The telling of a North American story

Dave Wylie, Special to The County
6 years ago

It’s time to start telling North American stories. 

I’m continually amazed at how we new arrivals to this continent appear to take it for granted. It’s as though we’ve always lived here when we haven’t. Five hundred years in historical time is the blink of an eye, a blip since the day we Europeans crash landed here and started swarming over the place as though we owned it. Rather than carefully cultivate what we found here like the Native Americans before us, we Europeans began trashing it.

The French, for their part, started dealing with the native inhabitants a bit more diplomatically than did the Spanish and English. They formed alliances with the Indians, even if there were initial difficulties. Those difficulties were overcome in the fullness of time, such that, in Canada at least, the natives were generally allied with their French counterparts. There’s a whole range of stories that could come from that relationship and the twelve thousand years or more the natives existed here without Europeans. I could not begin to address that history, or prehistory, so I won’t.

I’ll deal instead with more recent events, like the so-called French and Indian War. It’s a favorite subject of mine because I have a personal stake in the proceedings and its outcome. In American time, 259 years is a long, long time ago. In historical or Native American time, it was yesterday.

I’m trying to parse out the story of one of my ancestors. His name was Charles Migneault. He died relatively young, some 54 years old in Riviere Ouelle, Quebec. The date of his death is October 1759, a month after Quebec City was surrendered to the English.

I have it on authority that his brother-in-law died of wounds received earlier in September 1759.

So much of this story I’m trying to figure out is overshadowed by some fairly ghastly events. The British general Wolfe, riddled with tuberculosis and possibly dying, begins a campaign of terrorizing the inhabitants living along the north and south shores of the St. Lawrence. It’s no secret that the able-bodied male inhabitants of Quebec were obligated to serve the French crown as militiamen. Many of them had already served in campaigns further upriver at engagements against the English and their New England levies. Many of them had families living in these villages.

Wolfe, perhaps frustrated with his campaign against the French army and the approach of winter that would end his pursuit of fame and glory, decides to take the war to the French Canadian inhabitants, les habitants.

He unleashes his irregulars, ‘Rangers’ mostly, along with some of the rank and file in a campaign of arson and murder. These forces attack and burn Kamouraska,  Ste. Anne de la Pocatiere, Riviere Ouelle, Baie St. Paul and other villages along the St. Lawrence. Local historian Guy Dubay considers the events ‘scorched earth’ and I wholeheartedly agree. The suffering would not only be the result of death to immediate family members, but the destruction of homes, livestock and provisions for the coming winter.

So where was Charles Mignault? Aside from the prospect of ordinary mortality by natural causes, I am grasping at various clues to his demise. If his brother-in-law was wounded in an encounter with the English, might Migneault have suffered a similar fate? Did his encounter take place in one of the villages being marauded by the British and their allies, or did it occur on the Plains of Abraham? Or did he simply starve? I suspect silence on the matter is due in part to les habitants simply not wishing to antagonize the conquering English with harum-scarum stories of atrocities.

In any event, Charles Migneault was a casualty of the times. The eerie quiet surrounding these events prove my point.

Wolfe met his maker on the Plains of Abraham. I speculate it was by an aimed shot by an Indian, a militiaman, or an Acadian covering the sidelines of the battle while the French regulars hoofed it.

Nemesis comes in many forms. It is part of the story.

Dave Wylie’s life and work experience runs the gamut from newspaper editor to carpenter to grant writer to boat builder with lots of other work wedged in between. Wylie currently is president of a management company that oversees an elderly housing complex and president of the local historical society. He resides in Madawaska.