Saturday, October 04, 2008

Gamesters of the Wilderness - Part I

...Twilight of the long June night - the 18th, almost the longest day in the year - had deepened into the white stillness that precedes dawn, when two forms took shape in the thicket of underbrush behind the fort; and there stepped forth, clad in buckskin cap-a-pie, musket over shoulder, war-hatchet, power-horn, dagger, pistol in belt, and unsheathed sword aglint in hand, two French wood-lopers, the far-famed coureurs de bois, whose scalping raids were to strike terror from Louisiana to Hudson's Bay...
No Robin Hoods of legend ever lived in more complete security than those "Gentlemen Adventurers Trading in Hudson's Bay" for whom Prince Rupert had secured from his cousin, King Charles, in 1670, complete monopoly of all furs north and westward of Hudson's Bay. A thousand miles of juniper swamps and impassable cataracts cut the Hudson's Bay fur traders off from the fur traders of New France to the south. To the west was impenetrable and unknown wilderness. To the north and east for eight months of the year was an impassable barrier of ice floe and berg and those elemental frozen foes to human presence.

For fifteen years after their organization the Gentlemen Adventurers of England - the Hudson's Bay Fur Company, a company numbering among its patrons King Charles II, Prince Rupert, General Munck, the Duke of York, the Duke of Marlborough, and a host of other worthies ranging from the nobility down to the goldsmiths and merchant princes of London - slumbered in security on the margin of a frozen sea. Charles Fort with its stone bastions on Rupert's River - named after King and Prince who secured the charter - quickly sent offshoots to Moose River on the west, Albany (named after an Albany far south), and Nelson (the modern York), which drained all the furs westward to the Rocky Mountains. Rupert and Moose and Albany each yearly collected three thousand five hundred beaver pelts, worth in modern money one dollar and a half each, not to mention twice as many pelts of otter and mink and marten and ermine and sable. To the north, Nelson (York) sent out in a single year as much as one hundred thousand dollars' worth of beaver. "The Gentlemen Adventurers of England Trading in Hudson's Bay" had found a gold-mine rich as Spanish El Dorado.

To be sure, Radisson, the Frenchman, who had helped to found the company with Prince Rupert, had gone over to the French fur traders one year, trading Nelson (York), bag and baggage, to the French Company of the North; but Radisson had become a British subject again and traded these forts back to England. He was in the employment of the company. Radisson was safe. To be sure, the ships of the French Fur Company had continued to come to the bay; but the French fur traders demanded four beaver for a musket, where the English demanded only two; and so those French fur-ships went back to Quebec empty of cargo. Two of the French fur-ships, meeting the Merchant of Perpetuana trapped in the ice-floes of the north, had scuttled the Hudson's Bay ship of provisions, captured master, mate, and crew, cast all in a dungeon on bread and water for eleven months in Quebec, where Edward Humes, the captain, died, and the rest were sold to life-long slavery in Martinique, whence only Smithsend, the mate, escaped. Sieur Pere, a gay adventurer from New France, had come down to the bay overland from the Great Lakes, with three comrades, to spy on the English fur-traders for the French company; but the young seigneur had been given food and a hearty Godspeed from the English, and having deliberately let his canoe float off to sea while he slept, so that he could not be sent away, had been clapped with one comrade into the fur-fort of Albany, while the two other adventurers were put on Charlton Island to earn their living hunting. The two adventurers had escaped to the mainland on a raft by night, and fleeing to Canada, a thousand miles by swamp and forest, had told a story of Pere's imprisonment that set the fire-eaters of New France in a flame. But all unknowing, the Gentlemen Adventurers of England slumbered secure on the margin of their frozen sea.

Like a bolt from the blue came the bold raiders of Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville into the midst of this security.

It was one of the long June nights, 1686, when twilight of the north merges with dawn. Fourteen cannon in all protruded from the embrasures of the four stone bastions round little Moose Factory to the southwest of the bay. The eighteen-foot pickets of the palisaded square wall were everywhere punctured with holes for musketry defence. In one bastion were three thousand pounds of powder. In another, twelve civilian soldiers slept. In a third were stored furs. The fourth bastion served as kitchen, and across the middle of the courtyard, forty by forty feet, was the two-story stone house and residence of the chief factor. The sentinel had shot the strong iron bolts of the main gates facing the waterway; but so secure did he feel of the impossibility of attack that he had lain down to sleep, wrapped in a blanket, without even loading the cannon it was his duty to guard. Twilight of the long June night - the 18th, almost the longest day in the year - had deepened into the white stillness that precedes dawn, when two forms took shape in the thicket of underbrush behind the fort; and there stepped forth, clad in buckskin cap-a-pie, musket over shoulder, war-hatchet, powder-born, dagger, pistol in belt, and unsheathed sword aglint in hand, two French wood-lopers, the far-famed coureurs des bois, whose scalping raids were to strike terror from Louisiana to Hudson's Bay. At first glance the two newcomers might have been marauding Iroquois come this outrageous distance over swamp and cataract form their own fighting ground. Closer scrutiny showed them to be young French noblemen, Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville, age twenty-four, and his brother Sainte-Helene, trained to the wild woods of Montreal, to the roving life of the wood-loper, to pillage and raid and ambuscade. Born in Montreal in 1661 and schooled to all the wilderness perils of the struggling colony's early life, Pierre le Moyne, one of nine sons of Charles le Moyne, of Montreal, became the Robin Hood of American wilds.

Sending his brother Sainte-Helene round one side of the picketed walls to peer through the embrasures of the moonlit fortress, Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville skirted round the other side himself and quickly made the discovery that not one of the cannon was loaded. The tompion was in every muzzle. Scarcely a cat's-paw of wind dimpled the waters of the bay, smooth as silk.

With a quick glance Iberville and his brother took in every detail of the situation. Then they melted back into the pallid half-light like shadows. In a trice a hundred forms had taken shape in the mist - sixty-six Indians decked in all the war-gear of savage glory from head-dress and vermilion cheeks to naked, read-stained limbs lithe as a tiger, smooth and supple as satin. Sixty-six Indians and thirty-three half-wild French soldiers, gay in all the regimentals of French pomp, commanded by old Chevalier de Troyes, veteran of a hundred wars, now commissioned to demand the release of Monsieur Pere from the forts of the English fur traders. Beside de Troyes stood de la Chesnay, Head of the Northern Company of Fur Traders in Quebec, only too glad of this chance to raid the forts of rival traders in time of peace. And well to the fore, cross in hand, head bared, the Resuit Sylvie, come to rescue the souls of northern heathendom from hell.

Impossible as it may seems, these hundred intrepid adventurers had come overland from Montreal. What did the incursion of these French raiders mean? It meant that they had set out in mid-winter on a voyage men hardly dared in summer. Without waiting for the ice to break up, they started from Montreal in March. No tents were carried; only the blanket, haversack fashion, tied to each man's back. Bivouac was under the stars. No provision but what each blanket carried! No protection but the musket on shoulder, the war-axe and powder-horn and pistol in belt! No reward but the vague promise of loot from the English wagwamming - as the Indians say - on the Northern Bay! A march of six hundred miles through trackless forests in midwinter; then down the maelstrom sweep of torrents swollen by spring thaw for three hundred miles to the juniper swamps of windfall and dank rotting forest growth around the bay!

It had been no play, this fur-trade raid; and now Iberville was back from his scouting, having seen with his own eyes that the English fur traders were really wigwamming on the bay. Hastily all burdens of blankets and food and clothes were cast aside and cached...

From Gamesters of the Wilderness: The Hudson's Bay Fur Company and the French Raiders 1670-1697, by Agnes Christina Laut