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To the Rescue of New France

When the year 1665 began, the French colony on the shores of the St Lawrence, founded by the velour and devotion of Champlain, had been in existence for more than half a century. Yet it was still in a pitiable state of weakness and destitution. The care and maintenance of the settlement had devolved upon trading companies, and their narrow-minded mercantile selfishness had stifled its progress. From other causes, also, there had been but little growth. Cardinal Richelieu, the great French minister, had tried at one time to infuse new life into the colony; [Footnote: For the earlier history of New France the reader is referred to three other volumes in this Series--The Founder of New France, The Seigneurs of Old Canada, and The Jesuit Missions.] but his first attempts had been unlucky, and later on his powerful mind was diverted to other plans and achievements and he became absorbed in the wider field of European politics. To the shackles of commercial greed, to forgetfulness on the part of the mother country, had been added the curse of Indian wars. During twenty-five years the daring and ferocious Iroquois had been the constant scourge of the handful of settlers, traders, and missionaries. Champlain's successors in the office of governor, Montmagny, Ailleboust, Lauzon, Argenson, Avaugour, had no military force adequate to the task of meeting and crushing these formidable foes. Year after year the wretched colony maintained its struggle for existence amidst deadly perils, receiving almost no help from France, and to all appearance doomed to destruction. To make things worse, internal strife exercised its disintegrating influence; there was contention among the leaders in New France over the vexed question of the liquor traffic. In the face of so many adverse circumstances--complete lack of means, cessation of immigration from the mother country, the perpetual menace of the bloody Iroquois incursions, a dying trade, and a stillborn agriculture--how could the colony be kept alive at all? Spiritual and civil authorities, the governor and the bishop, the Jesuits and the traders, all united in petitioning for assistance. But the motherland was far away, and European wars and rivalries were engrossing all her attention.

Fortunately a change was at hand. The prolonged struggle of the Thirty Years' War and of the war against Spain had been ended by the treaty of Munster and Osnabruck in 1648 and by that of the Pyrenees in 1659. The civil dissensions of the Fronde were over, thanks to the skilful policy of Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu's successor. After the death of Mazarin in 1661, Louis XIV had taken into his own hands the reins of administration. He was young, painstaking, and ambitious; and he wanted to be not only king but the real ruler of his kingdom. In Jean Baptiste Colbert, the man who had been Mazarin's right hand, he had the good fortune to find one of the best administrators in all French history. Colbert soon won the king's confidence. He was instrumental in detecting the maladministration of Fouquet as superintendent of Finance, and became a member of the council appointed to investigate and report on all financial questions. Of this body he was the leading spirit from the beginning. Although at first without the title of minister, he was promptly invested with a wide authority over the finances, trade, agriculture, industry, and marine affairs. Within two years he had shown his worth and had justified the king's choice. Great and beneficial reforms had been accomplished in almost every branch of the administration. The exhausted treasury had been replenished, trade and industry were encouraged, agriculture was protected, and a navy created. Under a progressive government France seemed to awake to new life.

The hour was auspicious for the entreaties of New France. Petitions and statements were addressed to the king by Mgr de Laval, the head of ecclesiastical affairs in the colony, by the governor Avaugour, and by the Jesuit fathers; and Pierre Boucher, governor of the district of Three Rivers, was sent to France as a delegate to present them. Louis and his minister studied the conditions of the colony on the St Lawrence and decided in 1663 to give it a new constitution. The charter of the One Hundred Associates was cancelled and the old Council of Quebec--formed in 1647--was reorganized under the name of the Sovereign Council. This new governing body was to be composed of the governor, the bishop, the intendant, an attorney-general, a secretary, and five councilors. It was invested with a general jurisdiction for the administration of justice in civil and criminal matters. It had also to deal with the questions of police, roads, finance, and trade.

To establish a new and improved system of administration was a good thing, but this alone would hardly avail if powerful help were not forthcoming to rescue New France from ruin, despondency, and actual extermination. The colony was dying for lack of soldiers, settlers, and laborers, as well as stores of food and munitions of war for defense and maintenance. Louis XIV made up his mind that help should be given. In 1664 three hundred laborers were conveyed to Quebec at the king's expense, and in the following year the colonists received the welcome information that the king was also about to send them a regiment of trained soldiers, a viceroy, a new governor, a new intendant, settlers and laborers, and all kinds of supplies. This royal pledge was adequately fulfilled. On June 19, 1665, the Marquis de Tracy, lieutenant-general of all the French dominions in America, arrived from the West Indies, where he had successfully discharged the first part of the mission entrusted to him by his royal master. With him came four companies of soldiers. During the whole summer ships were disembarking their passengers and unloading their cargoes of ammunition and provisions at Quebec in quick succession. It is easy to imagine the rapture of the colonists at such a sight, and the enthusiastic shouts that welcomed the first detachment of the splendid regiment of Carignan-Salieres. At length, on September 12, the cup of public joy was filled to overflowing by the arrival of the ship Saint Sebastien with two high officials on board, David de Remy, Sieur de Courcelle, the governor appointed to succeed the governor Mezy, who had died earlier in the year, and Jean Talon, the intendant of justice, police, and finance. The latter had been selected to replace the Sieur Robert, who had been made intendant in 1663, but, for some unknown reason, had never come to Canada to perform the duties of his office. The triumvirate on whom was imposed the noble task of saving and reviving New France was thus complete. The Marquis de Tracy was an able and clear-sighted commander, the Sieur de Courcelle a fearless, straightforward official. But the part of Jean Talon in the common task, though apparently less brilliant, was to be in many respects the most important, and his influence the most far-reaching in the destinies of the colony.

Talon was born at Chalons-sur-Marne, in the province of Champagne, about the year 1625. His family were kinsfolk of the Parisian Talons, Omer and Denis, the celebrated jurists and lawyers, who held in succession the high office of attorney-general of France. Several of Jean Talon's brothers were serving in the administration or the army, and, after a course of study at the Jesuits' College of Clermont, Jean was employed under one of them in the commissariat. The young man's abilities soon became apparent and attracted Mazarin's attention. In 1654 he was appointed military commissary at Le Quesnoy in connection with the operations of the army commanded by the great Turenne. A year later, at the age of thirty, he was promoted to be intendant for the province of Hainault. For ten years he filled that office and won the reputation of an administrator of the first rank. Thus it came about that, when an intendant was needed to infuse new blood into the veins of the feeble colony on the St Lawrence, Colbert, always a good judge of men, thought immediately of Jean Talon and recommended to the king his appointment as intendant of New France. Talon's commission is dated March 23, 1665.

The minister drafted for the intendant's guidance a long letter of instructions. It dealt with the mutual relations of Church and State, and set forth the Gallican principles of the day; it discussed the question of assistance to the recently created West India Company; the contemplated war against the Iroquois and how it might successfully be carried on; the Sovereign Council and the administration of justice; the settlement of the colony and the advisability of concentrating the population; the importance of fostering trade and industry; the question of tithes for the maintenance of the Church; the establishment of shipbuilding yards and the encouragement of agriculture. This document was signed by Louis XIV at Paris on March 27, 1665.

On receiving his commission and his instructions, Talon took leave of the king and the minister, and proceeded to make preparations for his arduous mission and for the long journey which it involved. By April 22 he was at La Rochelle, to arrange for the embarkation of settlers, working men, and supplies. He attended the review of the troops that were bound for New France, and reported to Colbert that the companies were at their full strength, well equipped and in the best of spirits. During this time he spared no pains to acquire information about the new country where he was to work and live. Finally, by May 24, everything was in readiness, and he wrote to Colbert:

Since apparently I shall not have the honor of writing you another letter from this place, for our ship awaits only a favorable wind to sail, allow me to assure you that I am leaving full of gratitude for all the kindness and favors bestowed on me by the king and yourself. Knowing that the best way to show my gratitude is to do good service to His Majesty, and that the best title to future benevolence lies in strenuous effort for the successful execution of his wishes, I shall do my utmost to attain that end in the charge I am going to fill. I pray for your protection and help, which will surely be needed, and if my endeavors should not be crowned with success, at least it will not be for want of zeal and fidelity.

A few hours after having written these farewell lines, Talon, in company with M. de Courcelle, set sail on the Saint Sebastien for Canada, where he was to make for himself an imperishable name.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Great Intendant, A Chronicle of Jean Talon in Canada 1665-1672, 1915

 

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