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LE FEBVRE DE LA BARRE, JOSEPH-ANTOINE, governor-general of New France (1682–85), counsellor in the Parlement of Paris in 1645, maître des requêtes c. 1650, intendant of Paris during the Fronde, then intendant of Bourbonnais, Auvergne, and Dauphiné, ship’s captain, governor and lieutenant-general of Guiana c. 1666; b. 1622 in France, son of Antoine Le Febvre de La Barre, a counsellor in the Parlement of Paris and prévôt des marchands, and of Madeleine Belin; d. 1688 in Paris.
In 1659, when La Barre was serving in Dauphiné, Colbert complained of his administration and wrote to Cardinal Mazarin that M. de La Barre was hated by the people, to which the minister replied that “M. de La Barre should be taken at his word if it is true that he has asked to be relieved.”
This was done, for he left the service of the government. From 1661 on, we find this civilian in the royal navy, where he was a ship’s captain, which suggests that he had powerful protectors. However, he proved himself to be a good sailor and an excellent administrator. In 1664 he was sent to Guiana at the head of a squadron – together with Prouville de Tracy, who had just been appointed lieutenant-general of the whole of French America in November 1663 – and recaptured Cayenne from the Dutch; the latter capitulated and handed over Fort Nasseau to La Barre in May 1664. La Barre, appointed governor of Guiana, made of it a colony which promised to become flourishing, experimented with different types of cultivation, and drew up plans for the fortifications of Cayenne.
When all the islands possessed by France in America had been ceded to the Compagnie des Indes occidentales, Colbert de Terron, one of the directors, wrote to the minister, Colbert: “M. de La Barre did not seem to me very suitable as a commander,” and La Barre was recalled, although this last letter was apparently not the reason for it.
Despite the enmity of the Colberts, La Barre was made lieutenant-general in 1666 and sent to the West Indies. In November 1666 he suggested the conquest of Nevis (Niévès) to the war council, which did not agree to it. In April 1667, while commanding the ship Armes d’Angleterre, he did battle with the English ship Colchester, off the tip of Nevis Island. La Barre emerged victorious from a terrible struggle during which he was wounded, and he returned to Martinique, where he was handed an indent for supplies from the governor of Île Saint-Christophe (St. Kitts), which was being blockaded by the English. As France was then an ally of Holland, La Barre and Clodoré, the governor of Martinique, supported by Admiral Abraham Crynssen’s fleet, joined battle with William Willoughby, governor of Barbados and the Caribbean Islands, on 20 May. After a savage combat La Barre disengaged and sailed towards Saint-Christophe. He was accused by Clodoré of having changed the battle order and shown lack of courage, and by Crynssen, in his report, of having taken to flight. M. de La Barre, said the same document, “made many excuses . . . to the effect that his vessel did not sail well” (May 1667). Back in Martinique, La Barre and Clodoré wasted time arguing, until the English admiral Sir John Harman reconciled them by attacking them. The English ships bombarded the French ships in the roadstead of Saint-Pierre. La Barre, who seems to have lost his head, gave orders for his ships to be scuttled. The Treaty of Breda, July 1667, rendered Sir John Harman’s victory pointless by stipulating the return of colonies on both sides.
In 1671, in Paris, Le Febvre de La Barre published a Relation de ce qui s’est passé dans les îles de l’Amérique en 1666–1667. It was, in the words of Father Labat, “rather a Factum against M. de Closdoré, the governor of Martinique, than an exact and sincere account of what occurred there.”
When a dispute broke out between two captains concerning a manoeuvre, a jury was assembled to consider the “Point of honour.” The proceedings were signed by eight officers, including Le Febvre de La Barre: his name was among those of the best sailors in the royal navy.
In 1673 La Barre was commanding one of the ships in the squadron of Admiral d’Estrées: as France and England had been united against Holland by the Treaty of Dover in 1670, the English and French vessels fought side by side against de Ruyter’s fleet. Le Febvre de La Barre served with distinction, particularly at the battle of Schooneveldt, where he was in command of the Sage. The allies defeated the Dutch there, on 7 June 1673, and La Barre was cited, by the French ambassador in London, among the officers who had conducted themselves very well during this combat. The defeat of the Dutch at Schooneveldt forced them to withdraw. In 1674, he commanded the Maure in the Chevalier de Valbelle’s fleet in the Mediterranean.
On 1 May 1682, King Louis XIV appointed Le Febvre de La Barre governor-general of New France. He was then 60 years old and had had a long career in the navy. In Canada he succeeded a man of fine character, who was difficult to replace: the Comte de Frontenac [see Buade]. The period was a tragic one, for the Iroquois, who had conquered the other tribes, were becoming a menace for the French. There was also the English threat in Hudson Bay. And when the new governor and Intendant de Meulles* landed at Quebec, at the end of September 1682, they found half the town destroyed by the great fire of August 1682. Despite these unpropitious circumstances, M. de La Barre wrote highly confident letters to the king and the minister, assuring them that he would be able to overcome the Iroquois, who must, he said, be familiar with his victories over the English in the West Indies. He also declared to the minister, Colbert de Seignelay, that he would not follow the example of his predecessors, who had made their fortunes in Canada through trade.
La Barre’s first official act, on 10 Oct. 1682, was to convene an assembly of the religious and lay notables of the colony to discuss the best policy to adopt in the face of the Iroquois peril. Both missionaries and soldiers were of the opinion that the Iroquois wanted to destroy the Indians allied with the French, and then to fall upon the Canadian settlers. Father Jean de Lamberville* had written to Frontenac a month earlier: “the Iroquois . . . have no fear of them [the French], and are ready to attack Canada, as soon as they are given any reason for doing so.”
As a result of repeated pressure by Intendant de Meulles and La Barre, Louis XIV finally sent 200 soldiers and 20,000 livres the following year. But the king advised La Barre to settle the conflict with the Indians by diplomatic means, and to make the decision to attack them only if he were morally certain that he could conquer them quickly.
The governor concerned himself with internal administration, and had a list of land grants prepared which he sent to the minister by the courier of 1682. He supported the clergy in its attempts to remain independent of the civil authority, and in 1684 increased the salaries of the parish priests. This last measure was censured in a letter from the minister. Also during 1682, La Barre set up the Compagnie du Nord, which entered into competition with the English posts in Hudson Bay.
Notwithstanding his apparent determination to wage war on the Iroquois, the governor’s main activity was to organize his own trade with them. He pretended to believe in the trustworthiness of the Iroquois, who had promised, at Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil’s request, to send delegates to Montreal. But in the month of May 1683 the Iroquois began attacking the allies of the French. La Barre tried naively to negotiate an understanding with the governor of New York, Col. Thomas Dongan, who was trading with the Indians and selling them goods cheaper than those of the French. The king of England had instructed Dongan to come to an agreement with La Barre, but the New York governor continued to support the Iroquois and arouse them against the French. Le Moyne managed, however, to take 13 Senecas to La Barre in Montreal on 20 July 1683. This embassy was a prelude to the one on 14 Aug. 1683 composed of 43 Iroquois chiefs, who according to La Barre demanded the expulsion of Cavelier de La Salle from the Fort Saint-Louis, and promised to forward the governor’s requests to their nations. The governor wanted, in particular, to see the Iroquois make peace with the Hurons, Algonkins, and Ottawas. The delegates left Montreal satisfied, promising to send their braves the following spring to ratify the agreement. However, though the Senecas replied frankly enough to the proposals that were made to them, the rest of the Indians, according to La Barre, desired only to play for time. He knew, he said, that they had increased their fighting strength by 150 men, and that they were continually weakening the Miami and Illinois Indians. His conclusion was that the Senecas did not want to embark on a war lightly, but that they were quite resolved to fight.
In the spring of 1683, Governor La Barre instructed two officers, Olivier Morel* de La Durantaye and Louis-Henri de Baugy*, to go to the region around the Great Lakes and to the Illinois country, to check the abusive practices of the coureurs de bois; the latter were trafficking in furs without licences. In the course of their inquiries into La Salle’s activities in these parts, the officers were also to invite the Indians to come and trade their furs at Montreal and meet the new governor. Fort Frontenac (Cataracoui), which belonged to La Salle, was detrimental to the business of the Montreal merchants, for it intercepted the fur trade with the Indians. La Barre made an economic alliance with the merchants Aubert* de La Chesnaye and Le Ber*, an agreement directed mainly against La Salle. In his letters to the minister, Intendant de Meulles accused the governor of selling a great number of fur-trading licences and even of having commercial dealings with the English and the Dutch. La Barre wrote in his own defence: “I should be a very wretched man, if I were capable of doing things such as I am accused of.”
Frontenac’s successor wanted above all to get rid of La Salle, and he devoted all his efforts to making the latter’s position untenable and driving him out of all the posts that he had founded. The governor undertook a veritable smear campaign against the discoverer, writing to the minister that his explorations were mere fabrications. La Salle seems to have been still unaware, in the spring of 1683, of the governor’s machinations, for he wrote two letters to him, on 2 April and 4 June, to ask for his protection. Nevertheless, at this period, La Barre sent Aubert and Le Ber to take possession of Fort Frontenac and all La Salle’s merchandise. The pretext for this seizure was that La Salle had not complied with the conditions in return for which he had received the ownership of the fort.
At the end of the summer, the Chevalier de Baugy, on La Barre’s orders, took possession of the Fort Saint-Louis on the Illinois River, where Henri Tonty* was in command in the name of La Salle, who had constructed this fur-trading post. On 21 March 1684 the Iroquois attacked Fort Saint-Louis, where they were repulsed by Tonty and Baugy.
The Iroquois’ assault against Fort Saint-Louis was perhaps, as certain historians have asserted, what induced M. de La Barre to go and attack them in their own territory. But the governor’s real motive, according to his contemporaries, was rather to save the trade in beaver pelts carried on by five or six merchants, as Intendant de Meulles wrote to the minister on 8 July 1684. For de Meulles stated openly that the war against the Iroquois in 1684 had been decided upon by Governor La Barre and six of the most important businessmen in the colony, with the hope that they would oblige the Indians to trade with them and no longer with the English. The intendant claimed that the fur-trader Aubert de La Chesnaye was the closest adviser of the governor, who had not even consulted the military. Everyone said that this expedition was only a business affair, and that La Barre would conclude peace after having frightened the Iroquois, in order to trade with them: such was the tenor of the intendant’s letters to Versailles.
The department of the Marine, under whose jurisdiction Canada came, first approved M. de La Barre’s action against the Iroquois, for on 30 July 1684 the king wrote to the governor that he endorsed “his decision to attack the Iroquois because of their action against the Fort Saint-Louis” – which did not prevent the king from blaming La Barre a year later. The latter had moreover a very personal grievance against these Indians. Out of hatred for La Salle, whom he wanted to ruin completely, and with the aim of sparing La Chesnaye any commercial competition, the governor had been unwise enough to authorize the Iroquois to attack and pillage any canoe the owner of which could not show a fur-trading licence signed by him. Now the Iroquois, fortified by this official permission, set about attacking all canoes indiscriminately, even those carrying goods belonging to M. de La Barre. This, according to Abbé Vachon* de Belmont, sent him into a towering rage.
The Jesuits recommended a policy of prudence. The Fathers, who had missions in the region around the Great Lakes, knew from experience how to deal with Indians. Fathers Dablon and Frémin had already given advice to Intendant Duchesneau. Father Thierry Beschefer* had drafted a lengthy report on the subject. The Jesuits, and especially Father Jean de Lamberville, who maintained a regular correspondence with La Barre from July to October 1684, said that it was essential not to provoke the Iroquois, or to meddle in their war with the Illinois. Their advice was to call the chiefs together in a conference, but not to scare them by too great a display of military strength, which would offer a pretext for war. For their part, according to Rochemonteix, the notables and ecclesiastics of Quebec who had been present at the assembly of 10 Oct. 1682 “were not opposed to the war, but they did not want to undertake it before having secured fresh troops from France and exhausted all the resources of diplomacy in the effort to maintain peace.”
M. de La Barre disregarded these opinions. He had only militiamen and a few companies of regular troops at his disposal. Brimming over with presumptuousness, he thought he was certain to succeed. In a letter to the minister, the governor declared: “I shall go into the Iroquois country with 1,200 settlers and spend the winter there, in order to entice all the Indians to come and attack us in the spring of 1684, when they will be destroyed. They number 2,600 braves, but our young men are hardened and accustomed to the woods, beside the fact that we shall make war better than they, and that a few cannon will give us a great advantage.” This confidence was to be belied by the events. The governor set out from Montreal on 30 July 1684, with a small army of 700 Canadians, 150 regulars, and 400 Indian allies, and went as far as Fort Frontenac. He began parleys with the Iroquois, and made contact with them on 29 August northeast of Oswego, on Lake Ontario, in a place that bore the ill-starred name of Anse de la Famine (Famine Cove). La Barre had established himself in a very bad spot, marshy and difficult to defend. Fever ravaged his troops; provisions ran out. The Onondagas, Oneidas, and Cayugas, under the leadership of Otreouti (Grande Gueule) and Garakontié, had agreed to enter into negotiations, with Le Moyne de Longueuil acting as intermediary, but the Mohawks and the Senecas, through fear of Dongan, refrained from sending an ambassador, and they were represented only by Teganissorens*, a prisoner of La Barre. At a conference on 5 Sept. 1684, the Onondaga chiefs maintained a tone of lofty pride. They gave the governor to understand that it was for them, not for him, to dictate the peace. While contending, among other things, that the pillage of which the Senecas were guilty did not constitute a sufficient reason for war, the Indians none the less promised that the French should receive compensation. They also asked La Barre, in particular, to return to Quebec with his army, and to agree to the substitution of the Anse de la Famine for Montreal or Cataracoui as the place for subsequent deliberations. The Five Nations were willing to make peace and not to attack the Miamis again, but they refused to cease hostilities against the Illinois. La Barre was forced to bow to the will of the Iroquois, and, what was very serious, he left the Illinois, the allies of France, in their hands. He returned in a sorry state to Montreal, with his troops decimated by illness.
His expedition had in no way intimidated the Indians. Intendant de Meulles wrote treacherously to the minister on 10 October: “The general [the governor] goes at the head of a small army corps to make war on the Iroquois, and far from doing that, he grants them all they ask.” This treaty highly displeased not only the court, but also the whole colony. The Indian tribes of the West who were allies of the French accused La Barre of treason, and the French reproached the governor, among other things, for dragging them from their homes to no purpose, and for calling them to arms only in order to be subjected to a bitter humiliation. “Thus,” wrote Garneau, “through the pusillanimity of the general, an expedition failed which, had it been well led, would have had quite different results. The Five Nations had the glory . . . of signing with the Canadian governor a treaty that put the French to shame.”
La Barre’s return to Quebec almost coincided with the arrival there of 300 soldiers sent by the king. Had this help been sent earlier, it might have changed the complexion of things. But M. de La Barre was dogged by misfortune everywhere. His enemy La Salle, who had gone to France, had completely reinstated himself in the good graces of the king and the minister, Seignelay. Forts Frontenac and Saint-Louis were restored to him. Harsh letters reached the governor. On 10 March 1685, Louis XIV wrote to Intendant de Meulles, expressing his dissatisfaction with “the shameful peace that he [La Barre] has just concluded with the Iroquois.” The same letter added that La Barre was going to be recalled and replaced by Brisay* de Denonville.
Le Febvre de La Barre left Quebec in August 1685. His administration had been disastrous. He left to his successor Denonville a difficult situation. The Iroquois made no pretence of observing the terms of the treaty. They continued to attack the French, to wage war on the Indian allies, and to maintain commercial relations with the English. The tragic years that followed M. de La Barre’s government were due in part to his unsound policy regarding the Indians, his egotistic and overweening character, and his uncoordinated strategy.
He retired to France, where he lived thenceforth without holding any office. But he possessed a large fortune, which was squandered by his son. In 1645 Governor La Barre had married Marie Mandat, the daughter of Galiot Mandat, a maître des comptes. M. de La Barre died on 4 May 1688 in Paris, and was buried in the church of Saint-Gervais. His grandson, the Chevalier de La Barre, achieved celebrity as a result of his trial and punishment in 1766. He was accused of impiety and of having mutilated a crucifix, and was condemned to death by judgement of the Parlement of Paris. Voltaire defended him, but could not save him from the scaffold.
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