The fleeting invasion of Canada in 1775, though often consigned to a bit-part in the American Revolutionary drama, proved vital to the emergence of American nationhood. The abortive attack at the walls of Quebec City on New Year’s Eve was one of the first of many major setbacks for the Continental Army and ensured there would be no further incursions into the would-be “fourteenth colony.” Yet the misbegotten campaign, which began with a two-pronged assault the preceding summer, provided a vital learning experience for a fledgling force that had to overcome numerous obstacles. Soldiers earned experience and learned difficult lessons, while the military careers of some of the leaders who oversaw the operation were forever altered.
These military outcomes were not the only useful lessons to the Americans, however. The plains of Quebec were also the scene for a political and ideological struggle for the loyalties of the people in the province. The class of peasants known as the habitants, a largely illiterate group that worked the land they occupied and rarely left their parishes, weighed heavily on the minds of both rebel and Loyalist leaders. Soldiers and their officers relied on these people’s support in order to secure shelter, rations, and logistical aid. As a result, both sides sought to cultivate and retain the favor of the habitants. Their help could sustain an army indefinitely; failing to secure this endorsement could, conversely, lead to ruin.
Scholars have long sought to determine the political sentiments of the populace in Canada. Most groups of citizens can easily be sorted into respective camps without much difficulty. The clergy were pleased with the passage by the British government of the Quebec Act (or “An Act for making more effectual Provision for the Government of the Province of Quebec in North America”) in 1774, which established support for Catholicism in Canada and reinstituted French legal practices. These religious leaders pledged their allegiance to the British and nearly unanimously remained loyal. The nobility of the province also backed the British and feared the potential social consequences of an American victory; they thus opted to maintain the status quo. British and Anglo-American merchants, many of whom were disappointed to not receive exclusive commercial privileges, were more generally sympathetic to the revolutionaries (though the extent to which they would help the American Patriots eventually became a divisive issue).
The peasants (or habitants), however, are much more difficult to classify. This stems in part from a lack of sources. Low literacy rates ensured that few records exist of these people’s inner thoughts. Some historians, then, have to rely on other sources, often written by authors with clear biases toward the American cause on the one hand or the British on the other. Undeterred by these obstacles, scholars have attempted to make assumptions about the peasants’ loyalties, often concluding this class of people, weary of warfare after the Seven Years’ War and generally pleased with British rule, chose to remain neutral.Canadian historian George F.G. Stanley concurred, saying, “French Canadian support for the invasion was more apparent than real and more imaginary than apparent. Most of the French Canadians remained neutral and non-committal.” Concurring, Sir John George Bourinot wrote in his A Manual of the Constitutional History of Canada, “while the American War of Independence was in progress the French Canadian people remained faithful to their allegiance and resisted all the efforts of the Americans to induce them to revolt against the English.”
This scholarly conclusion would have come as a surprise to those who experienced the Canadian campaign firsthand. Their letters, diaries, and reminiscences are punctuated by references to varied habitant collaboration efforts. The most common form of assistance was of a logistical nature. This included providing directions, food, shelter and supplies; performing corvée(unpaid manual labor usually organized by militia leaders); executing acts of espionage and recruiting American sympathizers; and occasionally physically accompanying soldiers through the wilderness. Gustav Lanctot cited a British administrator who claimed that much of “the countryside south of the river was at the service of the Bostonnais who got [the militiamen] to mount guard for them . . . and who were supplied with fresh food and carts by the farmers.”
Soldiers’ journals and diaries, in addition to letters from officers to their colleagues in the Thirteen Colonies, furnish countless examples of this help. For instance, Caleb Haskell, a “plain man” in Benedict Arnold’s expeditionary force (one of the two main invasion groups), received aid from numerous Canadians on his journey. He constantly noted the magnanimity of his hosts: on November 3 he remarked, “The people are all French and Indians, but they are exceedingly kind to us. Here we have provisions provided for us.” The next day, he and his men “got liberty of one of the inhabitants to sleep in his house. The people are kind to us.” Four days thereafter, he again highlighted the welcoming disposition of the habitants: “The inhabitants have been very kind to us since we have been among them.”
Haskell was not the only foot soldier to come across kind Quebecois denizens; others recounted more specific acts of succor in their own journals. Matthias Ogden, a stepbrother of Aaron Burr and a volunteer in the 1st New Jersey Regiment under Arnold’s command, recalled a time of hunger and suffering in early November. When all appeared lost, the men were
blessed with the finest sight my eyes ever beheld; no sensation could be equal to it. Scarce one of us but with tears of joys expressed the gratitude of his heart at seeing five horned cattle and two birch canoes loaded with mutton and flour brought forward by French men. They appeared glad to see us and welcomed us to Canada. After taking off the meat and flour enough to satisfy our hunger, we hastened them on to the main body of the detachment.
Other soldiers, such as Capt. Henry Dearborn of New Hampshire, also made note of this specific act of kindness. Much like Haskell, Dearborn also noted how “kind” the inhabitants were on several occasions, adding that “The Canadians are Constantly Coming to us, and are expressing the Greatest satisfaction at our coming into the Country.” Return J. Meigs of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment wrote, “the Canadians very hospitable.” George Morison, a volunteer rifleman, wrote: “The Canadians were highly rejoiced at our arrival among them; they were constantly in our camp, and never failed to bring us a present of some eatables, such as potatoes, turnips, and such things as we stood in need of. Our camp furnished a pretty good market. We enjoyed ourselves well.” Examples of this form of aid abound in the reports of everyday soldiers who witnessed firsthand the willingness of Canadians to support the passel of greenhorns entering their province.
Leaders of the American expeditions also gave reports of unstinting Quebecois kindness in the early weeks of the invasion. Reminiscing in April 1776, officer Moses Hazen recalled “the friendly disposition of the Canadians when General Montgomery first penetrated into the country. The ready assistance which they gave on all occasions, by men, carriages, or provisions, was most remarkable.” Benedict Arnold also wrote several letters with a similar message. On November 7, 1775, he recorded, “We have been very kindly received by the inhabitants who appear very friendly, and willing to supply us with provisions.” The following day, he said, “the Canadians, by whom we have been very friendly received . . . will be able to furnish us with a number of canoes.” Other distinguished persons noted the alacrity with which the habitants helped the Continentals. Col. Ethan Allen “found the Canadians . . . friendly; they guarded me under arms night and day, escorted me through the woods as I desired, and showed me every courtesy I could wish for.”
Evidence of the habitants’ aid to rebel forces is not confined to American sources; the British, too, noted the loyalties of the French peasants. The account of François Baby, Gabriel Taschereau and Jenkin Williams provides perhaps the best glimpse at the ubiquitous aid to the rebels. A postmortem analysis conducted by the British administration, it was presented after the three men completed an exhaustive trans-province journey documenting each parish’s actions. It found parties guilty in practically every parish, leaving detailed reports ofcollaboration. In Beauport, for example, “most of the habitants. . . stood guard and assisted the rebels in various ways.” In St. Henry, “Almost everyone from this parish seems to have aided and assisted the rebels with much zeal.”
A few leaders and scholars have attempted to quantify the extent of the assistance. One analysis of the François Baby journal found that out of 4,492 people investigated, 757 had collaborated, and in some areas over one-quarter of residents were guilty of subversive behaviors. In a similar vein, John E. Hare of the University of Ottawa examined data from the Baby journal, concluding that nearly one in five habitants were considered “bad subjects.’” He showed that “more than one-third of Carleton’s 1775 militia officers and sergeants were accused of supporting the Continentals to some degree.” He also highlighted “seven ‘bad parishes’ . . . where more than 30 percent of militia-age men were ‘bad subjects.’” These numbers demonstrate the pervasive pro-American sentiment in Quebec and, as we shall see later, they also mirror in some ways the extent of pro-revolutionary sentiment in the thirteen colonies at the same time.
Most historians are willing to concede that the peasants provided various forms of logistical aid, while insisting that very few went beyond such transactional deeds. Again, the evidence paints a different picture: in many cases the habitants did more than offer provisions and logistical aid; many chose brazenly to take up arms in support of the American cause. The British, hoping to avoid a widespread insurrection, urged the people to join militias to fight the invaders, or to at least adopt a “neutralité bienveillante [benevolent neutrality],” but many Canadians risked their lives and livelihoods to resist British colonial rule. They marched with the American forces, provided them with arms, intimidated Loyalists and authority figures, and even fought against other Canadians. Dispensing with any semblance of neutrality, these rebels expressed their affinity for their southern brethren in defiance of their clergy and government officials.
Colonial administrators in Canada endeavored in various ways to compel the habitants to reject the Americans. Benedict Arnold reported to the Continental Congress, “every artifice is used by Governour Carletonto procure provisions, and induce the Canadians to take arms against us . . . seconded by the clergy, our bitter enemies.” The British themselves acknowledged their desperation in their dealings with the habitants. In late September 1775, Governor Carleton wrote, “no means have been left untried to bring the Canadian peasantry to a sense of their duty and engage them to take up arms in defense of the Province.” Some of these means included offering land in the Thirteen Colonies to all who would participate in Quebec’s defense. James Livingston, an American-born merchant in Quebec at the start of the campaign, wrote to Gen. Philip Schuyler announcing that Carleton “has made a proposition to the Canadians, in case they would enlist under the Crown of Great Britain, to gratify every man that will turn out upon this occasion with one hundred acres of land, at Boston, New-York, &c.” While the practicability of such a grant is unclear, it is patently clear that few habitants accepted Carleton’s initial offer.
In fact, few French Canadians accepted the commissions of any sort given to them by the government. A man described only as “A Virginian” wrote an epistle published in the Middlesex Journal in the Thirteen Colonies. He repeated the widespread notion that “The Canadians have used General Carleton extremely ill” in refusing to join and provision the local militias. In his letter to Schuyler, James Livingston recounted that a British officer, “Colonel McLean, who arrived here with Colonel Johnson, has orders from the King to raise a Regiment of Canadians. . . I can assure you, from Three Rivers to Chambly, he got not a single man.” Not only pro-American agents reported this intransigence. J.B. Badeaux, a Loyalist notary in the area between Montreal and Quebec City, reported in his journal: “almost the entirety of Trois-Rivières refused to march, with the exception of a few volunteers.” Clearly proponents of the both Loyalist and revolutionary causes could see the colonial administrators’ shortcomings when it came to winning over the public.
Men were not the only agents of resistance. Some women of habitant society stood up to the British, sometimes surpassing their male counterparts in fervency. The Baby report noted that several women held meetings and urged neighbors not to support the British, while in the St. Vallier district, a widow “caused more trouble . . . than anyone” in fomenting insurrection.
Many habitants went beyond merely abstaining from serving the British and maintaining a “prudent neutrality;” they sowed chaos throughout the countryside, terrorizing opponents and threatening people of all ranks. The Baby report is punctuated with charges of overt acts of violence. One such incident in St. Féréol included three brothers who “stood guard and . . . reported the names of those who refused to do so to the rebels. Almost all the habitants of this parish stood guard at the Sault armed with rifles. Several young men loaded their rifles before leaving the village, swearing that they would fire on anyone who tried to pursue them.” In another instance, the insubordination was even more direct:
When the Governor’s delegates on the Ile d’Orléans [right outside Quebec City] tried to raise fifteen men in the parish of Saint-Famille, and threatened to set fire to the village if they were opposed, a young man called Drouin, who had refused to accept a commission immediately retorted: ‘We are ready for you.’ Then, setting out with the rebels from Saint-Famille, he gathered recruits from Saint-Pierre and Saint-François and set up a camp at the end of the island where about twenty men from Saint-Jean joined the group.
Non-military authority figures were not exempt from intimidation. Local priests, who purportedly exerted great influence on their parishioners, were determinedly pro-British as a result of the Quebec Act’s reestablishment of the Catholic Church. In 1774, following the legislation’s passage, a group of clergymen assured Carleton, “you will always find the Clergy to be good and faithful subjects.” From the outset, they upheld their vow. While it certainly cemented their good relations with the administration—Bishop Briand, the bishop of the Diocese of Quebec was close with Carleton—this loyalty made them easy targets for unruly habitants. Mark Anderson explains, “habitants. . . would not form as a militia. Priests took a prominent role in addressing this issue, yet incorrigible parishioners defied both the governor and the Church, arguing that they would not fight colonial brethren and that they considered themselves permanently relieved from armed duty once the militia was disbanded in the 1760s.”
The fractious Canadians refused to budge, flouting the wishes (and in some cases direct orders) of the two groups that traditionally provided order and authority in colonial Quebec. Baby and his colleagues committed numerous pages to this disobedience towards the clergy. Some reports were rather unexceptional: several peasants were charged with rebelling “despite the good counsel of their priest.” Other reports, however, involved explicit actions against the clergy. The commission chided one district’s parishioners for making “a reprimand and threats to Father Louis, their parish priest.” Other habitants resented their priests’ involvement in secular affairs. In one parish, Sainte Croix, a man, “upon leaving church last summer after having heard a sermon by the parish priest extolling obedience to the King, shouted in front of everyone ‘What is our priest talking about now? What business is he meddling in, talking like an Englishman?’”
Going beyond verbal harassment, rebels did not forbear using force against the clergy. A partisan in St. Thomas encouraged the ransacking of a priest’s house, from which Continental soldiers pilfered three barrels of Bordeaux wine. In St. Thomas, government messengers carrying a proclamation of amnesty for rebel sympathizers spent the night at a priest’s house. A group of approximately two dozen partisans surrounded the house to harass the agents. They threatened to set the house ablaze if the priest did not hand over the operatives. When a servant peeked out a window, a rebel shot and killed her. These incidents show the manifestly violent and passionate support for the Americans in parishes throughout Quebec.
Military activity was not limited to sowing chaos and intimidating innocent priests. Many partisans attempted to join the Americans or formed fighting forces of their own. Various contemporary reports recounted a migration to the American camp. Ethan Allen and his famous Green Mountain Boys succeeded in recruiting a sizable number of peasants to join their ranks. He wrote to General Montgomery in September, “I have two hundred and fifty Canadians under arms; as I march, they gather fast.” A sympathizing merchant named Baker, who lived in Montreal, reported to a captain of the Green Mountain Boys that he had “1,500 Canadians ready to fight for the Americans.” General Montgomery, in announcing the surrender of the town of Chambly in October, described how 300 Canadians, aiding a force of only 50 Americans, helped to take the town through their bravery and knowledge. Benedict Arnold, ascribing a strong ideological fervor to the habitants, summarized: “The inhabitants are generally in our favor, and many of them have taken up arms for us, or rather, for themselves.”
J.B. Badeaux’s journal recounts a particularly humorous episode of military sabotage. In this incident, habitants from the Chambly region reported to the British camp under the pretense of joining the militia defending the province. Having been provided with arms, however, the group promptly deserted, marched to the “Bastonnais” camp, and used these weapons on behalf of the rebels. The pro-British author, petrified by this brazen treason, concluded: “we have every reason to fear for our poor province.”
In some cases, this support was enduring. Some militants even stayed with the American force as it retreated south across the border in 1776, demonstrating their commitment to the revolutionary cause long after it was no longer convenient. The 1st and 2nd Canadian Regiments, under the command of James Livingston and Moses Hazen, respectively, were known for their fighting quality discipline, earning affectionate nicknames such as “Congress’s Own.” They took part in some of the decisive battles of the war, including the Battles of Long Island, Saratoga, Brandywine, Germantown and the final coup de grâce at Yorktown.
When they would not or could not join the Americans, some habitants simply created their own fighting forces. In one instance, a baker from Charlesbourg “attempted to form a company” to support the Americans. As previously detailed, groups of men roamed the countryside, intimidating others and advocating for the Americans. Canadians also physically fought one another. One such example is the Battle of Longue-Plante, in the Montreal area, in September 1775. In early 1776, a small clash occurred in St. Pierre-du-Sud at the house of a Loyalist named Michael Blay (also spelled Michel Blais). This pitted against one another two small detachments of largely Canadian militia members, some Loyalist and some pro-American. The skirmish ended with a victory for the rebels.
As a growing wealth of evidence illustrates, and in spite of some historians’ claims to the contrary, a sizable bloc of the French-Canadians in Quebec in 1775-1776 were open to and even supportive of the American invaders. Their assistance took many different forms: while many provided logistical aid and performed corvée for the revolutionaries, an oft-overlooked group actively took up arms, jeopardizing their own livelihoods and security. These deeds reflected conscious decisions to reject the appeals of the British leaders and, perhaps more importantly, the clergy whose counsel they were supposed to heed. Armed with the knowledge of these brave acts, one can better understand the fluid nature of revolutions and, more specifically, the tenuous bands that tied the French-Canadians to their British rulers. For a brief but momentous period for people on both sides of the border, the addition of the Fourteenth Colony seemed no pipe dream at all.
According to Clark, the merchants “were not more than a few hundred in number,” and were almost exclusively concentrated in the towns of Montreal and Quebec. S.D. Clark, Movements of Political Protest in Canada, 1640-1840 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959), 75.
George Morison, An Interesting Journal of Occurrences During the Expedition to Quebec Conducted by the Celebrated Arnold at the Commencement of the American Revolution (Hagerstown, MD: James Magee, 1803), 21.
“Colonel Hazen to General Schuyler,” Peter Force, ed. American Archives: Consisting of a collection of authentick records, state papers, debates, and letters and other notice of publick affairs, the whole forming a documentary history of the origin and progress of the North American colonies; of the causes and accomplishment of the American revolution; and of the Constitution of government for the United States, to the final ratification thereof, Vol. 5 (Washington: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1853), 869; General Montgomery led the second of the two prongs in the assault. After capturing Montreal, he perished in the attack on Quebec City.
François Baby, Gabriel-Elzéar Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams. Québec During the American Invasion, 1775-1776: The Journal of François Baby, Gabriel Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams, edited by Michael P. Gabriel, translated by S. Pascale Vergereau-Dewey (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2005), 8.
John Hare, “Le comportement de la paysannerie rurale et urbaine dans la region de Québec, pendant l’occupation américaine, 1775-1776,” Revue de l’Université d’Ottawa 47, nos. 1-2 (janvier et avril 1977): 146.
Victor Coffin, “The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution: A Study in English-American Colonial History,” Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, Economics, Political Science and History Series, Vol. 1, no. 3 (1896), 275-562.498.
Frank Moore, ed., The Diary of the Revolution: A Centennial Volume Embracing the Current Events in Our Country’s History from 1775 to 1781 as Described by American, British, and Tory Contemporaries Vol. 1 (Hartford: The J.B. Burr Publishing Company, 1875), 209.
Claude-Nicolas-Guillaume de Lorimier, At War with the Americans: The Journal of Claude-Nicolas-Guillaume de Lorimier, translated and edited by Peter Aichinger (Victoria, B.C.: Press Porcepic, 1981), 28.