ESPIET DE PENSENS, JACQUES D’, esquire, officer of the colonial regular troops in Acadia, Placentia (Plaisance), and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), councillor of the Conseil Supérieur of Île Royale, king’s lieutenant and commandant of Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), knight of the order of Saint-Louis; native of Aignan, diocese of Auch; d. 1737 in France.
Jacques de Pensens began his long career in North America at Placentia where he was named ensign on 1 May 1698. In 1705 he was promoted adjutant and moved to Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.). De Pensens remained in Acadia only a few years, but his later career shows that he was in the colony sufficiently long to win the Acadians’ respect and affection. He returned to Placentia in the summer of 1708 and took part during the winter of 1708–9 in the expedition led by Saint-Ovide de Brouillan [Monbeton*] against the English fort at St John’s (commanded by Thomas Lloyd). Charlevoix* records that de Pensens played a conspicuous role in the attack and was the first to enter the fort.
In 1713 the treaty of Utrecht ended the struggle between France and England but confirmed the English in possession of all Newfoundland and Acadia. The garrison and settlers of Placentia prepared to move to Cape Breton Island where a new colony was to be founded. De Pensens, who had been promoted lieutenant in 1712, was among those officers who signed the act whereby the French took possession of the island. It was hoped that the Acadians would also move to Île Royale. In the summer of 1714 de Pensens and Louis Denys* de La Ronde were sent to Acadia to try and persuade the Acadians to relocate. De Pensens promised that all who did so would be granted a year’s rations. However, this help was not forthcoming; also the English put obstacles in the Acadians’ way, and there was no mass emigration.
In 1715 de Pensens (who had been named a captain the preceding year) was made commandant at Port Toulouse (St Peters, N.S.), one of the three fortified areas on Île Royale. The financial commissary, Pierre-Auguste de Soubras, emphasized to him the importance of trying to attract the Acadians to that area – one of the few regions suitable for agriculture. De Pensens spent the next ten years in garrison duty at either Louisbourg or Port Toulouse. He returned to France for a year’s leave in 1718 and successfully forwarded his own career. While there he was granted the cross of the order of Saint-Louis, and the following year he and François-Marie de Goutin* were named titular councillors on the Conseil Supérieur of Louisbourg with a salary of 300 livres per year. De Pensens held the post until 1733 when he was appointed king’s lieutenant of Île Saint-Jean. He undertook two missions to Canso (Canseau) in these years: one in 1720 to investigate the difficulties between the English and French fishermen there [see Smart and Hiriberry], and the other in 1726 to meet with Lieutenant-Governor Lawrence Armstrong.
The final stage in de Pensens’ career began in 1725 when he was told to prepare to take possession of Île Saint-Jean the following spring in the name of the king. The islands of Saint-Jean, Miscou, and Magdelaine, and adjacent isles had been granted in 1719 to the Comte de Saint-Pierre; some attempt had been made by the company he formed to settle Île Saint-Jean at that time [see Gotteville]. By 1724, however, the company was bankrupt, and in 1725 the island was virtually deserted. Though the post constituted an independent command of an administrative unit it must have seemed to de Pensens a demotion; he was not to take his full company, but only a detachment of 25 or 30 men – a totally inadequate force for such a remote yet exposed area. Saint-Ovide, governor of Île Royale, urged that de Pensens be given the position of king’s lieutenant and that at least one or two companies be assigned to him, but to no avail. De Pensens left for Île Saint-Jean on 27 June 1726 with the ensign Alphonse Tonty and 26 men. It was not until 1733 that de Pensens finally received a commission as king’s lieutenant for Île Saint-Jean, for a term of five years.
The administrative problems which the command entailed were many; settling the island was the most pressing. The Acadians did not immediately move to the island as had been hoped. De Pensens reported in 1726 that they feared falling under the control of a company. The exclusive fishing rights which had been granted to the Comte de Saint-Pierre had been revoked by the council of Marine in 1726, but not until 1730 were the islands reunited to the royal domain. There was no priest until 1727 when Father Félix Pain* was sent to be missionary there, and even then he was not resident all the year round. In 1728 the census listed only 336 persons on the island; in 1730 the figure was 325. In that year de Pensens reported that he had hired an Acadian who had a boat to transport goods and livestock from Baie Verte. There was some improvement in the next few years: the 1734 census listed 572 persons. In fact, the Acadians, always the chief source of population, did not move in numbers to the island until after the War of the Austrian Succession when thousands arrived. But before the war only a few areas of the island were settled: Port La Joie (near present-day Charlottetown), the administrative centre, Rivière du Nord-Est (Hillsborough River), Havre de la Pointe de l’Est (Tranchemontagne, now South Lake), Havre Saint-Pierre (St Peters Harbour), the most populous area, Capodiche (Savage Harbour), Tracadie, Malpeque, and Trois-Rivières, where Jean-Pierre Roma*’s company was established (on Brudenell Point). Some fishing was done at Port La Joie and Pointe de l’Est, but the main fishing establishment was Havre Saint-Pierre. In 1726 there were 18 shallops and 1 schooner engaged in the cod-fishery on the island; in 1734, 39 shallops and 1 schooner. During these years there were always a few boats engaged in the coasting trade between Île Royale and Île Saint-Jean as well.
On his arrival de Pensens reported that there were so few improved lands as to be hardly worth mentioning. He wrote that in 1727 only seven colonists sowed any grain, but that the yield was promising. Port La Joie and the Rivière du Nord-Est were the places where most land was cultivated though some farming was done at Malpeque, Tracadie, and even Havre Saint-Pierre. The Micmacs had a permanent headquarters at Malpeque where they grew corn.
Discipline of the troops stationed on the island was a continual Problem for de Pensens. Saint-Ovide reported in 1735 that the soldiers there thought of themselves as “galley-slaves” and were convinced that they would spend the rest of their lives on the island. Desertions to Acadia were frequent – as were desertions to the French colonies from the English garrison in Acadia. De Pensens himself does not seem to have been too fond of living on the island; he was reprimanded several times for spending the winter at Louisbourg.
De Pensens’ career was cut short by sickness. He first complained of poor health in 1719 and by the 1730s he was unable to continue working. He was ill in the fall of 1735, and in 1736 Robert Tarride* Duhaget commanded in his absence. In 1736 de Pensens returned to France on leave – without much expectation of ever returning. Saint-Ovide wrote in November, “it seems to me that this officer is in no condition at all to be able to continue his service, since he cannot withstand the harsh climate of this country De Pensens retired on 1 April 1737 with a pension of 800 livres and died a few months later. Louis Du Pont* Duchambon succeeded to his command.
De Pensens was involved in numerous commercial enterprises. At various times he owned several pieces of property in Île Royale. In 1720 he sold a small lot and house in Louisbourg for 600 livres, and in 1736 he sold another lot, house, and stone storehouse for 11,000 livres. He also developed a fishing establishment on Îles Michaux but was forced to sell it in 1718, when officers were forbidden to engage in fishing. He was part owner of the schooner Vénus, which was leased to a Saint-Jean-de-Luz merchant in 1726 for 4,000 livres to be paid in wine, liquor, and other goods.
Suspicion of illicit dealing also fell on de Pensens. He was mentioned in accusations brought against Saint-Ovide in 1728. The latter was charged with trading illegally, and de Pensens was said to have looked after the business which was all done in the names of two Louisbourg merchants, Joseph Lartigue* and Michel Daccarrette*. Nothing came of these charges, however. De Pensens was implicated in a dubious transaction for the contract for the Louisbourg fortifications along with François Ganet* and Gratien d’Arrigrand*. Evidently this association became known when de Pensens’ will was read. Saint-Ovide was thought to have been involved as well; although he denied any part in it, the affair contributed to his loss of the governorship.
De Pensens had three nephews in the colonial regular troops in Île Royale whose careers he fostered: Jean-Georges d’Espiet, Pierre-Paul d’Espiet de La Plagne, seigneur of Margouet, and Jean d’Espiet, chevalier de Pensens. All three became captains in the troops and were granted crosses of the order of Saint-Louis.
De Pensens seems to have been a fairly good though unambitious officer. He was not particularly interested in the details of administering a small and widespread population; he seems to have spent as little time as possible on the island. He was, however, always well informed of the conditions there and was instrumental in establishing the settlements on a firm basis. He supported the Acadians in their quest for land concessions and for aid from the crown in their first year on the island. He and Robert Potier* Dubuisson, the subdelegate of the intendant for the island, worked in harmony. De Pensens was, in short, a man of his times – a good and brave soldier, interested in furthering his family and in improving his financial condition, casually conscientious in discharging his responsibilities, and paternal in his attitude towards those he commanded.
Archives de la Charente-Maritime (La Rochelle), Amirauté de Louisbourg, B 266, ff.77–78v. AN, Col., B, 20–67; C11B, 1–29; C11C, 8, 9; C11D, 5–7; Section Outre-Mer, G3, 406, ff.7v, 25v; 466/3; 467/2; G2, 192/1, pp.7–7v, 20v–21; G³, 2039, 12 sept. 1736; 2041, 27 sept. 1750; 2056, 13 nov. 1717; 2057, 1720, pièce 1, 24 févr. 1720; 2058, 3 déc. 1726. Charlevoix, History (Shea). Taillemite, Inventaire analytique, série B. Fauteux, Les chevaliers de Saint-Louis. Harvey, French régime in P.E.I. Le Blant, Philippe de Pastour de Costebelle. McLennan, Louisbourg.