VOYER D’ARGENSON, PIERRE DE, chevalier, seigneur of Chastre and Vicomte de Mouzay, governor of New France from 1658 to 1661; baptized 19 Nov. 1625; d. probably in 1709 near Mouzay in the province of Touraine.
His family formed the younger branch of the Voyer de Paulmy et d’Argenson line, and claimed noble rank from time immemorial. The valour of an ancestor had been rewarded by a viscountship in 1569 and by strong support at court. René, the father of the future governor of New France, had a brilliant career: he succeeded Cinq-Mars as grand bailiff of Touraine, accomplished delicate missions in the provinces and in regard to the organization of the armies on Richelieu’s behalf, and was appointed ambassador to Venice by Mazarin.
The father’s good fortune opened up the way to success for the children: until his disgrace in 1655, Marc, the eldest, occupied in turn the positions relinquished by his father, and the youngest became lieutenant of police. As the second son, Pierre was destined for the church, but he quickly abandoned this cause and became bailiff of Touraine in 1643, an ensign in the king’s guards in 1650, and then a councillor of state. Thanks to President Lamoignon’s friendship, he obtained the post of governor of New France, at the age of 32, by a commission dated 27 Jan. 1657.
It is not known whether he wanted to get away temporarily from the court because of his brother’s disgrace or wished to look after his infirmities, but he came to Canada in the hope of taking a rest. The colony, however, was living through the darkest hours of its history: the trade in beaver furs was leading the settlers deeper into debt; the Iroquois were making bloody forays against the colony and threatening its very existence; finally the question of the appointment of an ecclesiastical authority appeared likely to present difficulties.
The new governor arrived at Quebec on 11 July 1658, and was received with great acclamation, to the sound of cannon and muskets. On the very next day, however, an attack by a band of Iroquois made clear to him that these weapons were more often used for other purposes than for show. D’Argenson had to face hostile acts by the Iroquois during the whole length of his stay; he managed fairly well, by utilizing as best he could the slender resources put at his disposal, so much so that “Everyone would have thought himself as good as lost if Monsieur le Vicomte d’Argenson our governor had not heartened us by his courage and wise conduct, putting all the posts around Quebec in such good order that the coming of the Iroquois was desired rather than feared.” He showed his courage and boldness by attacking and pursuing the enemy bands; he gave evidence of prudence, on the military front, by implementing methods of surveillance and by speeding up the means of intervention, and on the diplomatic front by adopting a policy based on firmness and mistrust.
At the time of Dollard* Des Ormeaux, flattery, boasting, arrogance, and trickery seemed good ways to protect the colony from the Iroquois menace. Thus d’Argenson, like the other governors, did not accuse his Iroquois interlocutors of making war, but put the blame on some unthinking and undisciplined nephew. His slender military resources did not prevent him from stating that he had come from France to make peace, by gentle means if possible, by severity and force if necessary. He exchanged captives with the Iroquois, but, despite promises and numerous entreaties, he always kept back a few prisoners as hostages. And in the summer of 1660 he even imprisoned some 15 Indians who came to parley; “considering them as spies rather than as ambassadors . . . [he] believed that God was putting them into his hands, so that he might derive two advantages from them: the first, to be able to do the harvesting with some assurance . . . the second, to get our French captives set free.”
The precariousness of the situation in New France did not, however, prompt d’Argenson to ask for intervention by the French armies to settle the Iroquois problem; rather he asked for farmers. According to him, the colony could not support a large number of soldiers, whereas the clearing of land beyond the outskirts and an increase in the area under cultivation would push back an enemy who sought the safety of the forest, would consolidate the position of the colony, and would contribute, at least in part, to settling a thorny economic problem.
Three months after his arrival in Canada, he wrote: “after speaking to you of the war I must mention another scourge as dangerous as that, namely poverty . . . that results partly from the debasement of the fur trade, which the settlers have degraded to such an extent that they barely receive from the Indians the cost of their merchandise and this is a disorderly state of affairs that absolutely must be remedied.” For their part the merchants had lost much of their interest in this trade because of the fall in the value of beaver furs in France. Rigorous intervention and a new plan were necessary to reactivate the economy.
D’Argenson was opposed to the half-measure recommended by the king’s decree of 1657, and proposed the establishment of complete control over the trade in pelts in order to relaunch the colony’s economy. He suggested that the right possessed by the settlers to trade freely in furs be withdrawn, and that a trading monopoly be entrusted to a single company of merchants. These measures would eliminate the great disadvantages of competition between the settlers; the community would realize profits, to be divided up according to the amounts invested by each person in the merchandise traded by the warehouse, and would be able to pay its debts; the merchants, enjoying a monopoly, would be less afraid of investing money and being paid only after the sale of the furs.
But the Compagnie des Cent-Associés preferred to audit the accounts of the Communauté des Habitants, and took advantage of this to restrict the legal power of the governor. The Communauté, unable to pay its debts, declared bankruptcy and handed over the fur trade to a private company.
Another financial question, although of minor importance, seems to have touched off a large-scale conflict between the civil and religious authorities, and especially between the governor and Bishop Laval. Knowing that he was prejudiced against them, the Jesuits had given d’Argenson a most flattering official welcome. But a legal dispute over certain fishing rights set the two sides at odds, and the bishop, backing up his faithful supporters, provoked a veritable conflict in which each party publicly dealt the other foul blows. The bishop attacked the administrator’s status and prestige by having him censed by the thurifer instead of by the deacon, and after the whole choir; he next took advantage of the governor’s absence from a meeting of the churchwardens to have him relieved of his function as honorary churchwarden. Embittered, d’Argenson forgot all the humility that he displayed while waiting on the sick in the hospital, and “several disrespectful words were uttered concerning the prelate.” The governor thought he would have his revenge on Corpus Christi day: he allowed the soldiers to remain standing and wearing their head-dress before the Holy Sacrament, but the bishop did not stop at their station.
This tension upset many people, who preferred to give up certain customs for fear of antagonizing one of the two authorities who might have considered himself insulted or relegated to second rank. It was even necessary to give up processions because of quarrels over precedence.
The opposition between Laval and d’Argenson was not related to the method of setting up or developing the colony, for Voyer d’Argenson favoured agriculture much more than trade, and endeavoured to see that moral and Christian values were respected in the colony. Thus he sent a pregnant “king’s daughter” (fille du roi) back to France and imposed a fine of 150 livres on the person who had sent her to Canada to prevent further acts of a similar nature. The opposition between the two men seems therefore to have been much more a matter of personality and division of powers than of ideology. Moreover, Voyer d’Argenson accused Laval of wanting to extend his authority to fields which did not concern him.
If d’Argenson had been happy to have an appointment in Canada, he quickly changed his tune: only three months after his arrival he was thinking about returning to France, and hoping that his three-year term would not be renewed. In 1661, alleging his infirmities as a pretext, he asked to go back to France. Marie de l’Incarnation [Guyart*] added that the absence of help from France, the complaints voiced in regard to him, and the quarrels instigated by the highest powers in the country had led him to give up his post. Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye claimed later that the bishop had insisted that President Lamoignon recall the governor. In any case, d’Argenson must have been happy to leave, the more so because he left no friends behind him.
Back in France, he seems by the activity which he displayed on the battlefields to have followed in his father’s footsteps. In 1709, still a bachelor, he made his will and asked to be buried at Mouzay. At the time of his stay in New France he did not manage to win over the important personages of the colony, yet one cannot attribute to him the entire responsibility for or even the start of the conflicts with the bishop. Furthermore, he saw the problems and the obstacles attending the development of Canada, and endeavoured to provide a solution for them: a utopian one perhaps if immediate results were to be expected, but essential as a stage on the road to greater achievements. In short, the situation of the colony and the scant support received from France did not permit him to do more.
AQ, Manuscrits relatifs à l’histoire de la N.-F., 2e série, I. Édits ord., III, 20. Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, Lettres (Richaudeau). JR (Thwaites), XLIV, XLV, XLVI. “Lettres inédites du gouverneur d’Argenson,” BRH, XXVII (1921), 298–309, 328–39. [Faillon], Histoire de la colonie française, II. Lanctot, Histoire du Canada, I. Francis Parkman, The old regime in Canada (29th ed., Toronto, 1893). “L’arrivée du gouverneur d’Argenson à Québec,” BRH, XXXV (1929), 678–80. M. Berneval, “Les filles venues au Canada de 1658 à 1661,” BRH, XLVII (1941), 97–115. “La chapelle des Jésuites à Tadoussac,” BRH, XXXI (1925), 481. Louis-Raoul de Lorimier, “Réception de M. le gouverneur d’Argenson au collège des Jésuites à Québec,” RC, 3e sér., XXI (1918), 401. Robert Roquebrune, “La noblesse de France,” BRH, LVII (1951), 101–14. P.-G. Roy, “La famille Rouer de Villeray,” BRH, XXVI (1920), 33–52; “Les familles de nos gouverneurs français,” BRH, XXVI (1920), 257–74; “La réception de Mgr le vicomte d’Argenson,” BRH, XXXVI (1930), 219–20; “Québec au printemps de 1660,” BRH, XXXI (1925), 33–39.