From St Michel, General Amherst’s Spruce Beer

St Michel. Blue Line. Opened 1986.

This post has been updated to correct various writing errors. You can read the updated post here.

When an unknown farmer in the 1760s named the road from the centre of the island to the Récollets land at the rapids in the rivière de Prairies “montée St Michel”, he made an apt choice. The archangel Michael is the patron saint of warriors and the suffering, and between the fall of Acadie to the British in 1755 and the American Revolution of 1776, Canada saw more than its share of both.

As Britain and France carved up the continent (and the world from Madras to Detroit) battles were fought at Louisbourg, Fort Duquesne (later Fort Pitt, later still Pittsburgh), Oswego, Fort William Henry, and Carillon, all in New York, and Fort Frontenac (now Kingston in Ontario). In 1759, Wolfe and Montcalm battled for Quebec, settling the matter in half an hour at the cost of 48 wounded and 55 lives, including their own. Montreal fell to the British a year late, surrounded by the forces of General Jeffrey Amherst. 

When the spoils of the Seven Years War were divided in 1763, Canada was confirmed British, but still the battles continued. First with the Cherokee, led by Pontiac, who saw  the British consoldiating power in America. With the French out of the picture, Amherst had no need for guides and no reason to arm tribes in a proxy war. Without arms supply, the outcome was predictable, but not content with inevitable victory, Amherst contemplated hastening of the end of the first Americans with the distribution of blankets infected with smallpox. Then as the Indian Reserves west of the Allgehenies and north of the Ohio, modern Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota, were absorbed into Quebec, the British found themselves at war with the colonists of New England.

Far from being re-assured by having British power in Canada, the colonists were suspicious of the new tolerance of Catholicism, saw in the precedents set by the intergation of Quebec into Britain’s growing empire restrictions on their own government, and, perhaps most crucially, were being asked to pay for these sinister precedents at the same time as they were denied the right to expand into territory they believed to be rightfully theirs. In 1776, they declared their independence and occupied Montreal.

Amherst, with a wealth of experience in America and who had been refused funds by the New York Assembly for the war with the French, perhaps saw the way the wind was blowing. When asked to leave the home he had built at Sevenoaks in Kent, “Montreal”, and return to America as Commander-in-Chief in America he declined, preferring to command forces in Britain when the French entered the Revolutionary War.

Amidst the deaths of thousands, the vanity and ambition of kings, governors, and generals, and the politics of revolutionaries and courtiers, Saint Michael had a limited arsenal to defend soldiers from suffering.  Malnourishment and scurvy were inevitable unless an abundant source of fruits and vegetables was found. At sea, citrus fruits that made the British sailor a “limey”, but, as Champlain had learned in 1604, life in the frozen forests of the north American winter, not to speak of military campaigns and enemy blockades made this impossible. Champlain lost half his settlement looking for a solution that the first inhabitants of America later taught him was all around him in the spruce trees of the forest. 

Made from molasses and the spruce tree, spruce beer is surprisingly refreshing and still popular in Quebec today. In 1759, it was a necessity to life, and French and British generals alike ordered gallons of spruce beer to preserve both their men and themselves. On 15th August, as he laid siege to Crown Point on Lake Champlain and waited for word from Wolfe at Quebec, Amherst sent to Ticonderoga for spruce beer. So vital was it that he gave it place in a journal usually occupied with the traffic of correspondence and military manoeuvres.

Take 7 Pounds of good Spruce & boil it well tills the bark peels off, then take the Spruce out & put three Gallons of Molasses to the Liquor & boil it again, scum it well as it boils, then take it out the Kettle & put it into a cooler, boil the remainder of the Water sufficient for a Barrel of thirty Gallons, if the Kettle is not large enough to boil it together, when milkwarm in the Cooler put a Pint of Yest into it and mix well. Then put in the Barrel and let it work for two or three days, keep filling it up as it works out. When done working, bung it up with a Tent Peg in the Barrel to give it vent every now and then. It be used in two or three days after. If wanted to be bottled it should stand a fortnight in the cask. It will keep a great while.

Consulted for this post

Les rues de Montréal : répertoire historique, 1995. []

Joy Carroll. Wolfe and Montcalm: their lives, their times and the fate of a continent (Richmond Hill, Ont: Firefly Books, 2004)

The Journal of Jeffrey Amherst, edited by J. Clarence Webster (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1931)

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