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Wild French Food in 1755

Roasted game bird
The romance of living off the land aside, there is evidence that French soldiers supplemented their rations with game birds.

The past two years visitors often asked, “Did they hunt for their food?” in reference to the historical soldiers we portrayed at Fort Ticonderoga. For the men of Colonel Williard’s 1759Massachusettsprovincial regiment who we portrayed in 2011, the answer was a pretty definitive no. The one comical exception came from the diary of Private Lemuel Wood, who spent a day of service hunting cattle that had escaped from the army’s drovers. During 2012, documentary references to food and supply at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 indicated that Colonel Hinman’s Connecticut regiment ate rations shipped up from Albany or even from Connecticut itself. Only the orderly book of Sergeant Bayze Wells recorded orders for fishing details and distribution of the catch as rations. He also recorded a lone moose shot by one of the officers in a patrol leagues down Lake Champlain. In this 2013 visitor season, indications are that the French soldiers of the Languedoc regiment did indeed hunt for at least some of their food. Visitors this season who ask, “Did they hunt for their food?” will not only get a cheerful, “Yes!” but some of the interesting historical evidence for this conclusion.

Looking at the verdant, wooded hills that surround Fort Ticonderoga today, it’s difficult to imagine how developed this military post became as the French & Indian War and subsequent Revolutionary war played out. These campaigns which killed and maimed soldiers likewise stripped and scarred the landscape of this wilderness peninsula, chasing wild game off to quieter valleys. However, in 1755 the Ticonderoga peninsula was a pristine landscape teeming with life, untouched by the clearing, blasting, and construction that would build this frontier fort in the future. Except for seasonal native hunting and fishing camps, the peninsula’s game was as virgin as the dense forest that covered it.

It would be incorrect to say the French soldiers at Ticonderoga in 1755 lived off of hunted game.  Even as early as February of 1755, the French minister of the navy had ordered commissaries in New France to prepare rations for the six battalions of preparing to leave France. Commissaries were to immediately grind the previous fall’s harvest of wheat into flour, storing it in barrels for shipping. The minister of the navy ordered “three thousand quintals of salt pork,” or 300,000 pounds, for the 1755 campaign season. The diary of Chevalier de la Pause of the Bearn regiment records issues of rations in 1755. His regiment disembarked from ships in Quebec, marching on to Montreal, and subsequently out into frontier posts just like the Languedoc regiment. Rations in settled areas were quite similar to their British and American counterparts. De la Pause noted “On the route from Quebec to Montreal each sergeant and soldier was given 2 pounds of bread, one pound of beef, 1 miserable (approximately a pint) of brandy.” Leaving Montreal for western posts, de la Pause’s men received more durable, “lard, biscuit, and tobacco and pots (of brandy) for fifteen days.”   The soldiers of the Languedoc regiment encamped at Ticonderoga in the fall of 1755 were administratively part of Fort Saint Frederick at Crown Point. Accordingly, Languedoc soldier’s digging a fortified camp on the Ticonderoga peninsula received fresh vegetables from the nearby Fort’s gardens, bread or flour from their ovens, and fresh beef from the Fort’s herd of cattle.

Canadian hunter
Canadian’s attached to Baron Dieskau’s Force at Carillon in 1755 were used to hunting in civilian life. How much these skills carried over to French regulars is unclear.

Yet these soldiers’ ration staples run into prevailing French cuisine at the time, which embraced a wide diversity of foods. Many of the popular delicacies in France were wild in the Champlain Valley. Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac, in his diary, noted not only “strawberries, raspberries, wild black berries,” but also “capillaries and ginsings,” stating both were harvested in Canada and shipped back to France. “Capillaries,” or fiddle-head ferns, were a fashionable part of a meal in France and commonly found in the forests around Lake Champlain. Equally common as fiddle-head ferns in the kitchens of France were small game birds. Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac noted while sailing to New France that “There is also a large amount of waterfowl called, ‘hapefoys’ which were fun to shoot at as we passed.” He also made careful note of the variety of pigeons available and the preferred preparations.

The quantity of turtledoves, pigeon, or rock doves is so large that we are obliged to destroy them because they are very destructive to wheat. These animals are very good dining and in any case, but particularly roasted and in soup they are a very agreeable bouillon. The Canadians seem to be very attached to all the ways.

Extinct since 1914, the passenger pigeons migrated in flocks so numerous as to darken the sky. Much as migratory birds today, mass migrations seem to have followed major waterways, such as the Lake Champlain corridor. Just as Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac noted the Canadian culinary customs, French soldiers quite likely noted the frenzy of hunting with which Canadians survived for the winter.

They make a surprising consumption. There are no inhabitant who, with a wife and two or three children, never killed in winter, one steer, one calf, two pigs, two sheep, chickens, geese, turkeys, chickens, without counting game and fish that they take in quantity throughout the winter.

Not surprisingly, a whole flock of passenger pigeon bones were recovered in the site of Fort Ticonderoga, as were deer bones and other game. While these archaeological remnants could represent the refuse of many campaign seasons, it seems likely that French culinary customs ensured that French soldiers in 1755 left some unknown portion of these remains.

Fishing boat
Religious fast days made fish an essential source of protein. French cuisine had an equal love of fish, shellfish, and game birds.

French gastronomic interest in game meat was matched by religious concerns. For loyal soldiers in the Royal army of His Catholic Majesty Louis XV, adherence to church food restrictions was not a matter of personal conviction, it was part of army life. Within each week both Friday and Saturday were religious fast or lean days, for which meat other than fish was prohibited. Add to this days for a plethora of saints’ days and lent, and there were nearly 150 fast days in the 365 day year. In France, much of the protein during these fast days came from fish, generally fresh in coastal areas, or salted inland. Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac happily joined other soldiers and sailors fishing for fresh cod sailing to New France.  Inland areas of New France made access to fish more difficult and the diocese of Quebec successfully applied to the church for special dispensation to consume eggs and dairy products on fast days in the late 17th century. With the possible exception of officers’ “wheels of gruyere cheese,” the diary of Chevalier de la Pause records no issues of salted fish or other protein based rations to fill this void on fast days. It appears likely that French soldiers fished to flesh out their fast day dinners.  This supposition is backed up by archaeological remains of the diverse species of fish found in Lake Champlain as well as a plethora of freshwater mussels.

The French soldiers of the Languedoc regiment, who first fortified the Ticonderoga peninsula, were first and foremost soldiers not hunters. It is appealing to imagine living off the land, especially given the pristine landscape in which they encamped in 1755.  While these French soldiers, like their British and American counterparts, ate mostly preserved rations, wild food filled both culinary fashions and religions constraints.