PETITPAS, BARTHÉLEMY, navigator, agent to the Micmac Indians, interpreter; b. 1687, probably at Mouscoudabouet (Musquodoboit Harbour, N.S.), son of Claude Petitpas* and a Micmac woman named Marie-Thérèse; m. Madeleine Coste c. 1715 and had six sons and two daughters; d. January 1747 at Boston, Massachusetts.
From childhood Barthélemy Petitpas’s mores and habitat were those of the Micmacs. He spoke the Micmac tongue even before he spoke French, and, through sustained associations with New Englanders trading and fishing in Acadia, he became fluent in English as well. Petitpas’s knowledge of all three languages made him an invaluable instrument of the rival diplomacies of England and France in Acadia, not only among his own people, the Micmacs, but likely also among the Acadians. It is part of the irony of Barthélemy Petitpas’s career that he could be branded by a Frenchman as a “bad [type capable] of doing things that are most prejudicial to our interests” (Pierre-Auguste de Soubras*, 1717), and at about the same time be accused by an English official of doing “great damage to my master’s subjects by incensing the savages against them” (John Doucett*, 1718).
When he assisted Captain Thomas Smart* in the expulsion of a group of French fishermen from Canso in 1718 Petitpas was firmly in the British camp. He spent the next three years as a guest of the English in Boston, perfecting his English, and returned late in 1721 to become the official British agent among the Micmacs in Nova Scotia. Philippe de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil and Michel Bégon reported that the intention was for Petitpas to return as a Protestant missionary among the Micmacs, “to win over this nation and make it change its religion.”
Petitpas’s return caused grave concern at Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). Knowing he was fast becoming more dangerous even than his father, who had also helped the English, Governor Saint-Ovide [Monbeton] contrived to have Barthélemy captured, probably in November 1721 when his 18-ton schooner was confiscated at Louisbourg for trading in contraband goods from Canso. In 1722 Saint-Ovide sent him to the seminary of Quebec in the hope that after years of study Petitpas’s ardours would be channelled to the French missionary effort. In Quebec, however, Petitpas confided to Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix*] that he desired only to learn navigation. Late in 1722, therefore, he was sent to Rochefort, France, where he was maintained and trained by a competent hydrographer at crown expense. He nevertheless remained intractable, and by the summer of 1723 the intendant at Rochefort, François de Beauharnois, requested that Petitpas be sent to Martinique as a soldier, as he “won’t stick at anything, and has been ruined by wine and women.” His conduct was no better in Martinique, however, and the authorities so feared he would lead his comrades to desert that he was eventually sent back to France and imprisoned at Le Havre.
He was released from prison in June 1730, still proscribed from returning to New France. It is surprising, therefore, to find him back at Île Royale as early as the summer of 1731, being warmly recommended by the financial commissary, Jacques-Ange Le Normant de Mézy, for the post of Indian interpreter. His father in fact received the appointment, but after Claude’s death the following summer the position, with an annual stipend of 300 livres, devolved in course upon Barthélemy.
Petitpas appears to have been restored to favour at Île Royale in the interests of the colony. Beauharnois had readily admitted his intelligence, and Saint-Ovide and Le Normant were quick to recognize there was “no other person here” fit to act as interpreter. His abilities were appreciated: after being dispatched early in 1734 to pilot a vessel to New York to purchase sorely needed supplies of food for the colony, he reminded the authorities that he could be earning more than 1000 livres in the coastal trade. His stipend was immediately doubled to 600 livres.
The final 12 years of Barthélemy Petitpas’s life remain obscure. We know nothing of the direction of his influence among the Micmacs, nor of his relations with the colonial authorities. We do know that he was serving as a pilot in 1745, the year the New Englanders captured Louisbourg [see William Pepperrell]. Petitpas himself was captured and imprisoned in Boston. Governor William Shirley maintained his right to detain him even after the exchange of prisoners because, he claimed, Petitpas “had no right to throw off his allegiance and go into the french King’s service.” Petitpas died in January 1747, still in prison in Boston. His widow was reported in a 1752 census as living with six of their children at L’Ardoise, Île Royale.
AD, Charente-Maritime (La Rochelle), B, 265, ff.20–21 (Amirauté de Louisbourg). AN, Col., B, 45, ff.200, 205; 54, f.42; 59, f.516; 63, ff.535–37; C11B, 2, f.38v; 5, f.43; 6, ff.107–8; 12, ff.53–53v; 14, ff.3–7; 15, ff.12–14, 90v, 139; F2C, 3, ff.556–57, 576; Marine, C7, 244; Section Outre-Mer, G3, 2041, f.52; 2047/1, f.90. PRO, CO 217/2, f.215. Coll. de manuscrits relatifs à la N.-F., III, 379. PAC Report, 1905, II, pt.i, 12. Arsenault, Hist. et généal. des Acadiens, I, 477–78. Coleman, New England captives, I, 97–98.