People & Places

Then Again: A winter wracked by scurvy and cold

This fanciful drawing depicts a French fort along the Richelieu River. Fort Ste. Anne, which was built in 1666 on Isle La Motte, was rectangular. Photo courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society

(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)

The several dozen Frenchmen were huddled inside a small fort on an island in the middle of Lake Champlain during the winter of 1666, about as far from familiar civilization as anyone could have imagined. On bitter nights, as they lay awake in their frigid cabins and worried about the sickness that was spreading among them, each must have wondered: “What am I doing here?”

It was a fair question.

The 60 men were the soldiers of Fort Ste. Anne, the southernmost bastion in this part of New France, as the French colonial empire in North America was called. From this fort on Isle La Motte, they were expected to menace the Iroquois, who had been challenging French control of the area. At particularly bleak moments, the soldiers must have realized that as the first line of attack, they could easily become the first line of defense.

They may also have realized that military leaders had little faith this fort would hold. Just north of Fort Ste. Anne, the French had built a series of three more strongholds along the Richelieu River to help block any invasion.

Relations had always been bad between the French and the Iroquois. The Iroquois first met the French in 1609, at the wrong end of Samuel de Champlain’s gun. Seeking allies in the fur trade, Champlain had tried to curry favor with the Iroquois’ rivals, the Algonquin tribes. He accompanied a war party of Abenaki and Montagnais, tribes in the Algonquin nation, south on the lake that today bears his name and into Iroquois territory. When the anticipated clash occurred, Champlain raised his long arquebus, a predecessor of the musket, and shot dead several Iroquois.

This shocking display of violence had the desired effect in the short term. It scared off the Iroquois. But it also sparked nearly a century of intermittent French warfare with the Iroquois.

By the 1640s, the Iroquois had firearms, too, which they took in trade from English and Dutch allies. After crushing rival tribes, they began following Lake Champlain north and raiding the new French settlements of Trois-Rivieres and Montreal. In response, the French began building forts along the Richelieu. By 1665, three were completed.

In January 1666, the French colonial governor launched an assault against the Mohawks, one of the six tribes that formed the Iroquois and the same tribe Champlain had attacked. Six hundred soldiers trudged south during what was the harshest winter in decades. They slept exposed to the elements and ran low on food before being ambushed in what is today upstate New York.

The survivors retreated north, their hunger growing worse. They failed to find provisions cached on one of the Champlain Islands. Among the losses were 60 men who starved or froze to death on the return march.

That’s when French colonial officials ordered the construction of a fort farther south, Fort Ste. Anne. It would be a way station for troops headed south and a defense against Indian attackers heading north.

Three hundred men labored during the summer of 1666 to build the rectangular island fort, which measured 144 feet by 96 feet. The fort featured a 15-foot-tall palisade fence with a bastion at each corner. Inside the fort were 14 buildings to house the troops. They were led by Capt. Pierre de St. Paul, Sieur de la Motte, after whom the island would be named.

French authorities put the fort to immediate use. That fall of 1666 they assembled in and around the fort a force of 1,300 men who would attack Mohawk villages to the south. Half the soldiers were crack troops who had just shipped in from France. Their use suggests how seriously the French government took this fight. The other troops were Canadian militia, accompanied by roughly 100 Hurons and Algonquins.

Dollier de Casson
Francois Dollier de Casson, a Sulpician priest, wrote a detailed account of his time at Fort Ste. Anne, a remote French military outpost on Isle La Motte. WikiCommons image
This expedition into Mohawk territory proved less ill-fated than the previous one, which isn’t saying much. The large force approached Mohawk villages, marching to drums and, not surprisingly, found them empty upon their arrival. With no one to fight, the French burned the villages and destroyed the provisions they found. Hundreds of Mohawks are believed to have starved that winter as a result.

The French didn’t return to the fort unscathed, however. Canoes capsized during their travels up and down Lake Champlain, at the cost of 18 men’s lives.

The surviving troops continued back to Canada, except for an unlucky 60 who were ordered to protect Fort Ste. Anne that winter. The writings of one of the men, Francois Dollier de Casson, a Sulpician priest, offer a glimpse of their suffering. Dollier de Casson’s job was to minister to the sick and the dying. Upon arriving, he found most of the men suffering from a malady that people little understood then. Some believed the ailment was brought on by dampness and that it was contagious.

The problem was their diet. The men had been subsisting on bread and dried meat. Deprived of fresh fruit and vegetables, they had developed scurvy, caused by severe vitamin C deficiency. Victims suffered general weakness and joint pain. Their bodies showed bruises from internal bleeding. Their breath turned foul, their gums bled and their teeth fell out. Untreated, they would die.

As much as disease or death, the men feared dying without a priest to pray for their souls. When Dollier de Casson arrived, La Motte rushed out to greet him. “Welcome! What a pity you did not arrive a little earlier!” La Motte said. “How the two soldiers who have just died longed for you!”

The “death agony,” Dollier de Casson reported, “lasted eight days, during which the stench was so great that it reached almost to the center of the fort, although the patients were shut up in their rooms.”

The priest witnessed dying men doing what they could to ensure that their comrades took care of them. “(The sick) set about making elaborate wills, as if they had been very rich, saying, ‘I give so much to so and so because he helped me in my last illness …’ Those who saw through the device smiled at the resource of these poor fellows, who did not have a cent in the world.”

Like others, Dollier de Casson thought scurvy contagious — what else explained why so many came down with it at once? He took care to keep himself healthy. As a new arrival who until recently had eaten well, he actually had nothing to worry about for months. When he wasn’t working or sleeping, Dollier de Casson would go to the edges of the fort, where the snow had been tramped down, “to take the air and run back and forth, in order to avoid the disease. … Anyone who saw me would have thought me crazy, had he not known how essential such violent exercise was to keep off the illness. It was certainly funny to watch me say my (daily prayers) on the run, but I had no other time.”

Dollier de Casson had brought with him the prayers that the soldiers longed for with all their souls. He also brought something equally important for their bodies. Since he was well connected with the colonial government, Dollier de Casson had been able to secure food shipments, which soon arrived. He and the other men seemed to understand that this fresher food might help ward off the sickness.

La Motte stored the fort’s provisions in his room. There, he made soup and served it each morning to the sick. La Motte didn’t know it, but his greatest service to his men was his nightly rationing out of stewed prunes, which are rich in vitamin C.

“This was the only way to cure them,” Dollier de Casson said astutely, though he added that “the air was so infected at St. Anne (that) not one who stayed recovered.”

That first winter, roughly half the men died.

The French maintained the fort for only several more years. Skirmishes with the Iroquois had abated, at least temporarily, so they decided they no longer needed the stronghold. Sometime between 1669 and 1671, the French abandoned the fort. Soldiers set the fence and buildings on fire so that no others could use the place, and they headed north to civilization.

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