Honestly, There’s Loads of Us

WWL
Photo credit: Louis-Philippe Hébert Jeangagnon. Licensed under creative commons

Today I want to tell you about Marie-Madeleine Jarret, who was born on this day in 1678 in Verchères, Quebec. She is also known as Madeleine de Verchères. Madeleine grew up in a small settlement surrounded by about 120 acres of farmland on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River. Her family had been granted the land in 1672 and they had several tenants. Their settlement was fortified against the attacks of the Iroquois tribe. It was surrounded by a stockade about twelve to fifteen feet high with a bastion at each corner and a single gate on the river side. They had good reason to fear these attacks. By 1692, when Madeleine was just fourteen years old, one of her brothers and two of her sister’s husbands had been killed by the Iroquois.

On 22nd October 1692, Madeleine had been left in charge of the fort whilst her parents were away on business. They needed to collect enough supplies to see them through the winter. Most of the settlers were outside of the fort that morning tending the fields. For their protection they also had eight soldiers with them. Inside the fort were just two soldiers, one very old man, her younger siblings and the wives and children of their tenants. Madeleine was quite close by in the cabbage garden when the Iroquois suddenly attacked. Everyone was taken by surprise and the Iroquois carried off about twenty men. She only narrowly escaped, she was grabbed from behind by her head scarf, which she managed to untie and slip away. She ran into the fort crying: “To arms! To arms!” But in truth there were very few people inside the fort to take up arms against their attackers.

As she entered the fort she grabbed a soldiers helmet and put it on, ran to the bastions and fired a musket out at their assailants. She encouraged the few who were inside the fort to make as much noise as possible so it would sound like there was more of them. She also fired the cannon which would warn other forts of the attack and hopefully bring reinforcements. The Iroquois were hoping that they would take the fort easily in a surprise attack, but at the sound of the cannon, they retreated with their prisoners. In the middle of all this a French family turned up in a canoe. The soldiers refused to leave the fort so Madeleine ran to the dock and helped them inside. She pretended that they were reinforcements.

In the evening, the cattle that belonged to the settlers came back to the fort. Worried that the Iroquois could be hiding amongst the herd, covered with animal skins, she let them in one by one and checked them carefully. The real reinforcements from nearby forts arrived about an hour after the Iroquois had left, but they did manage to catch up with them and free the captured settlers. By the time Madeline’s parents returned, their daughter was a hero. She was not the only family member to have held off an attack by the Iroquois with very few men. Her mother had done something similar only two years earlier.

In the earliest reports of the raid Madeleine’s part in it was not mentioned. But when her father died in 1700 she was awarded his pension in recognition of the part she played. The earliest mention comes from Madeleine herself. A later writer rather elaborated and said that as well as putting on a soldiers helmet, she had tied up her hair and put on a man’s jerkin as well. This might seem perfectly reasonable to us but, in the early eighteenth century, people didn’t much like the idea of a woman dressing up as a man. They thought it was most inappropriate. It got to the point where accounts of her bravery were almost having to apologise for her behaviour and even later accounts are careful to emphasise how she returned to her traditional female role and became an attentive wife and mother.

Her story has been taken up by feminists but also sadly by nationalists. The fact that she was a settler fighting the Native Americans does make me a little uncomfortable. But looking at it from Madeleine’s point of view she was defending the only home she’d ever known against people who had killed members of her family.

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