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Frontenac's First Years in Canada

Frontenac received his commission on April 6, 1672, and reached Quebec at the beginning of September. The king, sympathetic towards his needs, had authorized two special grants of money: six thousand livres for equipment, and nine thousand to provide a bodyguard of twenty horsemen. Gratified by these marks of royal favor and conscious that he had been assigned to an important post, Frontenac was in hopeful mood when he first saw the banks of the St Lawrence. His letters show that he found the country much less barbarous than he had expected; and he threw himself into his new duties with the courage which is born of optimism. A natural fortress like Quebec could not fail to awaken the enthusiasm of a soldier. The settlement itself was small, but Frontenac reported that its situation could not be more favorable, even if this spot were to become the capital of a great empire. It was, indeed, a scene to kindle the imagination. Sloping down to the river-bank, the farms of Beauport and Beaupre filled the foreground. Behind them swept the forest, then in its full autumnal glory.

Awaiting Frontenac at Quebec were Courcelles, the late governor, and Talon the intendant. Both were to return to France by the last ships of that year; but in the meantime Frontenac was enabled to confer with them on the state of the colony and to acquaint himself with their views on many important subjects. Courcelles had proved a stalwart warrior against the Iroquois, while Talon possessed an unrivalled knowledge of Canada's wants and possibilities. Laval, the bishop, was in France, not to return to the colony till 1675.

The new governor's first acts went to show that with the king's dignity he associated his own. The governor and lieutenant-general of a vast oversea dominion could not degrade his office by living like a shopkeeper. The Chateau St Louis was far below his idea of what a viceregal residence ought to be. One of his early resolves was to enlarge and improve it. Meanwhile, his entertainments surpassed in splendor anything Canada had yet seen. Pomp on a large scale was impossible; but the governor made the best use of his means to display the grace and majesty of his office.

On the 17th of September Frontenac presided for the first time at a meeting of the Sovereign Council;1 and the formal inauguration of his regime was staged for the 23rd of October. It was to be an impressive ceremony, a pageant at which all eyes should be turned upon him, the great noble who embodied the authority of a puissant monarch. For this ceremony the governor summoned an assembly that was designed to represent the Three Estates of Canada.

The Three Estates of clergy, nobles, and commons had existed in France from time immemorial. But in taking this step and in expecting the king to approve it Frontenac displayed his ignorance of French history; for the ancient meetings of the Three Estates in France had left a memory not dear to the crown.2 They had, in truth, given the kings moments of grave concern; and their representatives had not been summoned since 1614. Moreover, Louis XIV was not a ruler to tolerate such rival pretensions as the States-General had once put forth.

Parkman thinks that, 'like many of his station, Frontenac was not in full sympathy with the centralizing movement of his time, which tended to level ancient rights, privileges and prescriptions under the ponderous roller of the monarchical administration.' This, it may be submitted, is only a conjecture. The family history of the Buades shows that they were 'king's men,' who would be the last to imperil royal power. The gathering of the Three Estates at Quebec was meant to be the fitting background of a ceremony. If Frontenac had any thought beyond this, it was a desire to unite all classes in an expression of loyalty to their sovereign.

At Quebec it was not difficult to secure representatives of clergy and commons. But, as nobles seldom emigrated to Canada, some talent was needed to discover gentlemen of sufficient standing to represent the aristocracy. The situation was met by drawing upon the officers and the seigneurs. The Estates thus duly convened, Frontenac addressed them on the glory of the king and the duty of all classes to serve him with zeal. To the clergy he hinted that their task was not finished when they had baptized the Indians. After that came the duty of converting them into good citizens.

Frontenac's next step was to reorganize the municipal government of Quebec by permitting the inhabitants to choose two aldermen and a mayor. Since these officials could not serve until they had been approved by the governor, the change does not appear to have been wildly radical. But change of any kind was distasteful to the Bourbon monarchy, especially if it seemed to point toward freedom. So when in due course Frontenac's report of these activities arrived at Versailles, it was decided that such innovations must be stopped at once. The king wished to discourage all memory of the Three Estates, and Frontenac was told that no part of the Canadian people should be given a corporate or collective status. The reprimand, however, did not reach Canada till the summer of 1673, so that for some months Frontenac was permitted to view his work with satisfaction.

His next move likewise involved a new departure. Hitherto the king had discouraged the establishment of forts or trading-posts at points remote from the zone of settlement. This policy was based on the belief that the colonists ought to live close together for mutual defense against the Iroquois. But Frontenac resolved to build a fort at the outlet of Lake Ontario. His enemies stated that this arose out of his desire to make personal profit from the fur trade; but on public grounds also there were valid reasons for the fort. A thrust is often the best parry; and it could well be argued that the French had much to gain from a stronghold lying within striking distance of the Iroquois villages.

At any rate, Frontenac decided to act first and make explanations afterwards. On June 3, 1673, he left Quebec for Montreal and beyond. He accommodated himself with cheerfulness to the bark canoe--which he described in one of his early letters as a rather undignified conveyance for the king's lieutenant--and, indeed, to all the hardships which the discharge of his duties entailed. His plan for the summer comprised a thorough inspection of the waterway from Quebec to Lake Ontario and official visits to the settlements lying along the route. Three Rivers did not detain him long, for he was already familiar with the place, having visited it in the previous autumn. On the 15th of the month his canoe came to shore beneath Mount Royal.

Montreal was the colony's farthest outpost towards the Iroquois. Though it had been founded as a mission and nothing else, its situation was such that its inhabitants could not avoid being drawn into the fur trade. To a large extent it still retained its religious character, but beneath the surface could be detected a cleavage of interest between the missionary zeal of the Sulpicians and the commercial activity of the local governor, Francois Perrot. And since this Perrot is soon to find place in the present narrative as a bitter enemy of Frontenac, a word concerning him may fitly be written here. He was an officer of the king's army who had come to Canada with Talon. The fact that his wife was Talon's niece had put him in the pathway of promotion. The order of St Sulpice, holding in fief the whole island of Montreal, had power to name the local governor. In June 1669 the Sulpicians had nominated Perrot, and two years later his appointment had been confirmed by the king. Later, as we shall see, arose the thorny question of how far the governor of Canada enjoyed superiority over the governor of Montreal.

The governor of Montreal, attended by his troops and the leading citizens, stood at the landing-place to offer full military honors to the governor of Canada. Frontenac's arrival was then signalized by a civic reception and a Te Deum. The round of civilities ended, the governor lost no time in unfolding the real purpose of his visit, which was less to confer with the priests of St Sulpice than to recruit forces for his expedition, in order that he might make a profound impression on the Iroquois. The proposal to hold a conference with the Iroquois at Cataraqui (where Kingston now stands) met with some opposition; but Frontenac's energy and determination were not to be denied, and by the close of June four hundred French and Indians were mustered at Lachine in readiness to launch their canoes and barges upon Lake St Louis.

If Montreal was the outpost of the colony, Lachine was the outpost of Montreal. Between these two points lay the great rapid, the Sault St Louis, which from the days of Jacques Cartier had blocked the ascent of the St Lawrence to seafaring boats. At Lachine La Salle had formed his seigneury in 1667, the year after his arrival in Canada; and it had been the starting-point for the expedition which resulted in the discovery of the Ohio in 1671. La Salle, however, was not with Frontenac's party, for the governor had sent him to the Iroquois early in May, to tell them that Onontio would meet his children and to make arrangements for the great assembly at Cataraqui.

The Five Nations, remembering the chastisement they had received from Tracy in 1666,3 accepted the invitation, but in dread and distrust. Their envoys accordingly proceeded to the mouth of the Cataraqui; and on the 12th of July the vessels of the French were seen approaching on the smooth surface of Lake Ontario. Frontenac had omitted from his equipage nothing which could awe or interest the savage. He had furnished his troops with the best possible equipment and had with him all who could be spared safely from the colony. He had even managed to drag up the rapids and launch on Lake Ontario two large barges armed with small cannon and brilliantly painted. The whole flotilla, including a multitude of canoes arranged by squadron, was now put in battle array. First came four squadrons of canoes; then the two barges; next Frontenac himself, surrounded by his personal attendants and the regulars; after that the Canadian militia, with a squadron from Three Rivers on the left flank, and on the right a great gathering of Huron and Algonquins. The rearguard was composed of two more squadrons. Never before had such a display been seen on the Great Lakes.

Having disclosed his strength to the Iroquois chiefs, Frontenac proceeded to hold solemn and stately conference with them. But he did not do this on the day of the great naval procession. He wished to let this spectacle take effect before he approached the business which had brought him there. It was not until next day that the meeting opened. At seven o'clock the French troops, accoutered at their best, were all on parade, drawn up in files before the governor's tent, where the conference was to take place. Outside the tent itself large canopies of canvas had been erected to shelter the Iroquois from the sun, while Frontenac, in his most brilliant military costume, assumed all the state he could. In treating with Indians haste was impossible, nor did Frontenac desire that the speech-making should begin at once. His fort was hardly more than begun, and he wished the Iroquois to see how swiftly and how well the French could build defenses.

When the proceedings opened there were the usual long harangues, followed by daily negotiations between the governor and the chiefs. It was a leading feature of Frontenac's diplomacy to reward the friendly, and to win over malcontents by presents or personal attention. Each day some of the chiefs dined with the governor, who gave them the food they liked, adapted his style of speech to their ornate and metaphorical language, played with their children, and regretted, through the interpreter Le Moyne, that he was as yet unable to speak their tongue. Never had such pleasant flattery been applied to the vanity of an Indian. At the same time Frontenac did not fail to insist upon his power; indeed, upon his supremacy. As a matter of fact it had involved a great effort to make all this display at Cataraqui. In his discourses, however, he laid stress upon the ease with which he had mounted the rapids and launched barges upon Lake Ontario. The sum and substance of all his harangues was this: 'I am your good, kind father, loving peace and shrinking from war. But you can see my power and I give you fair warning. If you choose war, you are guilty of self-destruction; your fate is in your own hands.'

Apart from his immediate success in building under the eyes of the Iroquois a fort at the outlet of Lake Ontario, Frontenac profited greatly by entering the heart of the Indian world in person. He was able, for a time at least, to check those tribal wars which had hampered trade and threatened to involve the colony. He gained much information at first hand about the pays d'en haut. And throughout he proved himself to have just the qualities which were needed in dealing with a North American Indian--firmness, good-humor, and dramatic talent.

On returning from Lake Ontario to Quebec Frontenac had good reason to be pleased with his summer's work. It still remained to convince Colbert that the construction of the fort at Cataraqui was not an undue expense and waste of energy. But as the initial outlay had already been made, he had ground for hope that he would not receive a positive order to undo what had been accomplished. At Quebec he received Colbert's disparaging comments upon the assembly of the Three Estates and the substitution of aldermen for the syndic who had formerly represented the inhabitants. These comments, however, were not so couched as to make the governor feel that he had lost the minister's confidence. On the whole, the first year of office had gone very well.

A stormier season was now to follow. The battle-royal between Frontenac and Perrot, the governor of Montreal, began in the autumn of 1673 and was waged actively throughout the greater part of 1674.

Enough has been said of Frontenac's tastes to show that he was a spendthrift; and there can be no doubt that as governor of Canada he hoped to supplement his salary by private trading. Soon after his arrival at Quebec in the preceding year he had formed an alliance with La Salle. The decision to erect a fort at Cataraqui was made for the double reason that while safeguarding the colony Frontenac and La Salle could both draw profit from the trade at this point in the interior.

La Salle was not alone in knowing that those who first met the Indians in the spring secured the best furs at the best bargains. This information was shared by many, including Francois Perrot. Just above the island of Montreal is another island, which lies between Lake St Louis and the Lake of Two Mountains. Perrot, appreciating the advantage of a strategic position, had fixed there his own trading-post, and to this day the island bears his name. Now, with Frontenac as a sleeping partner of La Salle there were all the elements of trouble, for Perrot and Frontenac were rival traders. Both were wrathful men and each had a selfish interest to fight for, quite apart from any dispute as to the jurisdiction of Quebec over Montreal.

Under such circumstances the one thing lacking was a ground of action. This Frontenac found in the existing edict against the coureurs de bois-those wild spirits who roamed the woods in the hope of making great profits through the fur trade, from which by law they were excluded, and provoked the special disfavor of the missionary by the scandals of their lives, which gave the Indians a low idea of French morality. Thus in the eyes of both Church and State the coureur de bois was a mauvais sujet, and the offence of taking to the forest without a license became punishable by death or the galleys.

Though Frontenac was not the author of this severe measure, duty required him to enforce it. Perrot was a friend and defender of the coureurs de bois, whom he used as employees in the collection of peltries. Under his regime Montreal formed their headquarters. The edict gave them no concern, since they knew that between them and trouble stood their patron and confederate.

Thus Frontenac found an excellent occasion to put Perrot in the wrong and to hit him through his henchmen. The only difficulty was that Frontenac did not possess adequate means to enforce the law. Obviously it was undesirable that he should invade Perrot's bailiwick in person. He therefore instructed the judge at Montreal to arrest all the coureurs de bois who were there. A loyal attempt was made to execute this command, with the result that Perrot at once intervened and threatened to imprison the judge if he repeated his effort.

Frontenac's counterblast was the dispatch of a lieutenant and three soldiers to arrest a retainer of Perrot named Carion, who had shown contempt of court by assisting the accused woodsmen to escape. Perrot then proclaimed that this constituted an unlawful attack on his rights as governor of Montreal, to defend which he promptly imprisoned Bizard, the lieutenant sent by Frontenac, together with Jacques Le Ber, the leading merchant of the settlement. Though Perrot released them shortly afterwards, his tone toward Frontenac remained impudent and the issue was squarely joined.

But a hundred and eighty miles of wilderness separated the governor of Canada from the governor of Montreal. In short, before Perrot could be disciplined he must be seized, and this was a task which if attempted by frontal attack might provoke bloodshed in the colony, with heavy censure from the king. Frontenac therefore entered upon a correspondence, not only with Perrot, but with one of the leading Sulpicians in Montreal, the Abbe Fenelon. This procedure yielded quicker results than could have been expected. Frontenac's letter which summoned Perrot to Quebec for an explanation was free from threats and moderate in tone. It found Perrot somewhat alarmed at what he had done and ready to settle the matter without further trouble. At the same time Fenelon, acting on Frontenac's suggestion, urged Perrot to make peace. The consequence was that in January 1674 Perrot acceded and set out for Quebec with Fenelon as his companion.

Whatever Perrot's hopes or expectations of leniency, they were quickly dispelled. The very first conference between him and Frontenac became a violent altercation (January 29, 1674). Perrot was forthwith committed to prison, where he remained ten months. Not content with this success, Frontenac proceeded vigorously against the coureurs de bois, one of whom as an example was hanged in front of Perrot's prison.

The trouble did not stop here, nor with the imprisonment of Brucy, who was Perrot's chief agent and the custodian of the store-house at Ile Perrot. Fenelon, whose temper was ardent and emotional, felt that he had been made the innocent victim of a detestable plot to lure Perrot from Montreal. Having upbraided Frontenac to his face, he returned to Montreal and preached a sermon against him, using language which the Sulpicians hastened to repudiate. But Fenelon, undaunted, continued to espouse Perrot's cause without concealment and brought down upon himself a charge of sedition.

In its final stage this cause celebre runs into still further intricacies, involving the rights of the clergy when accused by the civil power. The contest begun by Perrot and taken up by Fenelon ran an active course throughout the greater part of a year (1674), and finally the king himself was called in as judge. This involved the sending of Perrot and Fenelon to France, along with a voluminous written statement from Frontenac and a great number of documents. At court Talon took the side of Perrot, as did the Abbe d'Urfe, whose cousin, the Marquise d'Allegre, was about to marry Colbert's son. Nevertheless the king declined to uphold Frontenac's enemies. Perrot was given three weeks in the Bastille, not so much for personal chastisement as to show that the governor's authority must be respected. On the whole, Frontenac issued from the affair without suffering loss of prestige in the eyes of the colony. The king declined to reprimand him, though in a personal letter from his sovereign Frontenac was told that henceforth he must avoid invading a local government without giving the governor preliminary notice. The hint was also conveyed that he should not harry the clergy. Frontenac's position, of course, was that he only interfered with the clergy when they were encroaching upon the rights of the crown.

Upon this basis, then, the quarrel with Perrot was settled. But at that very moment a larger and more serious contest was about to begin.


1 In the minutes of this first meeting of the Sovereign Council at which Frontenac presided the high-sounding words 'haut et puissant' stand prefixed to his name and titles.
2 The power of the States-General reached its height after the disastrous battle of Poitiers (1356). For a short period, under the leadership of Etienne Marcel, it virtually supplanted the power of the crown.
3 See The Great Intendant, chap. iii.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Fighting Governor, A Chronicle of Frontenac, 1915

 

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