ROBINAU DE VILLEBON, JOSEPH, officer, captain, governor of Acadia; b. 22 Aug. 1655 at Quebec, son of René Robinau de Bécancour and Marie-Anne Leneuf de La Poterie; d. 5 July 1700 at Fort Saint-Jean in Acadia.
Robinau de Villebon’s personality dominated the Acadian scene for a period of about ten years (1690–1700), at the time of the War of the League of Augsburg. To carry out the policy of Versailles a soldier was needed in Acadia, a man who was capable of holding out with very little aid. The choice of Villebon seems to have been a good one: a native of the country, he knew Acadia; in addition he had gone to France in his youth to finish his education and to serve in the army. Indeed, after serving as an officer in a dragoon regiment, he had been promoted to the rank of captain. Around 1681 he had returned to New France. He seems to have lived with his parents at the manor-house of Portneuf until 1684, in which year he took part in Le Febvre de La Barre’s expedition against the Iroquois. Robinau de Villebon must have gone to Acadia soon after this campaign, around 1685 or 1686. There he had first assisted Governors Perrot and Des Friches* de Meneval, and had returned to France during the winter of 1689. Therefore he was absent when Phips attacked Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.) in the spring of 1690. Villebon had sailed from La Rochelle on the Union, along with the engineer Vincent Saccardy. He did not reach Acadia until 14 June 1690, after the departure of Phips who had taken off to Boston some 50 prisoners, one of whom was Governor Meneval. Because of these circumstances Joseph Robinau had become the official representative of the king of France in Acadia. Fearing that Phips might return to Port-Royal, where the fort had been destroyed, Villebon had gone to entrench himself in Jemseg and had removed the seat of French government there provisionally. This transfer had not been made without some difficulties, for English privateers had discovered them and had imprisoned Saccardy and captured the ship. Villebon had been able to elude the English, but, having lost all his cargo, he had decided to go by land to Quebec to ask for reinforcements from Governor Buade de Frontenac. After a stay at Quebec and Montreal, he had continued on to France.
This then constituted Joseph Robinau’s experience when on 7 April 1691 the king appointed him “commandant in Acadia,” an appointment that he held until his death. In entrusting this role to him the king had given precise instructions as to the policy to be followed in this region. In a memoir from Louis XIV to Frontenac these instructions are summed up as follows: Villebon was “to take advantage of the favourable dispositions of the Canibats [the Abenaki Indians, allies of the French] towards serving His Majesty, of their hatred of the English and the proximity of the New England centres, to use them in waging continual and violent war against the aforementioned English, creating at the same time a diversion to secure Canada from their ventures. . . .” During his stay in Paris Joseph Robinau had perhaps contributed to the decision by Versailles to maintain Acadia under French rule and to the elaboration of this strategy. In any event, equipped with the memoir addressed to Frontenac and with supplies and arms, he sailed again for Canada on the Soleil d’Afrique, commanded by Capt. Denys* de Bonaventure. After a stop at Quebec the sailing-ship went on its way towards Acadia. In the Baie Française (Bay of Fundy) it met a Boston ship carrying the merchants John Nelson* and John Alden*, the latter’s son William, and Col. Edward Tyng. Bonaventure and Villebon succeeded in capturing the vessel. Subsequently they released John Alden to allow him to return to New England to negotiate an exchange of prisoners; they kept the other prisoners as hostages. At Port-Royal Joseph Robinau replaced the English flag by that of France. Not feeling strong enough however to defend the place against a new English attack, he made no changes in the administration that Phips had set up there. The latter had entrusted Sergeant Charles La Tourasse with the command of Port-Royal. Knowing that he would defend the interest of the French settlers, Villebon left him in office, then went to set himself up at Jemseg.
Until the end of the war Villebon tried to carry out the royal policy by having New England harried incessantly by the Indians, among whom he enjoyed great prestige. He was aided in this task by Abbé Louis-Pierre Thury and at times by Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie* de Saint-Castin. To thwart the policy of the French, Phips rebuilt, about 1692, Fort William Henry at Pemaquid and tried to win over the Abenakis to the cause of the English, without success however. Considering that he was faced with too great a threat at Jemseg, Villebon for his part built, farther up the Saint John River, another fort which he called Fort Saint-Joseph; this name did not last, for the fort was known rather under the name derived from the Indian: Naxouat (Nashwaak). This was a period of various raids by both sides. The French pirate Pierre Maisonnat* dit Baptiste succeeded in capturing some enemy vessels; Benjamin Church* laid waste various regions, among them that of Beaubassin (Chignecto Bay), but his attempt to capture Villebon failed. The great event of this period was the capture in 1696 of Fort William Henry, with the help of Pierre Le Moyne* d’Iberville.
In 1697 the Treaty of Ryswick brought peace. Acadia remained French, but the treaty had not put an end to the strife about the boundaries. A special commission was to be appointed to settle it. The French, for example, claimed that the boundary should follow the course of the Kennebec River. One of the reasons put forward to justify this claim was that the Indian allies of the French inhabited the region lying between this river and the Penobscot. On the other hand the English were of the opinion that the boundary should be on the St. Croix River. There was also another problem, that of the fishing rights in French waters. Villebon tried to settle it by proposing the creation of a system of permits, the revenues from which would be applied to maintaining fortifications. It seems that this plan was not carried out, any more than was the plan to attack Manate (Manhattan) and Boston which Villebon had always supported vigorously. The king allowed Joseph Robinau to proceed with the rebuilding of Fort Saint-Jean. Villebon dedicated himself to this task and transferred his seat of government to Fort Saint-Jean about 1698. It was there that he died, 5 July 1700. The Sieur de Dièreville*, who had visited him the very day of his death, described Villebon as “a man of sound judgment, tall & very well set up.”
Villebon’s personality has given rise to much controversy, for he often committed actions which it is difficult to see in their right light. During his stay in Acadia many complaints were made about him. In his report entitled “Mon séjour de l’Acadie,” M. de Gargas (the principal recorder in Acadia during the years 1685–88) charged him with having intimidated and insulted the settlers and with having extorted exorbitant sums from them for goods, among other things. Gargas called Villebon the terror of the country. In 1696 the intendant, Bochart* de Champigny, sent on to the minister other complaints against Joseph Villebon: the seigneurs and the habitants of the Saint John River in particular accused the governor of “threats and bad treatment” towards them and “charge him with having secured for himself all trade in his fort.” Villebon’s brothers, who were at the time serving under his orders, were accused of aiding him in this business and of leading scandalous lives. One of the most picturesque accusations was that by Mathieu de Goutin*, judge for Acadia in 1698, who affirmed, among several other grievances, “that the Sieur de Villebon has caused to be used up 112 pounds of gunpowder in the bonfire to celebrate the peace, while drinking healths to his mistresses, and that he and the Sieur Martel, his son-in-law, became drunk while so doing.” It seems however certain that Villebon never married. Jean Martel* de Magos had married at Port-Royal a certain Marie-Anne Robinau, who was considered to be the illegitimate daughter of the governor.
Villebon did not turn a deaf ear to these complaints. He explained in his defence that they often sprang from jealousy and that he was at times obliged to call to order seigneurs who, being far from France, had become too independent and had lost the notion of good conduct and of the respect due to the government. These interventions were particularly necessitated by the behaviour of the Damours brothers, seigneurs with whom the governor had disagreements. One of them, Mathieu Damours de Freneuse, owned a fief on the Saint John River between Jemseg and Nashwaak, Robinau’s centre of activity. Around 1699 Villebon reproached the settlers of Port Royal with indolently confining themselves to making their land produce just what was necessary to keep them alive. It was the same with a few personal reproaches. Thus for example, rightly or wrongly he accused the parish priest Jean Baudoin (another former soldier) of taking to the woods instead of attending to his parishioners and of having struck down an Indian.
This free exchange of complaints and particularly their subject reveal to us a glimpse of a colourful period which was faithfully reflected in the personality of the rugged and turbulent governor. Villebon had had a very stormy career, and even at the moment of departing this life he could not help provoking a slight incident: Abbé Abel Maudoux, with whom he had fallen out a short time before his death, required that he be paid his honorarium before agreeing to officiate at his funeral. Claude-Sébastien de Villieu*, Villebon’s lieutenant, finally yielded to the priest’s demands and paid, so that the governor would have a Christian burial.
Whatever one may think of Villebon, one must take into account the circumstances in which he was called to act: the war, the little help that France offered him, and the lack of settlers (according to the census made by Intendant de Meulles*, in 1686 Acadia had 885 inhabitants; in 1693 the total was apparently 1,009). In our opinion, it was principally because of his military talents and his skill in dealing with the Indians that the French government kept him in office and that Meneval, and above all Frontenac, always supported and defended him.
AN, Col., B, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22; C11A, 12–14; C11D, 2–4. BM, Lansdowne ms 849, f.47. “Mass. Archives.” Acadiensia Nova (Morse), contains, among other documents, “Mon séjour de l’Acadie” by Gargas (I, 165–99). Coll. de manuscrits relatifs à la Nouv.-France. Correspondance de Frontenac (1689–99), APQ Rapport, 1927–28; 1928–29. Dièreville, Relation of a voyage to Port Royal in Acadia or New France, ed. J. C. Webster (Champlain Soc., XX, 1933), 152. Jug. et délib. IV, 327. Mémoires des commissaires, II, 333–34 and Memorials of the English and French commissaries, I, 30–1, 123, 620–1. NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), IX. PAC Report, 1912, App. F.
Azarie Couillard Després, “Les gouverneurs de l’Acadie sous le régime français, 1600–1700,” RSCT, 3d ser., XXXIII (1939), sect.i, 273–80. Ganong, “Historic sites in New Brunswick,” 273. P.-G. Roy: “Les Robineau,” Cahiers des Dix, XVII (1952), 209–13.