Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
BRISAY DE DENONVILLE, JACQUES-RENÉ DE, Marquis de DENONVILLE, colonel and brigadier of the Queen’s Dragoons, inspector-general of Dragoons, governor general of New France, 1685–89, major-general, deputy-governor for the dukes of Bourgogne, Anjou, and Berry; b. 10 Dec. 1637; d. 22 Sept. 1710.
The Brisay family of Poitou by the 17th century could trace its ancestry for 500 years, claiming descent from Torquatus Byrsarius who, in 852, was charged by Charles the Bald with the defence of the lands between the Loire and Vilaine rivers against Viking and Breton assaults. Consanguinity was also claimed with the counts of Anjou and the Plantagenet kings of England. By the 11th century the seigneury of Brisay had been established on the left bank of the Vienne.
Pierre de Brisay, born 1523, son of François de Brisay and Marie de Hémard, inherited the seigneury of Denonville, located in Beauce near Chartres, from his mother and became the first Brisay de Denonville. Pierre, a nephew of the Cardinal Charles de Hémard de Denonville, entered the church and was appointed archdeacon of Mâcon, and subsequently abbé of Saint-Père-en-Vallée near Chartres from which he derived considerable revenue. Between 1563 and 1568, however, he turned Huguenot and at the age of 52 married Jacqueline, 25-year-old daughter of Claude d’Orléans. Their son Jacques gained the succession to the seigneury of Denonville and by 1606 he was the senior member of the clan. A staunch Huguenot, he entered the army, served as a captain of cavalry, and died at the siege of Breda in 1625.
His son, Pierre de Brisay, born in 1607, inherited the titles seigneur de Denonville, vicomte de Montbazillac, seigneur de Bellavilliers, seigneur châtelain de Thiville, seigneur marquis d’Avesnes, seigneur de Chesnay. Emulating his father, he took up the career of arms and served first in the Netherlands as a cornet in the light horse under the Maréchal de Châtillon. In 1628 he married Louise d’Alès de Corbet, daughter of a Huguenot aide-de-camp and gentleman in waiting of Louis XIII. Both families ranked as members of the lower nobility; that is, they were not among the great families of France hence they had to struggle to advance their fortunes, and they enjoyed fair success. In 1636 Pierre de Brisay and his wife abjured the Protestant faith and returned to the church of Rome. In 1642 Pierre de Brisay was named a gentleman in waiting by Louis XIII and in 1653 he was appointed king’s counsellor in the councils of state and finance. By 1668 he was a major-general in the armies of Louis XIV.
Fourteen children were born of this marriage: six died in infancy. The seventh child, Jacques-René, future governor general of New France, was born a year after his parents’ conversion, but the stern Calvinist background in which his parents had been raised left its mark. All his life, Jacques-René was very devout and a staunch supporter of the clergy.
At that time the only careers open to members of the nobility were the army and the church, or rustication on their estates. Of the six sons of Pierre de Brisay who attained maturity, three entered the army, three the church, and one, Charles de Brisay d’Huillé, combined both careers as a tonsured knight of the order of St John of Jerusalem. He was killed fighting the Turks in Crete. As the eldest son Jacques-René took the title Marquis de Denonville and entered the army at an early age. His later correspondence indicates that his schooling had not been prolonged. By 1663 he was a captain in the Régiment Royal and the following year took part in the North African campaign of the Duc de Beaufort against the Algerian pirates. Three years later he was serving in the Netherlands and in January 1668 he was commissioned captain in the Dragoons. That same year, in November, he married Catherine Courtin, daughter of Germain Courtin de Tangeux. He served throughout the Dutch war, which began in 1672, and made a name for himself as not merely a brave soldier but also a very capable officer. In consequence he was commissioned lieutenant-colonel in 1673 of the Queen’s Dragoons, and colonel-lieutenant in 1675. In 1681 he was appointed inspector-general of Dragoons for the provinces of Flanders, Picardy, Artois, and Hainaut, and on 30 March 1683 was promoted brigadier. The following year Louis XIV appointed him to succeed Le Febvre* de La Barre as governor general of New France. His commission was dated 1 Jan. 1685. The appointment carried with it 24,000 livres a year; not over generous, all things considered. The king, however, purchased Denonville’s regiment from him for 60,000 livres and then gave it to the Comte de Murcé, a relative of Madame de Maintenon.
Exactly why Denonville was chosen is not known, but La Barre had to be replaced. Ten years earlier the Iroquois, after a decade of peace, had adopted an aggressive policy aimed at driving the French out of the west and diverting the fur trade from Montreal to Albany with themselves as middlemen. The then governor, Louis de Buade*, Comte de Frontenac, had attempted to curb this policy by appeasing the Five Nations, which had merely encouraged them to become more aggressive. La Barre attempted to restore the French position by military means and failed dismally. He did succeed in one thing, however; he forced Louis XIV and Seignelay, the minister of Marine, to take more effective measures for the preservation of French power in North America.
In August 1684 Spain and the Empire had made peace with France, and thus Louis XIV was able to choose a governor general for the colony from among his senior officers of proven ability. There is no evidence to indicate that Denonville owed his appointment to influence at the court, or to anything but his demonstrated military competence and probity. In a dispatch to the intendant of New France, Jacques de Meulles, the Marquis de Seignelay, minister of Marine, wrote: “He is one of the most esteemed officers in the kingdom. His Majesty chose him as a man who by his virtue will work for the good of religion, by his valour and his experience will restore the affairs that M. de La Barre has virtually abandoned in the shameful peace that he made with the Iroquois, and by his wisdom will avoid all manner of difficulties and troubles with you.”
In the five months that elapsed between receiving his commission and sailing for Quebec, Denonville was not idle. He garnered all the information he could concerning New France, then outlined for the minister’s approval the action that he thought would have to be taken. When the minister ordered 500 reinforcements for the regular troops serving in the colony, Denonville personally supervised their recruitment and made sure their equipment was of the best. In these matters his attention to detail was meticulous. Eight or nine half-pay lieutenants volunteered to serve under him as sergeants with his assurance that they would be restored to commissioned rank as vacancies occurred. This was an excellent testimonial to the confidence he inspired.
Upon arrival at La Rochelle with his pregnant wife and his daughters aged 14 and 3, Denonville was appalled by the cramped, foul conditions on the troop ships and immediately petitioned the minister to have other arrangements made, but to no avail. He then asked for 40 supernumerary troops to replace those he anticipated would not survive the crossing. This too was denied. Because of his wife’s condition he took passage on a merchant vessel. Sharing the captain’s table with them was the newly appointed bishop of Quebec, Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Saint-Vallier, a very austere but energetic prelate.
On 1 August Denonville and his family arrived safely at Quebec where, a few weeks later, the Marquise de Denonville was safely delivered of a daughter. Towards the end of the month the troop ships arrived and the governor’s worst fears were realized. On one ship 60 of the troops died of typhus or scurvy, and on the other 80 were more dead than alive. The facilities of the Hôtel-Dieu at Quebec were taxed to the limit with over 300 victims of fever. To make matters worse, the troops sent earlier were in a bad way; many had died of influenza that had swept through the colony the previous year; of the remainder over a quarter were unfit for service, and 44 of them Denonville shipped back to France.
Within a few weeks of his arrival Denonville had travelled from Quebec to Fort Frontenac (Cataracoui, now Kingston, Ont.) and back, observing everything, and he was shocked by much that he saw. He was, in fact, the first governor to have any care for the state of Canadian society and to attempt reforms. The seigneuries, he noted, and the habitations on them, were too spread out, rendering their defence almost impossible. Canadian youth, living in close proximity to the Indians, had adopted many of their ways, some good, most bad. To his stern, puritanical gaze they appeared debauched, undisciplined, lacking in respect for all authority. Worst of all were the seigneurs’ sons. He noted that these young Canadians were fine physical specimens, robust and vivacious. What was needed was a means to channel and control their energies. He recommended that some of them should be sent to France and commissioned in the Guards and other permanent regiments. At his request the king granted six commissions for the regular troops serving in the colony, to be issued by Denonville and the intendant to Canadian gentlemen. This experiment proved so successful that Denonville recommended that no more officers be sent from France. From this time on Canadian society was to be dominated by the military with their aristocratic values.
As a long-term measure Denonville, with a 400-livre subvention from the crown, established a navigation school at Quebec to train Canadians as pilots, a career for which they showed great aptitude. He also took steps to have better charts made of the St Lawrence than the Dutch ones currently in use. At the same time he asked the minister to see to it that no more indigent nobles were sent out and he succeeded in obtaining modest pensions for certain noble families who had served the colony well in earlier years but had since been reduced to penury.
Drunkenness, he declared, was a major vice. Every rogue and idler had but one ambition: to open a tavern and avoid labour on the land. Half the houses in the colony were, he claimed, grog shops. To curb the attendant abuses he enacted strict regulations governing taverns. Drunkards and those leading debauched lives were, on conviction by the courts, to be placed in the stocks to suffer public humiliation. As for the sale of liquor to the Indians, he fully concurred with the clergy on its deplorable consequences and he did all he could to check the trade.
He also took steps to curb long standing abuses in the fur trade. In conjunction with the intendant the governor was empowered to grant 25 fur-trading licences (congés) a year, each of which entitled the holder to send a canoe load of goods to trade in the west. His predecessors had granted excessive numbers of these trading licences to those who had known how to gain their favour and Denonville was reliably informed that there were some 600 coureurs de bois continually out of the colony. This had resulted in the abandonment of farms, in families becoming a charge on the public, and in merchants being owed vast sums for trade goods issued on credit. Although the worst abuses were caused by a handful of these men, Denonville was determined to impose order. He restricted the number of licences to 25 and issued them only to poorer families who had been excluded from such favours in the past, thereby making enemies of some of the more influential families in the colony. Licence holders now had to declare the names of the three voyageurs allowed per canoe, and the goods being shipped. The voyageurs had to register at Montreal or Trois-Rivières on their departure and return, and obtain a certificate of good conduct from the missionaries at the western posts.
He also gave it as his opinion that the establishment of posts in the west had been a serious mistake, resulting in the weakening of the colony, huge expense, and involvement in all manner of inter-tribal disputes. Far from curbing tribes hostile to the French these posts were, he claimed, a serious liability owing to the difficulty and cost of supplying them, particularly in war-time. Like Colbert he believed it would have been far better to concentrate French resources in the central colony, have the Indians come to Montreal to trade and keep the Canadians employed in fishing in the Gulf rather than having them push ever farther west into the wilderness, becoming more Indian than French in their values and attitudes. But to decry the situation was one thing; to curb it, let alone stop it, proved to be impossible.
Closer to home Denonville found much to occupy his attention. The three towns he regarded as fire traps, and measures had to be taken to guard against conflagrations. He would have liked to see an iron foundry established to utilize the rich iron ore deposits near Trois-Rivières for the manufacture of stoves which would have reduced the fire hazard. This, however, he had to admit was out of the question for the time being owing to a lack of capital and technical skills in the colony. At Montreal, which was without defences of any sort, he set the troops to work building a palisade, and at Quebec he had a new magazine for arms and powder built since the existing one was a menace to the entire area. As he pointed out, were a flying spark to ignite the roof, not only would the resulting explosion do great damage but the colony would be virtually defenceless until fresh ammunition supplies could be brought from France.
He quickly discovered that the intendant was trafficking in the king’s stores for his private profit. He reported this to the minister who immediately recalled Jacques de Meulles and sent in his place Jean Bochart de Champigny, an old friend of Denonville. This removed the possibility of a renewal of the earlier conflicts between governor and intendant in the Conseil Souverain. In fact, Denonville informed the minister that he wished to absent himself from its meetings. He had, he declared, more than enough to attend to and not being a lawyer he felt he could contribute little to the council’s deliberations. The minister, however, feared that this would establish a dangerous precedent but he did agree that Denonville need attend only when the council requested him to give his opinion.
These domestic problems, however, faded almost to insignificance when contrasted with the external dangers that menaced the colony. Just as he was the first governor to attempt serious social reforms, so was Denonville the first to see clearly the magnitude of the threat to Canada’s security. His instructions had been explicit on the need to remove the Iroquois threat, preferably without resort to war. He explained to the minister that the menace was more than just the Iroquois’ attempts to drive the French out of the western fur trade. The colony was threatened from the south by the English of New York, and from the north by English control of Hudson Bay. He recommended that the best solution to the threat from the south would be for Louis XIV to purchase the province of New York from James II. That done, the Iroquois would be obliged to keep the peace. There was, however, little chance of this taking place, and Denonville, within a few weeks of his arrival, became convinced that the Iroquois would not abide by the terms of La Barre’s treaty; sooner or later, at a time of their choosing, they would attack the French settlements. All that restrained them was their desire to seduce the western nations out of the French alliance first; one enemy at a time was always their policy. Under these circumstances Denonville decided it would be far better to attack them first, but very careful preparations were needed before launching an invasion of the Iroquois country.
While these preparations were being made Denonville dealt with the Hudson Bay menace. Although English and French diplomats in London were arranging a treaty of neutrality prior to a final settlement of their territorial claims in North America, Denonville sent an expedition of 105 men, led by Pierre de Troyes*, an officer in the colonial regular troops, overland from Montreal to James Bay. They exceeded their rather vague written orders, captured the three English posts at the Bottom of the Bay along with 50,000 prime beaver pelts, and left Canadian garrisons at the forts, thereby removing this threat on the northern flank of the Canadian fur trade empire.
In the south, meanwhile, the Irish Catholic governor of New York, Thomas Dongan, had sent an expedition of Albany fur-traders, guided by renegade Canadian coureurs de bois, to trade with the Ottawas at Michilimackinac, offering them goods at much lower prices than did the French. It was from this tribe that the Canadians obtained the bulk of their furs, and if they defected Canada would have been ruined. At the same time Dongan had entered into a cool but courteous correspondence with Denonville, offering to cooperate in keeping the peace in the west and soliciting Denonville’s aid in obtaining 25,000 livres back pay he claimed was owed him by the French crown for his services with James, Duke of York, in the armies of Louis XIV prior to the restoration of the Stuarts in England.
This Albany trading venture convinced Denonville that the French hold on the west could be maintained only by the same means he had employed in James Bay. He learned that Dongan planned to send another expedition to Michilimackinac the following year; the Ottawas were wavering in their loyalty, succumbing to English and Iroquois blandishments to forget their traditional enmity with the Five Nations and trade with Albany. Whenever the Iroquois encountered Canadian canoes in the west they pillaged them, demonstrating their contempt for the French.
Denonville knew that he lacked sufficient troops to destroy the Iroquois in one campaign. He had barely enough to attack one flank of the Five Nations, and simultaneous attacks were needed on both flanks, on both the Mohawks and the Senecas at once, driving them in on the centre so that they would be forced to stand and fight. He appealed to the minister for additional forces but he had no assurance that they would be forthcoming. Time was not on his side. He needed time to fortify the defenceless settlements, and as a long range policy he recommended that the Canadian settlements be relocated, the homes be clustered in villages rather than stretched out along the river; but for the moment he did not dare even to build block houses in the exposed seigneuries lest the Iroquois should take alarm and begin spoiling attacks. All he could do was disguise his intentions from the Iroquois for as long as possible, then launch his full strength against the Senecas, the strongest, most aggressive, and most distant of the Five Nations.
Despite the tight security precautions, it was impossible to hide the fact that something was afoot and the Onondagas got wind of it. When, early in 1687, they proposed a conference at Fort Frontenac to reconcile differences Denonville agreed, and when Father Jean de Lamberville, the Jesuit missionary at Onondaga went to Quebec to make arrangements, Denonville did not inform him of his intentions lest Lamberville, wittingly or unwittingly, should betray to the Iroquois the plans for the campaign. He feared that, were they to learn of it, they would mass sizable forces to ambush his army at the rapids along the St Lawrence, and at the same time attack the settlements. The safety of the army and the settlers, and the success of the campaign, depended on keeping the enemy guessing and immobilized until the French forces were in position to strike a telling blow.
Supplies were sent well in advance to Fort Frontenac and the western posts. The officers in the west were given detailed instructions where and when they were to join the army with as many Indian allies and coureurs de bois as they could muster. Detachments were ordered to block the main routes to Michilimackinac and seize the Albany traders should they venture across the lakes.
On 13 June 1687 the expedition left Montreal: 832 colonial regulars, over 900 Canadian militia, and some 400 Indian allies. A few days earlier a convoy had reached Quebec bringing 800 additional regulars, but it was impossible to incorporate them in the expedition at that late hour.
As the army made its way up the turbulent St Lawrence the advance party captured several Iroquois lurking along the river. At Fort Frontenac Intendant Champigny, who had gone on ahead of the main force, seized some Cayugas and Oneidas by dubious means to prevent them carrying word of the army’s approach to the Iroquois villages south of the lake. Another party of so-called Neutral Iroquois, from a village near the fort, was subsequently seized for the same reason. All told, some 50 to 60 men and 150 women and children were made captive. They were sent back to Montreal to serve as hostages in case any of the French were captured by the Iroquois.
The day after Denonville’s arrival at Fort Frontenac came word that two parties of Albany traders had been captured en route to Michilimackinac. They too were sent to Montreal and held in jail for a while. The Canadian renegades who had guided them were given a summary trial and shot. The Albany merchants were to make no further attempts to trade north of the Great Lakes. That dangerous threat had been eliminated.
The assault on the Senecas, however, was not as successful. After one brief skirmish the enemy fled into the depths of the forest and the Indian allies of the French refused to pursue them. Casualties on both sides were light, but the Seneca villages and their food supplies were systematically destroyed. Denonville then proceeded with his main force to Niagara where a blockhouse was built at the mouth of the river and the men given an opportunity to visit the falls. Leaving a garrison of 100 men under the Sieur de Troyes at the new fort, Denonville took the army back to Montreal, arriving there on 13 August without incident. The campaign had achieved as much as he had expected, but not as much as he had desired.
Before embarking on the campaign Denonville had received orders from the minister to take as many Iroquois prisoners as he could and ship them to France to serve as rowers in the royal galleys. He complied by sending 36 of the 58 male prisoners to France, but he made it plain that he would rather not have done so. He requested that they be well treated and sent back to Canada when the time came to arrange a peace settlement with the Five Nations; this was, in fact, done but only 13 actually returned, the others having succumbed to disease in France or on the voyage. Under the circumstances it would have been wiser to keep these Iroquois prisoners in the colony, ready to be exchanged when needed.
Much ink has been spilled over this incident, and all manner of consequences attributed to it that have no basis whatsoever in fact. Most of these Iroquois were legitimate prisoners of war, and compared to the manner in which the Five Nations treated their prisoners this group was relatively well treated. Service in the French galleys was by no means as horrible as romantic literature has made it appear. Yet when all this has been said, the fact remains that Denonville’s reluctant compliance with orders was an error in judgement. Moreover, his enemies, and later generations of hostile historians, were able to distort the facts and damage his reputation.
One thing the campaign had done was to confirm Denonville’s estimate that much larger forces than he had available were needed to conquer the Five Nations in a single campaign. In his dispatches to the minister he now made it plain that unless he had a total force of 4,000 men and food supplies sufficient for two years, it would be far better to arrange a peace settlement. The alternative would be a long-drawn-out war of attrition with heavy casualties and the destruction of the more exposed settlements. To impress upon the minister the urgency of the situation Denonville sent Louis-Hector de Callière, governor of Montreal and second in command, to Versailles with a plan for the conquest of New York. This plan called for a force of 800 men to go from Canada to raze Albany while a naval force of 6 frigates with 1,200 men sailed directly from France to capture Manhattan and use it as a base to ravage the New England coast as far as Boston. These expeditions, Denonville and Callière claimed, had a far better chance of success than had campaigns on the Iroquois villages in the remote depths of the forest. With New York devastated, the Iroquois flank would be turned and they would be forced to accept French terms for peace.
Meanwhile, disease had taken a heavy toll in the colony; of a total population of 11,000, over 1,400 had died, and Iroquois war parties were inflicting casualties in the Montreal area. At Fort Niagara the garrison was kept prisoner by marauding Iroquois and 89 died of scurvy. At Fort Frontenac it was the same: 100 died there, and the Iroquois burned the out-buildings and the cattle. Denonville therefore, to gain a respite, entered into peace negotiations with the chiefs of three of the Five Nations. He was most insistent that all the Indian nations allied with the French be included. Despite the fact that while the negotiations were taking place the Iroquois ambushed and pillaged three canoes of western Indians en route to trade at Montreal, killing some and taking the survivors prisoner to the Iroquois villages, a peace settlement was finally arranged, to be ratified at Montreal by all the Five Nations the following year. In the meantime hostilities were suspended. Two months later, however, the settlement was threatened. A party of Hurons led by Kondiaronk, fearing that the peace would merely result in the Iroquois concentrating their entire strength against his people, ambushed a party of Iroquois ambassadors on their way to Montreal to confer with Denonville. Kondiaronk tried to make it appear that he had acted on orders of the French, but the garrison at Fort Frontenac was able to disabuse the Iroquois of this notion and the incident failed to have the consequences hoped for by Kondiaronk and later attributed to it by some historians.
During the ensuing months Denonville did his best to strengthen the colony’s defences but the Canadians, reassured by the peace negotiations and the absence of Iroquois war parties, took little interest. As Denonville foresaw, some of them would later pay for this neglect with their lives.
The spring of 1689 became summer and there was no word from the Iroquois, nor did the ships arrive from France with supplies and instructions from the minister. In the English colonies Sir Edmund Andros, governor of New England and New York, was doing his best to prevent direct negotiations between the Iroquois and the French, claiming that the Five Nations were subjects of the British crown, and that the French had therefore to negotiate with him, not with the Iroquois. This claim the French and the Iroquois rejected, yet it served to delay ratification of the treaty until word was received in New England of the outbreak of hostilities between England and France following on the Glorious Revolution that put William and Mary on the English throne. Denonville, however, was unaware that England and France were at war.
When the Iroquois were informed by the English at Albany that a state of war existed they abandoned all thought of peace with Canada. Previously, the governor of New York, obeying orders from Whitehall had tried to prevent them from attacking the Canadian settlements but had encouraged their aggressive policy in the west. Now they were free to launch assaults on Canada and they believed they could count on English support. While Denonville, still ignorant of these developments, was impatiently awaiting the Iroquois ambassadors to ratify the peace treaty, the Five Nations were massing their forces. At dawn on 5 August, an estimated 1,500 of their warriors struck at the unsuspecting settlements at Lachine, a few miles from Montreal. Although the loss of life was not nearly as great as was later claimed – in fact, 24 were killed, some 70 to 90 were taken prisoner of whom 42 never returned, and 56 of 77 homes were destroyed – the sudden ferocity of the attack was a devastating blow.
Denonville has been accused of failing to respond adequately. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to argue that he could have counter-attacked more effectively, but given the circumstances, the fragmentary, incoherent, and exaggerated reports on the enemy’s movements that reached him, the orders he gave were the only sound ones he could have given. He could give only general orders and expect the local commander of the troops, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, to use his own judgement. The failure to take advantage of the situation as it developed, and to launch a telling counter-attack, must be blamed on Vaudreuil rather than on Denonville. With the advantage of surprise and stealth the Iroquois had scored the first of several such victories in a war that was to endure for ten years. Yet they did not have things all their own way. Shortly after the attack at Lachine, a small party of Canadians sent out by Denonville encountered an Iroquois war party on the Lac des Deux-Montagnes. Without loss to themselves they killed 18 of the enemy and took three prisoners who were subsequently burned alive in the Place Royale at Montreal in retaliation for the treatment meted out by the Iroquois to the Canadians they captured. To the cast, Denonville loosed the Abenakis against the New England settlements where they created havoc comparable to that wrought by the Iroquois at Lachine.
With Iroquois war parties roaming about the settlements Denonville was forced to abandon all thought of maintaining a garrison at Fort Frontenac. Niagara had had to be abandoned earlier because of the supply problem. Fort Frontenac could serve no military purpose: its garrison was kept prisoner by a handful of Iroquois lurking about, and it required convoys of several hundred men to keep it supplied. On 24 September Denonville sent orders to the commandant Clément Du Vuault de Valrennes to blow up the fort and return to Montreal with the surviving members of the garrison.
Three weeks later the long-delayed ships arrived from France, bringing with them Callière and Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, appointed to succeed Denonville as governor general. It has frequently been asserted that Frontenac was reappointed to save the colony from the consequences of Denonville’s inept stewardship, as evidenced by the Lachine massacre and the abandonment of Fort Frontenac. Such assertions are refuted by the chronology of events. Frontenac had been appointed to succeed Denonville in April 1689, four months before the Iroquois attack on Lachine. In fact, Louis XIV and the minister, in a dispatch dated 1 May 1689, expressed their complete satisfaction with the measures taken by Denonville. They also sanctioned the abandonment of Fort Frontenac, should he deem it necessary. Then, on 31 May, Louis XIV signed the order for Denonville to return to France. In it he stated that because of the war in Europe he had decided to recall Denonville “to employ you in my armies where I am persuaded that you will serve me with the same zeal and the same success as you have done in the past.” Subsequently, however, Paul de Beauvillier, Duc de Saint-Aignan, persuaded the king to appoint Denonville his deputy as governor to the king’s grandson, Louis de France, Duc de Bourgogne, in recognition of Denonville’s 33 years of service in the royal armies. Denonville had intimated in 1688 that he would like to be recalled if the minister rejected his proposals on the policy to be pursued for the protection of the colony, and with war raging in Europe there was no possibility of the colony receiving the support requested. In addition, Denonville’s health was not good; he had worn himself out with his exertions, and for this reason alone he deserved to be relieved of his duties. There is, however, no evidence to indicate that Denonville was recalled for any reason other than that stated by Louis XIV.
Denonville had arrived in New France just after the Iroquois had imposed a humiliating peace on the French and an epidemic had decimated its population. The morale of the Canadians had been low, the colony defenceless. He was eminently successful in blocking attempts by the governor of New York to displace the French in the west and divert the fur trade from Montreal to Albany. He also weakened the hold of the English on Hudson Bay by seizing and retaining their forts in James Bay. With the meagre forces available he restored the military balance, demonstrating to the Iroquois that their most distant villages could be destroyed. With unpalatable directness he made very plain to the minister of Marine what was needed to make the colony secure from attack. When the stipulated forces were denied him he followed his instructions and secured a peace treaty with honourable terms. That this peace endured only a few months was not his fault; he had no control over the events in Europe which sparked the Iroquois assault on the settlements at Lachine. It is not without significance that his successor was eventually given the forces that Denonville had declared to be necessary to crush the Iroquois, yet it took nine years of savage fighting to bring the latter to terms.
In the field of civil administration also Denonville made a notable contribution, introducing reforms that were to have a profound effect on Canadian society. In this, however, as in military affairs, he was to a degree his own worst enemy. The post of governor general was basically a political position, and Denonville’s character made him unsuited for the role. He was no courtier. He was transparently honest, and he was a perfectionist. He demanded much, perhaps too much, of others, and he demanded more of himself. When anything went wrong he always took the blame; when things went right he gave the credit to his subordinates or to God. He left the colony immediately after the Iroquois had scored an initial victory, and his successor, in his dispatches to the court, not only made the situation appear far worse than it actually was, but maintained that Denonville was entirely to blame. Others in the colony, however, expressed sincere regret at his departure. All things considered, the colony had good cause to be grateful to him.
Denonville and his family sailed from Quebec in mid-November and arrived at La Rochelle on 26 December after a stormy crossing. The following month he made his report to the minister. That both Seignelay and Louis XIV were satisfied with his conduct of affairs in Canada is evidenced by his being raised to the rank of major-general. On 25 Aug. 1690 he was appointed deputy-governor to the Duc d’Anjou, and on 24 Aug. 1693 he was given the same responsibility for Charles de France, Duc de Berry. His declining years were, however, embittered by the disgrace of his son, a colonel of infantry, who was cashiered on orders of the king for surrendering his regiment without a fight to George Hamilton, Earl of Orkney, at the battle of Blenheim in 1704. Six years later, on 22 Sept. 1710, the old marquis died at his château. He was buried on the 24th in the crypt of the château chapel.
[The primary source material dealing with Denonville’s tenure as governor general, most of it contained in Archives des Colonies, C11A, F3, and B series, is to be found in the Archives Nationales, Paris. The PAC has microfilm copies and transcripts, as does the AQ. Other documents are to be found at the ASQ and at the New York State Archives in Albany. Transcripts of the latter are contained in NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow). The Baron de Lahontan’s self-extolling account of events, New Voyages (Thwaites), was written after a lapse of several years and has to be treated sceptically.
There is one published biography of Denonville, by Thérèse Prince-Falmagne, Un marquis du grand siècle, Jacques René de Brisay de Denonville, gouverneur de la Nouvelle-France, 1637–1710 (Montréal, ), valuable for the information it provides on Denonville’s antecedents. Among the more useful articles in learned journals are Jean Leclerc, “Denonville et ses captifs iroquois,” RHAF, XIV (1960–61), 545–58; XV (1961–62), 41–58; “Le rappel de Denonville,” RHAF, XX (1966–67), 380–408; and W. J. Eccles, “Denonville et les galériens iroquois,” RHAF, XIV (1960–61), 408–29.
The period of Denonville’s tenure of office in Canada is discussed in all the histories of the period but the earlier ones are marred by prejudice and slipshod scholarship. The “established” version is well presented in Parkman, Count Frontenac and New France (1877). A “revisionist” interpretation is provided in Eccles, Canada under Louis XIV. w.j.e.]
© 1969–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
W. J. Eccles, “BRISAY DE DENONVILLE, JACQUES-RENÉ DE, Marquis de Denonville,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brisay_de_denonville_jacques_rene_de_2E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||W. J. Eccles|
|Title of Article:||BRISAY DE DENONVILLE, JACQUES-RENÉ DE, Marquis de Denonville|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1969|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||June 4, 2023|