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France in Canada

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

The Fatal River: The Life and Death of La Salle. By Frances Gaither. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.00. La Salle. By L. V. Jacks, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. Donjon of Demons. By Benedict Fitzpatrick. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.00. Mere Marie of the Ursulines. By Agnes Repplier. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

The seventeenth century saw the activities of an aggressive France, beginning when Richelieu turned his eyes to the Rhine and the possibilities that lay on the further side. That century also rolled over a new France called Canada. In each hemisphere France was the seat of two empires. In new France, as in the old, the state bore the impress of Richelieu’s genius and Colbert’s craft, and was defended by a strategy modelled after Turenne. For the sake of another kingdom, intangible but always to be reckoned with, Jesuits went into the wilderness, there to teach and often to die. The curtain fell upon the drama long ago, and Francis Parkman, too, has passed, but not until he transformed the story into a mighty epic. Now the actions of France in North America have attracted biographers of a later, and perhaps different, school. French Canada of the seventeenth century is the background of four books which have appeared within the year. Two of them deal with La Salle, and carry us, at long last, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. “Donjon of Demons,” an essay in martyrology, commemorates the life and death of a Jesuit pioneer who suffered at the hands of the Iroquois. In “Mere Marie of the Ursulines,” Miss Repplier, after a manner which never fails, tells of an adventurous Ursuline who was the first to guide convent affairs in our north.

The filler for these books is furnished by Parkman, who, indeed, devoted separate volumes to La Salle and the Jesuits, and drew heavily on the letters of Miss Repplier’s nun. Read in that light, the biographies show a common value in that the three characters, priest, nun, and explorer, lived at a time when France, refreshed once more, was resuming the route to empire. The same play, it would seem, has been revived for presentation in modern dress. When it comes to empire, which really means nothing but control, there is more than one way of turning the trick. A run on the banks of a recalcitrant neighbour may be just as effective as a raid by the Grand Army. And whosoever studies Gallic ways should remember that while she has apparently destroyed many of her own regimes, there seems to have been but one France, in aim and method, for quite a number of centuries. Hence it seems plausible that the halting places of French history mark, not changes in the real France, but periods of rest by the roadside. “There was always France,” was the answer of the court martial to Marshall Bazaine when he sought to excuse his surrender of Metz by the fact that the government at Paris had changed from Empire to Republic. Certainly the thoughts of a self-centered nation are long, long thoughts. Thus, the Dutch, as owners of New York, knew what they were about when they showed the Iroquois how to build bastioned forts, for the Iroquois were enemies of the French; just as the Calvinist William of Orange found good reason to ally himself with the Holy Roman Emperor against Louis XIV. It follows that the actions of seventeenth-century France may be of interest to those who must deal with the France of today.

Although Champlain founded Quebec in 1606, there was no substantial progress until after the city, captured by an English squadron, had been returned by the treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The year 1629, when Quebec was thus repatriated, may be marked as the real birthday of New France, for it was then that Canada was given a place on the stage of French endeavour. It is in no spirit of empty compliment that the Richelieu River bears the name of one whose thoughts did not end with the western coast of France. Opportunity of quite another sort was noted by men who, like Richelieu, bore holy orders but, unlike him, were not in Caesar’s service. But while the visions which appeared in Paris and Rome related to different things, both commanded that the restored colony should be strengthened and pushed forward.

In truth there were two colonies on the St. Lawrence. There was the state, and then there was the same invisible colony that had existed when there were legions instead of regiments, regardless of whether the eagles were in company with the labarum. Even before the French crown had fully shaped its ideas concerning Canada, that part of the church army in which Frenchmen were enlisted, took up its own march. The way was quite clear, for the English, when they gave up Quebec, left nothing behind, unless we except a piece of abandoned property in the shape of’a Negro slave —a “little Moor” who, with a Huron child of the same age, made up the first class which the Jesuit Le Jeune baptized and then taught. And thus France sent out two armies which, like allies in so many periods of history, had common aims, but also points on which agreement could not be. Of these were prohibition and puritanism. The church did not want the Indians to have brandy, whereas the state, in order to meet the competition of English and Dutch in the fur trade, insisted upon paying the Indians in the medium of exchange which the red men preferred above beads. The church censored the theatre, in the teeth of a governor who liked Moliere as well as Corneille. And the church, although a bold explorer, advanced pickets to the west and around the Great Lakes, whereas the natural line of a pushing state ran southwesterly, as we shall see.

But these differences lay on the surface, after all; and beneath was a common purpose. In the first place, each power, state and church, felt that it had a colonial problem in the true sense. One was not merely to plant, one must cultivate. To a colony ‘the central power must continually give of its strength. And so the church in this wilderness was strong because none came out to serve her save those who felt they had a mission in the real sense of that term. “It is one thing,” reported a Jesuit, “to reflect upon death in one’s cell, before the image of the crucifix, but it is quite another to think of it in the midst of tempest and in the presence of death itself.” And another wrote from the Canada wilds that “a soul very thirsty for the Son of God, I mean suffering, would find enough to satisfy it.” Just why certain people should get that way may be a question; but when they do, then we have a church in action. And so with the state. In the following century, indeed, Voltaire spoke of France being at war “on account of a few acres (arpents) in Canada.” But in Voltaire’s day France was suffering from one of her periodical malaises. To Richelieu, Mazarin, and- Colbert, Canada was new France, not acreage, and to Canada came men of the proconsular type. Frontenac and Talon were never matched by the royal governors sent by England to our colonies; and the vigour of the Bishop of Quebec was equaled only by the fierce energy which pushed the missionaries ever further into the west and around the Lakes. Possibly, as La Salle said, the Jesuit policy would have resulted in “a new Paraguay.” (To put La Salle’s reference in a modern light, one should study the history of the missions which the Franciscans later founded in California.) But, although Canada was not turned into a “New Paraguay,” and the Indians got their brandy, it remains true that church and state concurred in an Indian policy that bore fruit in helpful alliances. One tribe excepted, the Indians found a common ground on which they could meet any Frenchman, whether governor, bishop, outlaw coureur de bois, or missionary priest. A dramatic result was to be seen in the next century, when Montcalm’s call was answered by Indians of speech and home unknown even to frontiersmen.

It was in her treatment of the tribe which could not be won over by kindness that we may see the strong hand of a rejuvenated France. Champlain’s fatal mistake in shooting an Iroquois brave in order to impress the onlookers with the majesty of France, had raised up against the colony a powerful and implacable foe, known as the Iroquois or the Five Nations; indeed there came the day when, to use a military term of the period, the Iroquois “insulted” Quebec itself by a parade of war canoes opposite the Lower Town. But France, when ready, met the menace on the St. Lawrence after the manner of Rome when dealing with tribes along the Danube. As Parkman would put it, the savage yelps were answered by the drums of the French line. Nearly a century before Braddock’s regulars came to Virginia, the first companies of the Regiment Carignan-Salieres were disembarked at Quebec, with more to follow by later transports. It was after the manner of Rome, too, that France sent in command of this expeditionary force no Braddock, no Bur-goyne, but an officer who had served in campaigns where there was little room for the inept. This Marquis de Tracy, whom Miss Repplier’s nuns remembered as “a tall and portly man,” very devout, struck the Iroquois with the force that has characterized so many French campaigns in Europe. His object accomplished, Tracy returned to France; but he left most of his veterans as settlers. And although it remained for Frontenac, some twenty-odd years later, to conduct a final war against the same tribe, Tracy’s arrival with veteran troops from French barracks marked a turning point in Canadian history. In Parkman’s words, “a sunbeam from the court fell for a moment on the rock of Quebec”—a phrase reflected in the title of Willa Cather’s “Shadows on the Rock.”

Here we may see the unvarying policy that is staged whenever France feels herself again. If the Iroquois are implacable, then as to them let there be a policy of terrorism. As to the other tribes, let there be peace, but let it be a peace of Paris. That scene on the shores of Lake Ontario, to which Frontenac, at La Salle’s suggestion, advanced the frontier, gives the picture. The tenor of his speech to the savages, that hereafter it was to be France, and France alone, from whom the Five Nations were to receive the word, together with the springing of a fortress from wilderness soil at the gesture of this imperious man, made an impression on the savage mind which no Englishman later was able to efface. It was not long afterwards that the lonely ranger of the woods was to feel as safe from savage bands as one of Miss Repplier’s nuns at Quebec. And thus the way was opened for the onward march of New France.

The time, indeed, was ripe for such a movement. Canada was then in the eye of France; indeed for many later years the sun of Versailles was to gild the St. Lawrence. River and Rock—it is hard to keep away from Parkman and Miss Cather! The great monarch not only sent over shiploads of virgins to be wives of the colonists, but fondly expressed the hope that his dominions would produce ten children to the family. And, after all, Canada was a cold country; the winters were deadly, and the port was not ice-free.

Thus the activities of La Salle initiated a new phase of Canadian history. Thenceforth adventure, exploration, the long wars with the English, were for the state rather than the church. Before La Salle came, Marquette the priest had discovered the Mississippi, and there were Jesuit stations on the Lakes. But La Salle, in his operations, represented the state, and when we deal with his life we must lay aside the chronicle of Jesuit missionaries and Ursuline nuns.

But let us remember that they, too, were adventurers. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s life of Brebeuf, adhering though it does to the stark rules of martyrology, wherein no detail of suffering is omitted, shows us how the French missionaries acted when there were no regulars to protect them. In a similar flame of courage came the little party of religious in whom Miss Repplier is interested. The author has rubricated well the chronicle of that bold lady who founded a convent at Quebec in the days when the Iroquois were threatening the life of the colony. In so doing, Miss Repplier points out, the Mother Superior was following the example of that Ursula who, with other maidens equally helpless, set out for Rome at a time when Attila was on the loose. “Of course,” says Miss Repplier, “the Ursulines were the most adventurous of nuns; they had the most adventurous of patronesses.” But the reader will be glad to learn that no Attila hurt these gentle pioneers; and that their convent duly went up, thenceforth to be filled with the light that always seems to enlighten a convent no matter who may be outside—Franks, emissaries of Cromwell, Iroquois, or other obnoxious males.

To appraise La Salle’s work, one must ask a question that has nothing to do with the fact that his descent of the Mississippi put France on the Gulf of Mexico and is traceable into our Louisiana Purchase. The question is, how well did he serve the immediate interests of his country? And this question resolves itself into another. In what direction should France have moved from her settlements on the lower St. Lawrence?

Not directly south, because there lay the English colonies: New York, with New England alongside. Of course, in the next war with England—and what Frenchman of that day did not take the possibility into his reckoning of things? —campaigns could be pointed due south, based not only on Quebec, but on that other settlement, Acadia; and so it happened. But a broader sweep was indicated by the fact that the wilderness offered rivers as a substitute for the chaus-sees of Europe. To ascend the St. Lawrence from Montreal (then the advanced post) is to go southwest by south, and at the source one finds a cluster of inland seas which we know as the Great Lakes. The Jesuits and wood runners knew these lakes well; but one intent on the craft which makes strategy the servant of the state would look for a water course leading from the Lakes to the south. Such a river found, the potential enemy, when the time for action came, would be caught in a half nelson, being open to pressure from two sides instead of one. As a disadvantage, the English would have interior lines. But properly to seize such an opportunity requires not only disciplined armies, but a single genius in absolute control. The English colonies never met these conditions; even the Confederacy failed in that regard also; and in only two modern wars were interior lines an actual instead of a theoretical asset. All things, then, pointed to a movement around the English flank.

Now, La Salle found the river of his dreams, and forts sprang up along it; but the line thus occupied did not give the necessary clutch upon the English, because it was too far away. Over a century later, Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase was opposed, because to many who lived along the Atlantic seaboard the Mississippi valley seemed as distant as Cathay. But another river there was, which would have taken La Salle’s canoes into the Mississippi finally, and, if then occupied, would have put new France within throat reach of three English colonies, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania. The Alleghany (“French Creek” it was called in Washington’s youth) joins the Monongahela at Pittsburgh, the twain forming the Ohio. The Alleghany flows southwesterly, and its upper reaches are accessible to easy portage from the south shore of Lake Erie. The Indians called it La Belle Riviere in Washington’s time, and La Salle had heard the name mentioned; indeed he is supposed to have descended the Ohio to the site of Louisville. But further he never went; and his claim to fame must remain with the Mississippi, which he entered at a point far to the west. Therein, as lawyers would say, La Salle erred. It was some fifty years later when this was realized, and then the French essayed too late what could have been done in La Salle’s time had the explorer traced the nearer river. The well-known collision that opened the French and Indian War, called in Europe the Seven Years’ War, was occasioned by the attempt of the French to occupy the Alleghany-Ohio line. There is enough in the biographies of La Salle to show, although the authors do not suggest it, that in his life there were the morbidity and weakness which so often accompany courage and a dream. The Mississippi he traced in its full extent; but what must have been the chagrin, what the self-searching, of this maladjusted man had he realized his mistake while still in the flesh!

But perhaps it is better to think of all three characters of old Canada as they probably thought of themselves in relation to their work—La Salle, that is, in his happier moments. Each had a task, and each performed it. The missionary died with the vision that guides men of his type; the nun lived to see her convent peacefully on its way; and the explorer saw the river, which he thought his country needed, find its refuge in the sea. And there let us leave them. Each was French in spirit as well as origin. And all the misgivings France arouses among her neighbours when she attempts one of her periodical marches, soften in the presence of certain phases of French character. As with the nun at Quebec, so with the girl general whom the English angrily burned; as with the missionary to the Indians, so with Vincent de Paul, the founder of poor relief. And then La Salle, with his dream, his weaknesses, and his mistakes—have we not all been touched by the story of a man who was much greater, but died as miserably at St. Helena? Strength and weakness—no nation may demand the one alone; much less France, whose charm is traceable to a balance between the two which always she seems to offer.


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