Jean Cadieux’s heroic death


Jean Cadieux was born in Montreal on March 12, 1671. He was a coureur des bois. He became a heroic figure in the Outaouais region of Quebec. The story takes place at the southern tip of Grand-Calumet Island. Cadieux is keeping watch at the head of the long portage trail that leads around the “Saut des sept chutes”. Suddenly, he saw a flotilla of canoes on the horizon, which he had been waiting for impatiently for over a week. He then loudly calls out the owl’s cry to warn some of his companions who are waiting, further on, near the Petit Rocher, at the foot of the portage. The latter came running and joined him in celebrating the arrival of these canoes, full to the brim with bundles of furs. But suddenly, their joy was replaced by horror! Iroquois canoes were chasing their friends the Outaouais and were in danger of catching them! They did not have time to unload the canoes and travel the half-lane portage before being joined by their cruel enemies. As soon as they reached the shore, Cadieux encouraged them to continue and risk everything by jumping the seven falls. This is what they do, preferring to entrust their lives to the torrents of the river and to Providence to escape the implacable cruelty of the Iroquois. Cadieux stays behind with a young Outaouais whose friendship and bravery will allow him to block the advance of the enemy canoes for a while. The two separated and fired on the Iroquois canoes from several points along the shore, giving the impression that they were very numerous. They killed and wounded three of their occupants. For his part, the Iroquois chief gave the order to land on the island in order to surround and massacre those who were still there. The Iroquois marauders crossed the island from one side to the other in search of those who dared to attack the warriors of the “Five Great Nations. Their hunt had little success. They had to be satisfied with a single kill. The young Outaouais, seriously wounded, was put to death and his scalp was taken away by the warrior who had finished him off. Cadieux, wounded, hid in the bushes until the Iroquois left.

In the meantime, the Ottawa canoes and their cargoes finished their perilous descent of the seven falls, the Dargis rapids and the Mountain rapids. When they arrived in Montreal, the voyageurs and the Outaouais who had lived through this traumatic experience told everyone they met that they owed their salvation to the “Beautiful White Lady”. She, they say, was stationed at the tip of the lead canoe and guided the flotilla by flying the canoes over the sharp rocky points. Under normal circumstances, the bark shell of their frail boats would have been torn off. Some of them said it was the Blessed Virgin, others leaned towards the “Good Saint Anne”, the mother of Mary.

In the days that followed, Cadieux’s friends, concerned about his fate and that of his young friend, went up to the island to help them. They eventually discovered a cross “planted at the head of a pit barely dug in the ground… [where]…lay the still warm body of Cadieux. He had just given up the ghost and in his hands “clasped to his chest” lay “a large sheet of birch bark covered with writings”. In it, he recounted his last moments and his despair. A poet at heart, he had engraved the first words of a lament in the manner of the voyageurs of the Pays-d’en-Haut. His friends were inspired to compose the lament that immortalizes him. Jean Cadieux died on Grand-Calumet Island in May 1709. His tragic end has become legendary thanks to the power of the message he left to his loved ones.

The piece of birch bark on which the hero’s last thoughts were inscribed gave birth to the Complainte de Cadieux, sung and popularized by coureurs des bois and voyageurs. The latter kneel down religiously when passing by his grave and erect, from generation to generation, replacement crosses to mark the sacred spot. Then, they bring back in their bags, as a relic, a piece of wood from the tree or the Cadieux cross in memory of their passage to the “rock of the high mountain”. This tradition has been taken up and amplified by French-Canadian and English-Canadian writers since the middle of the nineteenth century.