St. Regis by Bartlett (c. 1840's)
Image courtesy

St. Regis

Chapter II of


by Franklin B. Hough

This is the first part of Franklin B. Hough’s well-known history of Akwesasne, covering pages 110 through 125.  The editor has omitted materials pertaining to the Deerfield bell, found on pages 115-122.

[110] On a beautiful and elevated point which juts into the St. Lawrence, where that river is crossed by the forty-fifth parallel of latitude, and between the mouths of the St. Regis and Racquette rivers, stands a dilapidated and antique looking village, whose massive and venerable church, with tin covered spire; whose narrow and filthy streets, and the general appearance of indolence and poverty of its inhabitants, and especially the accents of an unaccustomed language, almost convey to the casual visitor an impression that he is in a foreign land.

Such is the Indian village of St. Regis, whose origin and history we are about to relate. Its founders in selecting this site, evinced the possession of a taste at once judicious and correct, for it may well be questioned whether the shores of the St. Lawrence, abounding as they do in charming and lovely localities, affords anywhere a spot that will surpass this in beauty of scenery, or pleasantness of location. The village stands on a plain, moderately elevated above the river, which having for more than forty miles been broken by cascades and dangerous rapids, here becomes tranquil.

To the west, the ground swells into a gentle hill, which overlooks the village and river to a great distance; beyond which it again descends into a spacious plain, which for time immemorial has been the favorite ground for ball-playing, a pastime to which the natives are strongly attached, and in which they engage with much zeal.

The surrounding fields, are an open common, without separate enclosures, and are used as a public pasture by the inhabitants. Around the cabins of the villagers are usually small enclosures, devoted to the cultivation of com, and culinary vegetables, which by the right of occupancy have come to be considered the private property of individuals, and as such are bought and sold among the natives, although the law recognizes no such private ownership, and holds them all as tenants in common, denying them the right of buying or selling land, except to the government.

[111] Opposite to the village, lay several very fertile and beautiful islands, which are owned and cultivated by the villagers, and upon which is raised the grain upon which they subsist, and the grass which serves for their cattle during the winter months. The public points in the village, and the summits of the hill are crowned by the cross, which indicates the religious faith of the greater part of the inhabitants, and reminds us that the colony owes its origin to a religious movement. Such is St. Regis, as it appears to the stranger; a village which under Anglo-Saxon enterprise, would ere this have attained a preeminence equal to any place on the river, but which now exhibits nothing but an air of decay and listlessness, peculiar of the Indian character, when it assumes the habits of civilization.

To one who traverses the streets, and observes the general aspect of its inhabitants, a leading trait will be notices as their controlling principle, and he will recognize INDOLENCE in every feature, and in every action.

With this preliminary, we will proceed with our account of the origin of this village, which was formed by an emigration from the mission at Caughnawaga, or the Sault Saint Louis, about nine miles above Montreal. The latter at a remote period of American history, in its turn, was formed by a portion of the tribe of Indians, who were induced by the French to emigrate to their vicinity and embrace the Catholic faith.

We will reserve for the appendix, such notices as we may find, connected with this people, previous to the founding of St. Regis, and commence our account with a traditionary narrative upon which is based the causes that led to the measure.

About a hundred and thirty years ago, three children, (a girl about twelve or thirteen years of age, and two younger brothers,) were playing together in a barn, in the town of Groton, Massachusetts, and being absent from the house longer than was expected, their mother became solicitous about them, and went to find them. The girl was lying on the floor, with a broken limb, and the boys were missing.

She related that seeing some Indians coming, she fled to the upper part of the barn, and fell by accident from the beams above, and that they had seized the two boys, and carried them away. The stealthy manner of this seizure, and, the time that had elapsed, forbade pursuit, with any hope of success, and the distracted parents were left to mourn the loss without consolation of hope. The probable motive for the seizure of these children, was the expectation that a bounty would be [112] offered for their ransom; or perhaps they might be exchanged for French prisoners.

As afterwards appeared, these boys were taken by Caughnawaga Indians to their village near Montreal, where they were adopted as their own children, growing up in habits, manners, and language, as Indians, and in due time they married the daughters of chiefs of that tribe. The names of these chiefs were Sa-kon-en-tsi-ask and Ata-wen-ta. But they possessed the superiority of intellect, and enterprise. . . and this led to a series of petty quarrels, growing out of the jealousy of the young Indians of their age, which disquieted the village, and by the party spirit which it engendered, became a source of irritation and trouble in the settlement, and of anxiety on the part of the missionary, who labored in vain to reconcile the difficulties between them.

Failing in this, he advised the two young men, (one of whom they had named Ka-re-ko-wa) to remove with their families to a place by themselves, where they might enjoy tranquility, and be beyond the reach of annoyance from their comrades.

This advice they adopted; and taking with them their wives, and followed by their wives’ parents, these four families departed in a bark canoe, with their effects, to seek in a new country, and in the secluded recesses of the forest, a home.

They coasted along up the St. Lawrence, and at length arrived at the delightful point on which the village of St. Regis now stands, where they landed and took possession.

The name of these youths, was TARBELL, and their descendants have always resided at St. Regis, and some of them have been distinguished as chiefs and head men of the tribe. One of these named Lesor Tarbell, and a son of his name, was a prominent chief, about fifty years since, and very much esteemed by the whites, for his prudence, candor, and great worth of character.

The name of Tarbell, is said to be very common in Groton, to this day.

Another traditional version of the account, differs in some particulars from that just related, and is as follows:

Three lads, and an elder sister, were playing together in a field, when they were surprised by a small party of Indians. One of the boys escaped, but the rest were seized, and marched that day about fourteen miles into the woods towards Canada, when it coming on dark, they came to a halt, and camped for the night. Thinking their prisoners secure, the Indians were less watchful than usual, and finally all fell asleep.

The girl, about twelve years old, kept awake, and seeing the rest asleep, her first thought was to awaken her brothers, and attempt to escape, [113] but fearing to disturb the Indians, should she attempt this, and thus prevent any possibility of escape, she crept carefully out from among them, and struck off in the direction of her home, which she at length reached after undergoing great hardship.

One of the lads on growing up went off to the north west, the other married, and subsequently with his wife, and one or two other families, moved off, and made the first settlement at St. Regis.

From the abundance of partridges which the thicket afforded, they called it, AKWIS-SAS-NE “where the partridge drums,” and this name it still retains.*

{* Another and equally consistent explanation of the adoption of the name, is given:

In winter time, the ice form the rapids above, coming down under the firm ice at this place, often occasions a sort of tremor or earthquake in minature, and is attended with a noise very much like the drumming of a partridge.  A particular account of the singular phenomena of the ice in the praids, will be given in our account of the town of Massena.

On the occasion of the author’s visit to St. Regis in June 1852, the natives desired to give him a name, and proposed among others, that of their village.  Objections being made, they decided upon, O-kwa-e-sen, a partridge, they regarding that bird somewhat as a national emblem, like the ealge to the United States.  The idea was doubtless suggested by the particular inquiries made about the origin of their village.  The custom of naming those who have business with them in common, and in former times when the drinking of rum was more prevalent, the ceremony of christening and adoption was conducted with excessive demonstrations of joy.  At present it consists in singing and shouting around the candidate, and the shaking of hands.  At times a rude dance is performed, but this people have lost every recollection of the national feasts and dances, which are still maintained among the pagan party of the Iroquois at Onondaga and othe Indian settlements, in the interior of the state.

They informed the author that they should consider him as belonging to the Ro-tis en-na-keh-te, or Little Turtle band, that being the smallest and feeblest one among them.}

These families were living very peaceably together, and had made small clearings for corn fields, when they were joined by Father Anthony Gordon, a Jesuit from Caughnawaga, with a colony of these Indians in 1760.

The year of this settlement is known by the fact that they were met near Coteau du Lac, by Lord Amherst, who was descending the St. Lawrence, to complete the conquest of Canada. Gordon named the place ST. REGIS.

[Editor’s note: Hough included here a brief biography of Saint Jean François Regis, which we have omitted.]

[114] A painting of St. Regis, exists in the church at the mission of that name.  It was presented by Charles X, as hereafter stated.

It is not known how long the four families had been residing at this place, when they were joined by the others, nor the numbers of the latter, further than the vague tradition that “there were many canoe loads.” Probably they numbered several hundred souls.

The cause assigned for this emigration, was a desire to get the natives away from the corrupting influences of rum, and the train of vices to which they were particularly exposed from their proximity to Montreal. It was hoped that by this means being withdrawn from the temptations to which they were constantly liable, that a benefit would be derived.

In our account of Picquet’s mission, we have seen that the missionaries at the Indian establishments felt and deplored the contaminating influences of the Europeans, and that the mission of St. Louis, was for this cause obliged to be moved some distance up the river, to get the natives out of the way of the moral miasm of Montreal, and the further emigration to St. Regis, may without doubt be attributed to the same cause.

In these acts, these ecclesiastics evinced a commendable regard for the moral welfare of their flocks, which challenges our admiration. In order that the end desired might not be defeated, it was considered essential that the new colony should be made up of a native population entirely; that no military post should form a part of them, and that traffic especially in spirituous liquors should be entirely interdicted.

Among the first duties of Gordon was the erection of a church, which was built of logs and covered with barks.

This humble and primitive temple of worship, was made to serve the double purpose of a church and a dwelling, and one end of the hut was partitioned off for the residence of their priest.

There being no bell, when the hour of worship arrived, an Indian went through the village from hut to hut, and announced with a loud voice [115] the hour that they might assemble for prayer. This practice reminds one of the Mahomedan custom, of proclaiming the hour of prayer from the Minarets of mosques.

In about two years this church was burned, and with it the first two years of the parish records.

The first record extant, bears date Feb. 2, 1762, when Margarita Theretia an Abenaki woman, married, and of unknown parentage, was baptized.

Since that date, the parish records are very perfect, they have been kept in the Latin and French languages.

Soon afterwards a small wooden church was erected on the ground now occupied by the priest's garden, which was furnished with a small cupola, and contained a bell.

It has been generally believed that this bell was the same as that taken in 1704, from Deerfield, in Massachusetts, but after careful inquiries, the author has arrived at the conclusion that that celebrated bell never was at St. Regis, but that it is none other the smaller of the two that hangs in the steeple of the church of St. Louis, in Caughnawaga.

About fifteen years since, a bell belonging to the church of St. Regis, was broken up at Ogdensburgh, for recasting, and the Indians were very jealous lest some part should be abstracted, and are said to have appointed some of their number to watch the operation, and see that every part was melted. This metal now forms a part of the larger bell in the church at St. Regis.

That the Deerfield bell could not have been taken directly to St. Regis, is evident, from the fact that fifty-six years elapsed between its capture and the founding of St. Regis.

The latter place was first begun by emigrants, in 1760, from Caughnawaga, the larger portion of the tribe remaining behind.  It can scarcely be believed, that those that remained would allow themselves to be deprived of the only bell their church possessed, especially as the mission of the Saut St. Louis has been continued without interruption.

[Editor’s note: Hough here includes a lengthy account of the legend of the Deerfield bell that he found in Kahnawake in October of 1852; a poem by a Mrs. Sigourney titled “The Bell of St. Regis”; and a historical account, “divested of romance and tradition,” of the capture of Deerfield in 1704.  They have been omitted from this text.]

[122] During the revolutionary war a considerable portion of the St. Regis and a part of the Caughnawaga Indians joined the British; others led by Colonel Louis Cook, of whom we shall give a particular account in the following pages, joined the American cause.

Concerning the history of the village during this period we have been unable to obtain any knowledge.

At the opening of the revolutionary war, the continental cause received much injury from the influence of the Johnson families, in Tryon county, and especially from Sir John Johnson, a baronet, and son of Sir [123] William, who secretly instigated the Indians to hostilities, and created much mischief on the frontier.

To prevent this calamity it was thought advisable by Gen. Schuyler, to arrest Sir John, and thus put it out of his power to do further mischief. 

Accordingly, in May, 1776, Col. Dayton, with a part of his regiment then on its way to Canada, was sent to prosecute this enterprise.*

{* Life of Brant, by William L. Stone, vol. I. p. 143, 144, and Spark’s Life and Writings of Washington, note in vol. iv. p. 409, 410.}
Receiving timely notice of this, from his tory friends in Albany, he hastily assembled a large number of his tenants, and others, and prepared for retreat, which he successfully accomplished, taking to the woods and avoiding the route of lake Champlain, from fear of falling into the hands of the Continentals, supposed to be assembled in that direction, he struck deeper into the woods, by way of the head waters of the Hudson, and descended the Raquette to Canada.  Their provisions were soon gone, their feet became sore from traveling, and numbers were left to be picked up by the Indians, sent back for their relief.  After nineteen days of hardships, which have few parallels in our history, they reached Montreal.  So hasty was their flight, that the family papers were buried in the garden, and nothing was taken, but such articles as were of prime necessity.  His extensive family estates were confiscated, and he thenceforth became a most active loyalist, and the scourge of the Mohawk settlement during the remainder of the war.

Some historians have supposed that an expedition of Mohawk Indians was despatched from Montreal to meet Sir John, and Brant long after, in rehearsing the exploits of his tribe, during the Revolution, says: “We then went in a body to a town, then in possession of the enemy, and rescued Sir John Johnson, bringing him fearlessly through the streets.”*

{* Stone’s Life of Brant, vol. I., p. 144, note.}

On a visit of historical inquiry, at the Indian village of St. Regis, in June 1852, the author obtained a tradition, that that people sent numbers of their warriors to meet the fugitives, carrying parched corn and sugar to preserve them from perishing, until they could reach the Canadian settlements.

We will return to the history of Gordon, and briefly trace the progress of the catholic mission, and then present the series of events which have marked the history of the village.

There is a tradition that a tract of land on the east side of the river, and extending up two miles, was granted to the priest as a support, [124] but this claim has not been asserted, nor is it known that there is any written evidence of the fact.

Father Gordon’s health failing, he went back to Caughnawaga, in 1775, where he died in 1777. The mission was then without a priest, five or six years. Father Denaut, Oct. 1784, from the Cedars, and Lebrun, a Jesuit from Caughnawaga, in January and September 1785, appear from the parish records, to have visited the place, to administer religious rites.

Denaut subsequently became Bishop of Quebec, and the mission at the Cedars was supplied by L’ Archambault, who also occasionally visited St. Regis, in the absence of an established priest.

In December, 1785, Roderick McDonnell, a Scotch Priest, succeeded, and remained till 1806, when he died. He is interred under the choir of the church. Being a part of the time sick, he was assisted by A. Van Felsen, of Quebec, who was here from May 5, 1800, till September 30, 1802.

During McDonnell’s residence, the present church was erected in 1791 and 1792, at first without a belfry.

The frame church was then standing, but soon after demolished. The present church is a massive stone building, of ancient and venerable appearance, the walls nearly four feet thick, the windows high, and a door in the middle of the sash, for ventilation, after a custom prevalent in Canada. Across the end of the church opposite the door is a railing, and beyond and elevated above the floor of the church, is an ample space for the altar, and the various fixtures of the catholic worship. The altar is unusually decorated with gilding and ornaments, and the interior of the church is adorned with paintings and prints of religious subjects. The history of two of these paintings will be given elsewhere.

A gallery extends across the end of the church over the door, for the accommodation of strangers and others, and in the body of the church near the wall, are a few seats for the singers. The greater part of the Indians, during worship, kneel or sit upon the floor, and the appearance presented to a stranger by the striking uniformity of dress and attitude, which he notices on first visiting the church during service, is very impressive.

Preaching is performed in the Mohawk dialect of the Iroquois language every sabbath, and all the ritual of the catholic church is observed with scrupulous care.

McDonnell was immediately succeeded by Father Rinfret, a Canadian, who remained a year, when he removed to Caughnawaga, where he died a few years later. He was followed by Jean Baptiste Roupe, who arrived in the fall of 1807, and remained till the last of July, 1812. He was taken a prisoner in his house, at the affair which happened at St. Regis, in the [125] fall of 1812. He was succeeded by Joseph Marcoux, of Caughnawaga, who left in March, 1819, when Nicholas Dufresne, held office of priest till 1825. He then removed to the Sulpician Seminary, at Montreal, and has been for ten or twelve years a missionary at Two Mountains, 36 miles northward from Montreal.

In 1825, Joseph Valle arrived, and continued in the office till the fall of 1832, when he was succeeded by the Rev. Francis Marcoux, the present missionary. Father Valle died in 1850, below Quebec.

To be continued.....

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