Despite his loyalty and earlier leadership acumen, ole Joseph-Antoine didn’t turn out to be that good a governor for New France. There was trouble that he walked into, and his choices and the circumstances didn’t mesh well. In short, English and French colonies both brushed up toward and around the Great Lakes, and in the great American forests they’d found great numbers of American animals with fur they were just dying to sell to Europeans. Well, the animals died, that’s for sure. Both European powers worked at getting as much fur as they could to make lots of money, and had with the Iroquois attacking another nation, the Illinois, who were French allies, attacking French settlers, and doing business with the English with their newly created Henry Hudson Company trading furs, which of course hurt the business the French were trying to cultivate. LaBarre’s Jesuit missionary advisors recommended to stay out of local politics (i.e., the war with the Illinois) and to not make pretense to war with the Iroquois unless he really could defeat them. (This echoed the King’s direct orders, actually.)
A little context:
number of colonists in New France, 1685:
number of colonists in *just* New York & New England, same time:
He set off down river and toward Lake Ontario on July 30, 1684 with a few hundred soldiers, knowing there were at least 2600 braves of the Iroquois Federation of nations on the other side. Did he actually mean to make war, or just to intimidate? No one, of course, really knows the answer to that, but we do know what he said 34 days later, on Sep 5, at a conference in what’s now upstate New York to a contingent of Indians, that a goodly portion of his troops were incredibly ill. History has also preserved the Iroquois response, spoken by an Onondega leader on behalf of the Natives.
And we know that the treaty they signed allowed the Iroquois to continue everything they were doing. In the spring of 1685 a letter arrived from King Louis relieving Joseph-Antoine of his duty. Almost three years to the day after he arrived, he departed from America, Indian attacks and doing business with the English continuing. A year later the colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut united to become “New England”. Two years after that, in 1688, the disagreements between England and France erupted into a full-blown war. The Iroquois Confederation were allied with the English, so attacked French colonists and Indian allies. The Wabanaki Confederation were the French allies, duly attacking English colonists in what’s now Maine and New Hampshire…and occasionally Massachusetts.
Like one morning in March 1697. In the intervening years Hannah had birthed 8 more babies, 7 of whom had lived, giving them 10 kids. (My ancestor, their son Nathaniel, had been born six days after Louis XIV had written his dismissal letter to LaBarre in 1685.) On March 9 she gave birth to a 12th child. By this time their oldest had gotten married and lived nearby with her own husband and baby. The oldest kid at home was a teenage daughter, followed by another girl and a couple of sons in their teens, too, then the little ones.
As dawn broke on the morning of March 15, 1697 a group of Abanaki literally hired by the government of New France attacked the Dustin home. Thomas was able to round up most of the family and get to them to safety. Except for his wife, newborn baby girl and a neighbor lady who was helping take care of Hannah and the newborn. They were captured. As they were led out into the snow walking in to the woods, one of the Abanaki grabbed the 6-day-old and slammed it into a tree, killing it.
Having studied this event from a variety of sources over the years, and having my own thoughts on what did, didn’t, may have or could have actually happened regarding the attack and the subsequent forced march north into the New Hampshire wilderness and the escape some weeks later involving the acquisition of several human scalps by Hannah, her friend and another captive, it’s the detail about the baby that stands out, that grips, that wrenches the soul.
Now that could mean that it was a planted detail because who doesn’t think that’s a wretched act. It vilifies the perpetrator and in so doing vilifies all Indians, conveniently. But at the same time, if it is to be believed that Hannah, her friend and neighbor, also a woman, and a 14-year-old boy who’d been captive for a while, if we are to believe that they used their captor’s axes to kill all 12 of them, half of whom were themselves women and kids (one of whom actually got away showing massive wounds, thus lending credibility to this version of events) and then actually *went back* after getting away in order to scalp the dead bodies so as to prove what happened, again we’re talking about wretched acts, perhaps most deservedly in this case because the kid and these two ladies were not soldiers, had not killed people before. Such intense action usually has a precipitant, and only after being a parent do I now believe that the baby-killing did actually occur, and that it perhaps singly led Hannah to the acts she committed to get up on outa there.
Former Governor LaBarre was long gone by then. He’d died in 1688. And the war he’d unintentionally helped start actually ended during the period Hannah was in captivity. They never met, but if LaBarre hadn’t tried to trick the Iroquois it could be that the disagreements between the English and the French and their associated allies among the Native Americans would have come to a different head at a slightly different time and place. As it was, though, 170 years after the attack, Hannah Dustin became the first woman honored in the Americas with a statue. On her return she’d reported her story to the top legal mind in the colonies, Cotton Mather (who 5 years earlier had had to step in on the judges of Salem, Mass to set to rights the hysteria there over witchcraft). That and other legal depositions from the time are extant. The story was taken up by literary minds 100 and some years later. John Greenleaf Whittier and Nathaniel Hawthorne, that chronicler of late-early New England both created popular works on the topic and led to the memory being preserved such that in 1864 the statue went up.
286 years after Joseph-Antoine le Febvre de LaBarre left America my friend’s dad came back to America, with a pregnant wife who’d been born on the Mississippi River, near its confluence with the Ohio. It was a spot that until 1805 had been deep within what once were the bounds of New France. Their son was born in Colorado, also until Jefferson bought from Napoleon the territory known as “Louisiana” in 1805 a place that was once known as the western reaches of New France. And it was five years after that, and 280 years after Hannah Dustin was captured and escaped, that Hannah’s descendants — my mom and I —were living in Colorado, and on the day after xmas the two lines reconnected when our neighbor’s grandson knocked on our door, pre-arranged by my nanny, and said to me “I’m the boy who came to play.”
This post is dedicated to Guy-Bernard and his kids.