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So wrote British Lieut. John Enys in his Journal1 on June 17, 1776. Here, as at the portage between lakes Champlain and George at Ticonderoga, a series of rapids would have an enormous impact on military and maritime history. The great rapids at Chambly effectively prevented the River of the Iroquois, also known as the Sorel or Richelieu, from allowing continuous navigation along the great water corridor between the Saint Lawrence and the Hudson.
As early as 1609, the Chambly rapids were proving troublesome for Europeans. The natives knew of the obstacle presented by the falls, for generations they had portaged around them. Samuel de Champlain had to take into account the falls in his journey of discovery. He wrote in his Journal "I set out then from the rapid of the river of the Iroquois on the second of July. All the Indians began to carry their canoes, arms and baggage about half a league by land, to avoid the swiftness and force of the rapid."
The falls on the Richelieu culminate in a large, seemingly tranquil basin, here were built a series of fortresses, the fourth and largest of which is seen in the images on this page. Chambly- this most strategic of locations- literally a must stop on the Great Warpath of nations, was fortified from the earliest days of European settlement in North America.
The first fort at this location was built in August 1665 in response to pleas from French colonists seeking protection from frequent Iroquois raids. Given, as was customary for the Catholic French, the name of a saint, Fort St. Louis was but a wooden stockade. The first in a chain of five fortresses to be built along the river, it was erected in a square some 144' wide.
Kerlidou's map of the French forts along the Richelieu River, showing Fort St. Louis, predecessor to Fort Chambly.2 Courtesy: Saint Michael's College, Durick Library/Special Collections
By 1690, the fort was in desperate need of replacement. It was replaced with a new wooden fortress, which served to protect the habitants along the river until 1702 when it burned to the ground in the dead of winter.
Again, in the Spring of 1702 a fortress was built here. The enemy it was designed to protect against had changed- the Traité de la Grande Paix de Montréal, signed in 1701, had effectively eliminated threats from Iroquois raiders. The concern now was the English- Queen Anne's War would again immerse the region in conflict. Would the wooden fortress be sufficient protection from English guns?
This was a real concern, so much so that once again in 1709, a new type of fort was started. The impressive stone structure standing today was finally finished in 1711. New France's chief engineer, Josué Dubois Berthelot de Beaucours, himself personally supervised the project designed in the classic style of Vauban. The completed fortress assumed a new name- Fort Pontchartrain, for the French naval minister.3
The fort served the French king until the end of the French and Indian, or Seven Year's War when it was evacuated by the retreating French under Bougainville. On September 1, 1760, the fortress at Chambly became a British bastion. By September 8th, all of New France was in the hands of the British.
Relative quiet was the norm at the falls along the Richelieu as French Canada adjusted to British rule. The British went out of their way to accommodate the religion and customs of their new French Canadian subjects. Governor Carleton had ensured the acquiescence of the clergy with the passage of the Quebec Act, which effectively guaranteed religious tolerance in Lower Canada. A period of peace and prosperity settled upon the inhabitants of the Richelieu valley.
The King's subjects to the south, however, were becoming discontented with British rule. The rumblings of an independence movement turned into open rebellion. By September 1775, the Americans had formed an army and invaded Canada. At first the invasion went remarkably well, the Americans hoped to use what they believed was French Canadian frustration with British rule to their advantage. Several attempts to win the French in Lower Canada over to the rebel position were made. Some Canadians did come over, when the fortress at Chambly fell to the Americans under Maj. John Brown and James Livingston on October 18th, the attacking force was overwhelmingly Canadian allied with the rebels.4 On November 1, St. Jean capitulated. The Americans transported vessels, including at least two gondolas, over the rapids and into the St. Lawrence. On November 13, the American rebels occupied Montreal. This large city and the entire Richelieu valley were under American control.
The American hold on Lower Canada was to prove short-lived, however. At Quebec City, the rebel fortunes would change. Other enemies, equally formidable, were to take a toll. The Canadian winter and Smallpox would play a key role in the campaign. During a furious battle at Quebec City, the rebel advance was finally stemmed. American General Richard Montgomery, who led the force advancing down the St. Lawrence, was killed. Quebec remained under siege until the first part of May, 1776. On May 6, a massive British fleet arrived at the City. The heady days of victory and advances were over.
A frantic and miserable retreat ensued. By the time the rebel forces reached the rapids at Chambly, smallpox had devastated the bedraggled force. Reportedly, over half the army had contracted the disease. American General John Thomas took ill and died within two weeks. He is buried at Chambly. There is a monument to his service on the grounds of the fort. General Thomas is but one of many soldiers, French, Canadian, British and American, buried (mostly in unmarked graves) here.
This was the last time an occupying force would hold the works at Chambly. It was not the last time the fort would know warfare, however. The Americans never did take Canada. They did, however, attain independence from Great Britain; soon the new nation was a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, for the British, that knowledge came too late to avert another war.
In 1812, yet another war broke out between Britain and the United States. Canada was British, and again the specter of invasion from the south loomed large.
Fort Chambly became a major staging ground for British and Canadian forces. The fort was strengthened and a large military complex evolved around the fortress itself. Guardhouses, barracks, and administrative buildings were constructed. Soon, some 6000 troops were quartered here. It was believed the Richelieu would once again play a critical role in military strategy.
Despite repeated American incursions into Canada, Chambly was never attacked. By 1814, the war was over. Peace restored, the region settled in to another period of prosperity. A canal was eventually built around the infamous rapids. The military presence was gradually diminished until the fort itself was abandoned in 1860. By 1876, most of the military structures had been sold at auction. The massive stone structure itself was allowed to deteriorate into ruin.
Fortunately, today the huge stone fortress has been restored to its former glory. The fort, together with many of the later British outbuildings, has been lovingly preserved and is open to visitors. A trip to Chambly and the falls on the Richelieu River are a must for serious students of the history of the great Saint Lawrence, Richelieu, Lake Champlain and Lake George corridor.
1 John Enys, "THE AMERICAN JOURNALS OF Lt JOHN ENYS" 1757-1818 Edited by Elizabeth Cometti. (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press 1976) 16
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