BIENCOURT DE SAINT-JUST, CHARLES DE, baron, vice-admiral of Acadia and successor to his father as commander of the settlement at Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.); b. 1591 or 1592 in Champagne; d. 1623 or 1624 at Port-Royal.
Charles de Biencourt was the elder son of Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt and Claude Pajot. Of the early life and education of Charles de Biencourt we have no record, although he has been described by contemporary writers as a youth far beyond his years in character and capability.
Biencourt sailed with his father in the Jonas from La Rochelle 13 May 1606, on Poutrincourt’s second voyage to New France. We are told he rapidly learned the Indian dialects and was of great assistance in the construction of buildings and in the preparations for farming.
In 1607 word came to Poutrincourt that Du Gua de Monts’s monopoly was rescinded and it was learned that the establishment at Port-Royal could no longer be supported, the majority of labourers at the fort being in the pay of de Monts’s company. With a heavy heart Poutrincourt, his son, and the other colonists returned to France. Early in October 1607, they anchored in the harbour of Saint-Malo.
It was not until the spring of 1610 that Poutrincourt, with young Biencourt, was able to return to Acadia. Accompanying them was Father Fléché, a priest whom the Sieur de Poutrincourt hoped would prove to the court that two Jesuit fathers he had left behind in France were not necessary to the spiritual welfare of the colony. Charles de Biencourt’s knowledge of the Indian language proved of great assistance to Father Fléché in his efforts to catechize the Indians.
Soon afterwards, Biencourt was placed by his father in charge of a vessel loaded with furs for France and instructed to present a petition to the king for certain trading privileges. An extract from the baptismal register was also to be presented in an effort to show that missionary work, which was of special concern to the queen and her ladies, was being emphasized. Before his arrival in France, Biencourt learned from fishermen on the Grand Banks that Henri IV had been assassinated.
When Biencourt reached Paris he presented his petition, the list of baptisms, and an article by Lescarbot on the conversions to Marie de Médicis who had been appointed regent, and who both expressed satisfaction with the missionary endeavours and assured him that the late king had had the interest of the Port-Royal colony at heart. According to Lescarbot, he was informed at the same time by the Jesuits that Henri IV had granted them 2,000 livres a year for the establishment of their society in Acadia.
During this visit to France of 1611, Charles de Biencourt received the post of vice-admiral in the seas of New France. He also received letters of encouragement from the young King Louis XIII, Queen Marie, and the Marquise de Guercheville. They wished him and his father to continue the missionary work among the Indians of Acadia and in this regard they insisted he take with him on his return to Acadia the Jesuit fathers Pierre Biard and Énemond Massé.
Biencourt made arrangements with two Huguenot merchants of Dieppe, Du Jardin and Du Quesne (Duchesne according to Champlain), who agreed to equip a vessel and furnish supplies for Acadia in return for a share of future profits in the fish and fur trade. These merchants upon learning of the additional passengers refused to have any part in an undertaking in which Jesuits were involved. The murder of King Henri IV had stirred both Huguenots and Catholics alike, and some believed the death had been plotted by Jesuits. Despite orders from the queen the merchants were adamant. Father Biard informed Father Coton, the friend and advisor of Mme de Guercheville, of the merchants’ decision and through her efforts a subscription of more than 3,800 livres was collected to buy out the merchants’ interest in the Port-Royal venture. Under the agreement drawn up, the Jesuits became partners with Jean de Poutrincourt and Thomas Robin de Coulogne in the profits of the trade. This business agreement strengthened later accusations that the members of the society were as much interested in trade as in missionary work (see Huguet, Poutrincourt, 350–1).
Biencourt, with Fathers Biard and Massé, finally set sail from Dieppe with 36 colonists on 26 Jan. 1611, on the Grâce-de-Dieu. The journey took four months during which the supplies intended for the relief of Port-Royal were almost exhausted. The colony of half-starving settlers had hoped for relief with the coming of the ship and were bitterly disappointed. The situation worsened when friction developed between the Jesuits and Poutrincourt over their respective spheres of authority.
At the end of June Jean de Poutrincourt decided to return to France to obtain further aid. He took with him a cargo of furs, planning to use the proceeds from their sale to purchase supplies. Before leaving he placed the colony of Port-Royal under the charge of his son.
This young man had to face many responsibilities and difficulties as the acting governor of the colony in enforcing his authority over the fishermen and traders visiting the coast and over the missionaries, who naturally were ignorant of the customs and language of the Indians and who lacked the older settlers’ experience in dealing with them.
The illness of the Indian chief Membertou that fall caused the first real disagreement between Biencourt and the priests. Membertou, the colony’s first convert, was important to the French because of his power and prestige over the Indians. Knowing he was about to die, the old chief asked for and received the last rites of the church. He then made Biencourt promise to bury him with his own people. Father Biard, however, refused to allow such a burial because the Indian burial place was not hallowed ground. Biencourt suggested the place could be blessed but, as this would mean heathens would also be buried in consecrated ground, Biard again refused. The affair caused much unpleasantness and at last Membertou relented upon being told the priests would not say prayers over his grave. Charlevoix* writes that “the obsequies paid to [Membertou] were such as would have been rendered to the commandant himself.”
Biencourt concentrated on his trading. During the year 1609, the fur trade had once again been thrown open to the merchant marine of France as it had been prior to the granting of monopolies but it seems that the King’s grant to Poutrincourt gave him the right to levy a quint or fifth on the French vessels visiting the Port-Royal area. Biencourt, as vice-admiral of the seas of New France, had a vaguely defined power to “command all manner of persons and visit their vessels.” This Biencourt attempted to do. He did not, however, have enough soldiers to enforce his authority and so was able to control relatively little of the trading and fishing. He also made voyages along the coast. On one of these journeys he discovered an English fort which had been abandoned by the Virginia Company in 1609. To counteract the English claim, Biencourt set up the arms of France on the most conspicuous height of the fort and then returned to Port-Royal.
Biencourt’s troubles were added to when in January 1612 Capt. L’Abbé’s vessel, carrying the small amount of supplies Jean de Poutrincourt had been able to gather, anchored at Port-Royal. On board was the Jesuit Gilbert Du Thet, who had come to Acadia as the representative and administrator of Mme de Guercheville. Poutrincourt’s agent, Imbert-Sandrier, was also on board. The ensuing quarrels pervaded the whole colony and were a disturbing influence on the Indians who did not know which faction they could trust.
Biencourt refused to allow the Jesuits to leave Port-Royal to pursue their missionary endeavours in other parts of Acadia because of his fear that they would engineer some mischief against him. Biard then defied Biencourt’s authority by secretly sending Massé to the other side of the Bay of Fundy (Baie Française) to evangelize the Etchemins (Malecites). After his return, the three Jesuits again tried to leave for France, but Biencourt stopped them, saying that since he had been ordered by the queen, against his will, to bring them to Port-Royal, he would need a new order from the court to allow them to return. Finally, the Jesuits secretly boarded the ship, but on discovering this, Biencourt arrested the captain and ordered that the missionaries be put ashore, whereupon Biard said he would excommunicate anyone who touched them. When an attempt was made to remove them, Father Biard excommunicated Biencourt and the ship’s captain, L’Abbé. The fathers finally disembarked but refused to conduct any further services in the colony. Letters from Biencourt to his father and from Biard to the superiors of his order and Mme de Guercheville were carried back to France; these varying accounts naturally put the actions of the protagonists in the best light.
It seems clear from these events that, as an anonymous contemporary account in Purchas says, Biencourt was a “youth at that time of more courage than circumspectnesse.” In recording his impressions of Biencourt before this, Biard had described him as “an imitator of the virtues and good qualities of his father, both zealous in the service of God.” Huguet’s judgement seems reasonable, in view of the fact that Biencourt was only 20 or 21 years of age: “with all his precocious experience, Biencourt did not know how to maintain – when he had to act on his own initiative – the tact and balance that distinguished the viceroy. He lacked, in these difficult situations, the prestige of age, the authority of a long, honourable career of service to his country.”
Du Thet managed to escape from the colony shortly afterwards on a fishing boat. Back in France, he complained to Mme de Guercheville of the misconduct, lack of proper organization, and ill-treatment of the Jesuits by Biencourt; she began making plans to remove them from Port-Royal and to found a new colony that would eclipse Port-Royal in importance. On 12 March 1613, a small craft of 100 tons, under the command of René Le Coq de La Saussaye, sailed from Honfleur with priests, colonists, horses, goats, and all the necessities of a new settlement.
After exploring the coast, La Saussaye anchored at Port-Royal and, finding Biencourt absent, showed Louis Hébert the queen’s order to allow Biard and Massé to depart, took on board the two Jesuit priests, and sailed to the south, anchoring in a harbour on the east side of Île des Monts-Déserts (now Mount Desert Island) where the Indian Asticou lived. The company went ashore, raised a cross, and named their new home Saint-Sauveur. It was here that they were later found and taken prisoner by Capt. Samuel Argall.
In November Argall also attacked the defenceless Port-Royal settlement in Biencourt’s absence. After confiscating everything he could carry away he set fire to the buildings and most of the crops and left the place in ruins. Accounts differ as to Argall’s reasons for attacking Port-Royal. Biencourt himself laid the blame for the attack on Father Biard who had been captured by Argall at Saint-Sauveur and was on board the ship when it attacked Port-Royal. However, according to the testimony at his trial in London in 1614, Capt. Argall had been given instructions to prevent the French from obtaining a foothold in North America and he had spent the previous fall and winter at Jamestown making preparations for the expedition against French settlements to the north. In defending himself Father Biard declared that he had refused to help Argall locate Port-Royal and that it was an Indian, taken aboard by Argall, who showed the way.
Biencourt returned to Port-Royal before Capt. Argall sailed and, according to the unconfirmed account in Purchas, offered to serve the English and asked to be given Father Biard “with a purpose to hang him.” Champlain attributes to an unnamed Frenchman at Port-Royal a speech advising that Biard be killed.
On 27 March 1614, Poutrincourt finally returned to Port-Royal and found most of it in ashes. One water-mill had escaped ruin as well as a few cattle, pigs, weapons, and some grain. Biencourt and his men had spent a winter of dreadful hardship, existing on roots and lichen. Poutrincourt transported most of the colonists to France. A few decided to remain behind with Biencourt. Poutrincourt deeded over his holdings in Acadia to his son.
During the next few years Charles de Biencourt built up what appears to have been a profitable fishing and fur-trading business in partnership with the La Rochelle shipowners, Jean Macain and Samuel Georges. During this period, David Lomeron acted as his commercial agent in France. Despite the growing activity of French and English as well as Dutch traders in the region the trade was profitable and some of the rival vessels were captured by Biencourt. Between 1614 and 1617, the trade along the coast became so good that vessels from La Rochelle visited Biencourt each spring. Biggar writes that according to Capt. John Smith’s estimate, the French collected 25,000 furs in 1616. During the same period Biencourt launched several court actions over illegal trading in the area under his control.
In September of 1618, Biencourt appealed unsuccessfully to the mayor and aldermen of Paris to establish a fortified post at Port-Royal and elsewhere on the coasts, urging the importance of protecting the fishing and fur-trading, from which Paris derived so much benefit, against the English. He added that the French would soon be altogether dependent upon the English and claimed that if France could help the colonists for two years they would become self-supporting. Time and again he was to complain of the neglect of Port-Royal by France, particularly in view of the growth of New England. Considering the fact that his pleas went unheeded, Charles de Biencourt did a remarkable job of holding the settlement together and thrusting off English encroachment in the area.
Fur-trading activity in Acadia slackened between 1618 and 1623. Port-Royal was gradually crumbling through neglect and the fact that the only new recruits the settlement received were the occasional sailors who left their ships. We are told that in his last years Biencourt lived more and more with the Indians.
Charles de Biencourt died in 1623 or 1624. A letter from Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour to King Louis XIII, dated 25 July 1627, says of Biencourt “he has been dead four years,” but a passage in Champlain’s Voyages has led some historians to give the year of his death as 1624. However, Charles de La Tour was with him at the time of his death. Lauvrière, among others, repeats the charge that Biencourt was poisoned by La Tour, but a descendant, the Marquis de Biencourt, in a letter written in 1847 declares, “no document exists which corroborates this version.” Couillard Després says Biencourt “left his goods to one of his most faithful friends, to his relative Charles de La Tour.”
Charles de Biencourt shared with his father a genuine desire to establish a self-supporting settlement based on agriculture. Without the ruinous rivalry of the Jesuits, the destruction caused by the Argall raid, and with even a slight amount of support from the Crown to establish the colony, the accomplishments of the Poutrincourts – father and son – might have been of a far higher order. As it was they did prove that Europeans could live in Acadia on the resources of the land and their experiences in this regard were to have value in later colonizing schemes.
See bibliography for Jean de Biencourt. See also: Couillard Després, Saint-Étienne de La Tour. Émile Lauvrière, La tragédie d’un peuple: histoire du peuple acadien de ses origines à nos jours (2v., Paris, 1922; éd. rev., 1924). Mass. Hist. Soc. Coll., 4th ser., IX (1871), 45, 46. Mémoires des commissaires, I, 140, 143; and Memorials of the English and French commissaries, I, 197, 199. W. O. Sawtelle, “Sir Samuel Argall, the first Englishman at Mount Desert,” Sprague’s J. of Maine Hist., XII, no.4 (1924), 201ff.