A Very Old, New Look at New France

The memoirs of Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac provide a window into the Champlain Valley in 1755.

For the 2013 visitor season we are really excited to portray Fort Ticonderoga in its naissance back in 1755. Looking at the transformation of a French army camp at Carillon into a fortified outpost is a great opportunity to talk about the origins and early days of the French & Indian war. Focusing on 1755 also presents a great chance to look around and explore New France and the Champlain valley with all its natural beauty and peoples at that time. This season Fort Ticonderoga’s costumed staff of interpreters will be portraying soldiers from the Languedoc infantry regiment of the French army. We chose this particular unit partly because it was one of the first military units to garrison Carillon, and partly because of a wonderful diary from the regiment.

Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac was a very young second Lieutenant when he arrived in Quebec. His wide eyed enthusiasm and sense of adventure is apparent even in his terse diary entry:

June 27th 1755, 2:30 in the afternoon, we disembarked at Quebec very eager to put our feet on solid ground and look at the settlers of the new world.

By the time he actually set foot in the New World he had already had a chance to see some of the exotic sites and wild life of the North Atlantic. On the 28th of May he saw his first icebergs, which he described as, “mountains covered in snow: they appeared twice as large as a Ship of the Line.” He noted with glee as the naval gunners on board his ship, the Lys, fired cannon shots at these icebergs to no effect.  While sailing across the Atlantic Ocean he also first experienced some of the wildlife in the New World. D’Aleyrac grew up in the town of Saint-Pierreville, in the foothills of the Alps, eating salted codfish on Catholic fast days. He proudly ate his first fresh codfish pulled from the waters Grand Banks on June 7th, 1755. Waterfowl, which he called, “hapefoys,” received a similar treatment as the icebergs dodging barrages of buckshot as they flew over from the ship’s deck.

Once in Canada, Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac carefully noted the geography and landscape around him. He summed up Canada as, “a vast forest interspersed by an infinite number of strong wide rivers, filed with rapids. “ Traversing this vast country by river appears to have been a large part of his experience defending New France as he described in some detail the difficulties in moving by bateau:

These flat bottomed wooden boats were the primary means of transportation on both sides during the French & Indian War.

These rapids are very dangerous to descend, whether by the presence of vortexes, or rocks that strike the bottom or overturn the bateaux. In addition, ordinarily the shock means one loads the boats lighter and use three to four additional men to steer. The rest followed along the river while the rapids’ height exceeded what you could pass. Ascending these rivers is no less difficult: not only do you unload the bateaux, but sometimes you must pull it with ropes, what is called pulling, “a la cordelle.” To pull a bateaux, you ordinarily have twenty to thirty people; to climb little rapids one simply needs to stand and pole the river bottom with a large pole. We were still obliged to carry the boats when climbing or descending rapids, because the least rock was enough to pierce the boat.

Hundreds of soldiers in the Languedoc regiment faced these exact difficulties as they ascended the rapids on the Richeleau River on their trip to Carillon in 1755.

The experiences and impressions of soldiers like Lieutenant d’Aleyrac in this wild landscape are critical as we imagine the rocky peninsula of Carillon when it too was a wild place. Coming from France, d’Aleyrac had the same outside perspective that we too would have if we travelled back in time to 1755. It’s easy to imagine the wild beauty of Carillon in 1755, reading about, “pine trees and others one hundred feet tall,” with an understory filled with, “strawberries, raspberries, and wild blackberries,” Likewise d’Aleyrac encountered, beavers, black bears, brown bears, polar bears, elk caribous, muskrats, and ground hogs, among a whole menagerie of wildlife. He was particularly perturbed by the, “very long and very big” rattlesnakes he encountered. British and American accounts of Carillon and rattlesnake hill across the lake corroborate his concern over these serpents.

Beyond the wild landscape, Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac’s impressions of the people he encountered are perhaps the best part of his memoirs. With Canadian milice and native warriors encamped at Carillon in 1755 along with the French regulars, his perceptions are fascinating as we imagine encountering these people over 250 years ago. He described Canadians as, “well-made, big, robust, adroit in the use of the gun and ax,” and, “used to hunting and making war.” While d’Aleyrac appreciated the Canadians’ strength and skills for living in the Canadian wilderness he was concerned about their personal habits. He stated, “the Canadians have an extreme passion for brandy and smoking tobacco,” noting that these habits extended to children and even smoking in bed. Differences in clothing also perturbed this French Lieutenant:

The average Canadian hardly wears French clothing, but one species of, “capots” crossed in front with lapels. The buttons and collars are of another color. A sash around the capot closes it: simple and impractical clothing.

With a hood and buttons of a contrasting color, this represents one interpretation of the ‘capot.’

D’Aleyrac encountered several unique garments worn by Canadians including breechcloths, leggings, and soulier de beouf, a Canadian version of the moccasin worn in the summer. Ironically despite his critique, this French Lieutenant probably had to wear this clothing in his service. Another French officer, newly arrived in Canada like d’Aleyrac, received their own officers’ versions of Canadian clothing by the 22nd of July 1755.

Like Canadians, Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac encountered Native Americans for the first time in his service in New France. While his vivid account of their customs and dress is interesting, he begins his account with the admission that Native Americans were different than he had been told:

The Indians of Canada are very different than that idea one commonly has in France. Far from being all hairy as we believe, they are much less hairy than us, they have no beard, they pluck the eyebrows with a type of brass gun-worm. Even more, they cut and pluck the hairs from the top of their heads to the fronts, along the temples and above the neck, leaving only that on the back of the head only 2-3 inches long. They attach from here grand white, red or blue feathers with little silver or porcelain ornaments. They rub the top of their heads, the temples and the neck with vermillion, they finally paint their faces with vermillion, of blue, black and white, and they pierce the nose through the septum with a silver ring, they cut the earlobe and attach 3 to 4 bullets to stretch it in order to enlarge the opening. When they are about half a foot lower, they wiggle on a brass wire in the shape of a gun-worm and attach silver pendants. The kind of this country are tall, brown colored, almost olive, erect, well made, black hair and teeth as white as ivory. In any nation no one stands as straight as these Indians who always march with their heads very high. They are of a robust complexion, enduring the cold, heat, hunger and thirst.  They are very agile in a race or swimming because they are always in exercise hunting, fishing, dancing, playing lacrosse, or especially the game of, “paume ou de mail.” They play whichever of these games, nation versus nation, and the prizes are sometimes worth 12 to 15 pounds. They are excellent shots with the firelock and the bow and arrow, they do many exercises to use these advantageously and with sure shots.

As a traveler from France he too had his idea of Native Americans challenged by actually meeting them, much as happens to us as we delve back into the history of this Fort in 1755.

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