The story of the first conflict between France and Great Britain in North America began with the one about Argall’s expedition.
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The ship was brought to the spot, and the colonists disembarked. First they planted a cross; then they began their labors, and with their labors their quarrels. La Saussaye, zealous for agriculture, wished to break ground and raise crops immediately; the rest opposed him, wishing first to be housed and fortified. Fleury demanded that the ship should be unladen, and La Saussaye would not consent. Debate ran high, when suddenly all was harmony, and the disputants were friends once more in the pacification of a common danger.
Far out at sea, beyond the islands that sheltered their harbor, they saw an approaching sail; and as she drew near, straining their anxious eyes, they could descry the red flags that streamed from her masthead and her stern; then the black muzzles of her cannon, — they counted seven on a side; then the throng of men upon her decks. The wind was brisk and fair; all her sails were set; she came on, writes a spectator, more swiftly than an arrow.
Six years before, in 1607, the ships of Captain Newport had conveyed to the banks of James River the first vital germ of English colonization on the continent. Noble and wealthy speculators with Hispaniola, Mexico, and Peru for their inspiration, had combined to gather the fancied golden harvest of Virginia, received a charter from the Crown, and taken possession of their El Dorado. From tavern, gaming-house, and brothel was drawn the staple the colony, — ruined gentlemen, prodigal sons, disreputable retainers, debauched tradesmen. Yet it would be foul slander to affirm that the founders of Virginia were all of this stamp; for among the riotous crew were men of worth, and, above them all, a hero disguised by the homeliest of names. Again and again, in direst woe and jeopardy, the infant settlement owed its life to the heart and hand of John Smith.
Several years had elapsed since Newport’s voyage; and the colony, depleted by famine, disease, and an Indian war, had been recruited by fresh emigration, when one Samuel Argall arrived at Jamestown, captain of an illicit trading-vessel. He was a man of ability and force, — one of those compounds of craft and daring in which the age was fruitful; for the rest, unscrupulous and grasping. In the spring of 1613 he achieved a characteristic exploit, — the abduction of Pocahontas, that most interesting of young squaws, or, to borrow the style of the day, of Indian princesses. Sailing up the Potomac he lured her on board his ship, and then carried off the benefactress of the colony a prisoner to Jamestown. Here a young man of family, Rolfe, became enamored of her, married her with more than ordinary ceremony, and thus secured a firm alliance between her tribesmen and the English.
Meanwhile Argall had set forth on another enterprise. With a ship of one hundred and thirty tons, carrying fourteen guns and sixty men, he sailed in May for islands off the coast of Maine to fish, as he says for cod. He had a more important errand; for Sir Thomas Dale, Governor of Virginia, had commissioned him to expel the French from any settlement they might have made within the limits of King James’s patents. Thick fogs involved him; and when the weather cleared he found himself not far from the Bay of Penobscot. Canoes came out from shore; the Indians climbed the ship’s side, and, as they gained the deck, greeted the astonished English with an odd pantomime of bows and flourishes, which, in the belief of the latter, could have been learned from none but Frenchmen. By signs, too, and by often repeating the word Norman, — by which they always designated the French, — they betrayed the presence of the latter. Argall questioned them as well as his total ignorance of their language would permit, and learned, by signs, the position and numbers of the colonists. Clearly they were no match for him. Assuring the Indians that the Normans were his friends, and that he longed to see them, he retained one of the visitors as a guide, dismissed the rest with presents, and shaped his course for Mount Desert.
Now the wild heights rose in view; now the English could see the masts of a small ship anchored in the sound; and now, as they rounded the islands, four white tents were visible on the grassy slope between the water and the woods. They were a gift from the Queen to Madame de Guercheville and her missionaries. Argall’s men prepared for fight, while their Indian guide, amazed, broke into a howl of lamentation.
On shore all was confusion. Bailleul, the pilot, went to reconnoiter, and ended by hiding among the islands. La Saussaye lost presence of mind, and did nothing for defense. La Motte, his lieutenant, with Captain Fleury, an ensign, a sergeant, the Jesuit Du Thet, and a few of the bravest men, hastened on board the vessel, but had no time to cast loose her cables. Argall bore down on them, with a furious din of drums and trumpets, showed his broadside, and replied to their hail with a volley of cannon and musket shot. “Fire! Fire!” screamed Fleury. But there was no gunner to obey, till Du Thet seized and applied the match. “The cannon made as much noise as the enemy’s,” writes Biard; but, as the inexperienced artillerist forgot to aim the piece, no other result ensued. Another storm of musketry, and Brother Gilbert du Thet rolled helpless on the deck.
The French ship was mute. The English plied her for a time with shot, then lowered a boat and boarded. Under the awnings which covered her, dead and wounded men lay strewn about her deck, and among them the brave lay brother, smothering in his blood. He had his wish; for, on leaving France, he had prayed with uplifted hands that he might not return, but perish in that holy enterprise. Like the Order of which he was a humble member, he was a compound of qualities in appearance contradictory. La Motte, sword in hand, showed fight to the last, and won the esteem of his captors.
The English landed without meeting any show of resistance, and ranged at will among the tents, the piles of baggage and stores, and the buildings and defenses newly begun. Argall asked for the commander, but La Saussaye had fled to the woods. The crafty Englishman seized his chests, caused the locks to be picked, searched till he found the royal letters and commissions, withdrew them, replaced everything else as he had found it, and again closed the lids. In the morning, La Saussaye, between the English and starvation, preferred the former, and issued from his hiding place. Argall received him with studious courtesy. That country, he said, belonged to his master, King James.
Doubtless they had authority from their own sovereign for thus encroaching upon it; and, for his part, he was prepared to yield all respect to the commissions of the King of France, that the peace between the two nations might not be disturbed. Therefore he prayed that the commissions might be shown to him. La Saussaye opened his chests. The royal signature was nowhere to be found. At this, Argall’s courtesy was changed to wrath. He denounced the Frenchmen as robbers and pirates who deserved the gallows, removed their property on board his ship, and spent the afternoon in dividing it among his followers, The disconsolate French remained on the scene of their woes, where the greedy sailors as they came ashore would snatch from them, now a cloak, now a hat, and now a doublet, till the unfortunate colonists were left half naked. In other respects the English treated their captives well, — except two of them, whom they flogged; and Argall, whom Biard, after recounting his knavery, calls “a gentleman of noble courage,” having gained his point, returned to his former courtesy.
But how to dispose of the prisoners? Fifteen of them, including La Saussaye and the Jesuit Masse, were turned adrift in an open boat, at the mercy of the wilderness and the sea. Nearly all were lands-men; but while their unpracticed hands were struggling with the oars, they were joined among the islands by the fugitive pilot and his boat’s crew. Worn and half starved, the united bands made their perilous way eastward, stopping from time to time to hear mass, make a procession, or catch codfish. Thus sustained in the spirit and in the flesh, cheered too by the Indians, who proved fast friends in need, they crossed the Bay of Fundy, doubled Cape Sable, and followed the southern coast of Nova Scotia, till they happily fell in with two French trading-vessels, which bore them in safety to St. Malo.
“Praised be God, behold two thirds of our company safe in France, telling their strange adventures to their relatives and friends. And now you will wish to know what befell the rest of us.” Thus writes Father Biard, who with his companions in misfortune, fourteen in all, prisoners on board Argall’s ship and the prize, were borne captive to Virginia. Old Point Comfort was reached at length, the site of Fortress Monroe; Hampton Roads, renowned in our day for the sea-fight of the Titans; Sewell’s Point; the Rip Raps; Newport News, — all household words in the ears of this generation. Now, far on their right, buried in the damp shade of immemorial verdure, lay, untrodden and voiceless, the fields where stretched the leaguering lines of Washington where the lilies of France floated beside the banners of the new-born republic, and where in later years embattled treason confronted the manhood of an outraged nation. And now before them they could descry the mast of small craft at anchor, a cluster of rude dwellings fresh from the axe, scattered tenements, and fields green with tobacco.
Throughout the voyage the prisoners had been soothed with flattering tales of the benignity of the Governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas Dale; of his love of the French, and his respect for the memory of Henry the Fourth, to whom, they were told, he was much beholden for countenance and favor. On their landing at Jamestown, this consoling picture was reversed. The Governor fumed and blustered, talked of halter and gallows, and declared that he would hang them all. In vain Argall remonstrated, urging that he had pledged his word for their lives. Dale, outraged by their invasion of British territory, was deaf to all appeals; till Argall, driven to extremity, displayed the stolen commissions, and proclaimed his stratagem, of which the French themselves had to that moment been ignorant. As they were accredited by their government, their lives at least were safe. Yet the wrath of Sir Thomas Dale still burned high. He summoned his council, and they resolved promptly to wipe off all stain of French intrusion from shores which King James claimed as his own.
Their action was utterly unauthorized. The two kingdoms were at peace. James the First, by the patents of 1606, had granted all North America, from the thirty-fourth to the forty-fifth degree of latitude, to the two companies of London and Plymouth, — Virginia being assigned to the former, while to the latter were given Maine and Acadia, with adjacent regions. Over these, though as yet the claimants had not taken possession of them, the authorities of Virginia had no color of jurisdiction. England claimed all North America, in virtue of the discovery of Cabot; and Sir Thomas Dale became the self-constituted champion of British rights, not the less zealous that his championship promised a harvest of booty.
– Pioneers of France in the New World Part II, Chapter 8 by Francis Parkman
Argall’s expedition begins the century and half of conflict between France and England in North America.
The below is from Francis Parkman’s Introduction.
If, at times, it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them, he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.
With respect to that special research which, if inadequate, is still in the most emphatic sense indispensable, it has been the writer’s aim to exhaust the existing material of every subject treated. While it would be folly to claim success in such an attempt, he has reason to hope that, so far at least as relates to the present volume, nothing of much importance has escaped him. With respect to the general preparation just alluded to, he has long been too fond of his theme to neglect any means within his reach of making his conception of it distinct and true.