Discovering Canadian History One Station at a Time
The only son of Anne Phélypeaux de Pontcharterain, the daughter of one Secretary of State and the niece of another, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, godson of Louis XIII was possessed of a vanity matched only by his debts and was a man who could only exist in the orbit of seventeenth-century Versailles. In 1648 he married Anne La Grange, an heiress of fabulous wealth, rare beauty, and a quick temper. To prevent the marriage her father had packed her off to a convent; on its celebration she was disinherited. The young couple lived at court as part of the household of Gaston, Duc d’Orleans, uncle to Louis XIV and the most treacherous man in France, and despite their financial disappointments, their extravagance jumped the shark of ostentation and fell into vulgarity. Of Frontenac’s plans to improve his chateau, the duke’s daughter noted that “One would need to be a minister of finance” and lists among her memories the young Frontenac holding court at his table praising the meat he chosen to be served and stable tours in which all were expected to praise “his quite indifferent horses”.
Doubts about their loyalty saw them dismissed from the Orleans household, and in 1669, with debts of 350,000 livres catching up with him, Frontenac tried to evade his creditors by joining the Venetian military on Crete. He did not last long; after arriving in June, he was ordered off the island by September for his constant quarreling with the senior officers. It would be three years before he would find another dodge, but by 1672 he had sufficient favour at court to be offered the governorship of New France. At 24,000 livres a year the salary could hardly support his lifestyle, but it did offer protection from his creditors.
As on Crete, he started causing problems as soon as he arrived. There were continual disputes with the missionary Jesuits and Bishop François Laval de Montmorency over use of brandy in the fur trade, which was, on the one hand a necessity, and on the other, disruptive bribe and despicable way of cheating the friendly tribes out of their furs. Unwilling to share authority with the Intendant or the Conseil Souverain, Frontenac took no account of the delicate balance of alliances that existed between the Iroquois and English on the one hand Huron and French on the other, and set about using the governor’s responsibility for the defense to expand the colony. In direct opposition to the orders of the king and his minister, Colbert, he established a settlement on the Catarcouri River on Lake Ontario. Now called Kingston, what was then modestly called Fort Frontenac, and was essentially a fur trading outpost. Left in the dubious charge of LaSalle, at a single stroke Frontenac’s fort fostered the ill-will of the merchants of Montreal, who saw an attempt by the governor to control the fur trade, and its habitant farmers, who had been enlisted in the fort’s construction to the detriment of their farms. Beyond these concerns was the ire of the Iroquois, who resumed their attacks on nations friendly to the French.
It can hardly be said that Frontenac was unaware of the dangers of his policy, and when it was criticized, his opponents were arrested. When French allies appealed for support, overtures were made instead to the Iroquois. In charge of military affairs, Frontenac’s response the advance of the English Hudson Bay Company, led by Radisson, in the north, was to continue expansion in the west. Yet, partially through ignorance, the response from Versailles to this unfolding disaster was gradual. In 1675 the arrest of the governor of Montreal and the deportation of a leading clergyman for their opposition to Fort Frontenac resulted only in the independence of the Conseil Souverain from the governor. In 1679, Frontenac arrested the attorney general and assumed the powers that Colbert had specifically denied him. Faced with such abuse of power Louis XIV did issue the warning that New France “runs the risk of being completely destroyed unless you alter both your conduct and your principles”, but was persuaded by Frontenac’s wife and friends in France not to recall the governor. Despite the warning though, the arrests still continued, first of the teenage son of the Intendant, then of an elderly member on the Conseil Souverain, both on the grounds that they had not shown the respect due to his person. Only with such clear tyranny was Frontenac recalled in 1682 and the colony able to deal with its administrative paralysis and an economy left divided between the merchants and the adventurers favoured by the now former governor.
As may be imagined Frontenac’s return to France was not a high point. Forced to live on 3,500 livres, a hundredth of his debts, he set about the business of restoring his favour at court. The mess he had left behind in New France proved too much for his successor, who was on his return able to convince the court of military dangers faced by the colony. He was relieved of his post and a replacement sent out with a large number of troops to defend the colony from and restore peace with the Iroquois. He would have succeeded, had war not broken out between the English and French. Encouraged by this news, and by the English who were arming them, the Iroquois resumed their attacks on the French, which culminated in a devastating attack on Lachine on the southwest of the island of Montreal. This though was Frontenac’s chance, and in 1689, with more reliable men given commands in Europe, Frontenac was restored to his governorship with orders attack the English colony of New York.
A bad crossing and the lateness of the season meant the attack never took place. When the snows melted, Frontenac was left with a guerilla war with the Iroquois, the possibility of English attacks from the south, and the need to maintain alliances in the west. He was, however, in possession of a large body of troops, ably commanded by the future governor, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil and the then governor of Montreal, Louis-Hector de Calliére, and while these men might have influence back in France, Frontenac’s own position at Versailles seemed to improve with the appointment of his relation, Louis Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain. Given this situation he did the logical thing, left the war to Vaudreuil and Calliére, wrote repeatedly to Pontchartrain for a better appointment, and, made overtures to the Iroquois for peace. In the meantime he celebrated every victory with lavish balls and spectacles at the Chateau Saint Louis, including, to the irritation of the clergy, a production of Moliére’s anti-clerical Tartuffe.
His strategy was a success in all respects except that he was ignored by both Pontchartrain and the Iroquois, and while the inaction of the minister might be forgiven, it gave Frontenac cover to expand the colony’s economic influence and bring the Sioux into the fur trade. Far from maintaining the peace or the occupying the Iroquois in the west, this displayed a total disregard for his Ottawa allies who lost their role as middlemen and found their enemies armed with French guns. Understandably annoyed, they allied themselves with the Iroquois, who at last responded to the Frontenac’s overtures causing a temporary truce. While his missionaries and commanders saw that this “truce” incubated only an alliance against the French, it took direct orders from France for Frontenac to begin the full scale attack on the Iroquois villages in 1696.
The effect was devastating. Vaudreuil and Calliére had quickly adapted to guerilla warfare and with their food and supplies destroyed, the Onondaga and Oneida Iroquois nations were increasingly dependent on the support of the English and the other three members of the Iroquois Confederacy. Seeing this lamentable state, the Ottawa once more allied themselves with the French and by the time they sued for peace in 1698, more than half the Onondaga and Oneida population had been killed. Frontenac ventured onto the field once. Carried in an armchair, he joined a party led by Vaudreuil to an Iroquois village. A number of Frenchmen were killed in ambushes on the way, but the village itself had been abandoned. Only one ancient chief, to feeble too leave the village, was captured, his miserable fate to be slowly burned to death by French allies.
1698 also brought peace between England and France and with it exposure of Frontenac’s activities in the west. Rumours that his demands for increased funding for the military served only the fur trading interests of the Governor and his associates began to be believed in Versailles. Worse, he had been so effective that the market in France was saturated and the monopoly, worth half a million to the French exchequer, was up for renewal but now possibly worthless. Through wise delegation had Frontenac saved the colony, but as with Fort Frontenac his choice of officer in the west was just as dubious, and royal indulgence could only go so far. The crisis came when the Governor prevented the Intendant and the Conseil Souverain from prosecuting one of his favourites, Lemothe de Cadillac, who, far from stemming the flow of fur from his post at Michilimackinac and maintaining peace in west, had continued to send fur east and almost brought about a state of war. That this had happened with the encouragement of the governor was too much. Only death could spare Frontenac a second return across the Atlantic in disgrace. When it came in 1698, he made his peace with his enemies in government and the clergy before dying late that year before, leaving the recall unsigned on a desk in Versailles.
Consulted for this post