L’HERMITTE (Lhermitte, L’Hermite, Lhermite), JACQUES, engineer, staff officer and cartographer; town major and engineer of Placentia (Plaisance), 1695–1714; king’s second lieutenant and engineer for Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), 1714–15; king’s lieutenant for Trois-Rivières, 1715–25; b. 8 May 1659 at Le Breuil (Calvados); died in the wreck of the Chameau 27 Aug. 1725.
L’Hermitte claimed that in 1690 he had interrupted some nine years” service in the corps of engineers in France to take part in the Irish campaign, as an infantry captain. Although afterwards he rejoined the corps, he had lost his seniority, and thus he was one of 60 officers who were victims of an establishment cut in 1694. (There is no record of this in the Archives du Génie.) It happened, however, that the Duc de Gramont had selected him as cartographer and engineer aboard Saint-Clair’s flagship, the Gaillard, fitted out at Bayonne (where L’Hermitte was serving) for an expedition during the summer of 1694 against the English in Newfoundland. L’Hermitte work on this occasion, especially his map of Placentia Bay, attracted the attention of the governor of Placentia, Jacques-François de Monbeton de Brouillan. Chiefly at his instigation, the minister of Marine appointed L’Hermitte in 1695 to the post of town major and engineer of Placentia.
His engineering duties were the more onerous, but in addition to them he performed the usual tasks of the town major, which included detailing the guards, inspecting the garrison, distributing military stores, and dispensing military justice. Moreover, Brouillan arranged to have him designated as third in command, after the governor and the king’s lieutenant. Brouillan held him in high esteem, which may have caused Joseph de Monic to dislike him. Friction between them came to a head in 1701 when Monic had L’Hermitte thrown in jail for three weeks for having a servant copy letters from the commandant’s private office. Considering Monic’s behaviour to be excessive, the minister recalled him while L’Hermitte escaped with a mild reprimand.
With occasional interludes, such as mapping expeditions, or the raid on St John’s under Auger de Subercase during the winter of 1704–5, L’Hermitte spent 17 frustrating years trying to put the fortifications of Placentia into a state of readiness. It was a losing battle against the climate, the isolation of the place, an inadequate financial policy, the apathy of the fishermen, and the ignorance of local officials. Piecemeal allocations of funds for replacing old, wood-revetted earthworks with masonry were dissipated largely in repairing each summer the damage which winter gales, waves, and frost had done to the previous summer’s work. Although the court at Versailles exhorted the owners of fishing vessels (especially the Basques) to supplement royal transport to Placentia by carrying building materials, beasts of burden, and seasonally employed craftsmen, their cooperation was niggardly, even under the threat of the king’s displeasure. L’Hermitte’s local superiors sometimes disregarded his technical advice or ignored the accounting procedures normally followed in the corps of engineers. He even wrote at one point that henceforth he would adhere strictly to his instructions; otherwise “I should only be rebuked.” Yet events often proved his judgment to be right.
L’Hermitte was recognized as a good draftsman, surveyor, and cartographer. In 1698 he was sent to Acadia to survey potential harbour facilities and natural resources (especially timber for the navy) on the Atlantic coast and on both sides of the Bay of Fundy (Baie Française); and to examine the need for fortifications at the mouth of the Saint John River. Shortly after his posting to Trois-Rivières in 1715, he was asked to survey and map much of Île Royale and environs. In 1724, he carried out a survey of the timber resources of the Gaspé region.
At the cession of Placentia in 1713, L’Hermitte played an important role in the establishment of the new colony of Île Royale. He made a quick Study of several natural harbours for the purpose of selecting the best site for the fortified capital of the cod-fishery; he constructed provisional fortifications and buildings at Louisbourg in readiness for the arrival of colonists from Placentia and possibly from Acadia; and he participated in the first attempts to arrange for the transfer of Acadians to Île Royale.
By this time, he was past 60; he could no longer work at a younger man’s pace; and his injuries and ailments were having their cumulative effect. Over his protests, the minister created for him the post of king’s lieutenant of Trois-Rivières which, apart from his special survey expeditions, was almost a sinecure. In 1718 the council of Marine awarded him the cross of the order of Saint-Louis and assured him that the chief engineer of New France, Chaussegros* de Léry, would have no authority over his work.
In the summer of 1725, the old engineer was drowned off Cape Breton while returning home on board the ill-fated Chameau after making an oral report in France on the results of his Gaspé survey. Since his body was not identified, it is not known whether he was one of the 180 buried by the missionary at La Baleine (Baleine Cove). He left Marie Chevalier, whom he had married at Placentia on 25 June 1705, and their children with few assets and substantial debts. This is not surprising, because during his 30 years’ service in New France he had attempted to live mainly off his salary, which few officers were able to do. He had been constantly complaining that his income could not meet colonial living costs. Even a small family pension ended in 1702 at his father’s death-an event which precipitated a legal battle in France with his brothers over the succession.
His chief bequest to posterity is his cartography. Contemporary examples of his work which have survived in France bear evidence of its high quality. As an engineer, however, two factors tended to lessen his general effectiveness: the “system” and his own weakness of character. Colonial improvements played second fiddle to European hegemony, and recognition in colonial careers owed too much to influence and too little to ability. On the other hand, L’Hermitte was apparently so sensitive that he interpreted every criticism of his work, every disregard for his views, as proof that his talents were not recognized.
AJQ, Greffe d’Étienne Dubreuil, 5 oct. 1725. AN, Col., B, 17, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 27, 29, 30, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40; 48, p.862; C11A, 37, 38, 40, 45, 46 48; 120, t.2; C11B, 1; C11C, 2–7; C11D, 3, ff.78, 81, 99, 101, 118; E, 285; Section Outre-Mer, Dépôt des fortifications des colonies, carton 2, nos.99, 103, 106, 107, 109–15; carton 3, nos.134, 135. Comitè technique du génie (Paris), Archives, art. 14 (Louisbourg), no.1. PAC, FM 6, Archives maritimes, Port de Rochefort, 1E, 43, f.18. Le Blant, Histoire de la N.-F., 253. P.-G. Roy, Inv. testaments, II, 69.
[F. Aubert de La Chesnaye-Desbois], Dictionnaire militaire (Lausanne et Genève, 1743; 2e éd., 2v., Dresde, 1751), II, 210. Le Blant, Philippe de Pastour de Costebelle. McLennan, Louisbourg. P.-G. Roy, “Jacques L’Hermitte,” BRH, XI (1905), 175–80; “Les officiers d’état major,” RC, 3e sér., XXIV (1919), 55–61.
[Most writers who have mentioned Jacques L’Hermitte have for some unstated reason given the year of his birth as 1670. His baptismal certificate has now been found which gives his birth date as 8 May 1659 and the name of his parents as Jacques L’Hermitte and Marie Preaux. Archives départementales. Calvados (Caen), E, État civil, Le Breuil-en-Bessin, Trévières, Baptêmes, 15 mai 1659. f.j.t.]