A murmur ran through the assembled crowd as the news spread. Antoine (or “Antwine” as some pronounced the name) was making an appearance! A later account described him as “Very infirm, and in his primitive style of dress and sugar loaf cap, made an exceedingly grotesque appearance.”
The 88 year-old man who lived in Orono at the edge of town was something of a local celebrity, so much that he was mostly known by his first name alone. And on this September day in 1838, he was coming to cast his vote in the election for Congress at Great Works (now the town of Bradley). By mutual consent, it was decided that “instead of Antoine’s going to the ballot box, the ballot box should come to him.”
Such was Antoine’s reputation as a local character that this story was recounted by Israel Washburn, the former governor of Maine, in 1874, for the town of Orono’s centennial celebrations.
Washburn, though born in Livermore, operated a law practice in Orono for several years. He said he had been at the 1838 election, which was “the last time [he] saw Antoine” before the latter’s death in 1839. However, Washburn would go on to help Antoine’s widow Sarah in her pursuit of a pension after Antoine’s death.
Antoine did in fact have a surname, LaChance (though it was sometime spelled Lyshon). He and his wife had many children, some of whom took Antwine as a last name, while others took Lyshon. As the name suggests, LaChance was a French Canadian. He was one of the first residents of what became the town of Orono, having arrived there around 1785(?). He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, one of thousands (?) of French Canadians who joined the American cause.
A lot of what we know about LaChance comes from his own account of his military service, when he wrote to the federal government for a pension. In an 1833 affidavit, LaChance said that he was born “at Quebec” (a phrasing that implies he was born in or near Quebec City, rather than simply within the province of Quebec) in 1751. He volunteered to serve with the Continentals during the US invasion of Quebec in 1775.
He joined the forces of Colonel James Livingston, a New Yorker living near Montreal who joined the patriot cause and raised a band of volunteers for what became known as Livingston’s Brigade, or the 1st Canadian Regiment in the Continental Army. When LaChance joined the Continentals in December, they were preparing to lay siege to Quebec City, having routed the forces of the loyalists at Montreal in November.
The patriot forces, who numbered only a few hundred (with no artillery) failed to take the fortified and well-defended city. In the spring, reinforcements arrived from Britain and the patriots were forced to abandon the siege. LaChance said he served six months with Livingston, before he was captured, which well have been at the battle of Trois Rivières, in June 1776, where the remains of the patriot forces were defeated and forced to retreat to Fort Ticonderoga in New York. The British would follow them, and capture Ticonderoga in June 1777.
But our protagonist was not in captivity for long. He reported having escaped “soon after” (?) though frustratingly he did not say how, and he managed to rejoin the Continental forces. Even though the Continental Army had retreated from Canada, there were still Canadians sympathetic to the patriot cause operating in the province, including some like Clément Gosselin, who were official agents of the Continental Congress.
Again, LaChance offered no details of his escape or return to Continental lines, but he could well have made his way out of Canada via the Chaudière and Kennebec Rivers across the highlands and into Maine. This was the reverse of the grueling route taken by Benedict Arnold’s forces in 1775 , and at least one other patriot prisoner, Simon Forbes, escaped British custody along the same route. Forbes, who had been part of Arnold’s invading forces wrote about his escape in the spring of 1776 in his journal, and recalls being aided by sympathetic French Canadians on several occasions.
According to LaChance, his next service in the army was six weeks beginning in January 1778 serving with a “Captain Page” as a pilot in a scouting party to the Chaudière River in eastern Quebec. This is probably the same scouting party mentioned by Major-General William Heath to George Washington in a letter dated 7-10 February, 1778:
“Colonel Hazen was here a few days since to obtain several Articles requisite for the Troops intended to make the Irruption into the upper District of Canada. He requested that a small Scout of Ten or Twelve men might be sent from the upper Settlements on Kenebeck river to the French Settlements on Chaudier to spread a report of a large body of Troops coming that way. I have adopted the proposal and have ordered a party to proceed accordingly. I have directed them to proceed with all proper precaution, to report that they are sent forward to mark a road, and that a large Body of Troops are to follow, they are to enquire if provisions can be purchased for the Army, at what rate &c. and indeed to hold up every colouring of deception, and to make a precipitate return, this may perhaps divert their force.”
Colonel Moses Hazen was commander of the Second Canadian Regiment and another veteran of the Arnold Expedition. He was relentless in his advocacy for a renewed effort to invade Canada (which never came to pass), and the push in 1778 was just one of these efforts. Almost nothing appears to have been written about the scouting party from the upper Kennebec to the Chaudière in the winter of 1778, but if its purpose was to create a diversion, it may have succeeded. The loyalist Governor of Quebec ordered the posting of soldiers to the Chaudière later that year, as well as the construction of a fortified block house.
After the time with Captain Page, there’s a gap in LaChance’s history until June 1779, when he that he served as a marine on board a privateer, the Monmouth, under Captain George Ross at Castine, Maine, for three months. LaChance joined the Monmouth just in time to take was part in the disastrous Penobscot Expedition, which saw the patriot forces fail to recapture Castine from the British. The expedition was such a debacle that Paul Revere, one of the commanders, was subject to a court-martial on his return to Boston. The Monmouth and other ships in the expedition were beached and burned on the shores of the Penobscot near the present town of Brewer.
After this episode, there’s another unexplained gap in LaChance’s service record until 1781, when he says he served three months under Major-General Philip Ulmer (a commander in the Massachusetts militia) in the defense of Camden. In this capacity, he served with William Coburn, who would go on to be one of LaChance’s neighbors in Orono. Coburn testified to their shared service together in support of LaChance’s application for a pension. It’s possible that when the war ended, Coburn and LaChance came to Orono together.
From Washburn’s recollections, we get a few details of LaChance’s life in Orono. He seems to have lived somewhat on the margins of the community. Washburn described him as a squatter, living on land he didn’t own on the edge of town (the site is now part of the University of Maine campus). According to Washburn, he “did a little at farming, more at shingle-weaving, and still more, perhaps, at fishing, living hand-to-mouth, but yet always managing to get enough.”
Washburn relates a couple of anecdotes which poke fun at the French Canadian’s manner of speech and temperament. He was accused of being “prejudiced against paying debts,” and the anecdotes center on Antoine’s taking advantage of the charity of a benefactor. Add to this the description of his appearance, above, and we get a picture of someone slightly misfit and out of place. LaChance was illiterate and at first only spoke French – neither of which would have been unusual for a French Canadian of his time. He signed his pension application with an “x,” and noted that his lack of mastery of English might have meant he misremembered the precise names of his commanders in the war.
Nor did his service to his adopted country help his situation significantly. His pension application files show that he had trouble proving his service. He said he had received a discharge certificate but lost it. Correspondence with the Massachusetts Secretary of State shows that they held no records of crew or marines on the Monmouth, and that they couldn’t find his name in connection with Colonel Livingston, Major Ulmer or Captain Page.
I fared no better when I went looking for documentary evidence beyond the pension application, even with the advantages of digitized records at my disposal. No records survive for Livingston’s battalion before the end of 1776, once the regiment was at Ticonderoga. LaChance said he served in the company of Captain Abraham Livingston (the Colonel’s younger brother), and in the muster rolls of this company for late 1777, there are two entries one entry for a private “Anthony Shoage”, which could perhaps represent an Anglophones rendering of Antoine LaChance. “Anthony Shoage” is recorded as having enlisted in the company May 17, 1777, which could represent Antoine’s return from British captivity, and is recorded as “on command” in December 1777, which could reflect his assignment ahead of the scouting party to the Chaudière. Much of this, however, is speculation.
LaChance was eventually awarded a pension, under the Congressional Act of 1832, with a pension of $60 a year from 1834. By this time he was eighty years old and his service had ended a half century earlier. When Antoine died in 1839, his widow Sarah also had to fight to have his service recognized and to receive a widow’s pension.
Although Sarah was entitled to Antoine’s pension as the widow of a veteran, it seems that she did not immediately apply for it. Perhaps she was unaware of that provision of the law. She certainly needed the financial assistance. Her application, made in 1843, was accompanied by a letter from Nathaniel Wilson, on behalf of the Overseers of the Poor of Orono, stating that “Mr Lachance died some 4 or 5 years since and left his widow very poor & she has since been supported by this Town.” The letter went on to say that a pension would “truly oblige a respectable & poor woman”
The pension was restored but only after years of wrangling. A letter dated December 9, 1845 from the director of the Pensions Office stated that the federal authorities needed more evidence of Antoine’s service before they could grant the widow’s pension (despite having approved the original pension twelve years previously). She was initially awarded a pension based on 7 months and 15 days of service, which amounted to $34.97 per year, far less than Antoine’s original award. After more correspondence, this was increased to the full $60 by 1849, a full decade after Antoine’s death.
In a final indignity, Sarah’s application for a land grant in 1855, based on Antoine’s service, was also denied, despite the fact that she already had the pension, and the land grant required just 14 days of service.
For someone who became a local legend, there are significant holes in what we know about Antoine LaChance. Where exactly he was born* and who his family were remains a mystery, as do any details of his early life in Quebec. What motivated him to join the Revolutionary cause? Why did he finally settle in Orono? Nonetheless, that we know anything about him at all is unusual for a Franco-American of this era. The information we do have paints a picture of a man with a long life that included service to his adopted country, but who also found himself marginalized and overlooked.
* A number of online family trees link the Antoine LaChance of this story to an Antoine Pepin dit LaChance who is listed in a British report of French Canadians who joined the revolutionary cause. This Antoine was living at Saint-François de la Rivière du Sud in 1775. However, he cannot be the Antoine LaChance who came to Orono, because other records show he stayed in St François and fathered children there during the time we know our Antoine was living in Orono.