When the fifteen year old Charles Le Moyne left his father’s inn at Dieppe for New France in 1641 he was heading for a war zone.
In 1535 Jacques Cartier found a palisaded town of some three thousand Huron below Mont Royal. By the time Champlain visited in 1611, the town was gone, abandoned with its fertile lands in the wars with the Iroquois, dominant in modern New York. The arrival of the Europeans scarcely helped; in the competition for land and dominance of the fur trade the English and Dutch allied themselves with the Iroquois while the French promised assistance to the Huron and Algonquin. All three brought arms as well as unknown diseases which devastated the population of North America, but French colonization was rendered ineffective by the asset stripping tendency of fur trading companies who preferred to depend on the beleaguered Huron for the supply of fur and on France for everything else. Failing in the mandate to settle New France, far from the self-sustaining colony promoted by Champlain in 1618, they created little more than a disparate network of trading posts and religious communities. The settlement of Ville Marie on Mont Royal fell into the second of these categories. Politically, economically, and militarily, the community established by Jeanne Mance and Paul de Chomedy de Maisonneuve in 1632 stood unsupported on some of the most fertile and strategically important land in a complex five way war which would see the destruction of the Huron nation in the St Lawrence Valley. It was here, after four years with the Huron as a Jesuit engagé, that the nineteen year-old Le Moyne made his home.
Inevitably, Le Moyne fought in the wars, Occasionally in command of the groups of settlers, he was captured at least twice. In 1654, the year of his marriage to Catherine Thierry, de Maisonneuve awarded him ninety acres at Pointe St Charles and the site on rue St Paul where he would build his house for his bravery. He did not, however, participate in the disastrous expedition of Dollard des Ormeaux to Long Sault in 1660, preferring with others to wait until after the seeding season, and for tales of adventure we are better looking to Catherine’s adoptive mother, Martine Messier. Attacked by three Iroquois some distance from the fort in July 1652, she fainted from her hatchet wounds. About to be scalped, she revived and in one account “rose more furious than ever and seized the brute to violently in a place which modesty forbids mentioning that he was barely able to escape”. Overcome once more, she fainted before her rescuers could reach her, but the confusion remained when they arrived she delivered one of them “a lusty box on the ears”, later explaining in her Rouen dialect “Parmanda, I thought he wanted to kiss me.”
Le Moyne’s true skill lay not in combat but as an interpreter and acquirer of property. In 1657 he received five thousand acres on the South Shore of the St Lawrence for his services as an interpreter of the Huron and Iroquois languages. This land now forms the basis of the present city of Longueuil. In 1665, the adjacent islands of La Ronde and Ile Ste Hélène, the site of the modern Parc Jean Drapeau, were added, and, in 1669, he was awarded land on the St Louis, now Lachine, Rapids. In 1672, under the royal rule administered by the intendant Jean Talon and governor Louis Frontenac, he was confirmed as the Sieur de Longueil and awarded all unallotted lands in the sixty kilometre stretch of the South Shore opposite Montreal between Varennes in the north and La Pairie in the west. The following year Châteauguay was added, the depth of his seigneury extended and all his fiefs consolidated under the name of Longueuil. This created a 62 kilometre stretch of riverfront land running almost the length of the island of Montreal itself and now home to over a half a million people.
Under direct royal rule, established in 1663, the deficiencies of the fur trading companies started to be addressed. Populating and consolidating the colony became a priority at Versailles, if not at Quebec, and into New France came not only adventurers, priests, and fanatics, but sorely needed skilled labourers and the filles du roi, the able and perhaps most importantly from the administrators’ point of view, fertile, young women. In Paris these young men and women might be beggars, but in New France they were tenant farmers, and in Montreal, they were Le Moyne’s tenants.
Rents were not Le Moyne’s only source of income, and from 1679 he was awarded the right to trade in fur from Fort Frontenac in lieu of payment of debts by La Salle, a favourite of Frontenac’s. He was also an important shareholder in the Compagnie du Nord. Formed, like Hudson Bay Company, the creation of its former agents, Paul-Éspirit Radisson and Chouard des Grosselliers, to exploit the store of beaver fur in the north, three of his fourteen children with Theirry, headed north to expel the English and defend their father’s interests. Though they were not successful, his son Pierre d’Iberville together with the debtor La Salle, covered themselves in the then dubious glory of founding Louisiana.
By the time he died in 1685, the fifteen year-old who had set out from Dieppe had become the richest man in Montreal, with personal possessions in excess of 125,000 livres. Yet surrounded by lives filled with adventure, not least those of his sons and his mother-in-law, his rags to riches tale seems an exercise in accountancy. That is only by comparison though, and in 1683 he was recommended for the post of governor of Montreal as nobody had done more in defending the city than him. As for the acquisition of his wealth, while hard work and military bravery was certainly part of it, his rise is of a piece with the fortunes of the colony and he offers an important lesson for anyone who would hope to emulate his success: get there first.
Consulted for this post
Christopher Moore, “Colonization and Conflict: New France and its Rivals (1600-1760)” in The Illustrated History of Canada, 95-180. edited by Craig Brown Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2007.
Jean-Jacques Lefebvre, “LE MOYNE DE LONGUEUIL ET DE CHÂTEAUGUAY, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 1, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_de_longueuil_et_de_chateauguay_charles_1E.html
André Vachon, “MESSIER, MARTINE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 1, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/messier_martine_1E.html.
Bernard Pothier, “LE MOYNE D’IBERVILLE ET D’ARDILLIÈRES, PIERRE,” inDictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 1, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_d_iberville_et_d_ardillieres_pierre_2E.html.
Jean Blain, “LE MOYNE DE SAINTE-HÉLÈNE, JACQUES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 1, 2013. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_de_sainte_helene_jacques_1E.html.
Update – 4 September 2013
Thanks are due to Kate at Montreal City Weblog, who points out that there is still a Baron de Longueuil. The title is the only French colonial title recognized by the King or Queen of Canada, the official title of the British monarch in these matters. The incumbent is Michael Grant, a retired kdoctor living on the Isle of Arran, in Scotland, and in France. In addition to the lands around Longueuil, the family’s former Canadian property included Ardarth Castle on Wolfe Island in Lake Ontario, and Alwington House in Kingston, Ontario, which served as Government House when Kingston was Canada’s capital in from 1841 to 1844. Both have been sold along with the lands on the South Shore; neither the house nor the castle are still standing.