The Battle of the Long Sault, Ch. 17: Iroquois VS. French Huron – First Deadly Meeting

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Smoking was forbidden while the canoes were moving at night for the fire could be seen from the shore.

This was a hardship for the detachment since the they, like the Indians, smoked as they paddled. Besides the pleasure it gave, the smoking kept mosquitoes away in the summer and it allayed hunger pains on a long voyage. Pipes served to measure the distances traveled — so many pipes, so many leagues. Although pipes gave off no continuous flame, they required constant relighting which could call attention. After making camp pipes were permitted since the smoke would not be seen by even keen Iroquois eyes. Campfires would though, and so, depending on the site and the position of the wind, fires were either made or not. Small fires for the kettles were lit using only the hardwood — beech, oak and ash — which made little or no smoke.

The canoes moved through the frigid water, gradually narrowing the distance between the frail flotilla and the dark shore ahead. The moon was high and full; occupants of one canoe could see the outlines of the others. As a precaution Dollard ordered that all firearms be kept completely hidden in the canoes and that no kettle or other shiny object protruded either.

The Iroquois were vigilant and could pick up a small unwitting signal from a glint of moonlight on a barrel or a buckle and prepare an ambush for the unsuspecting telegraphers. In earlier times arrogant Frenchmen, new in the land and refusing to adapt, had worn the flashy uniform of home into battle here and died because of it. Champlain’s impressive appearance before the Iroquois in all his finery not withstanding was decades old; the Iroquois were no longer impressed by fancy dress, bright colors and shiny bits of metal.

Stories were told though, about metal. In a new place with little recorded history every incident becomes a guide to behavior, every precedent a rule.

When Samuel de Champlain landed in Canada in 1610, he met Huron and Algonquin Indians who seemed geographically, economically and personally to be exactly the kind of allies required in this harsh country. They told him of harassment by the Iroquois and as a gesture of friendship he agreed to accompany them to Iroquois territory.

After crossing the lake that bears his name the Huron saw canoes riding low in the water. This signified Iroquois’ elm canoes and they headed for shore. The Iroquois did the same, landing first and setting up a howling and screeching, tasting victory already, as they outnumbered the Huron.

Champlain and two soldiers with him lay in the bottom of the Huron canoes. The Huron landed. They were apprehensive: they knew their horrible fate if captured. On shore, Champlain and his soldiers hid themselves from view behind the Huron lines.

The Iroquois were surprised by the Huron bravado but laughing and shrieking, they began their run to the invaders. When the Iroquois were a few hundred feet away, at a signal, the Huron ranks opened and the three Frenchmen strode forward, resplendent in colorful striped knee breeches, high leather boots with silver buckles, shirt jackets of vibrant reds, blues and yellows over which was a heavy, molded breast-plate. On their heads the French wore silver helmets with huge, multi-colored plumes. At their sides hung gleaming swords. Each carried a musket.

The Iroquois stopped as if hit by lightning. Never had they seen white men, let alone white men with beards and clothes the color of war paint. After a few moments the Iroquois decided they were just men and, leaping from side to side, began to advance.

Champlain took one step forward, knelt down and fired. An Iroquois chief fell dead. The Iroquois stopped at the sound of the musket. They looked around towards the sky over the lake. Stunned, they howled, leapt back, and then cautiously examined their fallen comrade. Enraged by a death they did not understand and by a noise they had never heard, the Iroquois overcame their fear and charged again.

The Huron braced themselves but Champlain had reloaded and this time three muskets reported; three Iroquois, including two more chiefs, fell dead.

The Iroquois didn’t know what to do; these flame-dressed men with the magic thunder-sticks were invincible. The Iroquois looked once more, the French prepared to fire once more, and the Iroquois turned and ran. The Huron howled with joy then pursued and caught many Iroquois whom they tortured and burned.

That was one of the few times anyone had a favorable story to tell of the colorful French garb in New France. It was also the beginning of a century of enmity between the Iroquois and the French. It proved to be a costly victory.

The new Canadians quickly realized what a liability regular army uniform, not to mention regular French civilian dress, would have on their lives in Canada, and quickly discarded their former clothing.  For daily living it was absurd.  So, almost alone among emigrants who left homes in other countries to live in new parts of the world, the French Canadians never wore their earlier dress, never dressed up in costumes of the old days for feasts, dances or celebrations of any sort. They were now Canadiens and would dress as Canadiens.

***

Dollard’s six canoes reached the end of the lake in a diagonal from where they had entered. Ahead lay the mouth of the tumultuous Ottawa River, two more rapids — the Carillion and the Chute a Blondeau, before they would arrive at Dollard’s destination, the Long Sault. The wind was rising as they disembarked; the moon had slipped away like a dream and the sky was filling with clouds.

“It’s going to rain again soon. Looks like it’ll be a good one,” said Nicholas Josselin, who was pulling the canoe onto the shore.

“Hmmph,” said Dollard. “We made it across the lake just in time. Whitecaps are starting to roll.”

He leapt out of his canoe and helped Tiblement tug the craft, which still held Alonie Delestre, further on land. Had this been summer none would have minded getting wet feet and heaving the canoe out, but it was still cold, and cold, wet feet were dangerous. Their boots could tolerate hard dry snow, and damp ground but they were not waterproof.

The Indians always launched their canoes from the water to avoid scraping the canoes. These travelers were not as careful, although sometimes if the shore was particularly rough they removed their boots, jumped in the icy water, and dried their feet later by a fire.

The place they had landed was beautiful. Firs, spruce, beech, ash, maple and oak trees surrounded the gently sloping drop to the water. It was a large protected cove on three sides and hidden from the mouth of the river.

No damage was reported to the canoes so they were unpacked, upturned and the sails were removed for the erection of the tents.

They felt safe.

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