Unlocking the Frontier, November 29, 1760

Unlocking the Frontier, November 29, 1760

By: Don Troiani


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400 Signed & Numbered Prints - 31" x 25"

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In early September 1760, three British armies coming from the east, the west and the south met outside the walls of Montreal. Within the city were the remains of the French regular troops under the command Major General Lévis and Governor General Vaudreuil. The Canadian Militia, which had recently mustered up to one man out of five souls in the colony — the highest conscription rate recorded anywhere, had collapsed. Facing overwhelming odds, shortages and devastation on a vast scale, the French commanders had little choice other than surrender. On September 8, 1760 British troops entered the city while the capitulation was signed, which ended the campaigns in Canada.

Montreal’s surrender included all of Canada that was not already occupied by the British. This included the vast expanses northwest of Montreal leading to lakes Huron, Superior and Michigan as well as the western part of Lake Erie. These areas and their connecting river networks were strewn with French frontier outposts, some of which had small garrisons of regular colonial troops, called the “Compagnies franches de la Marine”, stationed at the edge of the then known world. British Major General Jeffery Amherst now had to organize the evacuation of the French troops and their replacement by British garrisons. Four days after the capitulation, General Amherst sent Major Robert Rogers west with two companies of rangers, later joined by a company of the 60th Regiment, for the transfer. Some of the French stockade forts were very small, others, like Michilimackinac, were major trade emporiums. But there was one that was truly a frontier metropolis: Detroit.

In 1760, Detroit was a bustling place whose population had doubled to over eight hundred souls in the last decade, besides hundreds of traders and Indians that constantly visited the town. It was the most important business and administrative center after Quebec and Montreal. For its safety, the rapidly expanding town was surrounded by a stockade guarded by a small garrison led by Captain François-Marie Picoté de Belestre, the senior commander of this vast frontier area. Born in 1716, he was a scion from an old family of the Canadian gentry who had served mostly on the frontier and who had distinguished himself at General Braddock’s defeat on the Monongahela five years earlier. He certainly knew at least as much about bush fighting as Major Rogers did and Belestre’s soldiers were frontier veterans who could match the British rangers. When deployed in wilderness warfare, these French soldiers would be armed, equipped and dressed much like traders and allied Indians wearing capots, Indian leggings and moccasins — somewhat like the figure at the left of this painting. But now, they had word that the fighting was over and that they would surrender to British troops.

Allied Indians could hardly believe that Belestre would not fight and told Rogers so. But the protocol of European conventions prevailed and, after assurances that the town’s inhabitants would not be molested nor pillaged, the transfer would take place peacefully. Subaltern officers had already worked out the details. On November 29, Rogers and his troops lined up in front of Detroit. A French officer came out of the town’s gate accompanied by a British officer bearing the compliments of French commandant Belestre who most politely signified to Rogers that he was now under his command. A detachment of the 60th took possession of the town relieving its sentries. Then, as Rogers recalled it: “The French garrison laid their arms, English colors were hoisted, and the French taken down, at which about 700 Indians” who were observing all this gave a huge and merry shout. The French inhabitants were quieter, undoubtedly wondering what their future held. The French garrison then left Detroit with an escort of rangers to be taken to Pittsburgh and, eventually to Europe. This is the moment shown in the painting, an event full of eighteenth century courtesy worthy of any European palace, but taking place on the North American frontier. For the occasion, the troops would have been in their best regulation dress: the French wearing their gray-white and blue uniforms, the rangers in green and the soldiers of the 60th in red coats.