LE ROY DE LA POTHERIE, dit Bacqueville de La Potherie (La Poterie), CLAUDE-CHARLES, historian; b. 15 May 1663 in Paris, son of Charles-Auguste Le Roy de La Potherie de Bacqueville and Françoise Du Sicquet d’Esmainville; d. 18 April 1736 at Guadeloupe.
We know very little about La Potherie’s youth except that he must have had a very good education, for he quoted classical authors readily, particularly Virgil and Horace. The first post that he held was that of chief writer in the Marine at Brest, in 1691. He owed this perhaps to family influence, since the La Potheries were connected on the female side with the Phélypeaux, one of whom, Louis, was minister of Marine at that period. Claude-Charles held the post of writer until 1697. He was then appointed commissary of the Marine on board the squadron which, under Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville’s direction, was to drive the English out of Hudson Bay. After Iberville’s brilliant victory, of which he has left us a detailed and enthusiastic account, La Potherie went back to France. On 1 May 1698 he was appointed comptroller of the Marine and of the fortifications in Canada, and arrived at Quebec on 28 November, just in time to attend Buade* de Frontenac’s funeral. La Potherie never ceased to consider the latter as the ideal governor, the father of the country. Having a high, perhaps too high, conception of his role, he was vexed that he was not consulted on the occasion of the peace parleys which were held in 1699–1700 with the Indians. He complained about it to the minister, Jérôme Phélypeaux. This letter appears in his Histoire but without the passages that were too confidential; the latter have been published by Joseph-Edmond Roy.
On 11 March 1700 La Potherie and Élisabeth de Saint-Ours signed their marriage contract before the notary Antoine Adhémar. Three sons at least were born of this marriage: Charles-Auguste, Pierre-Denis, and Marc-René-Augustin; we know little about them. On 5 July he acquired a piece of land and a farm in the seigneury of Saint-Ours, with the intention of settling in Canada, but he left New France in 1701. The historian Claude de Bonnault asserts that his recall was due to differences with certain authorities in the colony, and Robert Le Blant states that his appointment on 31 May 1701 to a lieutenancy of a company in the “Islands” was “an elevation in rank that hardly constituted a promotion.”
From then on La Potherie lived in Guadeloupe, while making a few trips to France. In 1705 he tried to get himself appointed military commandant of Guadeloupe and obtained only the post of adjutant; he again sought advancement, but the minister thought his requests extravagant. Furthermore, numerous reports that he addressed to the court about magistrates, military expeditions, his differences with other personalities in the Islands, and the establishment of a parish at Gros Morne did not have any better results. He died at Guadeloupe on 18 April 1736 without ever returning to New France, and 17 years after his wife, whom he had lost on 4 Oct. 1719. It is by his Histoire de l’Amerique septentrionale that La Potherie passed into history. The reading of this work gives the impression of a sincere, educated, cultured man, endowed with keen sensitivity and strongly attached to France and her institutions.
During a journey to Paris in 1702 La Potherie submitted his manuscript to the royal censor, who received it favourably. But Jérôme Phélypeaux, the minister of Marine, in a letter to Michel Bégon (senior), opposed La Potherie’s dedicating the manuscript to Phélypeaux, and still more his having it printed. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13) was apparently the reason for this; France was not desirous of giving information on a country coveted by the English. The author had to wait 14 years for the privilège. Some people have put forward the hypothesis that La Potherie had left two works: Nouveau Voyage du Canada, ou de la Nouvelle-France et les Guerre des Français avec les Anglais et les originaires du pays, and the Histoire de l’Amerique septentrionale, According to Fevret de Fontette the first work dated from 1716, but no copy of it is known to us. The text in question is perhaps a first incomplete edition of the Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale. Be that as it may, the existence of a manuscript is vouched for by Fontenelle [Le Bovier] in 1702, and it is in a sense confirmed by the king’s privilège, which in 1721 granted Firmin-Didot permission to “continue to print” a work entitled Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale. This work, which we know, is from 1722, and there exists another edition of it dated 1753. Joseph-Edmond Roy has compared these two editions: same number of pages, same characters, same page breaks, same errors of case. The 1753 title page has a variant in the colour of the ink; an engraving announced in 1722 is lacking; another which was not announced is there in 1753. After making this comparison, Roy wonders whether the 1753 edition is not merely a bookseller’s trick.
Of the four volumes of the Histoire, volumes I, III, and IV are in the form of letters; the first is the best written and the most trustworthy. Here La Potherie is an eye witness and an excellent observer. His letters on the governments of Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal offer a fairly complete picture of Canada. The descriptions 6f places and of the settlers” way of life, the notes on individuals, the statistics on population and sources of revenue show that nothing escaped La Potherie’s attention and that he wanted his readers to be well informed. He notes the rivalry between Quebec and Montreal, but without stressing it. If he narrates, he does not refrain from judging. It is not to France’s interest, he affirms, to keep Hudson Bay; Canadian trade would suffer. He regrets that Montreal has not been made the capital of Canada.
The portrait that he traces of the Canadian of that time is moderate and just: “The Canadian has tolerably good qualities; he likes war more than anything else, he is physically brave, he has an aptitude for the arts, and given a modicum of instruction he learns easily what he is taught; but he is inclined to be vain and presumptuous; he likes money and spends it somewhat ill-advisedly.”
The purpose of volume II, which is divided into chapters and written in a less careful style, is to make known the principal Indian nations and their relations with the French colony. La Potherie had intended to go and study on the spot the problems that he tackles here. As his state of health did not permit that, he contented himself with gathering his information from reliable witnesses: Louis Jolliet*, the Jesuit missionaries, and especially Nicolas Perrot. According to Father Jules Tailhan, a Jesuit and editor of Perrot’s Mémoire, the latter may not only have given La Potherie verbal information but even have made accessible to him accounts that today are no longer to be found. His view is worth quoting: “. . . La Potherie knew Perrot in Canada, and . . . received from him the most exact data . . . almost the whole of his second volume can have been written only with the help of information supplied by Perrot, whose voyages, adventures, and even numerous harangues to the Indians are reported there at length . . . except for a very small number of pages, the style in this same volume is noticeably different from that of the other three, and by its loose, incorrect, and involved texture is at most times undistinguishable from that of Perrot; this would not be accounted for by the hypothesis of purely verbal communications made by the latter to La Potherie.”
Volumes III and IV are devoted particularly to an account of the Iroquois wars and of the peace parleys which resulted in the general treaty of 1701. For events prior to 1698, the date of his arrival in Canada, La Potherie relied on his informants, whose statements were trustworthy, but not always complete. From 1698 to 1701, although he took no official part in the peace parleys, he followed them closely. During the summer of 1701 he was at Montreal and Sault-Saint-Louis. He also had access to documents which he quotes readily. He summarizes the speeches of Callière and of the chiefs of the various nations. He recounts the illness, death, and burial of the Huron chief Kondiaronk (The Rat): “I cannot convey to you, sir, the affliction felt by his nation at the loss of a man possessed of so many good qualities. Few could have a greater acuteness of mind than he, and had he been born a Frenchman he was the type of man to manage the most ticklish affairs of a flourishing state.”
To evaluate La Potherie’s work properly we must first point out that he lacked one of the essential qualities of the true historian: a concern for attaching a precise date to the events he recounts. Desrosiers wrote, with justification: “The absence of dates in the Histoire de l’Amerique septentrionale partakes of the fabulous. With very rare exceptions the reader never knows in what year he is – with La Potherie one can pass from 1665 to 1695 without receiving any warning.” Moreover, the general title of the work is inexact. A lot of good will would be required to see in it a history of North America. For the facts prior to his arrival in Canada, the author is content to give a summary according to what was known of them at the time. The title of volume II is equally deceptive. One would expect to find in it a fairly substantial history of the Abenaki nations, whereas the lion’s share goes to the Indians of the west, Nicolas Perrot’s particular field of activity.
La Potherie’s Histoire precedes by 20 years that of Charlevoix*. The latter has judged it thus: “This work . . . contains somewhat ill-digested reports . . . on a good part of the history of Canada. One can count on what the author says as an eye witness; he appears sincere and without passion, but he has not always been well informed as to the rest.” The comment of the Bibliothèque des Voyages is more generous: “Bacqueville is the first to have written exactly about the settling of the French at Quebec, Montreal, and Trois-Rivières; in particular he has revealed in great detail, in a narration to which he has added much interest, the customs, usages, precepts, form of government, and method of making war and contracting alliances of the Iroquois nation, so famous in this country of North America. These observations have also been extended to some other tribes, such as the Abenaki nation.” For his part Robert Le Blant wrote: “The Histoire de L’Amerique septentrionale has been underestimated by modern authors. The sincerity of the accounts of which it is composed is confirmed by official correspondence [volume IX of the NYCD takes into account the documents quoted by La Potherie]. It [the Histoire . . .] constitutes to a large extent an original source which must be utilized for the writing of a history of New France that is as exact as possible.” This opinion of Le Blant is echoed here. If, instead of seeking in La Potherie’s work an historical method such as we define it today, we consider it as a serious source of information on the period, it holds agreeable surprises in store for researchers. Emma Helen Blair realized this clearly when she annotated the narratives published in Indian tribes; her explanations are based in very large measure on the writings of Nicolas Perrot and La Potherie.
La Potherie had dreamed of one day writing the history of his own country. He did not do so. “He stands before posterity,” writes Joseph-Edmond Roy, “with his four volumes of the Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale.”
AJM, Greffe d’Antoine Adhémar, 11 mars 1700. AN, Col., C11A, 18, ff.98–129. Indian tribes (Blair). La Poterie, Histoire (1722). Le Blant, Histoire de la N.-F. NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), IX, 622. Nicolas Perrot, Mémoire sur les mœurs, coustumes et relligion des sauvages de l’Amérique septentrionale, éd. Jules Taillon (Leipzig et Paris, 1864). Taillemite, Inventaire analytique, série B, I. DBF, IV, 1131f. L.-P. Desrosiers, “La Potherie,” in Centenaire de l’Histoire du Canada de François-Xavier Garneau (Montréal, 1945), 291–308. J.-E. Roy, “Claude-Charles de la Potherie,” RSCT, 2d ser., III (1897), sect.i, 3–44.