The history of the founding of New France glitters with astounding personalities that not only brought the Catholic Faith to a heathen population, but also, it would appear, created from the French colonists a new breed of Frenchman – one who adapted immediately to those immense forests, with great fearlessness and vigor — the Canadians. The names of Cartier, Champlain, and LaSalle are familiar to most students of history, but there is one name forgotten, that stands with or above these intrepid adventurers, that of Charles le Moyne who, along with his famous sons, lived a saga that spanned over a century of Canadian history. Unlike Cartier and Champlain, there is little history written about this fantastic family, most of it coming from oral tradition, but there is no doubt that they were considered a legend in their own time – loved and feared by the savages, loved and depended on by the colonists.
The patriarch of the family was Charles le Moyne, of Norman blood, born in 1626, the son of an innkeeper of Dieppe, who, at seventeen, had accompanied the first attempt to colonize Montreal. He sired eleven sons, seven of whom would create legends of their own. The first mention we have of him is in the Jesuit Relations when he was serving as an interpreter to the Huron missions. Soon after, he became known as an expert woodsman, a true “runner of the woods” as the Canadians called them, and an expert guide. It was rumored that, before Joliet and Father Marquette had reached the “Father of Waters,” Charles had been there on one of his numerous excursions throughout that wild and dangerous forest region. To protect the colony at Montreal, he would patrol the surrounding woods alone, and, in many cases, fight single-handedly against the lurking Iroquois. The best indicator we have of his fighting skills is related by the savage Iroquois themselves, who began to fear him and, as a result, began to gather firewood in their Long Houses to burn him at the stake. While exploring on the Richelieu River he was finally captured by the Iroquois. They were full of glee in capturing their mortal enemy, and with hell-speed, canoed to their village to begin the horrible torture of their prize captive. The indefatigable Charles started talking to them, and knowing their sometime childish ways, began to tell them of the disasters that would come upon them if he was not released. He told them of the mighty French guns that would silence the thunder itself, and of the numerous “canoes,” which were bigger than the trees. These canoes would be filled with avenging Frenchmen. After hearing their captive’s harangue, the Indians began to question the wisdom of their undertaking and so they immediately debarked upon an island to hold council. Once the council was over, the Indians not only released Charles, but also brought him back to a village of friendly Indians to show their respect. This same Iroquois tribe would later vent their fury on Father Jogues along with another Indian legend, the convert Ahatsistari, a Huron warrior much feared by the Iroquois.
Much esteem was given to any warrior band who brought back captives; ultimately only three choices remained for the victims: be tortured mercilessly and put to death, be tortured mercilessly and made a hostage for ransom, or be tortured mercilessly, then adopted by the tribe. Such was the savoir faire of Charles le Moyne that he was released unharmed, a testament to the charismatic presence of this woodland giant.
Charles was rewarded for his service to the government by receiving a large tract of land along the St. Lawrence River, where he built a settlement he called Longueuil. It would seem that the government had other purposes than reward, for this tract of land was the main thoroughfare that the Iroquois used on their way to do mischief in the Huron territory. In short time, Charles made this real estate a leading fur trader post, and, with the help of his elder son (also named Charles) — who was considered a financial titan along with being an indomitable warrior — he expanded Longueuil into the model seigneury of New France. The father would be given by Louis XIV the title “Sieur de Longueuil”, while the son would be created a baron, going on to govern both Montreal and Three Rivers.
During Charles’ lifetime you would be hard-pressed finding any significant battle, any important negotiation, or any delicate emissary to the savages that he was not either the head of or driving force behind. Always he was successful — failure never accompanied him through those vast forests — for he walked silently, and failure could not find him. Such was this giant who whispered through the woods performing incredible deeds known only to his contemporaries – not chronicled by any historian – but told and retold at the cabin hearths of his fellow colonists who had received not only security from this intrepid warrior, but also sustenance, for his charity to the indigent was extensive.
Oral tradition has it that after Charles had died (peacefully in bed with the Sacraments), whenever the family would meet in council, his chair at the head of the table was left empty, and his hat placed upon the table. A prayer would be said for the repose of his soul, and guidance asked for in making their plans. The world today detests the principle of patriarchy, but like that great, silent Saint Joseph, who walked through life in obscurity performing great deeds known only to God, to be revealed slowly through the ages to the admiration of all, our Charles glides along the pages of Canadian history with a prominence that demands awe, but is always veiled as if the legend does not need the details.
Charles’ sons would inherit the fire of their father, and would carve their own legends, not only in New France, but in America as well. There was the great Pierre (Iberville) and Jean-Baptiste (Bienville) who would colonize Louisiana and found New Orleans. There were other sons whose stories are rich in valor and daring whose telling will follow.
Editor’s note: Thomas B. Costain’s, The White and the Gold: The French Regime in Canada, provides much of the information for this article.
Email Russell LaPlume at email@example.com.