April 20TH, 1660. Montreal
On the morning of the twentieth of April, the chapel of the Hotel Dieu was filled with well-wishers for the special mass of departure. Father Jean-Marie Chaumonot celebrated the mass and gave a short sermon, which was surprisingly felicitous, on the character of Christian courage.
He began by quoting Isiah 41:6.
“They helped everyone his neighbor; and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage.”
He spoke of martyrs and Montreal, of Brebeuf and Lalement, of Frenchmen and their God. He said he knew that courage filled the men of this mission and as he spoke everyone looked upon those men with respect and pride and some with a measure of envy. He blessed them and after hearing their confessions he gave them Holy Communion.
Even Cognac received it. He said it couldn’t hurt and besides, what if the Jesuits were right?
Bells rang when Mass was over and the people side-stepped out of the church slapping backs and heads and shoulders and shouting encouraging remarks. The whole procession — it became so, being led by Father Chaumonot, who had a flair for the dramatic–moved down to the shore where the six canoes were waiting, fully packed.
Robert Jurie supervised the places of the men as he had done with the supplies earlier. He decided that there should be six canoes, five to carry three men and one to take two.
The four best canoeists – Cognac, Doussin, Robin, and Alonie Delestre, to take the sterns along with Hebert, and himself, the best of the average canoeists.
In the middle, he put Valets, Josselin, Pilote, Augier and Dollard. The first four were practically hopeless at paddling and Dollard he estimated as average. But Dollard wanted to be free to watch at all times anyway.
In the bows: Forges, Lecompte, Brassier, Tiblement, Simon Grenet and Louis Martin.
Jurie looked around as the men climbed into their canoes. Simon Grenet was missing.
“Where the hell is Grenet? It’s time to leave.”
“Has anybody seen Grenet?”
“Is Simon with you?”
“I haven’t seen him.”
“He wasn’t at Mass.”
The youths bantered and Louis Martin offered to go and get him.
“No,” said Dollard. “He knew what time we were going. If he isn’t here when we leave, we go without him.”
“We should leave now,” said Robert Jurie.
“Fine — let’s push off,” said Dollard.
Robert Jurie looked ruefully at his canoe. He was to be stern for Grenet’s bow while Augier sat in the middle. He couldn’t give Augier a paddle. Jean Valets saw the dilemma.
“I’ll take the front, Robert,” said Valets, getting out of the Boisseau-Forges canoe.
“Thank God,” said Christophe Augier. “I thought I was going to have to steer this thing.”
“Right, and the journey would be over in ten minutes,” replied Jean Valets as he settled himself in the bow. “It’s too cold for swimming, thanks. I’ll take it.”
“Good,” said Augier, “I’ll sleep.”
Dollard thanked Governor Maisonneuve, stepped into his canoe and the frail flotilla moved out into the river.
Shouts of cheer from le Moyne, de Belestre, Closse and all the people from the church urged the little band on into the chilly April wind.
In the canoes everyone was in grand spirits and the waving, shouting and laughing continued until the crafts turned at the bend of the river and were swept out of view.
The St. Lawrence River takes its water from the Great Lakes and flushes it into the Atlantic. The Ottawa River, a turbulent tributary, begins up in the northlands, fights its way down to Montreal, sometimes peaceful and calm, at others raging with rapids and cataracts. It converges with the St. Lawrence at Montreal.
When the Ottawa River finally gives up its identity, it throws itself outward like the prongs of a twisted fork, trying to run in many directions, as if trying to scatter its flood and die, rather than surrender itself to the St. Lawrence. It capitulates by thrashing out a group of islands. Montreal sits at the base of a small mountain on the largest of these islands, about thirty miles long.
The flotilla had hardly completed that first bend in the river when the Frenchmen heard sounds of screaming from Nun’s Island to their left.
A party of Iroquois was attacking some men. Dollard ordered the canoes to the island and swiftly they began cutting through the water. There were five Iroquois, one on the ground. A Frenchman was grappling with two Braves on the shore. An upturned canoe floated some feet offshore, and two men were struggling in the water. The Robin-Pilote-Brassier canoe headed for the men in the water. As they started for the spot, one man disappeared under the water. The other was desperately trying to reach the upturned canoe, but it was drifting away quickly.
Several middle-men in the canoes began firing, and although their aim was inaccurate because of the movement of the canoes, the shots frightened two Iroquois away.
Dollard tried one shot, missed, then shouted an order to Tiblement in front of him.
“Rejean, bend down over the bow.”
Tiblement thrust himself forward, bracing his head in the prow of the canoe and holding his arms on the gunwales. Delestre braked the canoe with the flat of his paddle.
“Stay steady, Rejean,” said Dollard, and Tiblement, doubled over, his elbow at a right angle to the gunwale, provided a rest for Dollard’s musket. He put it on Tiblement’s shoulder, steadied the gun and fired. An Iroquois with the Frenchman fell but as he did the other brave clubbed the settler on the head, and the Frenchman slumped to the ground.
The wounded Iroquois struggled to his feet and, with the help of his companion, they ran for the forest after the others.
“The other one’s going under,” shouted Robin, “Faster!”
Robin’s canoe was cutting swiftly through the water but when it was still sixty yards away, the second man slipped under the water of the St. Lawrence River.
“God, he’s going under! …Faster, faster!”
They were too late. The water was black as a starless night. The men could see nothing in the depths.
Two canoes took off around the bend after the escaping Iroquois. Cognac and Forges had by now reached the shore. They beached the canoe, and while Forges ran to the fallen settler, Cognac kneeled and fired at the escaping Iroquois pair. One, wounded, flung his hands up, shot in the back. The other Indian ran on without a backward glance. Forges approached the enemy Dollard had shot but while he was alive, he looked bad. Forges finished him with a musket stock to the side of the head.
The Robin-Pilote-Boisseau canoe meanwhile pulled alongside the overturned canoe down-river, righted it, and towed it to shore.
The Frenchman on the shore– Nicholas Duval–was dead. His two companions, later discovered to be Blaise Juillet and Mathurin Soulard, had drowned in the icy waters attempting to flee from the Iroquois war party.
Doussin’s and Hebert’s canoes veered left around the first point and saw two Iroquois running along the shore. They were in moccasins so, although they could cover ground well, there was no place to go. They could turn into the island, but the snow was still deep there, and they would get bogged down fast. Hebert wondered what the Iroquois thought they were doing.
“Do they think they can outrun our canoes?” he asked Martin. Within minutes, they were within firing range of the Iroquois, who had only one musket to the Frenchmen’s firepower. Hebert braked; the canoe slowed. He turned it slightly, and Martin had a good shot.
The winter practice paid off. He fired and wounded one brave, and the other turned around, threw down his weapon and surrendered. Suddenly from around a bend the lone escapee from the beach came upon them. He stopped, stumbled, and Hebert trained his musket on him. He raised his hands in surrender. They bound the two captured Indians’ hands behind them, and Martin marched them back to the place of the attack while Hebert paddled close by in the canoe.
They took the body of Duval and their captives and returned to Montreal. There the Iroquois were beaten and questioned. They said they were a small advance party clearing the way for the main war party to come. Their duty was to harass and kill as many small groups of French as they could, to terrorize before the onslaught.
Montrealers had heard this story before many times and were inclined to disbelieve it. Still, because of the deaths at Nun’s Island and similar recent incidents, the captives, instead of being killed, were locked away, kept in case they were required for an exchange of prisoners at some future time. Maisonneuve ordered this and wondered to himself if that future time was coming shortly.