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Everyday Life in "New France"

By Jon Reidel Article published November 19, 2008

Senecal
Joseph-André Senécal, professor of romance Languages, dons a tri-cornered hat when he teaches about the influence of "New France" on the Champlain Valley. (Photo: Sally McCay)

The week before Thanksgiving, Joseph-André Senécal will pack up his belongings accumulated over a 30-year career as a professor of Romance languages and move to Idaho. Making the trip west will be three steel filing cabinets filled with information he compiled on the lives of French colonists and soldiers who manned a fort and developed a settlement in Addison, Vt. in the 1730s on the shores of Lake Champlain known as Pointe-à-la-Chevelure.

The content of the cabinets represents the definitive and sole collection of history on this important, yet often ignored settlement located across the lake from Crown Point, NY. Senécal, who teaches Quebec culture and literature and served as director of UVM’s Canadian Studies Program from 1998-2006, plans to spend the first two years of a phased-retirement condensing the information in the cabinets into a book titled “Everyday Life at Point-à-la-Chevelure in New France.”

Senécal spoke about the settlement — the first European community in the southern Champlain Valley — at a Research-in-Progress Seminar on Nov. 12 titled “The Presence of New France in the Champlain Valley: 1609-1759.” He’s also working on another book about Samuel de Champlain to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Champlain coming to the region. Senécal’s research, including copies of documents he retrieved from France, will be available to historians and other interested parties at the Crown Point State Historical Site.

Senécal’s impossibly detailed information about the inhabitants of the settlement, which contained the fort that preceded Fort Ticonderoga, sheds light on life during the early 1700s. His research also shows the key role Pointe-à-la-Chevelure played in laying the foundation for the conquering of New France leading to the The Seven Years’ War, which ended France’s position as a major colonial power in the Americas. The events of that war also attracted some important historical figures to the area, including Ethan Allen.

“It’s an important piece of history that doesn’t receive a lot of attention,” says Senécal, who grew up in Quebec City. “I’ve been able to reconstruct the lives of each settler and after 20 years of research have gotten to know them pretty well. You start to get a real sense for who they are and the stories eventually become personal.”

Seeking answers in Versailles
In 1730, the French erected a small wooden fort at Point a la Chevelure on the Vermont side of the lake, effectively taking control of territory claimed by Great Britain. Another fort (Fort St. Frédéric) was eventually constructed on the western shore and garrisoned by about one hundred officers and men. Consisting of about 90 lots (30-35 on the Vermont side) with settlers from Montreal of Quebec, the settlement served as an outpost of French culture in the Champlain Valley and helped increase the population as part of settlement drive by Versailles and Quebec based on the early expedition of Champlain in 1609.

Senécal is often asked why it took more than 120 years following Champlain’s arrival for a settlement to be established. Despite a “precocious claim” to the watershed of Lake Champlain, France and the colonial government at Quebec were slow to take possession of southern lands mapped by Champlain because of the “lasting menace of the Mohawks and other Iroquois, and the failure of New France to attract a larger flow of new immigrants from the mother country,” writes Senécal in the first chapter of his book.

The fear of attack and other daily trials were documented by the military and settlers, and some of their experiences are preserved at The Louvre. Senécal, who has made multiple trips to Paris to study the archives, can easily translate the writings from his native French into English. Senécal seems to know more about settlers than most people do about their own neighbors. He knows their ages; when they were baptized; when they received their first communion; and when they died. One woman was married four times (unheard for that time period) while another endured six still births. Senécal recalls feeling like he lost a family member after discovering that dozens of the settlers later died on a makeshift boat that sunk in the lake.

Keeping "New France" alive
Senécal’s research was conducted as a separate passion from his main teachings as a professor of Romance language, which he admits wasn’t his first choice. “I wanted to teach history, but it was the 60s and the competition for tenure tract positions was fierce, so I entered a less competitive field, which I have enjoyed.”

The fort and its surrounding settlements were forced to evacuate in 1759 by an advancing British army. Fort Ticonderoga was constructed 15 miles to the south a few years later. “Their engineer was totally inept,” says Senécal in reference to the original fort. “The French made a serious blunder by building it where they did. It was poorly located and poorly constructed.” Today, much of the settlement lies beneath the Crown Point Bridge and doesn’t appear to be high on the excavation list of the State of Vermont unless construction warrants the need for archaeological preservation.

Senécal’s goal has been to keep the lives and stories of the small settlement alive through his research and writing. Fittingly, they will be on display at Crown Point not far from the original settlement. “It became my passion. You get to know who lives next to whom. All of these human stories connected with the site became very poignant ones. I think people will get a real sense of what it was like to live at that time and place.”