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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 3

The French in Gaspé, 1534 to 1760

by David Lee

Part II: The Communities


Although still important as a fishery, Ile Percé (or Ile Percée as it was spelled in the French regime) is celebrated today more for its rugged scenic beauty. Few visitors to the area during the French regime seem to have appreciated its beauty, though few (after Jacques Cartier) failed to note its geological uniqueness or its rich fisheries.

On 12 July 1534, Cartier spent the night anchored at Ile Bonaventure facing towards Ile Percé; the next morning he continued his voyage north along the Gaspé coast but somehow the pierced rock failed to appeal to his spirit.1 Champlain was the first European to mention Ile Percé or Ile Bonaventure (1603) and he did not name them, but rather obviously used names already in common use.2

It was cod, not beauty or geology, which the European found appealing. During the 17th century, the Percé fisheries were the principal fisheries of Gaspé, attracting at a time up to 11 shiploads of fishermen from France.3 The Percé fisheries covered all coastal waters from Ile Bonaventure in the south to Baie-des-Morues (Mal-Baie) in the north but the centre was at Ile Percé and the nearby mainland.

Fishing vessels usually anchored in the lee of Ile Percé but even then, as Nicholas Denys laments, they were regularly battered by the seas. As is seen in Figure 6, the cod were dried on what is now known as the south beach of the mainland and usually on flakes, for shingly beaches were rare in this area. Some fish were taken, en dégrat, to be cured on the beaches of Gaspé Bay. Nicholas Denys claims, however, that some fishermen went to the trouble of bringing in loads of pebbles to create a shingly beach. Perhaps by Denys' time (1670s), this was easier than erecting flakes, for he says that all the sources of timber for flakes had been cleared from the surrounding area and the men had to go to Baie-des-Morues for wood. Ile Bonaventure itself was used too, but its beach was not extensive.

Still, the good fishing compensated for all these difficulties with the consequence that the beaches became overcrowded and hostilities resulted. Above the clearings rose La Table à Roland, a forested mountain which, although only about 1,000 feet high, towered above the seashore and provided a prominent beacon for fishermen. The cleared land was subsequently cultivated by the settlers of Pierre Denys' seigneury and found, according to the latter, to be quite fertile. Pierre Denys, however, is not a reliable source as to the qualities of the Percé region for he was trying to attract financial investment and assistance for his seigneury and he paints a much brighter picture of conditions there than was true.4

Nicholas Denys wrote of Percé in his famous book Description and Natural History of Acadia (1672), describing the wealth of the fisheries, but was less enthusiastic about the potential of a sedentary fishery than his nephew Pierre Denys de la Ronde.5 In 1653, Nicholas Denys had purchased from the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France for 15,000 livres the rights to the coasts and islands of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from Cap-des-Rosiers to Cap Canso. He had this concession confirmed in 1667, but to his death in 1688, he never exercised any control over the Percé region.6 Nicholas Denys was more interested in the Acadian portion of his concession, but war and financial difficulties limited his interests even there.

In 1672, Pierre Denys, in association with the prominent Quebec merchants, Charles Bazire and Aubert de la Chesnaye, was ceded the seigneury of Percé which included about a square league of the mainland opposite. Talon and Frontenac agreed that it was a promising location for a sedentary fishery, and in 1676 the concession was confirmed. Pierre Denys had majority control of the seigneury, holding three-eights of the grant while Bazire and La Chesnaye held five-eights between them. The grant enjoined them to clear and settle the land and exploit the fisheries but also provided that whatever extent of beach they did not require for their operations must be made available to summer fishermen from France; but they did have first choice of beach lots.7

Although operations seem to have begun almost immediately, we have no record of a truly permanent or sedentary fishery there until at least 1676.8 Pierre Denys has left a detailed inventory of his establishment at Percé which is dated 15 September 1676, but might actually be 1678.9 He reports four men, a Recollet priest and a married couple resident there at that time. He also reports several buildings at Percé and Petite-Rivière (in Baie-des-Morues), including a storehouse 90 feet long as well as a few cattle, a large garden and over 100 acres cleared and ready to cultivate.

Charles Bazire died in December, 1677, and a memoir written by Denys (probably to the king) a few months later indicates that the establishment at Percé can progress little further without help. He describes the great potential of the Percé fisheries, but then asks for 20,000 livres in subsidies, assistance in shipping and a fort and garrison on Ile Percé. It appears that the king was not convinced, even though Frontenac supported Denys' plea. By 1680, Denys was in serious financial difficulty as a result of his large family and the disability of blindness.10 During the 1680s, the settlement grew only slightly, La Chesnaye seems to have lost interest and Denys' only hope was government assistance.

It is obvious that the only part of the Percé fishery which was viable was the summer fishery. A sedentary fishery financed from Canada failed then, possibly because it never could have been a profitable enterprise, but also possibly because there was little capital in Canada which could be attracted to the slower returns of fisheries; the fur trade was more attractive. Thus, the Percé fisheries were dominated by the summer fishermen and remained in the gravitational field of metropolitan France.

Pierre Denys' affairs were assumed by his son, Simon Denys de Bonaventure, and it was he who tried to maintain his father's claims to the seigneury of Percé. Gaspé seigneurial rights were certainly damaged by the 1681 ordinance which declared the area a free fishery, and they were further compromised when De Meulles, in effect, confirmed this policy. Bonaventure complained bitterly but in vain,11 and within another three years the establishment was wiped out by the English.

War broke out in Europe in the spring of 1689, and it was not long before it was felt in the New World. That summer French fishermen were harassed by English corsairs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and at Percé12 Intrepidly or foolishly, the fishermen returned the next year and six ships (two Rochelais and four Basque) were seized at Percé when it was captured and razed by the English.13 The Percé fishery never recovered — no permanent settlers ever returned to fish there and the number of summer fishermen from France declined, particularly preferring the safer (though poorer) fishery of Gaspé Bay. Frontenac's plan to establish a military post and a separate government at Ile Percé was turned down by the king in 1699, so those French who did return to Percé continued to risk seizure by the English even in peace time; for example, two ships were captured there in 1723, ten years after peace had been restored. De la Morandière has found that in the 18th century, few French fishing contracts mention ships going to Percé and it seems that there were none there in August, 1711, when Walker's invasion force passed through Gaspé. In 1724, Louis Gosselin reported 23 ships in Gaspé, of which only 8 were at Percé.14

The Percé fisheries had never had more than five families permanently resident. Pierre Denys' great plans for extensive settlement never progressed very far but the population remained quite constant. The population was engaged in fishing and some farming. In the decade between 1678 and 1688, some families left but others arrived to replace them, maintaining the population between 20 and 30. The census of 1688 shows that of the adults all were married, one was of unknown origin, two were from Quebec, two from Paris, one from Gascony and four from La Rochelle. It shows that of the 18 children only 6 were girls and the oldest of these was only 11.15

6 Plan of Percé and Baie-des-Morues roadsteads, 1687. This plan provides a larger view of the area than Figure 2 and shows both the Percé settlement and the settlement at Petite-Rivère on the north shore of Baie-des-Morues. (Original in the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris.)

In the summer the population was swelled by 400 to 600 fishermen from France. All were male, of course, and there were no single European female adults for them to associate with. The fishermen had little to do in their free time but gamble and drink or chase Indian women. Both Father LeClercq and Bishop Saint-Valuier felt that the Gaspé Indian women were not naturally free in their sexual behaviour but succumbed to the brandy supplied by the fishermen. LeClercq says that "the Indian women, who yield themselves readily while drunk to all kinds of indecency, at other times... would be more likely to strike back rather than kiss those who intended evil, — if they were in their right minds." The fishermen also got the Indians drunk on brandy to secure their furs more easily but, as LeClercq notes, occasionally the Indians drunkenly avenged themselves, "robbing, ravaging and burning the French houses and stores."16

Potentially an ever greater danger to the welfare of the fisheries was the drunkenness of the fishermen themselves. It was in the captains' interests to keep their men sober and thereby efficient, so they usually restricted the supply of undiluted wine to Sundays when the men did not work. For the rest of the week their wine was watered down, sometimes to one-third or one-quarter strength. The men were guaranteed a certain amount of wine in their diet (perhaps ten barrels of wine for the five-man team of each chaloupe)17 and they drank it all, often leaving none for the return voyage. Wine was one of the men's few diversions and they drank it in their cabarets, temporary structures which they faithfully erected every year upon arriving at Percé. The gaming, fighting and carousing on Sunday were a source of great scandal to the missionaries: Bishop Saint-Vallier felt it was less sinful to work on Sunday than to visit the cabarets, as long as the men went to church services. The missionaries cannot have been overly hostile to the cabaret operators themselves; often being the only literate residents, they were called on to conduct business for them or compile their accounts.18 However, the cabarets do not seem to have caused a serious threat to the fisheries for the captains did not feel compelled to do anything more than restrict the supply of wine.19

While the captains were successful in governing their men they had more difficulty governing relations among themselves. Despite clear imperial regulations there were difficulties over the use of beach lots at Percé. The wealth of the cod fishery around Percé attracted more fishermen than the local beaches could accommodate, so beach rights were a serious source of tension. Colbert took the time to write into his famous Marine Ordinance of 1681 a specific enjoinder against the stealing of chaloupes left over the winter at Petite-Rivière. As well, of course, the ordinance also provided clear rules concerning the rights of the first-arrived ship and the rights of the resident fishermen (there is no indication of trouble between the summer and the resident fishermen), and laws against burning, stealing or damaging the flakes or other structures and equipment.20

The troubles continued though, for in 1686, Saint-Valuier felt constrained to point out the penalties, temporal and spiritual, for the theft of property "which impeded the fishery." When the Intendant Jacques De Meulles arrived at Percé returning from an inspection trip through Acadia, he found the situation so serious that the ships "were ready to battle and even cannonade one another." He brought order to the Percé fishery, for that year at least, by providing for such things as pathways between beach lots and a road for carts which everyone could use.21

In 1685, the five resident fishermen of Percé complained to Richard Denys, Sieur de Fronsac, son of Nicholas Denys, that Pierre Denys had refused to grant them title to the land they had occupied for several years. They now asked Fronsac to grant them the security of title which they needed to develop the sedentary fishery. Naturally Fronsac was happy to comply for it implied recognition of his father's rights. He granted the settler Lespine (and, it appears, the others as well) title to his land and some for his son too, as well as the right to hunt and trade with the Indians. He provided a common pasture for all settlers and at the same time presumed to grant the seigneur (Pierre Denys) certain fishing rights. Being an absentee authority, Fronsac's pronouncements were obviously worthless.22

It is interesting to note the various ways in which attempts were made to exercise authority and settle disputes in the Percé fishery. Attempts to impose the authority of Quebec or Paris proved futile. In 1673, Frontenac tried to hear at Quebec the case of a Basque fisherman accused of murdering a merchant of La Rochelle at Percé; for lack of Basque interpreters the case had to be transferred to the Admiralty Court of La Rochelle.23 The 1681 Ordinance of Marine provided for the same legal procedure in the case of offenses against the fisheries, but this kind of justice was far too slow. Moreover, in remote Percé it was difficult to catch offenders and, as a result, the area became a haven for fugitives. One of Denys' settlers lived with impunity for several years at Percé in contempt of a sentence for bad debts at Quebec.24 Other fugitives used Percé as a sanctuary where they could meet ships which would take them back to France. Quebec and Paris had little control over the region.25

It was difficult to ascertain who had on-the-spot authority at Percé but nevertheless the fishermen muddled through. Frequently it was impossible to attempt to render any justice at all. The five resident fishermen who were concerned about their land tenure did not appeal to Quebec but to Nicholas Denys, but even he was unable to help them. Father LeClercq and Bishop Saint-Vallier appealed to God for justice when they visited Percé, but they also hoped for some sort of temporal authority. De Meulles tried to fill this gap when he visited Percé in 1686; he tried to make it possible to settle contraventions of the law on the spot by providing that fines be paid to the church at Percé. But he still lacked a means of enforcement. Pierre Denys had seigneurial powers over justice but his position had been made debatable by the ordinance of 1681 and De Meulles regulations. His son, Joseph, was the missionary at Percé but even he had little influence over the fishermen. His bishop in effect advised him to pass on the responsibility; he told him that if he were incapable of keeping the cabarets closed during services, then he should enlist the aid of the secular authorities,.26

The Percé fisheries seem to have had a lot of troubles: gambling, drunkenness, difficulties with Indians, local residents and fugitives from justice and even troubles among the fishermen themselves. Still, order does not seem to have broken down entirely. In the end the fishermen themselves must have realized that they had to work out their difficulties among themselves. Perhaps they used royal ordinances and Intendant's regulations as guides but, since we hear of none of the violence which De Meulles expected, we must assume that they learned to govern themselves. Canadian governors and European monarchs were too distant to help so, if the fisheries were to continue to function, there was no alternative to self-policing at Percé. Economically Percé might have been dependent on France but governmentally it was, in practice, independent.

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