DENYS DE FRONSAC, RICHARD, administrator, colonizer, trader, and fisherman; b. c. 1654, son of Nicolas Denys and Marguerite Lafite; d. 1691.
Richard Denys was born at Saint-Pierre, Cape Breton, where his father had just re-established himself after purchasing from the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France the rights to the north coast of Acadia from Canso to Cap des Rosiers in Gaspé and being granted the title of governor and lieutenant of the king. Richard spent an eventful youth at Saint-Pierre, although it is noteworthy that the Denys family was not affected by Sedgwick’s capture of Port-Royal in 1654. The Denyses continued to reside at Saint-Pierre until the winter of 1668–69 when their buildings and business were destroyed by fire, whereupon they moved to Nipisiguit (now Bathurst, N.B.). Here Nicolas Denys had constructed a post around 1652. Because of his losses and the financial obligations incurred in trying to establish himself in difficult circumstances, the elder Denys determined to return to France, publish a book on the country, and seek a larger measure of support for his Acadian undertakings. This he did in 1671, leaving his wife and his seventeen-year-old son Richard in charge of his affairs. The early misfortunes of the elder Denys retarded the enterprises which the son was to administer and eventually to inherit.
Richard managed to wrest a living from forest, farm, and sea. He grew peas and wheat, and even pears and apples. He maintained the posts at Nipisiguit and Miscou. His participation in the defence, in 1676, of his father’s Cape Breton coal beds against three English ketches shows that he attempted to exploit all available resources, but the fur trade and fishery were mainstays. Richard’s salary of 800 livres a year was never paid and by 1682, when it had accumulated to the amount of 9,600 livres, a new settlement gave Richard first claim on his father’s estate for payment in arrears.
Most references to Richard Denys, in this period, relate to his exercise of authority on behalf of his father. The elder Denys’s rights and jurisdictions were not invariably respected, or in any case, upheld, by the government at Quebec. There was much confusion as to titles and boundaries: on one occasion, for example, without reference to possibly existing commitments, the intendant Talon conferred on Pierre Denys* de La Ronde, a relative of Nicolas, the rights to Île Percée. The settlers at that place petitioned Richard Denys for redress from La Ronde, who had withheld their deeds, since Richard was regarded as having paramount authority there.
A more serious jurisdictional dispute was that between Richard Denys and Bergier’s Compagnie de la Pêche sédentaire de l’Acadie. After Nicolas Denys’s rights in the Chedabouctou (now Guysborough, N.S.) area had been reaffirmed in 1667, Richard and his brother-in-law Michel Leneuf* de La Vallière continued to hunt and fish periodically in the region, where he came in conflict with Bergier’s company, active there in the 1680’s. Bergier’s complaints at the French court led to the concession of Cape Breton to Bergier in April 1687, on the grounds of the Denys’s nonfulfilment of terms. A large seigneury, to be chosen later, was promised Nicolas in compensation.
Nicolas died the following year, and as no effective authority could be imposed from the distant Port-Royal, Richard Denys petitioned to have his late father’s rights as governor – which in fact he himself had exercised for 18 years – conferred upon him. The government seems to have complied with his request, since his jurisdiction extended over the whole area until his death in 1691, except for a brief period in 1690 when he was a prisoner of the English after Phips had captured Port-Royal. At the same time, in place of the princely grant hitherto enjoyed, he inherited a seigneury at Miramichi – the one promised his father in 1687 – and here he established himself, on the north bank of that river, about opposite the “tickle” that ran between what is now known as Wilson’s Point and Beaubears (now Boishébert) Island. The seigneury was 15 leagues square; one-third had to be cleared within three years, and the remainder in the three years following. His house was of free stone, set in a wooden fort with four bastions, and defended by ten cannon, four of brass and six of iron. Already he had begun to cultivate grain, vegetables, fruits, and grass, all by hand. In 1689 he stated that he hoped soon to work the land with oxen, to have a water-mill, and a sedentary fishery.
In 1689, while residing at Fort Sainte-Croix on the Miramichi, he also maintained a settlement at Ristigouche (now Restigouche), and exercised his rights at Nipisiguit, in the midst of litigation lasting to 1691. (The latter involved one of his settlers, Philippe Énault*, whose obligation consisted of the payment of one pistole and one otter skin in the form of a bag, with tail, paws, and teeth, as rent and homage, every two years.) So energetically did Richard promote settlement that by 1689 he had 103 French settlers within his domain, a large number when compared with the small total of population in Acadia at that time. Of these 31 were in his immediate employ, 23 at his seigneury of Sainte-Croix, and 8 on the Baie des Chaleurs. Besides these he had “seated two villages of Indians” near his establishments, one on the Baie des Chaleurs of 60 families or 400 Indians, and the other at Miramichi of 500 in 80 wigwams.
In the interest of both the French and the Indians, Richard Denys encouraged the establishment of missions in his territories, mostly by the Jesuits and Recollets, but on one occasion by the seminary of Quebec. The grant to the Recollet order on 13 Aug. 1685 of three leagues square at Ristigouche, Miramichi, and in Cape Breton was revoked on 6 May 1690. The seminary’s efforts in 1685 proved abortive, and a renewed Recollet attempt at Miramichi, under an agreement of 16 Oct. 1686, failed also. In 1688 Richard Denys reported that he had maintained at his own expense both Jesuits and Recollets for a period of years and for two years a priest from Quebec, but the ecclesiastical authorities, to the injury of both French and Indians, had removed them. Nevertheless he continued to the end of his life to serve the interests of France and the church with intelligence, vigour, and a degree of high-mindedness that gives him a claim to be regarded as the most distinguished of the native-born colonists of Acadia in the 17th century.
Richard Denys de Fronsac was first married, probably in 1680, to Anne Parabego (Partarabego), an Indian girl, and by her he had a daughter Marie-Anne, baptized on 25 May 1681 at Jemseg on the Saint John River and married in 1709 to Jean Merçan, of Quebec. Also by this marriage he had a son Nicolas, born in 1682, who like his father married an Indian woman, and perished with his three children in 1732. On 15 Oct. 1689, Richard Denys was again married, this time at Quebec to Françoise Cailleteau, who bore him a son, Louis, on 31 Oct. 1690. In the autumn of 1691, at the age of 37, Richard Denys lost his life at sea. The vessel, the Saint-François-Xavier, in which he set out from Quebec, was never heard of again. Three years later, on 17 July 1694, his estate was settled in favour of his widow, and his son Louis presumably having died at an early age, it was inherited by the children of his widow’s subsequent marriage to Pierre Rey Gaillard.
Contrary to what some historians have written, the title of “Sieur de Fronsac” was never held by Nicolas Denys, but was assumed by his son Richard in about 1677. Two members of the Denys family had been ennobled in the reign of Henri III, but the event which appears to have given Richard warrant for the assumption of his title was the ennoblement of his uncle, Simon Denys, in 1668. Fronsac was the name of a place in the neighbourhood of Bordeaux, France, but had, in honour of Cardinal Richelieu who was Duc de Fronsac, been given to a locality on the Strait of Canso near which Richard Denys was born.
AN, Col., C11D, 1, f.192, Bergier des Ormeaux’s complaints, 12 May [1687?] against Leneuf de La Vallière, Leneuf de Beaubassin, and Richard Denys; Col., E, 277 (dossier La Vallière). BN, MS, Clairambault 1016, f.331. Denys, Description and natural history (Ganong). Jug. et délib., III, IV, V. P.-G. Roy, Inv. concessions, IV. Ganong, “Historic sites in New Brunswick,” 233, 292–94, 298–99, 300, 317–18, 319–20. “Richard Denys, sieur de Fronsac, and his settlements in northern New Brunswick,” Historical-geographical documents relating to New Brunswick, ed. W. F. Ganong, 4, N.B. Hist. Soc. Coll., [III], no.7 (1907) 7–54.