Chapter 6: British, & British-American Colonial Forces & their Indian Allies close in on New France
Conquest of Quebec, September 13, 1759 – 250th Year Celebration
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We continue the remarkable adventures that led to the early formation of the United States of America, Canada and the French speaking province of Quebec.
Note that Ken Tellis, my co-author is temporarily absent from this series due to illness and a massive loss of data due to a failure of his computer system. That is why we have been unable to keep up the pace of production of this series. It is therefore necessary to substantially trim the series and eliminate some of the critical events that led to the Conquest of Quebec on September 13, 1759, in the desire to arrive at the crescendo of that climatic event on its 250th anniversary date.
The actual fall of New France did not occur until the surrender of Montreal the following year in September 1760. The finale being confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, signed in February 1763. That treaty, for all practical purposes, forever eliminated New France as a power in North America. The intent of the next several chapters will be to try to give the reader an insight into the way all the people involved, lived through the events in which they found themselves immersed.
To them, the news as we know it was slow arriving, rumours were rife and the events themselves all too often suddenly appeared on their doorstep. It is hard to conceive the excitement, fears and terror engendered by not knowing what was happening just a few miles away. Today’s instant world-wide communication systems, where we even talk to our soldiers on the battlefield and to our friends half way around the world was not even a distant dream in the minds of those that lived through that troubled era.
Blocking the French from the West
We left Chapter 5 very much aware that the French forts and trading posts to the west of Montreal were beginning to collapse with the withdrawal of their forces from the Ohio territories, the abandonment and destruction of Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) and the capture and destruction of Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario) by the British army led by Colonel John Bradstreet.
The capture of Fort Frontenac resulted in the destruction of the French warships based there and ended French naval control of Lake Ontario. However, the British had no naval presence on Lake Ontario or Lake Erie. That left the French with a route still open to their remaining forts, especially Fort Detroit, through Lake Ontario to Fort Niagara to Lake Erie; thus allowing their commerce, military movements, supply chain and communication to the south and west to continue.
The Ottawa River route to Georgian Bay and the northern Fort Michilimackinac at the junction of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron also remained open to their far western trading posts via Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, as well as through to Fort Detroit at the south end of Lake Huron. This meant that French troops and their Indian allies from their western forts could still be called upon to reinforce Fort Niagara should it come under attack. The French were aware that the British would most likely attack the fort.
To the East, the situation was also extremely critical. France’s great fort of Louisburg on Isle Royal (Cape Breton) had fallen the previous year to the British Royal Navy and the British army led by Major General Wolfe. The route up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City was now open and unguarded because French naval forces were tied up in wars in Europe and could not be sent to block the British fleet.
Under orders from Sir William Pitt, Prime Minister of Great Britain, the now Brigadier General Wolfe, had been placed in command of an expeditionary force of some 9500 British soldiers plus some British-American rangers and was making it way up the river, transported by the largest fleet of British ships ever seen in North America. This great armada of first line warships and transports was under command of Vice Admiral Charles Saunders, one of Britain’s most experienced and capable naval officers. The fleet sailed June 4th from Louisburg and by June 27, 1759 was about to begin the siege of Quebec.
Fort Niagara is located on the eastern bank of the Niagara River (the USA side) and bounded on the north by Lake Ontario. It was in an extremely strategic position because it controlled the main portage route from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie past the whirlpool, the Niagara River rapids and Niagara Falls itself, none of which is navigable. It was the most powerful fort west of Quebec City.
The fort was built in 1725 to replace a prior wooden fort that had been built in 1687 and abandoned. The Indians, the Seneca, were very sensitive to the building of any fortification on their territory; especially because it would be located at the northern starting point of the profitable Niagara portage that they controlled and charged fees for passage and portage labour.
The French however, diplomatically managed to persuade the Indians that their intention was to build a grand chateau in the style of those in France with warm fireplaces, meeting rooms, rooms to entertain them and stocked with all the latest trading goods suited to their needs, as well as provide a secure place for the safe storage of their furs. The Indians agreed on the condition that there would be no fort or armaments.
The chateau and well maintained fortifications still stand today. The beautiful three story building has an array of French style dormers projecting from the rooftop, white shuttered windows on the second floor and chateau-like windows and doors on the ground floor. The thick walls were massively built of solid grey stone. A well was dug within the building in case of siege and the third floor was specially reinforced to support the weight of cannons that eventually were mounted behind each window dorm. The “Castle” as it became known was built by the King’s chief engineer in Canada, Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Lery.
The Siege of Fort Niagara begins
On July 7, 1759, just a week after the siege of Quebec had begun a British army of 2,200 men with 900 Iroquois Indians, after traveling up Lake Ontario from Oswego, landed on the shore near Fort Niagara and began the siege of the now powerful and strategic fort.
Over the previous three years, the fort had been considerably strengthened by Captain Francoise Pouchot, the French royal engineer, who now commanded the fort. Ramparts had been built, stone blockhouses constructed and the main gate reinforced. Cannons and other armaments were moved in, so the fort presented a formidable challenge to Brigadier General John Prideaux, the British General in charge of the expedition. Sir William Johnson, the famed Indian Agent for north-eastern New England, now a Major General in the colonial forces, was second in command and in charge of the Iroquois.
The Morale of the People of New France
When news of the siege of Fort Niagara reached Quebec, now itself under siege, it must have been very demoralizing to the average citizen, let alone the leadership. First, nobody thought the British navy capable of navigating the treacherous channels and reefs of the St. Lawrence River to reach Quebec. The French river pilots jeered at the idea that a fleet as large and cumbersome as that of the Royal Navy could manage the feat. They felt that other British naval expeditions had failed and this armada would also fail.
Second, French arms seemed invincible. Under their victorious General Montcalm they had won the battle of Fort William Henry on Lake George and had captured Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario. Both battles enhanced Montcalm’s reputation as a victorious leader.
The defeat of the British and destruction of Fort William Henry blocked the British army from advancing north up the traditional French invasion route via the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain system. However, there were worrying rumours that there had been a massacre of British prisoners and their women and children at Fort William Henry by Montcalm’s troops and their Indian allies. If the rumours were true, how vengeful would the English be? It was unsettling.
In fact, Montcalm had lost control of his Indian allies at Fort William Henry. As the disarmed British troops had marched out of the Fort followed by their women, children and baggage train, the Indians fell upon them killing, scalping and plundering; taking prisoners in the hope of ransom and every item of value they could seize.
Most of the French troops had refused to step in and halt the massacre; fearful of the Indians, others did what they could to stop the rampage but to little effect. Soldiers, sick in the Fort’s hospital, many with smallpox and left in care of the French, were murdered, scalped and butchered by the Indians. Unfortunately for the Indians, those bloody scalps, carried back to their villages, spread smallpox among the many tribes that made up the Indian contingent and decimated them.*
* During the Pontiac Indian rebellion of 1763, British Lieutenant Colonel Bouquet (A Swiss professional soldier) remembering the effectiveness of the smallpox experience at Fort William Henry, used the lesson learned to break their siege of Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) and help put down the rebellion. This was the first deliberate use of germ warfare in North America.
Montcalm was accused of not preventing the terrible massacre, a breech of the articles of surrender arranged with Lieutenant Colonel George Munro, the commander of the fort. Montcalm was said to have been most disturbed and in fact did try to stop the massacre but was unable to do so. He did manage to have the survivors escorted safely to the British Fort Edward, some miles to the south. In his report to Versailles, Governor Vaudreuil, who did not like Montcalm, expressed the view that Montcalm should have carried on and destroyed the British army and all their people.
The Morale of the British and New England Settlers
The massacre was widely reported throughout Britain, France and the English colonies and so enraged the British people that Sir William Pitt decided to take advantage of public opinion and was able to persuade parliament to fully support the New England settlers by once and for all eliminating New France as a threat to the American colonies.
The citizens of New England were terrified of further French invasions. This was particularly true of Albany and the towns and villages of northern New York closest to the action. They were also stunned with the news of the fall of Fort Oswego, captured and destroyed by Montcalm and the atrocities that had occurred there.
When rumours of the French plans to drive south, deeper into the frontier with swarms of French soldiers and Indians began to circulate, compounded by official government warnings and coupled with the Fort William Henry episode, the fears of the colonialists can only be imagined. News of the fall of Louisburg to the British and the sieges at Fort Niagara and Quebec inspired great hope that if things went well, perhaps they would at last be safe to build their lives in peace but for now, no New Englander could relax.
The Siege of Fort Niagara – A strange and fascinating tale
Ten days had passed since the British and their Iroquois allies had laid siege to the fort. Both Brigadier General John Prideaux and Sir William Johnson were well aware that it would be impossible to take the fort by storm. The walls were high on the sides facing the land, tiered with batteries of artillery and defended by bastions and every manner of natural and artificial means possible. An attack from Lake Ontario or the Niagara River was not possible because they had no naval support available. It had to be a land attack.
Prideaux had established his headquarters about three quarters of a mile from the fort, beyond artillery range and he quickly put his engineers to work digging trenches angled towards the fort so that the guns could be brought forward foot by foot until they were positioned to batter down the walls of the fort. As the trenches progressed, Prideaux had his guns fire into the woods just south of his encampment, between the fort and his guns in order to keep French snipers from getting close enough to pick off his troops.
In the meantime, Major Pouchot was determined not to be a stationary target bottled up in his fort while waiting for the reinforcements he had earlier sent for from the western forts. The day after the English had landed he had devised a plan to try and persuade Sir William Johnson’s Iroquois to change sides. Now the plan was put into effect.
The drawbridge of the main gate of Fort Niagara was briefly lowered and the French allied Seneca Chief, Kaendae, headed for the English camp. He was respected by the Iroquois League and Sir William Johnson knew him well. Shots were fired at him until Johnson stopped the soldiers, realizing they could lose the battle immediately if the chief were to be killed. If the Chief could not persuade Johnson’s Indians to come over to the French, Pouchot hoped to have them agree that all the Indians should withdraw from the white man’s battle rather than die in a fight that would weaken all their tribes.
Captain Pouchot grows impatient
Many days went by while the tribes parlayed. Captain Pouchot grew impatient and figuring that his own troops numbered at least a thousand, including some five hundred Algonkins, Abernaki and Seneca that he just might defeat the British in a surprise attack. A quick victory now might win the day and terminate the siege.
At early morning light, July 15, 1759, the Abbe Francois Piquet blessed the troops before the attack with a solemn benediction ending with an Amen and followed by the words, “Go out now and kill the English. Give them no quarter!” Captain St. Luc de la Corne ordered the men to get to their feet, and told them spread out in the woods and move generally in the direction of Fort Oswego until contact was made with the enemy.
British Colonel Frederick Haldimand heard a sudden flurry of shots nearby coming from where a party of his woodcutters was working. He reacted quickly; within moments the camp was alerted and twenty volunteers raced towards the gunfire. Two of the eight woodcutters had been killed by they time they got there and the rest were prisoners. The British rescue party quickly killed the captors and other arriving French soldiers were immediately felled by further British reinforcements.
The French, thinking that there were more British troops than there actually were panicked and fled. Some sniping from both sides continued; Colonel Haldimand was wounded in the side and Captain Luc de la Corne was killed along with several other French officers. The quick response of the British ended Pouchot’s plan, leaving the French and their Indians temporarily demoralized.
Pouchot immediately sent a group of fast paddlers to Fort Presqui’le, Fort Leboeuf and Fort Machault urging the commanders of those Forts to speed up their plans for reinforcing Fort Niagara and send as many reinforcements as they could as quickly as possible. Some of the fort commanders decided to stay at their forts with a minimum garrison of men but they quickly mobilized the bulk of the reinforcements and sent them on their way. Captain Portneuf, commander at Fort Presqui’le, then sent a small party carrying a letter to Pouchot to let him know they should arrive by the 28th of the month.
It must have been a fantastic sight to see the fleet of hundreds of canoes and bateau with 1100 armed fur traders, bush lopers (coureurs de bois), colony troops and about 1000 Ottawas and Chippewas paddle and row swiftly down Lake Erie headed for the Niagara River. Many of the traders, trappers and bush lopers had dressed and painted themselves as Indians; some even wearing eagle feathers in their hair or sticking them on their scalps with a mixture of mud and pine tar. They sang warlike songs and shouted war cries as they furiously paddled. Every man was certain they would wipe out the English. As to the Indians, they were already counting the scalps, booty and prisoners they would take.
On July 23, 1759, an equally colorful scene was taking place at Fort Niagara. One thousand Chippewa, Ottawa, Pottawatomies and nine hundred Iroquois of the Iroquois League faced each other in parallel lines across a council fire. Chief after chief had spoken as he attempted to persuade the other side to join them against the English or the French or dissuade the other side from fighting at all. It went on for hours. In the end, with no decision reached, the council broke up and each side returned to their camps to ponder on a decision. No one on either side, white or Indian knew what would happen next. More importantly, when would it happen? – Time was running out.
Your Host’s Remarks
Stay with us for Chapter 7 and live the strange and almost unbelievable events that ultimately led to fall of Fort Niagara. Did the French reinforcements not get there in time? Who won the race and why? When the Fort surrendered, did the British permit their Indian allies to massacre the French for their scalps, liquor, personal belongings and prisoners for torture or ransom?
How did General Prideaux and Sir William Johnson solve the riddle of the need to leave their headquarters and artillery exposed to French attack while moving their main force of British soldiers and Indian warriors to block the oncoming thousands of blood thirsty French and Indian reinforcements fast approaching Fort Niagara? Which side did the Indians choose to support or did they withdraw from the fight & why? What was General Wolfe doing at Quebec while all this is going one?
Be sure to join us as we absorb this great adventure of 250 years ago.
For this episode we made little use of the internet. The Quebec siege material thus far is mostly from the books: The Battle for the Continent – Quebec 1759 by Gordon Donaldson, published by Doubleday Canada Ltd. Toronto 1973 and Quebec 1759 by G.P. Stacey, published by The Macmillan Company of Canada, Toronto, 1959.
For the French, British and Indian actions at Forts William Henry and Niagara; the main source is the book, Wilderness Empire, by Allen W. Eckert, published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto 1969.
Ken Tellis is an ex sailor who has traveled the world lived in Quebec and raised a family in the French milieu. Ken can be reached at