From the abandonment of the mission till the coming of Repentigny there was no official of Church or government at the Sault.
Though men came and went they did so independently of any help which here in former years could have been obtained, and as they paddled up the river to the site of the former settlement, instead of the neat mission house with its curling smoke and trim acres of wheat and garden, there was presented to their view the veriest scene of desolation, for the wilderness had been “let in ” here as in former years it had claimed the Indian village at La Pointe.
During this interval of time the Redmen lost not their devotion to the French, though often in their extremity they must have recalled the brave words of Saint Lusson to their fathers in 1671 and waited in vain for the fulfillment of the French- man’s promises.
But not entirely to the Indian’s innate steadfastnessif such indeed is one of their virtuesneed be attributed their seeming fidelity, rather may we turn our attention for a few minutes to those of the Old World who had accepted the Indian’s lot as their own.
Perhaps there will arise some day, in Canada, a writer of history whose facile pen will trace for charmed readers the story of the Courreurs des Bois, and then shall be unfolded a romance at once pleasing and appalling, both gentle and madly ferocious, a story of terrible wreaking of vengeance and, at times, speedy and unaccountable forgiveness, and every stream and island, town and river which may justly lay claim to have been known in those early days will bring its narrative to add to the general store.
But, until this is done, who may properly appreciate the work of these hardy fellows ?
From old France they came in little groups, each ship outward bound carrying among its passengers some few who, having reached the New World and listening to the alluring music of the streams and forest, would eventually disappear into the sylvan mysteries only to come back for a day or a week now and again. Nor were these men by any means taken entirely from the lower strata of the people of fair France. No doubt there were amongst the number some desperate men with no family name to be proud of nor ancestral honour to sustain, whose career having come to a sudden stop so far as the Old World was concerned, made their way across the ocean to eke out an existance where they were quite unknown.
Others again, of the steady bourgeois class, who had felt the iron of calamity enter into their soul, turned their eager eyes to Canada’s shores as to a promised land where fortune would perforce favour them if they were only brave and stuck to their purpose, while with the rest were to be found not a few sons of the nobility who, having tired of the stately indolence of their fathers’ halls or grown restive under the life of genteel poverty in which their reduced circumstances forced them to live, announced to their companions with characteristic sang-froid their intention of adventuring themselves in the land beyond the seas and mockingly called a toast for the treasures which would one day be theirs.
But on reaching Quebec their preconceived ideas gave way. The desire for novelty took possession of them, for it was in the air and the monotenous round of duties and pleasantries in the colony’s chief settlement soon palled upon them.
Only once in each twelve months did the rugged old town take to itself any real appearance of animation.
In the Spring, when the influence of Uab-ikum prevailed, from the West by dozens and scores, by fiftys and hundreds came the trappers and the Indians with their stores of precious furs and canoes were unloaded and pulled up upon the shore by the dusky voyageurs, and barter, trade, play and drink were the order of the day.
Then into the ears of the newcomers would be poured by the Brave and Voyageur alike, tales weird and wonderful, until it seemed as though just beyond that fringe of pines, so few miles to the West, was the fairy land of their childhood’s dreams. And then one day would begin the departure, and with din of yelps and hearty adieux the visitors would one and all embark and up the river they would flash paddles, moving in time to the voyageurs’ song, like the legs of some aquatic monster, westward, westward they sped till song and hurrah and canoe alike faded in the distance, and they had gone for another year.
Then would silence steal over Quebec again, where the greatest excitement was a squabble over a game of cards or a question of precedence between the Intendent and the Bishop, and the men of spirit who were not forced to stay turned their eyes involuntarily and wistfully toward the river and longed for another party to come paddling down.
The dullness of the city, the chances of making money from the peltries and the craving for the freedom of the wilderness. which to us all comes irresistably at times, conspired to draw the newcomers into the forest, and as they listened day after day to the woodland voices and the murmuring of the streams the free spirit seized upon them and they disappeared.
The heads of the fur companies would have explained, had they been asked, that the absent ones had been fitted out with weapons, ammunition, cloth and beads and with other trinkets for barter with the Savages, but henceforth, save for a week at the annual ingathering, they were strangers to civilization.
Perhaps this taking to the woodland life, in some measure, explains the small total of the number of Frenchmen in Canada 1676 when the census reported in actual figures 7,832 white people in Canada, which return drew from the King the complaint that he had sent over ” a greater number than that in the- fifteen previous years alone.”
When one thinks of the happy facility with which the French adapted themselves to the conditions of their new homes, he is led to enquire as to the causes for their failure as a colonizing power.
For nearly two hundred years were they in complete control. The natives became attached to them, and when an enemy appeared were ready to fight as though they themselves were being attacked.
Perhaps we may find the answer in the story of the Courreur des Bois who, instead of being the leader of the Indian, dominating his will and guiding him to better things, himself sank too often to the Savage’s level and became a member first of the family and then of the tribe.
Penetrating into the wilderness these men made their way to the Indian settlement or rendevous, and gradually dropping the habits of the white men, took to themselves more and more the habits and characteristics of the red.
European clothes were discarded, the body was dyed and painted and the head was shaven,. save for the crest which was decorated with feathers. Quick to adapt themselves to any mode of life which appealed to them, they speedily became experts in all the woodcraft of the natives, learning to trace the game and the enemy alike by the evidence of fallen leaf or broken twig, reading the direction in the tangled forest from the tree bark -and the mosses.
Side by side with the Indians they fought in their battles, married their daughters, spoke their language, dropping their own and very often assuming an Indian name.
When they tired of their spouse, it was an easy matter to rid themselves and to select another. Within the memory of some yet living was the custom of trading a wife away for a hatchet or a yard of gaudy cloth. It was the Indian way nor did the women murmur at their treatment.
In every nook and corner were these men or their children to be met with. Indian in everything, save in one particular, they were Frenchmen in their loyalty to France, and these were no doubt the ones who inspired in the breasts of their dusky comrades the fidelity and devotion which, for a time, was so very marked.
But even loyalty to the land of their birth played a less and less important part in their life.
Their children were growing up, those wild, untamable, erring sons and daughters, beautiful, lawless, without fear of man, full of superstition who mixed legend of Me-da-we lore with story of saint and Bible hero, until in the stories, for instance, of Noah, Jacob and the Virgin we hardly recognize the true characters.
These knew nothing of La Belle France. To them only one world existed, the woods, and restless, wandering, turning up where least expected, filling the older places with consternation at their doings when they dropped for a time, among them, they acquired the name since given to those dreadful sand flies, known to everybody in the district, the term ” Bois Brules.”
Like their fathers, they were hunters, ready to engage to the highest bidder. Even then was the influence of the British trader being felt, and immediately on the fall of Quebec when Canada was, theoretically, thrown open to all, Englishmen pushed West and occupied the ground so lately held by the Frenchmen, and through their generosity as well as their capacity to command, not only won over the Indians and the Bois Brules but those whose ardour for their fathers’ land had for years been on the wane, the Courreurs des Bois.
There are no more loyal subjects of King Edward’s today than the descendants of these mixed marriages of the Indian and the French. In Sault Sainte Marie the dark green uniform of of the rifle regiment is seen on occasion on many of these. The sturdy language of the Briton is used by them in public although the soft accents of the French tongue alone are heard in their homes.
Their origin is unmistakable, for they are the children of parents born under the green trees of the forest and in whose veins mingled the chivilrous blood of the Old World and the resourcefulness of the new.
Among the Birons and DuBois, the Sayers and Mirons, the Boisenaults, Jollineaus and Devieux are to be noticed to-day, the delightful and studied courtesy of the Frenchman and the lithe and splendid forms and regular features of the Brave.