The Argenteuil Rangers, (11th Battalion of Hussars): Morin Company, 1862 to 1911
Stock (This article is from
Pocupine #6 but with more pictures here)
of the more unexpected discoveries found while researching the history
of Morin Heights has been that at one time, our municipality had a very
vigorous citizen militia company. This was part of the larger county
militia, called the Argenteuil Rangers.
The Rangers had been organized in 1862 as a cavalry force by Sir John Abbott, who later became the Prime Minister of Canada. Sir John was based in St.Andrews East, the then chief town of the ancient Seigneury of Argenteuil that dates from 1682. This was a long settled and prosperous agricultural area, unlike the wild terrain of lakes, mountains, swamps and rocks of the northeastern addition to Argenteuil – occupied by mainly Irish settlers – that became the townships (cantons) of Lakefield, Gore, Wentworth, Mille Isles and Morin. This area of the county is geographically part of the Laurentian Shield and life was much more difficult for the pioneers who initially attempted to establish farms like those of the Ottawa and St.Lawrence Valleys. Some economic growth was derived from making potash from the felled trees, but until the coming of the railway in the 1890’s, life was isolated and hard.
Although military service had been included as part of the agreement between a landholder and “the crown” since the beginnings of French colonization in Canada, and was part of the seigneurial system, it had rarely been put into actual practice. The presence of a regular army, French and later British, had eliminated the need for citizen part timers. However, Sir John Abbott was Canadian born and probably of the growing nineteenth century sentiment that we were becoming a distinct population that should take care of itself. The idea of the citizen soldier originated with the Roman Republic and Empire – the cultural ideal in many ways of the British Empire, at its height in the mid-nineteenth century. It was believed that those who had been given land should be obliged to defend it. Any man with a horse was expected to participate in military service for a number of weeks of the year. Those who didn’t own riding horses could rent one from a neighbor for the Summer Camp exercises.
In the 1860’s and 70’s, Upper and Lower Canada(Ontario and Quebec) were subject to several violent intrusions, launched from the United States, called the Fenian Raids. This group had rather loosely aligned themselves with the Fenian Brotherhood of Ireland. The Irish Fenians were initially a political movement working towards Ireland’s independence from British colonial rule. However, the American based Fenians tended to attract disillusioned Civil War veterans and even a criminal element. Their aim was supposedly the invasion of the Canadian colonies. One of the results of this major nuisance was the hastening of Canadian Confederation in 1867.
The Argenteuil Rangers, and particularly the Morin Company, did see action of a sort during the Fenian Raids. Cyrus Thomas, who wrote History of the Counties of Argenteuil, Quebec and Prescott, Ontario in 1896, tells us, “In March, 1866, the 11th Battalion, being called out on account of an anticipated Fenian Invasion, assembled in St.Andrews. Companies 1 and 7 were sent to Ottawa…The companies that were ordered to Ottawa rode up in sleighs and remained there for a month…on their return in April they went to Prescott…”
This account goes on to say that the Rangers then went to Cornwall by train. There appears to have been a group on Fenians on the same train to Cornwall, but interestingly enough, rather than directly confronting the enemy, the officers of the Rangers managed to…”conceal the matter as far as possible from the volunteers, being apprehensive of violence…”The Cornwall police later arrested the Fenians. There is a little hint of the comic opera here.
However, there was an honestly perceived threat to the population at that time. With the power of hindsight and 130 years distance, we can’t imagine that a disorganized force like the Fenians would have really invaded the township of Morin, which at that time was only accessible by rough trails. Although there had been some serious trouble along the American border, especially at Freleighsburg in 1866, most of the Raids had been quickly repelled by regular British army troops.
In The Lachute Watchman of January, 1886, an item recollecting the “Fenian Excitement” as it had been called, stated,” When the Rangers were called out to repel the Fenian Invasion, there was hardly a man left in Mille Isles or Morin Flats. On a number of farms the women had to put in the grain with a hoe, fathers and brothers being all off to the front with the Rangers.”
The Argenteuil Rangers continued to flourish into the 1880’s and 1890’s, but never again “saw action” like the sleigh and train defense of Cornwall. There was Summer Camp every year, usually held at Laprairie, Sherbrooke, or some other spot outside Argenteuil. The camps were two weeks long and every man took his horse.
There was also a Summer Camp held in Morin itself, probably either before or after the complete force went elsewhere. We have a picture of this preserved by Peter Jekill, whose great-grandfather, Isaac Jekill, was a Morin Company officer during the Fenian Raids period, and whose grandfather, Henry Jekill, was also a commanding officer of the Morin Company. These camps were probably felt to be lively breaks from the routine of farm work more than actual training for warfare !
There were also inter-company sports competitions, held in Lachute or St.Andrews East. These were snowshoe outings, tugs-of-war, football, et cetera. There is also a band mentioned. The Lachute Watchman of May, 1886, says”…from an early hour in the morning the band of the 11th Battalion enlivened the inhabitants with sweet music.” These assemblies of the Rangers must have been colorful as the uniforms appear to have been in keeping with the lighter aspects of the group. There was a fairly long bright crimson jacket – the officers added gold braid – jodhpurs, high boots and a variety of quite unusual hats – fancy caps to pith helmets ! The earlier uniforms resembled the clothes of soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. By the time the Rangers were disbanded in 1911, the uniform had become less flamboyant. Early photographs show officers with swords and horses decked out with fancy trappings.
There were (and still are) regimental flags – two of them –and a badge. The flags are in the Canadian War Museum and the badge in the Argenteuil Museum in Carillon. The motto on the badge is “No Surrender”.
When the Argenteuil Rangers were disbanded in 1911, the remaining members were absorbed into the Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars. This eventually became the 17th Hussars – the armory on Cote des Neiges Road in Montreal. The Morin Company honorary sword of its last commanding officer, Colonel J.E. Seale, now rests on the wall of the Morin Heights Legion, coincidently located on the site of the old Rangers Summer Camp grounds.
By the 1890’s, areas like Morin Flats (name changed to Morin Heights in a bright public relations move in 1911) were no longer isolated frontier settlements needing volunteer militia protection. The population of Morin Township had become more diverse and more connected with the outside world. By the end of the First World War, semi-private volunteer armies like the Argenteuil Rangers had disappeared forever from Canada and summer camp with your horse was something altogether different !
Sources: The Lachute Watchman, December, 1966; Cyrus Thomas, History of the Counties of Argenteuil, Quebec and Prescott, Ontario, 1896; archives of the Argenteuil County Regional Museum, Carillon; The Porcupine, number 4, 2001, Morin Heights Historical Association; photos: the late Joseph Brown, Morin Heights; Peter Jekill, Calgary, Alberta; and the collection of the Morin Heights Historical Association.
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