The Girl Captain of Castle Dangerous

by G. T. Lanigan

How Three Children Fought the Iroquois in 1692

Among all the incidents of endurance and pluck set forth in the annals of the history of North America, few can be found more remarkable than that which is contained in some very dusty pages to be read in quaint French in a Paris library, or in the transcription of them by one of our own historical authors—the “Statement of Mademoiselle Magdeleine de Verchères, aged Fourteen Years,” daughter of the commander of a lonely French fort, called after her father, which stood on the St. Lawrence River a score of miles below Montreal.

It was October 22, 1692. The strong fort enclosure, stockade and block-house, were open, and the residents were at work in their fields at some distance. M. de Verchères was at Quebec on military business. His wife (who was the heroine of another famous incident of those perilous days) had gone to Quebec. In the stockade were actually only two soldiers, a couple of lads who were the young girl’s brothers, one very aged man, and a few women and children. Magdeleine—or, as we should now spell it, Madeleine—was standing at a considerable distance from the open gate of the fort with a servant, little suspecting any danger.

All at once a rattle of arms from the direction where some of the agriculturists were busy startled her. It was repeated. She began to see men running in terror in the far-away fields. At the same moment the serving-man beside her, equally astonished, exclaimed, “Run, Mademoiselle, run; the Iroquois are upon us!” The young girl looked where he pointed, and lo! a troop of some forty or fifty of the wily savages, thinking to surprise the stockade while their main band attacked those who were outside, were running towards the gates, scarcely a hundred yards from where she stood trembling. There was not an instant to lose. It was life or death for her and all. She fled for the fort. The rest of her story can largely be quoted from Mademoiselle Madeleine’s own recitation, published at the time.

“The Iroquois who chased 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 [as she says, dryly] 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 no use. The two soldiers in the fort were so terrified that they had hidden within the block-house.

“At the gate I found two women crying for their husbands, who had just been killed. I forced them to go in and 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 to be set up again, and helped to carry them myself.”

It may be asked how there was sufficient time for this necessary work. But it must be remembered that the Indians seldom came directly to the stockade in daylight, dreading concealed defenders greatly, and in the present instance they were ignorant of the singularly unprotected state of this fort. So the brave little girl was able to prepare for the worst with all her wonderful presence of mind and courage. She continues:

“When all the breaches were stopped, I went to the block-house, 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 that match?’ I asked. He answered, ‘Set off 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 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.’”

Getting her little company together in the stockade, and discovering the Iroquois moving about the fields, and either pursuing the unfortunate men and women in them, or else discussing the best means of advancing, Madeleine began firing at them from various loop-holes, and directed a cannon to be discharged to deter them from coming nearer, and at the same time to spread the alarm over the vicinity. The women and children shrieked and clamored. She made them be silent, for fear of letting the redskins suspect the situation. The foe drew back and remained quiet for a time, and as they did this a canoe with several persons in it was seen out upon the river coming swiftly to the dock near the fort. It was evident that those in it did not suspect the danger that was so near, whatever else they had heard. It was possible to save them from slaughter, and at the same time add the settler she recognized in the canoe, with his family, to the little garrison. Madeleine went out alone—none other dared—from the stockade to the dock, and received them.

The Indians, seeing only a little girl meet the new arrivals, feared a grand sortie if they dashed out of their ambush, and allowed Madeleine to escort the new-comers—a settler named Fontaine and his party—into the fort gates unhurt. She had hoped for this, and was overjoyed at her success. Her garrison now numbered six. She goes on:

“Strengthened by this reinforcement, I ordered that the enemy should be fired on whenever they showed themselves. After sunset a violent northeast wind began to blow, accompanied by snow and hail, which told us 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 troop (that is to say, six persons), and spoke to them thus: ‘God has saved us to-day from the hands of our foes, but we must take care not to fall into their snares to-night. As for me, I want you to see that I am not afraid. I will take charge of the fort, with the old man [she adds that he was eighty, and had never fired a gun, but he could probably carry an alarm]; and you, Pierre Fontaine, with La Bonté and Gachet, go to the block-house with the women and children, because that is the strongest place; and if I am taken, don’t surrender, even if I am cut to pieces and burned before your eyes. The enemy cannot hurt you in the block-house, 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 block-house to the fort, and from the fort to the block-house. One would have thought that the place was full of soldiers. The Iroquois believed so, and were completely deceived, as they confessed afterwards to M. de Callières, to 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 such a constant watch was kept.

“About one o’clock in the morning the sentinel [the old man] on the bastion by the gate called out, ‘Mademoiselle, I hear something!’ I went to him to find out what it was, and by the help of the snow which covered the ground I could see in 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: ‘No. You don’t know all the tricks of the savages. They are, no doubt, following the cattle, covered with skins of such animals, so as to get into the fort if we are foolish enough to open the gate for them.’ Nevertheless, after taking every precaution, I decided that we might open it without risk.

“At last the daylight came again, and as the darkness disappeared our anxieties seemed to disappear with it. Everybody took courage excepting Madame Marguerite, wife of the Sieur Fontaine, who, being extremely timid, as all Parisian women are, asked her husband to carry her to another fort. [A silly request, certainly.] He said, ‘I will never abandon this fort while Mademoiselle Madeleine is here.’ I answered him 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 took 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 nor 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 block-house 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 one week in constant alarm, with the enemy always about us. At last M. de la Monnerie, a lieutenant sent by M. de Callières, arrived in the night with forty men. [He came down the river.] 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, ‘Who goes there?’ I was at the time dozing, with my head on a table and my gun lying across my arms. The sentinel told me that he heard a voice from the river. I went up at once to the bastion to see whether it was of Indians or Frenchmen. I demanded, ‘Who goes there?’ One of them replied, ‘We are Frenchmen; it is De la Monnerie, come 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 M. de la Monnerie I saluted him and said, ‘Monsieur, I resign my arms to you.’ He answered, gallantly, ‘Mademoiselle, they are in good hands.’ ‘Better than you suppose,’ 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.’”

M. de la Monnerie in astonished admiration took charge of the relieved fort. The heroine’s work was over. The savages fled, and not long after they were captured near Lake Champlain, and some twenty persons they had made prisoners at Verchères were brought safely back. The father and mother of Madeleine came from Montreal and Quebec, and heard the story of her valor and coolness with rapturous praise. She grew up to be a woman, receiving for her life a pension from the King of France as a mark of honor, and she died at an advanced age.