DECOIGNE, FRANÇOIS, fur trader; b. in Berthierville (Que.); fl. 1798–1818 (in the latter year he retired to Montreal, Lower Canada).
Although in 1818 François Decoigne could be described as “the celebrated Mons De Quoine,” little is now known of his life or career. It is likely that he was in the west by 1795, for Gabriel Franchère*, who travelled with him in 1814, implies that Decoigne had been in the vicinity of Fort George (near Lindbergh, Alta) 19 years earlier. In September 1798 David Thompson* saw him working there as a clerk for the North West Company under John McDonald* of Garth. In May 1799 Thompson directed Decoigne to build a post at the mouth of the Lesser Slave River (near Slave Lake, Alta), where Peter Fidler* met him the following January. For the trading season of 1800–1 Decoigne returned to the North Saskatchewan, wintering this time some 20 miles upstream from Fort George, where he built Fort de l’Isle. By 1804 he had become the senior clerk in the NWC’s Athabasca department, and he apparently remained in that position for several years.
On 20 June 1806 Alexander Henry recorded Decoigne’s arrival with McDonald at Fort Bas-de-la-Rivière (Fort Alexander, Man.), and by August 1808 Decoigne was apparently under Henry’s command. That winter Decoigne reopened the NWC’s old South Branch House to trade in opposition to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s nearby Carlton House (near Batoche, Sask.); he was still on the South Saskatchewan in the spring of 1810 when Henry heard the report that Decoigne’s men had lost 120 tauraux (hide bags filled with pemmican) through carelessness.
By 1813 Decoigne had moved farther west, and that year he built Rocky Mountain House (Jasper House, Alta). In May of the following year Franchère arrived from the Columbia River, and on the 24th they set out together for Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.), where the NWC partners held their annual rendezvous. The company minutes of July 1814 record that “Mr Decoigne broke in upon a Depot taking there from two Pieces – and being in other respects reported to be extravagant has been ordered out & goes to Montreal – nothing otherwise against his Character.”
Decoigne was not to remain in the east for long. On 3 October Colin Robertson*, outfitting the first HBC expedition supplied from Montreal, engaged him to return to the Athabasca country. Described by Robertson as “one of the best traders the North West Co. ever had,” Decoigne was highly successful in his first two seasons at the HBC post on Lesser Slave Lake, but in December 1816 the NWC seized his post and his supplies. Though he wanted to retire to Montreal, he was induced by the HBC’s offer of a salary of £300 to remain in the west for one more winter. Establishing himself on Lake Athabasca, Decoigne “was blocked up in his house all winter and did not see an Indian.” Nevertheless, his earlier efforts had evidently had an effect, for in August 1818 Robertson was able to report to Lord Selkirk [Douglas] that “the exertions or as some say the extravagence of Decoigne has established the Lesser Slave Lake on a permanent footing.” That spring Decoigne, dissatisfied with the HBC’s reckoning of his account, left the west to settle in Montreal.
The relative obscurity of François Decoigne’s career typifies our fragmentary knowledge of the Nor’Westers. Although hundreds of men, many of comparable rank, were employed by the NWC, references to them and to their work are scarce. Information is lacking not because the company failed to make formal agreements with its men or to keep records of their transactions, but because many NWC documents were lost or destroyed in the years following union with the HBC in 1821. A few Nor’Westers kept personal diaries and their associates sometimes receive mention in them. HBC journals carry references to traders of the rival company, and those men who were still employed after the union appear then as HBC employees. Nevertheless, the histories of many men of the NWC, like that of Decoigne, may never be known in great detail.
UTL-TF, ms coll. 30. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace), 290. Gabriel Franchère, Journal of a voyage on the north west coast of North America during the years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814, trans. W. T. Lamb, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1969). New light on early hist. of greater north-west (Coues). (Colin Robertson], Colin Robertson’s correspondence book, September 1817 to September 1822, ed. E. E. Rich with R. H. Fleming (London, 1939; repr. Nendeln, Liechtenstein, 1968), 210. A.-G. Morice, Dictionnaire historique des Canadiens et des Métis français de l’Ouest (2e éd., Québec, 1912). J. G. MacGregor, Peter Fidler: Canada’s forgotten surveyor, 1769–1822 (Toronto and Montreal, 1966). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west.
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