Saturday, November 1, 2014

The First French-Canadian Settlers I: Louis Gaston Hébert

The city of Québec was founded in 1608, the second permanent French settlement in Canada.  It took several years for these colonies to take hold; in fact, for the first few years, the majority of the population died each winter.   Despite a continual trickle of immigrants, the population was extremely low until the mid-17th century (for example, even as late as 1667, Québec’s entire population was only in the 3,000’s), compared to the English colonies which — although they started later (1620 in Plymouth) — had spread to all over New England by the 1640s.  While (so far) there's absolutely NO representation in my family tree on the English colony side, in Québec, there are several ancestors who actually were among the first colonists!

For this, one needs to start with 10th great-grandfather Louis Gaston Hébert (1572/5 – 1627).  He was born in Paris (near the Louvre), and arugably the first "true" settler of Québec.   I say that because he actually lived off of the land by creating a small farm for sustenance, and traded with the indigenous population, whereas other "colonists" relied entirely on trade ships from France for supplies.  Not "going entirely native" was actually encouraged by the French government through the sponsors of the fur and cod trade in Canada.

Rue Saint Honore in Paris where Louis Hébert had an
apothecary shop.

He wasn't a farmer by trade — he was actually an apothecary (which was the family business[1,2]) — who first came to the Arcadian settlement in Port Royal (the first French settlement established in 1604 until 1607) in the summer of 1606 traveling along the coast as south as what's now Gloucester, MA, with Champlain scouting for potential future settlement locations.    He returned in 1610, again in the role of healer to both the French and the Indians, including the Mi'kmaq leader Membertou (who is also a 13th great-grandfather), and attempts to start a settlement on Mt. Desert Island in 1613, but is captured by the British who proceed to destroy Port Royal in November of that year.

Louis Hébert, gathering plants
The third time is the charm.   In 1616-1617 Champlain is once again in Paris, advocating creating a permanent settlement in Québec and obtains the promise of a fairly lucrative contract with the "Compagnie de Canada" (200 crowns per year plus support for he and his family in return for his apothecary services).   Perhaps too optimistically, he sells his house and garden in Paris and gets ready to leave with his wife Marie-Anne (Rolet/Rollet, 1580-1649) and their three children[3].   Arriving at Honfleur (where the ship will leave for Canada) he learns that the company in fact has no intention to honor this contract; the new "offer" is far less favorable, and basically puts his entire family at the mercy of the company.   Having no choice now that he's liquidated his assets for the trip, they agree to the new terms, and leave France on March 11, 1617, arriving in Tadoussac (a trading post) four months later on July 15, 1617, and from there on to Québec.[4]

His presence (and his small 10-acre farm) were instrumental to the nascent Québec colony.  Because of his background in (17h century) medicine, one of the primary roles of the farm was to grow medicinal herbs and plants as well as a variety of vegetables.   This is despite interference from the the controlling company, first in requiring as much of their time as possible, but also in their trying to maintain control of all economic activity (requiring colonists to rely completely on the company for all supplies);  in fact, it wasn't until 1627 that Québec received a ox-driven plow!

Champlain went back and forth from Canada to Québec, trying to promote colonization.  In 1620 he was given full control of the Québec colony, and placed Hébert as the prosecutor of justice for the colony (whose population was only 60, of which only six were women, including Louis' wife and daughter!).   He finally received a plot of land of his own in 1623; his house and that of his son-in-law, Guillaume Couillard, are the first two private homes in Québec (and remain so until 1634).[5]  Everyone else lived in "L'Habitation".

He had realized his fondest dream, but it wasn't to last: after a fall on the ice at the very end of 1626, he died on January 23, 1627.

Monument in Québec honoring Louis Hébert
and Guillaume Couillard.

[1] His father, Nicolas Hébert (1539–1600) was also an apothecary, serving in the court of Queen Marie de Medici (1573-1642) who herself is the wife of King Henry IV of France (1553–1610, and who is also a 5th cousin 15x removed).

[2] Nicolas Hébert is an 11th great-grandfather.  Louis' younger brother Jacques (1576-1662) is also a 10th great-grandfather.  He settled in Port Royal several years after Louis had settled in Québec (apparently in the 1640s).

[3] Anne (1603–1619) died shortly being married (at age 15!) to Joseph-Marie-Etienne Jonquest — this was the first marriage performed in New France;  Guillaume (1604–1639) is a 9th great-grandfather, the husband of Hélène Desportes (1620–1675) the first French child born in Québec;  Joseph (1605–1608) died before the family left France; and Marie-Guillemette (1606–1684) marries Sieur Guillaume Couillard (dit de Lespinay), a carpenter and one of the original colonists to Québec (arriving in 1613, even before the Hébert family) who takes over most of the Hébert land after Louis' death.   He's also the first Canadian to be knighted in 1654 by Louis XIV.

[4] Today one can't really imagine what this "voyage" must have been like.   These were not "cruise liners" — there were no "passenger" accommodations; those traveling were essentially treated like cargo, crammed into makeshift dark areas below decks, surviving off of what provisions they had (that hadn't spoiled or were eaten by rats, etc.).   The semi-rotten food, combined with the rolling of the ship tortured the passengers with sea sickness.  

[5] It's things like this that fascinate me, especially when comparing the Québec colony to the Plymouth colony.   The first Hébert house was nothing more than a shack; it was soon replaced with a one-story stone house, 38'x19' (722 sq. ft.).

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