by Jeff Hindes
From the time that I was a child, I have admired the family heirloom silver medal bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria. The bar on the red and blue striped ribbon reads “Chateaugauy”. Engraved along the edge of the medal is “F. Rousseau – Canad’n Militia”. The medal, now on display at my parent’s home, belonged to Francois Rousseau, my great-great-great-great grandfather. The family’s oral history of Francois Rousseau and his role in the War of 1812 is a fantastic tale of revenge and gallantry. But what really happened? This summer I had a chance to find out. I returned to the canal schooner Lois McClure at the Lachine canal in Montreal. From there we made our way west with stops at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue and Carillon.
On our way to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue we passed through the peculiar Becker Dam, a man made protected passage through the rapids. We tied up below the lock, in front of the same hotel de ville that Theodore Bartley would have seen on his way thorough during the 19th century. Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue is a quaint little community on the western side of Montreal. The locals were quite curious about our boat and we enjoyed a busy day interpreting both the boat and our tour.
Out next stop was at Carillon. The highlight of the day’s transit was a single 65′ lift at the Carillon lock. This is a “guillotine” lock where a massive lower lock door raises and lowers rather than swinging open and shut. After being lifted the height of a 6 story building we tied up and prepared to welcome the public aboard.
While we were at Carillon I jumped at the chance given to us by Jean Belisle’s roommante, Pierre, to go to Parcs Canada‘s Battle of Chateaugauy historic site. Pierre was gracious enough to come with a car to bring us to the site itself.
Driving across the flat fertile plain of the St Lawrence River reminded me much more of the American Midwest than the Champlain Valley. Eventually we arrived at the visitor’s center along the banks of the quiet Chateaugauy River. We went inside and introduced ourselves. The staff was pleased to meet a blood-relative of a participant of the battle. Our guide gave us a tour of the museum and a play-by-play overview of the battle from the observation level overlooking the battlefield.
After the tour, I set out to see what I could learn about Francois Rousseau. I found his name engraved on the wall of honor and then, using the electronic database at the visitors center’s museum, I was able to look up his service record. He served in the 5th Regiment of the Embodied Select Militia. The Embodied Select Militia was made up primarily of conscripts, though his rank of lieutenant reinforces the family’s story that he enlisted on his own accord. While his unit, in their green uniform jackets, was at the battle on October 26, 1813 they were likely a reserve force that did not see direct action against the Americans.
None the less, in 1848 Francois Rousseau received a medal from Queen Victoria recognizing his service to the crown fighting in defense of his native Canada. Now, almost 200 years later, I too have been to the banks of the Chateaugauy River. This time the occasion was a tour celebrating two centuries of peace. My visit to the battlefield of Chateaugauy has shed some light on the story of Francois Rousseau and his medal but there are still more questions to answer. Those may have to wait until next year.
Special Thanks to:
A 7th generation Vermonter whose family once owned a standard canal boat out of Vergennes, the J. G. Hindes, Jeff is also a captain for the Lake Champlain Transportation Company. When not on the water, Jeff teaches social studies at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.