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Surprise Attack at Schenectady

For the week of Monday February 3, 2003

On February 8, 1690, French troops and Aboriginal allies launched a surprise mid-winter attack against the town of Schenectady near Albany, New York. The Comte de Frontenac, governor-general of New France, organized the attack to intimidate the English and their Iroquois allies, and to win more First Nations' support for New France.

Destruction at Schenectady

Destruction at Schenectady
© LAC / Unidentified artist / C-006007

During the 17th century, France and England competed for control of the eastern seaboard of North America. The French held Acadia (Nova Scotia) and expanded their colony in the St. Lawrence valley towards the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. The English had settled much of the Atlantic coast north of Florida and conquered the Dutch colony that became New York. While empires battled for territory and trade, First Nations controlled the way into the interior. South of Lake Ontario, the power of the Iroquois Confederacy was growing and it provoked fear in the French colonies. Supplied with English guns, the Iroquois scattered the Hurons and repeatedly attacked their allies, the French. Increasing danger prompted France's King Louis XIV to send Frontenac to govern New France and subdue the Iroquois.

Early in 1690, Frontenac organized a force of French troops, Canadian militia and Aboriginal allies to assault three separate English towns. After a hard march through snow and swamp, one party reached the isolated settlement now called Schenectady. While the inhabitants slept, a sharp war cry broke the night silence and the attackers burst through the gates, set fire to the fort and sacked the town. The settlement's Iroquois sentries were not attacked, but 60 men, women and children, mainly of Dutch origin, died. Although few Frenchmen were lost at Schenectady, the Iroquois retaliated, killing some on their journey home.

Frontenac, 1622-1698

Frontenac, 1622-1698
© LAC / POS-0543

The French had struck while the English were politically divided. The brutality and efficiency of the raid spread fear through the English colonies and prompted their unsuccessful naval attack on Québec in 1691. These English failures proved the French troops' efficiency in frontier warfare and boosted morale in New France. In the mid-1690s, new French campaigns made the colony safer from Iroquois resistance and the French, Iroquois and more than 30 other nations signed a peace treaty at Montréal in 1701.

Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, served as governor-general from 1672 to 1682 and 1689 to 1698. He is designated a person of national historic significance.

For more information on conflict between the English and the French in North America, visit the archives of This Week In History: British Capture Fort Frontenac, British Land at Louisbourg and Peace Treaty at Utrecht Changes Map of North America.

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