Remembered by Voltaire his former student at the Collège Louis-le-Grand for being a “bit longwinded”, the great philosophe bought all the books of Pierre-François-Xavier Charlevoix, not least his Histoire et description de la Nouvelle France. Coming in at 3 substantial volumes, it is the journey and observations of a teacher, editor, and priest venturing into the world of adventurers and warriors.
Ordained a deacon in 1705, Charlevoix set out from Paris for Quebec in the company of the new Intendant, Jaques Raudot. There he joined the small teaching staff in the dilapidated building that served as a grammar school and home to retired missionaries and clerics. It was a good setting for the future historian of New France: among his pupils was Louis-Philippe, Governor Vaudreuil’s eldest, while his religious companions brought tales from as far as the Hudson Bay and Wisconsin. Most illustrious of all was “Monseigneur L’Ancien”, the retired Bishop Laval, then staying at the college following the fire of at his seminary on 1 October 1705. Charlevoix was also able to see first-hand the conflict between the English and French and made a journey to Montreal in 1708 where he saw the return of a raiding party on Haverhill, Massachusetts.
He returned to France in 1709 to complete his studies, but his interest in New France continued, and in 1719 he was asked to recommend the boundaries of Acadie following the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. His conclusion that only the peninsular of Nova Scotia had been ceded to the English and that the French should continue to trade with and support the Abenakis was hardly agreeable to the English, and would be contested until the conquests of all Acadie, in 1758, and of New France, in 1759, were ratified in 1763.
The following year, 1720, was given a new assignment and he returned to New France in a vessel captained by his former student Louis-Philippe Vaudreuil. Under the guise of a missionary he was to investigate the existence and location of a western sea between the New World and the Orient. The crossing was slow and the months of seasickness were compounded by delays to expedition by the arrival of winter at Quebec. He left in March for Montreal and Fort Frontenac (Kingston). Mexico Bay, near Oswego, New York, was “the worst place in the world” but Lake Saint Clair “the most beautiful spot in Canada”. At Michilimackinac he met the warrior de Montigny and in Michigan made use of delays caused by illness and bad weather to observe the Miami; a profitable activity he repeated at Natchez, Mississippi, after delays on a log jammed Mississippi. New Orleans was not the settlement he expected, only “a hundred or so shacks”, and he headed to Bilioxi, where he contracted jaundice. Revising his plan to return to Quebec by the Mississippi, he set out by sea; the vessel ran aground the Florida Keys. He tried again, this time following the coast. After a two month journey to Hispaniola, he gave up on Quebec and simply headed back to Paris, which was exactly what a set of misplaced orders had asked him to do.
On his return to France in 1723, via Plymouth and Le Havre, where the ship simply “rotted away in pieces”, he announced that the western sea lay near the source of the Missouri (now known to be in Montana), a position he maintained seven years later when he was consulted by La Verendrye. He also asked to be made emissary to the Sioux, despite lacking any knowledge of the language. Historians are grateful that his offer was refused and that from his journeys, as unlucky as they had been unpleasant, he set about writing the first general history of New France.
Running from pre-contact speculations through the first voyages west up to 1731, the Histoire, together with Charlevoix’s Journal became the Encylopédisites’ authority on the primitive and so his observations are, indirectly at least, responsible for ideas of the noble savage. It is also noted for its observations of over 70 north American plants, identifying eight species of oak where the professional botanist Linnaeus found only five. For all the detail and getting the location of the Pacific hopelessly wrong, Voltaire considered Charlevoix “a most veracious man”, a view with which subsequent historians largely agree.
Although the work was not published until 1744, Charlevoix was no slouch, and in the intervening time he wrote a history of Marie de l’Incarnation, the founder of the Ursuline order in Canada, the Histoire de l’ile Espagnola, where he stopped on his return from Louisiana, edited the Journal des Trévoux from 1733, revised his first book, a history of Christianity in Japan, and in 1742 became procurator of the Ursulines and Jesuits in New France. Subsequently he would write his most widely read book, a history of Paraguay. By the time he died in 1761, at the age of 79, he was being quoted by the English in such ominous titles as The Conduct of the French with Regard to Nova Scotia (1754) and The Importance and Advantage of Cape Breton (1746).
Consulted for this post
If you would like to learn more about the history of New France, then you should know about the excellent Charlevoix: Blogue de la Nouvelle France – A Blog About New France (it mixes both French and English). Written in both French and English by a historian somewhere in Quebec, I wish the new Charlevoix as much success as the original, but not the jaundice.