William Bennett Munro.

The Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism online

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grow. He was expected to live on his land, to level the
forest, to clear fields, and to make two blades of grass
grow where one grew before. He was expected to have his
seigneury surveyed into farms, or en censive holdings,
and to procure, as quickly as might be, settlers for
these farms. It was highly desirable, of course, that
the seigneurs should lend a hand in encouraging the
immigration of people from their old homes in France.
Some of them did this. Robert Giffard, who held the
seigneury of Beauport just below Quebec, was a notable
example. The great majority of the seigneurs, however,
made only half-hearted attempts in this direction, and
their efforts went for little or nothing. What they did
was to meet, on arrival at Quebec, the shiploads of
settlers sent out by the royal officers. There they
gathered about the incoming vessel, like so many land
agents, each explaining what advantages in the way of a
good location and fertile soil he had to offer. Those
seigneurs who had obtained tracts near the settlement at
Quebec had, of course, a great advantage in all this,
for the new-comers naturally preferred to set up their
homes where a church would be near at hand, and where
they could be in touch with other families during the
long winters. Consequently the best locations in all the
seigneuries near Quebec were soon taken, and then settlers
had to take lands more remote from the little metropolis
of the colony. They went to the seigneuries near Montreal
and Three Rivers; when the best lands in these areas were
taken up, they dispersed themselves along the whole north
shore of the St Lawrence from below the Montmorency to
its junction with the Ottawa. The north shore having been
well dotted with the whitewashed homes, the south shore
came in for its due share of attention, and in the last
half-century of the French regime a good many settlers
were provided for in that region.

For a time the immigrants found little or no difficulty
in obtaining farms on easy terms. Seigneurs were glad
to give them land without any initial payment and frequently
promised exemption from the usual seigneurial dues for
the first few years. In any case these dues and services,
which will be explained more fully later on, were not
burdensome. Any settler of reasonable industry and
intelligence could satisfy these ordinary demands without
difficulty. Translated into an annual money rental they
would have amounted to but a few sous per acre. But this
happy situation did not long endure. As the settlers
continued to come, and as children born in the colony
grew to manhood, the demand for well-situated farms grew
more brisk, and some of the seigneurs found that they
need no longer seek tenants for their lands. On the
contrary, they found that men desiring land would come
to them and offer to pay not only the regular seigneurial
dues, but an entry fee or bonus in addition. The best
situated lands, in other words, had acquired a margin of
value over lands not so well situated, and the favoured
seigneurs turned this to their own profit. During the
early pears of the eighteenth century, therefore, the
practice of exacting a prix d'entree became common; indeed
it was difficult for a settler to get the lands he most
desired except by making such payment. As most of the
newcomers could not afford to do this they were often
forced to make their homes in unfavourable, out-of-the-way
places, while better situations remained untouched by
axe or plough.

The watchful attention of the intendant Raudot, however,
was in due course drawn to this difficulty. It was a
development not at all to his liking. He thought it would
be frowned upon by the king and his ministers if properly
brought to their notice, and in 1707 he wrote frankly to
his superiors concerning it. First of all he complained
that 'a spirit of business speculation, which has always
more of cunning and chicane than of truth and righteousness
in it,' was finding its way into the hearts of the people.
The seigneurs in particular, he alleged, were becoming
mercenary; they were taking advantage of technicalities
to make the habitants pay more than their just dues. In
many cases settlers had taken up lands on the merely oral
assurances of the seigneurs; then when they got their
deeds in writing these deeds contained various provisions
which they had not counted upon and which were not fair.
'Hence,' declared the intendant, 'a great abuse has
arisen, which is that the habitants who have worked their
farms without written titles have been subjected to heavy
rents and dues, the seigneurs refusing to grant them
regular deeds except on onerous conditions; and these
conditions they find themselves obliged to accept, because
otherwise they will have their labour for nothing.'

The royal authorities paid due heed to these complaints,
and, although they did not accept all Raudot's suggestions,
they proceeded to provide corrective measures in the usual
way. This way, of course, was by the issue of royal edicts.
Two of these decrees reached the colony in the due course
of events. They are commonly known as the Arrets of Marly,
and bear date July 11, 1711. Both were carefully prepared
and their provisions show that the royal authorities
understood just where the entire trouble lay.

The first arret went direct to the point. 'The king has
been informed,' it recites, 'that there are some seigneurs
who refuse under various pretexts to grant lands to
settlers who apply for them, preferring rather the hope
that they may later sell these lands.' Such attitude,
the decree went on to declare, was absolutely repugnant
to His Majesty's intentions, and especially 'unfair to
incoming settlers who thus find land less open to free
settlement in situations best adapted for agriculture.'
It was, therefore, ordered that if any applicant for
lands should be by any seigneur denied a reasonable grant
on the customary terms, the intendant should forthwith
step in and issue a deed on his own authority. In this
case the annual payments were to go to the colonial
treasury, and not to the seigneur. This decree simplified
matters considerably. After it became the law of the
colony no one desiring land from a seigneur's ungranted
domain was expected to offer anything above the customary
annual dues and services. The seigneur had no legal right
to demand more. By one stroke of the royal pen the Canadian
seigneur had lost all right of ownership in his seigneury;
he became from this time on a trustee holding lands in
trust for the future immigrant and for the sons of the
people. However his lands might grow in value, the
seigneur, according to the letter of the law, could exact
no more from new tenants than from those who had first
settled upon his estate. This was a revolutionary change;
it put the seigneurial system in Canada on a basis wholly
different from that in France; it proved that the king
regarded the system as useful only in so far as it actively
contributed to the progress of the colony. Where it stood
in the way of progress he was prepared to apply the knife
even at its very vitals.

Unfortunately for those most concerned, however, the
royal orders were not allowed to become common knowledge
in the colony. The decree was registered and duly
promulgated; then quickly forgotten. Few of the habitants
seem to have ever heard of it; newcomers, of course, knew
nothing of their rights under its provisions. Seigneurs
continued to get special terms for advantageous locations,
the applicants for lands being usually quite willing to
pay a bonus whenever they could afford to do so. Now and
then some one, having heard of the royal arret, would
appeal to the intendant, whereupon the seigneur made
haste to straighten out things satisfactorily. Then, as
now, the presumption was that the people knew the law,
and were in a position to take advantage of its protecting
features; but the agencies of information were so few
that the provisions of a new decree rarely became common

The second of the two arrets of Marly was designed to
uphold the hands of those seigneurs who were trying to
do right. The king and his ministers were convinced, from
the information which had come to them, that not all the
'cunning and chicane' in land dealings came from the
seigneurs. The habitants were themselves in part to blame.
In many cases settlers had taken good lands, had cut down
a few trees, thinking thereby to make a technical compliance
with requirements, and were spending their energies in
the fur trade. It was the royal opinion that real
homesteading should be insisted upon, and he decreed,
accordingly, that wherever a habitant did not make a
substantial start in clearing his farm, the land should
be forfeited in a year to the seigneur. This arret, unlike
its companion decree, was rigidly enforced. The council
at Quebec was made up of seigneurs, and to the seigneurs
as a whole its provisions were soon made known. During
the twenty years following the issue of the decree of
1711 the intendant was called upon to declare the forfeiture
of over two hundred farms, the owners of which had not
fulfilled the obligation to establish a hearth and home
(tenir feu et lieu) upon the lands. As a spur to the
slothful this decree appears to have had a wholesome
effect; although, in spite of all that could be done,
the agricultural development of the colony proceeded with
exasperating slowness. Each year the governor and intendant
tried in their dispatches to put the colony's best foot
forward; every autumn the ships took home expressions of
achievement and hope; but between the lines the patient
king must have read much that was discouraging.

It may be well at this point to take a general survey of
the colonial seigneuries, noting what progress had been
made. The seigneurial system had been a half-century in
full flourish - what had it accomplished? That is evidently
just what the home authorities wanted to know when they
arranged for a topographical and general report on the
seigneuries in 1712. This investigation, on the intendant's
advice, was entrusted to an engineer, Gedeon de Catalogne.
Catalogne, who was a native of Bearn, born in 1662, came
to Canada about the year 1685. He was engaged on the
improvement of the colonial fortifications until the
intendant set him to work on a survey of the seigneuries.
The work occupied two or three years, in the course of
which he prepared three excellent maps showing the
situation and extent of all the seigneuries in the
districts of Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal. The
first two maps have been preserved; that of the district
of Montreal was probably lost at sea on its way to France.
With the two maps Catalogne presented a long report on
the ownership, resources, and general progress of the
seigneuries. Ninety-three of them are dealt with in all,
the report giving in each case the situation and extent
of the tract, the nature of the soil and its adaptability
to different products, the mineral deposits and timber,
the opportunities for industry and trade, the name and
rank of the seigneur, the way in which he had come into
possession of the seigneury, the provisions made for
religious worship, and various other matters.

Catalogne's report shows that in 1712 practically all
the lands bordering on both sides of the St Lawrence from
Montreal to some distance below Quebec had been made into
seigneuries. Likewise the islands in the river and the
lands on both sides of the Richelieu had been apportioned
either to the Church orders or to lay seigneurs. All
these tracts were, for administrative purposes, grouped
into the three districts of Montreal, Three Rivers, and
Quebec; the intendant himself took direct charge of
affairs at Quebec, but in the other two settlements he
was represented by a subordinate. Each district, likewise,
had its own royal court, and from the decisions of these
tribunals appeals might be carried before the Superior
Council, which held its weekly sessions at the colonial

On the island of Montreal was the most important of the
seigneuries in the district bearing its name. It was held
by the Seminary of St Sulpice, and its six parishes
contained in 1712 a population of over two thousand. The
soil of the island was fertile and the situation was
excellent for trading purposes, for it commanded the
routes usually taken by the fur flotillas both from the
Great Lakes and from the regions of Georgian Bay. The
lands were steadily rising in value, and this seigneury
soon became one of the most prosperous areas of the
colony. The seminary also owned the seigneury of St
Sulpice on the north shore of the river, some little
distance below the island.

Stretching farther along this northern shore were various
large seigneuries given chiefly to officers or former
officers of the civil government, and now held by their
heirs. La Valterie, Lanoraie, and Berthier-en-Haut, were
the most conspicuous among these riparian fiefs. Across
the stream lay Chateauguay and Longueuil, the patrimony
of the Le Moynes; likewise the seigneuries of Varennes,
Vercheres, Contrecoeur, St Ours, and Sorel. All of these
were among the so-termed military seigneuries, having
been originally given to retired officers of the Carignan
regiment. A dozen other seigneurial properties, bearing
names of less conspicuous interest, scattered themselves
along both sides of the great waterway. Along the Richelieu
from its junction with the St Lawrence to the outer limits
of safe settlement in the direction of Lake Champlain,
a number of seigneurial grants had been effected. The
historic fief of Sorel commanded the confluence of the
rivers; behind it lay Chambly and the other properties
of the adventurous Hertels. These were settled chiefly
by the disbanded Carignan soldiers, and it was their task
to guard the southern gateway.

The coming of this regiment, its work in the colony, and
its ultimate settlement, is an interesting story,
illustrating as it does the deep personal interest which
the Grand Monarque displayed in the development of his
new dominions. For a long time prior to 1665 the land
had been scourged at frequent intervals by Iroquois raids.
Bands of marauding redskins would creep stealthily upon
some outlying seigneury, butcher its people, burn everything
in sight, and then decamp swiftly to their forest lairs.
The colonial authorities, helpless to guard their entire
frontiers and unable to foretell where the next blow
would fall, endured the terrors of this situation for
many years. In utter desperation they at length called
on the king for a regiment of trained troops as the
nucleus of a punitive expedition. The Iroquois would be
tracked to their own villages and there given a memorable
lesson in letters of blood and iron. The king, as usual,
complied, and on a bright June day in 1665 a glittering
cavalcade disembarked at Quebec. The Marquis de Tracy
with two hundred gaily caparisoned officers and men of
the regiment of Carignan-Salieres formed this first
detachment; the other companies followed a little later.
Quebec was like a city relieved from a long siege. Its
people were in a frenzy of joy.

The work which the regiment had been sent out to do was
soon begun. The undertaking was more difficult than had
been anticipated, and two expeditions were needed to
accomplish it; but the Iroquois were thoroughly chastened,
and by the close of 1666 the colony once more breathed
easily. How long, however, would it be permitted to do
so? Would not the departure of the regiment be a signal
to the Mohawks that they might once again raid the colony's
borders with impunity? Talon thought that it would, hence
he hastened to devise a plan whereby the Carignans might
be kept permanently in Canada. To hold them there as a
regular garrison was out of the question; it would cost
too much to maintain six hundred men in idleness. So the
intendant proposed to the king that the regiment should
be disbanded at Quebec, and that all its members should
be given inducements to make their homes in the colony.

Once more the king assented. He agreed that the officers
of the regiment should be offered seigneuries, and provided
with funds to make a start in improving them. For the
rank and file who should prove willing to take lands
within the seigneuries of the officers the king consented
to provide a year's subsistence and a liberal grant in
money. The terms proved attractive to some of the officers
and to most of the men. Accordingly, arrangements were
at once made for getting them established on their new
estates. Just how many permanent settlers were added to
the colonial population in this way is not easy to
ascertain; but about twenty-five officers (chiefly captains
and lieutenants) together with nearly four hundred men
volunteered to stay. Most of the non-commissioned officers
and men showed themselves to be made of good stuff; their
days were long in the land, and their descendants by the
thousand still possess the valley of the Richelieu. But
the officers, good soldiers though they were, proved to
be rather faint-hearted pioneers. The task of beating
swords into ploughshares was not altogether to their
tastes. Hence it was that many of them got into debt,
mortgaged their seigneuries to Quebec or Montreal merchants,
soon lost their lands, and finally drifted back to France.

When Talon arranged to have the Carignans disbanded in
Canada he decided that they should be given lands in that
section of the colony where they would be most useful in
guarding New France at its most vulnerable point. This
weakest point was the region along the Richelieu between
Lake Champlain and the St Lawrence. By way of this route
would surely come any English expedition sent against
New France, and this likewise was the portal through
which the Mohawks had already come on their errands of
massacre. If Canada was to be safe, this region must
become the colony's mailed fist, ready to strike in
repulse at an instant's notice. All this the intendant
saw very plainly, and he was wise in his generation.
Later events amply proved his foresight. The Richelieu
highway was actually used by the men of New England on
various subsequent expeditions against Canada, and it
was the line of Mohawk incursion so long as the power of
this proud redskin clan remained unbroken. At no time
during the French period was this region made entirely
secure; but Talon's plan made the Richelieu route much
more difficult for the colony's foes, both white and red,
than it otherwise would have been.

Here was an interesting experiment in Roman imperial
colonization repeated in the New World. When the empire
of the Caesars was beginning to give way before the
oncoming barbarians of Northern Europe, the practice of
disbanding legions on the frontier and having them settle
on the lands was adopted as a means of securing defence,
without the necessity of spending large sums on permanent
outpost garrisons. The retired soldier was a soldier
still, but practically self-supporting in times of peace.
These praedia militaria of the Romans gave Talon his idea
of a military cantonment along the Richelieu, and in
broaching his plans to the king he suggested that the
'practice of the politic and warlike Romans might be
advantageously used in a land which, being so far away
from its monarch, must trust for existence to the strength
of its own arms.'

All who took lands in this region, whether seigneurs or
habitants, were bound to serve in arms at the call of
the king, although this obligation was not expressly
provided in the deeds of land. Never was a call to arms
without response. These military settlers and their sons
after them were only too ready to gird on the sword at
every opportunity. It was from this region that expeditions
quietly set forth from time to time towards the borders
of New England, and leaped like a lynx from the forest
upon some isolated hamlet of Massachusetts or New York.
The annals of Deerfield, Haverhill, and Schenectady bear
to this day their tales of the Frenchman's ferocity, and
all New England hated him with an unyielding hate. In
guarding the southern portal he did his work with too
much zeal, and his stinging blows finally goaded the
English colonies to a policy of retaliation which cost
the French very dearly.

But to return to the seigneuries along the river. The
district of Three Rivers, extending on the north shore
of the St Lawrence from Berthier-en-Haut to Grondines,
and on the south from St Jean-Deschaillons east to Yamaska,
was but sparsely populated when Catalogne prepared to
report in 1712. Prominent seigneuries in this region were
Pointe du Lac or Tonnancour, the estate of the Godefroys
de Tonnancour; Cap de la Magdelaine and Batiscan, the
patrimony of the Jesuits; the fief of Champlain, owned
by Desjordy de Cabanac; Ste Anne de la Perade, Nicolet,
and Becancour. Nicolet had passed into the hands of the
Courvals, a trading family of Three Rivers, and Becancour
was held by Pierre Robineau, the son of his famous father,
Rene Robineau de Becancour. On all of these seigneuries
some progress had been made, but often it amounted to
very little. Better results had been obtained both eastward
and westward of the region.

The district of Quebec was the first to be allotted in
seigneuries, and here of course agriculture had made
better headway. Grondines, La Chevrotiere, Portneuf,
Pointe aux Trembles, Sillery, and Notre-Dame des Anges
were all thriving properties ranging along the river bank
eastward to the settlement at Quebec. Just beyond the
town lay the flourishing fief of Beauport, originally
owned by Robert Giffard, but now held by his heirs, the
family of Juchereau Duchesnay. This seigneury was destined
to loom up prominently in later days when Montcalm held
Wolfe at bay for weeks along the Beauport shore. Fronting
Beauport was the spacious island of Orleans with its
several thriving parishes, all included within the
seigneury of Francois Berthelot, on whom the king for
his zeal and enterprise had conferred the title of Comte
de St Laurent. A score of other seigneurial tracts,
including Lotbiniere, Lauzon, La Durantaye, Bellechasse,
Riviere Ouelle, and others well known to every student
of Canadian genealogy, were included within the huge
district round the ancient capital.

The king's representatives had been much too freehanded
in granting land. No seigneur had a tenth of his tract
under cultivation, yet all the best-located and most
fertile soil of the colony had been given out. Those who
came later had to take lands in out-of-the-way places,
unless by good fortune they could secure the re-grant of
something that had been abandoned. The royal generosity
did not in the long run conduce to the upbuilding of the
colony, and the home authorities in time recognized the
imprudence of their policy. Hence it was that edict after
edict sought to make these gentlemen of the wilderness
give up whatever land they could not handle properly,
and if these decrees of retrenchment had been strictly
enforced most of the seigneurial estates would have been
mercilessly reduced in area. But the seigneurs who were
the most remiss happened to be the ones who sat at the
council board in Quebec, and what they had they usually
managed to hold, despite the king's command.



It was to the seigneurs that the king looked for active
aid in promoting the agricultural interests of New France.
Many of them disappointed him, but not all. There were
seigneurs who, in their own way, gave the king's interests
a great deal of loyal service, and showed what the colony
was capable of doing if all its people worked with
sufficient diligence and zeal. Three of these pioneers
of the seigneuries have been singled out for special
attention in this chapter, because each prefigures a type
of seigneur who did what was expected of him, although
not always in the prescribed way. Their work was far from
being showy, and offers a writer no opportunity to make
his pages glow. The priest and the trader afford better
themes. But even the short and simple annals of the poor,
if fruitful in achievement, are worth the recounting.

The honour of being the colony's first seigneur belongs
to Louis Hebert, and it was a curious chain of events
that brought him to the role of a yeoman in the St Lawrence
valley. Like most of these pilgrim fathers of Canada,
Hebert has left to posterity little or no information

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Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 3 of 8)