ROBINAU DE BÉCANCOUR, PIERRE, Baron de Portneuf, knight of the order of Saint-Louis, seigneur of Bécancour, king’s attorney, chief road commissioner (grand voyer) of New France from 1689 to 1729; b. at Quebec, in 1654, eldest son of René Robinau* de Bécancour and Marie-Anne Leneuf de La Poterie; m. Marie-Charlotte Legardeur de Villiers, 15 Jan. 1684 at Quebec, and had two daughters, Marie-Anne-Geneviève and Marie-Marguerite-Renée; d. 1729.
The fief of Portneuf was created a barony in 1681. When Pierre Robinau, Baron of Portneuf, disposed of this fief on 3 Oct. 1709, before the notary La Cetière in Montreal, he decided to retain his baronetcy. Jacques Robinau, his brother, became the sole proprietor of the seigneury but the title of baron, together with the precedence accorded in church, was retained by Pierre. The property passed back into the hands of the latter’s daughters when Jacques died in March 1715. Pierre’s contemporaries were aware of his social rank, but because he resided on his fief of Bécancour they were “uncertain about his correct title.” Even Charlevoix* said he was received by the “baron de Bécancourt,” an error which was perpetuated as recently as Tanguay’s genealogy.
Throughout René Robinau’s term as chief road commissioner of New France there had been numerous complaints about the poor state of the roads in the colony and a clamour had arisen to withhold his modest remuneration. Aware of this general dissatisfaction with the manner in which he discharged his responsibilities, René had petitioned Louis XIV to grant Pierre the right to exercise the duties of his office during his absence, with the right of succession on his retirement. Pierre was named chief road commissioner of New France by letters of provision signed by both Louis XIV and Colbert on 24 May 1689. The Conseil Souverain instituted the usual investigation of the nominee’s life and morals on 23 Jan. 1690, and when a favourable report was submitted he was sworn in, on 13 February, to act “in the absence of and in succession to” his father, who had been the first holder of this office in the colony. Pierre held the position until his death in 1729.
During his term of office, the main royal road was surveyed and ordinances were issued for its construction and maintenance. There are extant at least 29 orders, dated between 1710 and 1723, for 19 seigneuries, as well as the minutes of six disputes concerning roadways adjudicated by him between 1706 and 1722. There were, however, some complaints about the discharge of his duties. In 1702, apparently following the lodging of formal complaints that Robinau was neglecting road maintenance in the Quebec area, the intendant, François de Beauharnois* de La Chaussaye, informed Versailles that the chief road commissioner was not required to reside in Quebec because his jurisdiction extended over the entire colony, not just the town of Quebec. Beauharnois explained that family matters had obliged Robinau to return to France, but his absence from the colony was only temporary. In any case, Robinau had appointed an agent in Quebec and another in Montreal to provide the surveying which the complainants insisted should be an available service at all times. When the quality of the surveying gave rise to further complaints, the intendant advised that orders be issued for Jacques Levasseur de Neré, the royal engineer, to take charge of it, as the king had wished. There had also been complaints about the lack of paving in the Lower Town of Quebec. This was attributed to war conditions, but repairs were promised for the near future. On 9 June 1706, Louis XIV refused to consider a petition from a complainant, Duplessis-Fabert, who wanted Pierre Robinau’s position. It may be concluded from this that the king, in encouraging petitions and watchfulness over civil officials, did not tolerate actions which tended to insubordination or disorder. Also, it appears that the life of an official was a delicate balance between privilege and responsibility, and that in a hierarchical society criticism from below had to be taken seriously because it could initiate action from above.
In addition to his civil post as road commissioner, Pierre Robinau also held several military ranks from 1684 to 1701. On 12 Nov. 1684, Intendant de Meulles recommended to the minister of Marine that Pierre Robinau be given a naval appointment as midshipman, in further recognition – along with the elevation of Portneuf to a barony – of his father’s distinguished service to the state. The king granted him a commission, according to a letter of 10 March 1685, and the 31-year-old Pierre Robinau was sent to Rochefort. Buade* de Frontenac wrote to the minister in 1690 that, subject to royal confirmation, he had named “Sieur Robineau Becancour the older son to replace Sr. [René] Robineau de Portneuf the younger who has a lieutenancy in the company of Sr. de Menneval [Des Friches] in Acadia.” It was not until 1691 that Pierre Robinau was named a lieutenant, a promotion officially confirmed by the king on 1 March 1693.
His role in the military engagements of the 1690s was not as brilliant as that of his brothers. It is known that he and two brothers, René Robinau de Portneuf and Jacques Robinau, were ordered by Frontenac in August 1697 to join Joseph Robinau* de Villebon, another brother, at Fort Nashwaak (Naxouat) on the Saint John River. It would appear, however, that his conduct was much better than that of his unmarried brothers, René and Daniel de Neuvillette, who were cited for their misconduct. In May 1701 the captaincy of a company of colonial regular troops was offered Pierre if he would replace the Sieur de Noyes who was returning to France. But in 1702 Robinau asked to be relieved of his lieutenancy in favour of his brother, René, who had previously held it and had now received an official pardon. Pierre was reported to be in France in 1702 and it seems he was taken prisoner by the English on his return to Canada on board the Seine. Subsequently, by a royal command of 27 May 1705, he was given free passage on board the Héros which was sailing for New France.
Pierre was also involved in some business enterprises but their exact extent has not been established. What evidence there is is fragmentary. For example, it seems that he was engaged with his brother René in the fur trade of the Saint John River area. He loaned money to his third brother, François-Alexandre, who was killed in Vera Cruz in 1703. Nevertheless, he had some financial worries. The minutes of the Conseil Souverain of Quebec indicate he had considerable trouble with a copyholder on the seigneury of Bécancour, Jacques L’Heureux, who refused to pay his cens et rentes. Although he inherited some of his father’s estate in the Upper Town of Quebec, near the Château Saint-Louis, on at least two occasions portions of it were expropriated for a powder house and for the extension of the fortifications.
Little is known concerning Pierre’s activities after 1705. He drew public attention in July 1711 when he tried to hold Jacques-René Gaultier* de Varennes to his promise to marry one of his daughters. Neither his military service nor his career in the administration were marked by outstanding success. There are no indications that his commercial exploits were any more remarkable.
AHDQ, Mélanges, XIII, 48–50. AJQ, Greffe de Louis Chambalon, 8 nov. 1707; Greffe de Florent de La Cetière, 3 oct. 1709. AN, Col., B, 11, f.18; 15, ff.47, 69, 75½; 16, ff.22, 59½; 19, ff.113½, 123, 157½, 196½; 22, f.199; 23, f.180½; 27, ff.10½, 79; 33, ff.86, 105½; C11A, 5, ff.154, 280, 281; 6, f.14; 7, f.146; 10, f.17; 11, ff.171, 212; 14, ff.295, 296; 16, ff.28, 29; 17, ff.21, 22, 78, 138, 139; 18, f.12; 20, ff.45, 46; C11D, 4; 5, ff.83–99; D2C, 49, ff.40, 48, 65, 88, 111, 125, 139; 222, ff.45, 177, 220; F3, f.90; 6, ff.331, 469–71, 498, 499; 11, f.286. AQ, NF, Ins. Cons. sup.; Procès-verbaux des grands voyers, I, ff.6–48, 63–75. Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Paris), Archives de la Bastille, 151, liasse 431.
Charlevoix, History (Shea), IV, 133–45, 214–15; V, 166–68. Jug. et délib., III, 383, 388; IV, VI. Lahontan, Nouveaux voyages, I, 203–5. La Potherie, Histoire (1722), III, 61–70, 76–81. P.-G. Roy, Inventaire des procès-verbaux des grands voyers conservés aux archives de la province de Québec (6v., Beauceville, 1923–32), I, II. É.-Z. Massicotte, “Les prétendus barons de Bécancour,” BRH, LII (1946), 73f.