The Military Empire

Blowing Up The Powder Keg

The life of the handful of officers and soldiers manning the small forts scattered across the Prairies was far from easy, surrounded as they were by Amerindians of variable disposition. The following incident at Fort La Reine illustrates how these men needed nerves of steel in order to survive.

Toward the end of 1751, the garrison consisted of only five French soldiers of the Compagnies franches de la Marine, commanded by Captain Jacques Le Gardeur de Repentigny. He had gained considerable experience dealing with Amerindians and had been awarded the Cross of Saint Louis.

One morning, about 200 Assiniboine warriors burst into the fort. The commandant raced to meet them, reprimanding them "roundly" for being so bold as to enter in this way, throwing the most insolent out, and asking the others to depart, before returning to his quarters. Soon a soldier arrived to tell him that the Amerindians had taken the guardhouse and seized the weapons there. Repentigny ran over and accosted them once again. However, it became apparent this time that the Assiniboines fully intended to kill him and pillage the fort. Without missing a beat, Repentigny seized a blazing torch, ran to the powder magazine and opened a keg.

The Assiniboines on his heels stopped short when they saw him pass the torch over the powder. Repentigny reported that he then had his interpreter tell the Amerindians "in a firm voice that [he] would not perish at their hands and that in dying [he] would have the glory of inflicting the same fate on all of them." His account continues, "The savages saw the torch and the open powder keg more than they actually heard the words of my interpreter. They all flew to the gate of the fort, which they shook tremendously in their haste to depart. I quickly threw away the torch, and had nothing more pressing to do than to go and close the gate of my fort."

The French spent a "peaceful" winter in the fort, but decided in the spring of 1752 to abandon it because, as Repentigny said, "It would not have been prudent to leave any Frenchmen there." He was right. Four days after the French left, the Assiniboines burned the fort down.