BISAILLON (Bezellon, Bizaillon), PETER (baptized Pierre), coureur de bois; b. c. 1662 in Saint-Jean-d’Aubrigoux (dept. of Haute-Loire), France; m. 1727 in Pennsylvania to Martha Coombe; d. 18 July 1742 and buried in East Caln Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania.
Pierre Bisaillon was one of five brothers who came to New France and engaged in trade with the Indians, an occupation continued into the 19th century by their descendants. In 1686 Bisaillon contracted at Montreal to go with Henri Tonty*’s party in search of René-Robert Cavelier* de La Salle. At some time between 1687 and 1696 he entered into partnership for a trading voyage with Gédéon Petit and the Sieur de Salvaye, who had fled to Albany to escape Governor Brisay* de Denonville’s accusation that they had been trafficking with the English. The voyage was unsuccessful, and the partnership dissolved.
About 1688 or 1689 Bisaillon went to Pennsylvania, “poor and miserable” but with invaluable knowledge of the best sources of peltry. There he joined the trading organization of Jacques Le Tort, an “eminent” Huguenot refugee from Bonnétable (dept. of Sarthe). This organization, based on the Schuylkill River near present Spring City, was in the employ of Dr Daniel Coxe, who planned to create an empire in the Indian trade on the south shore of Lake Erie through his New Mediterranean Sea Company.
Pursuing this goal, sometime between 1687 and 1692 three of Coxe’s employees made a western voyage blazing new trails for the Indian trade that would soon make Pennsylvania a serious competitor of New York and New France. No document names these pioneers, and there is difference of opinion as to whether Bisaillon was among them or whether he came to Pennsylvania as a result of meeting them on their road; but it is known that they travelled up the Mississippi from the Ohio to a “great yellow river” which they ascended.
Coxe abandoned his schemes in 1692, but Bisaillon and other coureurs de bois went on trading from the “back parts” of Pennsylvania, distressing Philadelphia fur merchants who petitioned for controls over these Frenchmen “Tradeing in Remote and Obscure places . . . and such some of them in Alliance with the ffrench and Indians in League with the ffrench.” Bisaillon acquired protection by becoming chief factor, together with an associate named Louis Lemoisin, for the Pennsylvania Company and its manager Colonel Robert Quary, “the greatest Merchant or Factor in the Province.” While so engaged, Bisaillon had to travel to Iroquoia to ransom one of his brothers who had been captured in Canada by the Mohawks in 1696.
He continued to add to his Indian contacts. While employed by Coxe he had traded actively with the nearby Delawares and Minisinks, as well as more distant tribes, and when bands of the Shawnees came into Pennsylvania in 1692, Bisaillon found among them an old Canadian acquaintance, Martin Chartier, who had been an associate of La Salle but had married a Shawnee and assimilated to her band. Peter, as he was now known, also kept in touch with his brothers Richard and Michel. The latter, who remained Canadian, became prominent and influential among the Illinois Indians. James Le Tort, the son of Peter’s former employer, was known to have visited Canada in 1701, and was jailed in Philadelphia in 1704 because of suspicions about his purpose. A network of coureurs de bois thus apparently preserved close personal associations over a vast territory regardless of formal nationality or employment. While English colonials suspected their loyalty on the one side, French officials denounced their business enterprise on the other. In 1702 Henri-Louis Deschamps* de Boishébert complained from Michilimackinac of the willingness of coureurs de bois to trade with Albany or Philadelphia. Detroit has been called practically a satellite of New York’s trading system, but Bisaillon and his associates seem to have diverted a share of Detroit’s trade to Philadelphia.
William Penn, the proprietary of the province, was disturbed by rumours that this backwoods network was conspiring with the French, and he moved to “confine” Bisaillon. Bisaillon’s loyalty was eventually cleared in England, but his wide-ranging activities disturbed Pennsylvania authorities, especially when France and England went to war. He was obliged to give security bonds from time to time between 1700 and 1711, and he was preventively jailed on at least one occasion.
These difficulties occurred when his competitors’ patrons held power. In the intervals when controls were in the hands of the merchants with whom he dealt, Bisaillon was employed by the province as an interpreter of Indian languages. In 1712 he managed at last to find secure protection by coming under the wing of Pennsylvania’s secretary, James Logan, who simultaneously established near-monopolies on political power and the Indian trade. Logan built a trading post at Conestoga on the Susquehanna River; and for six years Bisaillon, the Le Tort Family, and the Chartier family formed the backbone of Logan’s trading organization while Logan himself presided over the province’s Indian treaty relationships. Though personnel changed and competitors arose, this organization provided the base from which Pennsylvania traders eventually challenged France’s control over the Ohio country, a struggle which helped precipitate the Seven Years’ War in America.
The Bisaillons were linked directly to the origins of that struggle through a policy of English expansion adopted by the Board of Trade in 1720. The board had been strongly persuaded by a long argument made by Pennsylvania’s governor, Sir William Keith, on the basis of information about Canada and the Ohio country supplied by James Logan. He, in turn, had acquired it directly from Michel Bisaillon. Michel spoke with great authority. He had worked with Lamothe Cadillac [Laumet*] out of Detroit. In 1714 he had been denounced by Jean-Marie de Villes*, a Jesuit missionary, for planning to introduce the English “of Carolina” to the Illinois, and had extricated himself from this dangerous situation by zealously mobilizing hundreds of Illinois warriors in 1715 to aid Canada’s attacks on the Fox Indians and allied tribes. The board moved aggressively through the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to challenge French domination of the tribes of the interior. Because of the complications of colonial politics, the expansionist policy temporarily failed, but it revived after the Pennsylvania traders established bases among the Indians of the Ohio region in the 1740s.
These traders were not French. James Logan had gradually replaced the Frenchmen in his organization with English colonials. Martin Chartier’s son Peter broke so sharply with Logan that he led his Shawnee band into alliance with Canada. Peter Bisaillon, however, settled down in his old age. Unlike many of his brethren in the Indian trade, he had been astute and careful, and he not only acquired but kept sizeable estates in land in the Susquehanna valley, which he left intact to his widow.
American Philosophical Soc. (Philadelphia, Pa.), Penn letters and ancient documents, III, 9. AN, Col., C11A, 20, ff.220–21; 34, f.356v; 35, ff.99–100v. Pennsylvania Hist. Soc. (Philadelphia, Pa.), Logan papers, X, 20; XI, 8, 9; Penn papers, additional miscellaneous letters, I, 23; Society miscellaneous collections, Indians, box 11c. PRO, CO 5/1261, no.87. Archives of Maryland, ed. W.H. Browne et al. (70v. to date, Baltimore, Md., 1883–19), VIII, 346, 517–18; XX, 406, 470–71. “Correspondance de Vaudreuil,” APQ Rapport, 1947–48, 327–28. The first explorations of the trans-Allegheny region by the Virginians, 1650–1674, ed. C. W. Alvord and Lee Bidgood (Cleveland, Ohio, 1912), 231–49. Pennsylvania, Colonial records, I, 19 Dec. 1693; II, 17 May 1701, 17 Aug. 1703, 18 May 1704, 6 Aug. 1704, 18 March 1710, 28 May 1711, 22 Aug. 1711. PRO, CSP, Col., 1719–20, 31–37; 1720–21, 436. Godbout, “Nos ancêtres,” APQ Rapport, 1955–57, 474–75. Massicotte, “Répertoire des engagements pour l’Ouest,” APQ Rapport, 1929–30. C. A. Hanna, The wilderness trail… (2v., New York, London, 1911), I. A. G. Zimmerman, “The Indian trade of colonial Pennsylvania” (unpublished