October 23, 1812: The Skirmish at St. Regis
Amid the hoopla of the War of 1812 bicentennial, a notable anniversary came and went unobserved recently.
On October 23, 1812, one of the early skirmishes in the war took place, but there were no re-enactments where the clash occurred. That’s because it happened in the village of Kanatakon, or St. Regis, in the Mohawk community Akwesasne, and it was probably not a great idea to have hundreds of non-Native reenactors sneaking around Akwesasne with rifles in hand at five o’clock in the morning.
Due to its location on the border between the U.S. and Canada as well as on the St. Lawrence River, Akwesasne was a strategic location for American and British forces. Although the people of Akwesasne were urged to remain neutral before the war began, both sides quickly violated the neutrality by militarizing our territory. The Americans built a blockhouse on our reservation land in French Mills, now known as Fort Covington, while the British stationed almost four dozen Canadian Voyageurs at St. Regis Point.
The Americans were determined to attack the Voyageur encampment, and marched in secrecy to the area of Snye that overlooks the village of St. Regis, only to find that there were no rafts to get across the St. Regis River. Their second attempt began on the night of October 22, when Major Guilford Dudley Young marched five companies to Gray’s Mills, now known as Hogansburg, and crossed the St. Regis River on boats, a canoe, and rafts. Major Young then led his troops to the village of St. Regis, as his account relates, moving so quietly that not even our dogs heard them coming:
We arrived, within half a mile of the village, at five o’clock, where, being concealed from the enemy by a little rise of ground, we halted to reconnoiter, 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.
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 after the incident 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.
The raid on St. Regis, which most Akwesasronon slept through, may have provoked some to break the community’s neutrality and pick up arms. Warriors from Akwesasne and Kahnawake were recruited by the British; they served as scouts at various British forts and are credited with helping to block American attempts to invade Upper and Lower Canada. They were joined by their Haudenosaunee brethren at Grand River and Tyendinaga, who also served with distinction.
It should be noted that there were also Akwesasronon who fought on the side of the Americans, along with other Haudenosaunee still living within United States territory. This brought them into actual combat against their “Canadian” kin. The divisions engendered by the war continued long after peace was declared, especially at Akwesasne, but that is another story for another time.
Darren Bonaparte, a Mohawk historian from Akwesasne, is the author of Creation & Confederation: The Living History of the Iroquois and A Lily Among Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha. Both books are available from Amazon.com.
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