The Raid on St. Regis
In the first year of the war, the British stationed a small detachment of Canadian voyageurs in the village of St. Regis to guard against any American incursions into Canada, and “to inspire confidence in the Indians of that place and to ensure their good conduct and fidelity.” Their encampment was in the vicinity of the Roman Catholic church on St. Regis point. The church, a fortress itself with stone walls four feet thick, was constructed about twenty years before the war, and is still there today, along with the stone rectory that was built in the same era.
Although it was an obvious violation of the neutrality agreement, the people of Akwesasne might not have considered the presence of the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs as a military occupation, per se. The voyageurs were well-known to us as colleagues in the fur trade and fellow employees of the North West Company. They were hardy boatsmen who knew the rivers and lakes as well as we did. They sang paddling songs and told raunchy jokes, they hunted, trapped and fished, they ridiculed their commanding officers at will, and they weren’t afraid of a fight. They wore their own practical clothing in lieu of uniforms, and had no interest in military drills of any kind.
Akwesasne had a treaty relationship with the British going back to the closing days of the French and Indian War. That was when we abandoned our French allies and not only refrained from attacking the British army but actually joined them in their advance on Montreal. We took hold of the Silver Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship offered by the British and were able to secure ourselves a place in a changing landscape. Many of our men later went on to fight for the British during the American Revolution.
There were also those with loyalties to the United States. The American faction was smaller than the British and neutral, but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in stealth. The voyageurs were instructed to be on the watch for these individuals:
Agents and spies on the part of the American Government have for some time past been clandestinely intriguing with the Indians of St. Regis to seduce them from their allegiance and their artifice has not been without effect. If you can by stratagem, within the Province line, arrest the persons of any of these American agents or others endeavoring to mislead the Indians, you are directed to send them immediately, under a sufficient escort, to Montreal.
To the Indian, it really wasn’t such a horrible thing to have factions in the community. Most of the time they served as embassies for outside governments, and it was good to have someone who could intervene on the community’s behalf if one side in a war began to get the better of the other. These embassies were tolerated…to a point.
It should be pointed out that the British were not alone in establishing a military outpost in Akwesasne. There was also a mile-square tract of reservation land in French Mills, seven miles east of the village of St. Regis. The Americans built a blockhouse there when war was declared. In the fall of 1812, it became the staging ground for a planned attack on the British encampment.
Around October 1, 1812, American soldiers under the command of Major Guilford Dudley Young left the fort at French Mills and advanced to the eastern shore of the St. Regis river, opposite the village. They were unable to cross there and were forced to retreat. On the night of October 22, Major Young led five companies from French Mills to Gray’s Mills, two miles south of St. Regis, where they were able to cross the river on boats and rafts. Major Young described what happened when he and his men reached their target:
We arrived, within half a mile of the village, at 5 o’clock ; where, being concealed from the enemy by a little rise of ground, we halted to reconnoitre, refresh the men, and make disposition for the attack, which was arranged in the following order :—captain Lyon was detached from the right, with orders to take the road, running along the bank of the St. Regis river, with directions to gain the rear of captain Montaigny’s house, in which, and Donally’s, the enemy were said to be quartered. Captain Dilden was detached to the St. Lawrence, with a view of gaining the route of Donally’s house, and also securing the enemy’s boats, expected to have been stationed there to prevent their retreat. With the remainder of the force, I moved on in front, and arrived within a hundred and fifty yards of Montaigny’s house, when I found by the firing, that captain Lyon was engaged. At the same instant, I discovered a person passing in front, and ordered him to stand ; but not being obeyed, ordered captain Higbie’s first platoon to fire, and the poor fellow soon fell; he proved to be the ensign named in the list of killed. The firing was at an end in an instant, and we soon found in our possession 40 prisoners, with their arms, &c.—4 killed—1 wounded mortally ; took 1 stand of colours, 2 batteaux, 38 guns,—40 men.
Young praised his officers and men as deserving the “highest encomiums” for their conduct, stating that “we entered the place without even being heard by the Indians’ dogs.”
Historian Robert Sellar presented a Canadian perspective of the incident in 1888:
The night that followed was intensely dark and favorable for a surprise, so that the sentinels were on the alert. No cause for alarm occurred and as it drew towards the hour of dawn, their apprehensions grew less. About 5 o’clock the two officers of the guard, lieutenant Hall and ensign Rottot, were seated with sergeant McGillivray around the camp-fire, that blazed in front of the house where the captain and the men not on duty were fast asleep. The subject of conversation of the trio was the danger of their situation, and the ensign had just said: “Is it possible that the obstinacy of our captain exposes us thus to death without profit or glory!” when a volley was suddenly fired from the bush, and he fell dead and the sergeant, mortally wounded. Lieutenant Hall sprang into the house when a second volley was poured forth, which killed a French Canadian private and wounded several others, who had hardly been fairly aroused from their night’s sleep. Not a shot was fired by the Canadians, who at once surrendered.
Sellar went on to document the ignoble aftermath of the surrender and the taking of the celebrated “stand of colors.”
One of the missionaries was caught and told to shrive the wounded and bury the dead; the other escaped by hiding in the cellar. The Americans ransacked the houses, among other spoil, plundering a girl of 13 years of age of the box that held her Sunday-clothes and playthings and her savings in pennies, amounting to $3. Worse than that, they stripped the body of ensign Rottot. Satisfied they had left nothing they could carry, the force, which numbered 200 men under command of major Young, marched to French Mills, carrying the paltry spoil they had found and 25 prisoners. From French Mills the party proceeded to Plattsburgh. Among the plunder was a small Union Jack, which they found in a cupboard in the house of the interpreter, and which he was in the custom of hoisting on saints’ days and other notable occasions. This flag Major Young declared to be the stand of colors that belonged to the detachment, and he was sent to Albany with the trophy. His arrival in the capital of the state was made the occasion of a solemn ceremony. Escorted by all the troops, in the city, and with a band before him playing “Yankee Doodle,” he solemnly stalked along the streets of Albany, crowded by cheering multitudes, holding aloft the flag of the Indian interpreter, until the capitol was reached, when, with spread-eagle speeches, it was received from his hands and hung upon its walls as “the first colors captured from the enemy.”
The major was rewarded with a colonelcy.
The British retaliated a month later by attacking French Mills, capturing many of the same men who participated in the raid on St. Regis. Thirty of the 250 men sent to attack the Americans were warriors from Kanehsatake, or Oka, one of Akwesasne’s sister communities. Indian neutrality, it seems, was the first casualty of the war. Warriors from Akwesasne and Kahnawake were also recruited by the British.