1837-8: Saint-Eustache & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Division and Resistance”, 1827-1863

Artistic depiction of the battle of Saint-Eustache by Charles Beauclerk, c. 1840. Credit: Wikimedia Commons Artistic depiction of the battle of Saint-Eustache by Charles Beauclerk, c. 1840. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Violence for the Patriotes had been mentioned as a possible solution by none other than Julie Papineau in her letter to her husband, but only if they were pushed to a point where peaceful options were no longer possible. With the failure of the 92 Resolutions in 1834 and subsequent pleas ignored by the British government, the Patriotes took to arms in 1837. Popular support for the Patriotes grew as the Patriotes staged rallies that spoke to the people about the Patriotes’ grievances.

The battle of Saint-Eustache occurred in mid-December of 1837 after a long string of battles between the rebellious Patriotes and the British. Violence broke out most importantly in Saint-Denis and in Saint-Charles, both of which were crushing defeats for the Patriotes. By the time violence broke out, Louis-Joseph Papineau fled to the United States and his wife joined him shortly thereafter. With the Patriote morale falling, the British set their sights on one of the last strongholds of the Patriotes: Saint-Eustache.

On the British side, John Colborne commanded the forces that were supposed to defeat the Patriotes. His battle plan consisted of encircling the town and gradually closing in on the rebels. As Colborne’s plan was executed by over one thousand military men, the Patriotes, who numbered only two hundred men, took refuge in homes of sympathisers but most notably in the local church. It was in the church that the leader of this small group of rebels, a physician named Jean-Olivier Chénier, also took refuge. The church withstood canon fire for two hours, but the Patriotes refused to abandon the building. In a move that remains controversial to this day, the British set the local church aflame; Chénier attempted to escape by jumping out of a window, but the British slaughtered him and mutilated his corpse. It is reported that Chénier’s last words were to remember George Weir, a British spy that was executed by the Patriotes. In total, the Patriotes lost 70 men and captured most of the rest. Some of the Patriotes, in their attempt to flee the British, tried to cross into the United States, but few if any successfully made the trip.

Even though the battle at Saint-Eustache would be one of the Patriotes’ greatest losses, they would eventually win their political battle, but only partially and at a major threat to their identity. As for one of the major locations during this battle, the church in which the Patriotes took cover was eventually rebuilt. The façade, however, remains, where the destruction of British artillery is still visible to those who visit it. Chénier remains a symbol of Quebec nationalism and his name was infamously used by a faction of the FLQ that would kidnap one man and murder another.

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