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Captain Benoist: The Most Honest Man In Colonial New France

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When he served as commander at Fort La Presentation, Captain Antoine-Gabriel-Francois Benoist was known as one of the most honest men in colonial New France.

Knighted by King Louis XV for his service in New France, Captain Benoist was named the commander at Fort La Presentation (present day Ogdensburg) in 1754 when war broke out between the French and British.

For the 39-year-old career military officer, commanding the French troops stationed at the mouth of the Oswegatchie River at the Abbe Francois Picquet’s mission fort was the culmination of 20 years of service to the French Army, but just the beginning of a whirlwind war-time career.

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE

Born in 1715 in Paris to Gabriel Benoist and Françoise de Trevet, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography reports the young Benoist joined the French Army in 1734 as a cadet and left France a year later to serve his King in colonial Canada.

“In 1739, he took part in the campaign led by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, governor of Louisiana, against the Chickasaws,” his biographer wrote. “Made a second ensign on April 1, 1741, Benoist was promoted ensign in 1745. He served as adjutant under François-Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil during the summer of 1747 at Fort Saint-Frédéric (near Crown Point, N.Y.) and in 1748 was named adjutant in Montreal. Promoted lieutenant on May 1, 1749, he was sent to France in October to raise recruits. On his return he resumed his duties as adjutant.”

In 1752, he was appointed commandant of Fort du Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes, (Lake of Two Mountains in Oka, Quebec, one of what became known as the Seven Nations of Canada), an important post where he gained experience working with the Roman Catholic Indian tribes of the St. Lawrence Valley allied with New France.

With war looming, he was sent with 1,500 French soldiers to participate in Paul Marin de La Malgue’s grueling expedition that built a chain of forts from Lake Erie to the Ohio Valley.

In 1754, as New France went to war with the British for control of North America, Benoist was promoted to command Fort de La Présentation.

A year later, he was dispatched to Fort de la Presqu’île (Erie, Pa.). In the spring of 1757, Lt. Benoist was recalled to Montreal, promoted captain, and sent to Fort Saint-Jean (Quebec). He served with Major General Louis-Joseph De Marquis de Montcalm at the siege of Fort William Henry (Lake George) in August, a siege made famous in the book and movie “Last of the Mohicans.”

RETURN TO LA PRESENTATION

In August 1758, when the British destroyed Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario), endangering a vital French supply line to forts throughout the Great Lakes, particularly Niagara, Captain Benoist was given the job of rebuilding it in the autumn of 1758. But the fort was too badly damaged for a garrison to be stationed in it for the winter.

Captain Benoist was ordered to fall back to Fort de La Présentation and replace Claude-Nicolas de Lorimier de La Rivière (who had upset the Abbe Piquet as well as his Oswegatchie Indians) as its commander.

With the British preparing a major invasion of the Lake Ontario region, Fort La Présentation in 1758 played a key strategic role in the defense of New France.

“His assignment to the post was certainly a mark of confidence, fully warranted by the reputation he had gained during his years of service,” his biographer wrote.

Major General Montcalm described him as an “officer of real merit” and an “honest man” at a time when many other French officers and colonial officials were lining their pockets at the expense of the military and their Indian allies.

Col. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville called Captain Benoist “the most upright man in the colony and that to honesty, [he added] knowledge, vision, and zeal.”

“In November, 1758 Benoist assumed his new duties (at La Presentation), taking charge at the same time of the post at Pointe-au-Baril (Maitland, Ont.), where construction of ships for transport and the defense on Lake Ontario was under way,” his biographer wrote. “Because Benoist feared a British attack the following spring, Governor Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil sent out the military engineer Captain Pierre Pouchot to oversee operations. To speed the ship-building, Pouchot assumed temporary command of the two posts” before sailing for Fort Niagara at the end of April, leaving Captain Benoist in charge.

During the summer of 1759, Captain Benoist and his Oswegatchie Indians took part in the attack led by Chevalier Louis de La Corne, against Chouaguen in Oswego and was wounded in the thigh by a gunshot during the unsuccessful attack, ending his military career.

He returned to France after the British conquered the colony and in March 1761, was made a knight of the order of Saint-Louis and given a pension of 900 livres.

CORRUPTION REVEALED

After the war, the French conducted an inquiry into the widespread corruption that had plagued the colony during the struggle with the British.

Captain Benoist, whose service had earned him a reputation for integrity, was a key witness against many of the corrupt officials who had profited while soldiers, Indians and the French colonials starved.

The author of his military dossier noted: “His sense of honor obliged him to reveal information that was troublesome and that perhaps formed the basis for judgment in a notorious trial, but in giving evidence he showed, with his customary gentleness and decency, the consideration due to those who are to be pitied as they enter upon misfortune.”

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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