CHASSEUR, PIERRE, gilder, wood-carver, and founder of a museum of natural history; b. 10 Oct. 1783 at Quebec; d. there 21 May 1842.
Not much is known of Pierre Chasseur’s early years except that he probably came from a humble background. He received an elementary education and did an apprenticeship somewhere in the art of gilding. In 1815 he stated that he was a gilder in business in the faubourg Saint-Jean at Quebec. Following the custom of the period, he also did wood-carving. In 1816 he announced in the Quebec Gazette that he had for sale “a collection of French and English Prints,” which purchasers could have him frame. The following year he silvered some frames for the fabrique of Notre-Dame at Quebec.
In 1824 Chasseur assembled a collection of natural history specimens at the house he occupied on Rue Sainte-Hélène (Rue McMahon) in Upper Town. He did not open his museum, however, until 1826. How Chasseur, a humble artisan, had come to natural history is an interesting question. At that time Quebec was experiencing a remarkable awakening of interest in the arts, letters, and science. In 1824 the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec was founded under the patronage of Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay]. In 1826 some young local doctors launched the Quebec Medical Journal, which was broadly concerned with science and natural history, and Chasseur was a subscriber. The following year the same group, with the help of prominent figures such as Joseph Bouchette and merchant William Sheppard*, an enthusiastic botanist, created the Société pour l’Encouragement des Sciences et des Arts en Canada.
The Quebec public was not, however, sufficiently interested in science to ensure the success of Chasseur’s undertaking. From the year he opened his museum he had to seek government assistance. His first attempt failed, but in 1828 the Lower Canadian House of Assembly, where he had the support of several members including John Neilson and Dr François Blanchet*, granted him £350. After spending this sum and going into debt for as much again to buy and fix up the house in which he had set up his museum, Chasseur had to go back to the assembly in 1830. This time he obtained £400.
Unfortunately, Chasseur’s affairs did not improve, and after several unsuccessful attempts to obtain aid from the government, the naturalist was obliged to hand his collection over to the authorities in 1836. At that time the creation of a provincial museum with the items acquired by Chasseur was considered. According to an inventory done by Dr Jean-Baptiste Meilleur*, a politician and naturalist, the collection included 500 specimens of birds, nearly 100 of mammals, and some 40 of reptiles and fish. Unfamiliar with scientific classifications, Chasseur had tried to present the specimens in ways that would evoke their natural habitat and their habits. In keeping with contemporary interests he had also accumulated Amerindian artifacts, exotic objects such as a Chinese umbrella, and a few curios such as the axe wielded by a famous murderer and a bronze cannon supposedly lost in the St Lawrence by Jacques Cartier* or Giovanni da Verrazzano*.
What happened to the collection after the government took it over is uncertain. Several sources claim that the items disappeared in a fire some time between March 1836 and November 1837, probably in the house on Rue Sainte-Hélène. Other authorities, more numerous, say that the collection had been transferred to the new parliament building in 1836. The plan for a public museum was not pursued, however, likely because political events intervened. In 1841, when the government of the province of Canada was established in Kingston, Upper Canada, the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec was offered some of the empty rooms in the parliament building at Quebec for its library and museum. At the same time the society was given charge of Chasseur’s museum, which was merged with its own. On 1 Feb. 1854 fire destroyed the parliament building, and all the collections were lost.
Pierre Chasseur himself was closely involved in the events of 1837 and 1838. As early as 1826 he had paraded his convictions by adopting the motto “Dieu et la Liberté.” His circle of friends and acquaintances included numerous leaders of the Patriote party. In 1830 none other than Louis-Joseph Papineau* sang his praises in La Minerve. During the rebellion in 1837 the Comitè Permanent de Québec met at his home. These activities led to his arrest on two occasions. On 11 Nov. 1837, following an inquiry by justice of the peace Robert Symes, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Quebec jail. He was released on 18 November, through a writ of habeas corpus issued by Chief Justice Jonathan Sewell, on payment of personal bail of £500 and two other bail-bonds of £250 posted by Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau* and Dr Jean Blanchet*. In November 1838 he was again arrested, on a charge of high treason, and he was unable to obtain his release for five months. He died on 21 May 1842 at Quebec, a ruined man.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 23 mai 1842; CN1-230, 16 oct. 1815, 12 mai 1817; P-239/21. Arch. du séminaire de Chicoutimi (Chicoutimi, Qué.), Fonds Léon Provancher, lettre de J.-B. Meilleur à Léon Provancher, 16 mars 1869. MAC-CD, Fonds Morisset, 2, dossier Pierre Chasseur. PAC, MG 24, B2,1–3; RG 4, A1, 351. Amable Berthelot, Dissertation sur le canon de bronze que l’on voit dans le musée de M. Chasseur, à Québec (Québec, 1830). Journal de médecine de Québec, 2 (1827). L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1828–33, 1835–36. Le Canadien, 16 août 1833, 8 avril 1836, 24 févr. 1840, 23 mai 1842. La Minerve, 25 févr. 1830. Quebec Gazette, 6, 13 June 1816; 1 May, 19 Oct. 1826. F.-M. Bibaud, Le panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891). Fauteux, Patriotes. P.-G. Roy, Fils de Québec, 3: 184–86. I. [-F.-T] Lebrun, Tableau statistique et politique des deux Canadas (Paris, 1833). J. R. Porter, L’art de la dorure au Québec du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours (Québec, 1975). “Combat entre un aigle et un enfant,” La Bibliothèque canadienne (Montréal), 5 (1827): 159. Raymond Duchesne, “Magasin de curiosités ou musée scientifique? Le musée d’histoire naturelle de Pierre Chasseur à Québec (1824–1854),” HSTC Bull. (Thornhill, Ont.), 7 (1983): 59–79. Damase Potvin, “Le Musée Chasseur,” Carnets de zoologie de Québec (Québec), 12 (1952), no.2: 47–50. Antoine Roy, “Les patriotes de la région de Québec pendant la rébellion de 1837–1838,” Cahiers des Dix, 24 (1959): 241–54. Henri Têtu, “Le Musée Chasseur à Québec,” BRH, 8 (1902): 251–52. “Zoologie du Bas-Canada,” La Bibliothèque canadienne, 2 (1825–26): 74–75.