jesuits in France. He might not like the Jesuits, but they were a great force in Canada and had done things which should have provoked his admiration. In any case, it was his duty to work with them on some basis and not dislocate the whole administration by brawling. As to Duchesneau, Frontenac was the broader man of the two, and may be excused some of the petulance which the intendant's pin-pricks called forth.

Frontenac's enemies were fond of saying that he used his position to make illicit profits from the fur trade. Beyond question he traded to some extent, but it would be harsh to accuse him of venality or peculation on the strength of such evidence as exists. There is a strong probability that the king appointed him in the expectation that he would augment his income from sources which lay outside his salary. Public opinion varies from age to age regarding the latitude which may be allowed a public servant in such matters. Under a democratic regime the standard is very different from that which has existed, for the most part, under autocracies in past ages. Frontenac was a man of distinction who accepted an important post at a small salary. We may infer that the king was willing to allow him something from perquisites. If so, his profits from the fur trade become a matter of degree. So long as he kept within the bounds of reason and decency, the government raised no objection. Frontenac certainly was not a governor who pillaged the colony to feather his own nest. If he took profits, they were not thought excessive by any one except Duchesneau. The king recalled him not because he was venal, but because he was quarrelsome.

Assuming the standards of his own age, a reasonable plea can also be made on Frontenac's behalf respecting the conduct of his wars. 'Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn' in our own day no less than in the seventeenth century; while certain facts of recent memory are quite lurid enough to be placed in comparison with the border raids which, under Frontenac, were made by the French and their Indian allies. It is dreadful to know that captured Iroquois were burned alive by the French, but after the Lachine massacre and the tortures which French captives endured, this was an almost inevitable retaliation. The concluding scenes of King Philip's War prove, at any rate, that the men of New England exercised little more clemency towards their Indian foes than was displayed by the French. The Puritans justified their acts of carnage by citations from the Old Testament regarding the Canaanites and the Philistines. The most bitter chronicler of King Philip's War is William Hubbard, a Calvinist pastor of Ipswich. On December 19, 1675, the English of Massachusetts and Connecticut stormed the great stronghold of the Narragansetts. To quote John Fiske: 'In the slaughter which filled the rest of that Sunday afternoon till the sun went down behind a dull gray cloud, the grim and wrathful Puritan, as he swung his heavy cutlass, thought of Saul and Agag, and spared not. The Lord had delivered up to him the heathen as stubble to his sword. As usual the number of the slain is variously estimated. Of the Indians probably not less than a thousand perished.'

For the slaughter of English women and children by French raiders there was no precedent or just provocation. Here Frontenac must be deemed more culpable than the Puritans. The only extenuating circumstance is that those who survived the first moments of attack were in almost all cases spared, taken to Canada, and there treated with kindness.

Writers of the lighter drama have long found a subject in the old man whose irascibility is but a cloak for goodness of heart. It would be an exaggeration to describe Frontenac as a character of this type, for his wrath could be vehement, and benevolence was not the essential strain in his disposition. At the same time, he had many warm impulses to his credit. His loyalty to friends stands above reproach, and there are little incidents which show his sense of humor. For instance, he once fined a woman for lampooning him, but caused the money to be given to her children. Though often unfair in argument, he was by nature neither mean nor petty. In ordinary circumstances he remembered noblesse oblige, and though boastfulness may have been among his failings, he had a love of greatness which preserved him from sordid misdemeanors. Even if we agree with Parkman that greatness must be denied him, it yet remains to be pointed out that absolute greatness is a high standard attained by few. Frontenac was a greater man than most by virtue of robustness, fire, and a sincere aspiration to discharge his duty as a lieutenant of the king.

He doubtless thought himself ill-used in that he lacked the wealth which was needed to accomplish his ambitions at court. But if fortune frowned upon him at Versailles, she made full compensation by granting him the opportunity to govern Canada a second time. As he advanced in years his higher qualities became more conspicuous. His vision cleared. His vanities fell away. There remained traces of the old petulance; but with graver duties his stature increased and the strong fibre of his nature was disclosed. For his foibles he had suffered much throughout his whole life. But beneath the foibles lay courage and resolve. It was his reward that in the hour of trial, when upon his shoulders rested the fate of France in America, he was not found wanting.

1 Etienne de Carheil was the most active of the Jesuit missionaries in Canada during the period of Frontenac. After fifteen years among the Iroquois at Cayuga (1668-83) he returned for three years to Quebec. He was then sent to Michilimackinac, Where he remained another fifteen years. Shortly after the founding of Detroit (1701) he gave up life in the forest. Despite the great hardships which he endured, he lived to be ninety-three. None of the missionaries was more strongly opposed to the brandy trade.

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Chronicles of Canada, The Fighting Governor, A Chronicle of Frontenac, 1915


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