DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

CAËN, GUILLAUME DE, nephew of Ézéchiel de Caën [see Éméry de Caën], general of the fleet of the Compagnie de Montmorency and of the Compagnie de Ventadour; authorized to trade in furs in New France from 1621 to 1627, and again in 1631 and 1632; Baron of Cap Tourmente in 1624, Baron of the Bahamas in 1640.

Guillaume de Caën the elder was a native of Dieppe who had settled at Rouen. He was an important shipowner, who had been sending ships to Holland and Newfoundland since 1583. On 20 July 1598 he had married Marie Langlois, a business Woman whose name is frequently mentioned in the legal proceedings involving the de Caëns, and who still owned three ships in 1628. From this marriage Guillaume was born; he was a Protestant like his parents.

From 1619 on Guillaume de Caën the son was a naval captain; in 1624 he became Baron of Cap-Tourmente, a fief which comprised the cape, the Île d’Orléans, and a few other islands; as early as 1626 he bore the title of Seigneur de La Motte; in 1640 he added to his name the title of Baron of the Bahamas; in 1642 he was Seigneur de La Motte Saint-Lys, and he was styled “major-general and battle-sergeant of the naval forces of His Majesty.” In documents he is always called “worthy man,” a status attributed to those who did not belong to the nobility. Régis Roy, convinced that de Caën was a noble, and having no proof whatsoever to offer, even supposes that the appellation “de Caën” is a surname: there is nothing to substantiate this argument. In any case, he signed thus.

Since the system had been inaugurated in 1541 on behalf of Jean-François de LA Rocque de Roberval, the support and populating of New France had been entrusted to private companies which received in return the monopoly of trade. The preceding company having failed to fulfil its undertakings, Admiral Henri II, Duc de Montmorency, recently appointed viceroy of New France, made an agreement on 8 Nov. 1620 with another society, directed by Guillaume de Caën and by his uncle Ézéchiel; on 12 Jan. 1621 the king approved the transfer and on 23 January Montmorency named Guillaume de Caën general of the fleet of the new company. In return for an 11–year monopoly, later extended by four years, the de Caëns undertook to pay the stipends of Montmorency and his lieutenant Samuel de Champlain, to put ten men each summer at the latter’s disposal, to provide for the upkeep of six Recollets and to settle six families, each numbering at least three persons.

Champlain was ordered to seize the preceding company’s merchandise. Feeling most uncomfortable because of the regard which he had for François Gravé Du Pont, who represented the company at Quebec, Champlain allowed them to continue fur-trading. A fresh decision from France relieved the situation for everybody; for that year, 1621, both companies were authorized to trade concurrently, provided that they contributed equally to the upkeep of the settlement. On 20 March 1622 Louis XIII amalgamated the two companies into one, which from 1 April was called the Compagnie de Montmorency. At its head were the de Caëns: Ézéchiel, Guillaume (still general of the fleet), and Émery. This monopoly, valid in theory until 1636, was based on the same conditions as that of 1621.

This company, called also the Compagnie de Caën, was composed of Roman Catholics and Huguenots; of the three heads, one was Protestant (Guillaume), the two others, Ézéchiel and Émery, were Roman Catholics. It sometimes happened that the crews, formed mostly of Huguenots, clashed over religious matters. As early as 1621, in a petition taken to France by the Recollet Le Baillif, the notables of Quebec had asked that the Huguenots be excluded from New France, but Louis XIII had preferred to respect the relative liberty which the Edict of Nantes guaranteed to the Protestants.

Whatever may have been written on the subject, Guillaume de Caën was not personally responsible for these disputes: Sagard described him as a “polite, liberal and understanding man”; it was through him that the Jesuit Charles Lalemant was enabled in 1626 to study languages with an interpreter who had refused for ten years to impart anything at all to the Recollets; and, speaking of the Jesuits who were with him on the 1626 crossing, the Relation states that he treated them courteously. According to Dolu, intendant of the Compagnie de Montmorency, “there were hopes that de Caën might become a Catholic.” It is true that the Jesuits were not received in 1625 in the way that they had expected, but nothing had been planned for them and Guillaume de Caën had assumed responsibility only for the Recollets. Moreover, the Jesuit Lalemant’s letter is not bitter: “Monsieur the General, after having told us that it was impossible to give us lodging either in the settlement or in the fort, and that we must either return to France, or withdraw to the Recollet Fathers’, obliged us to accept the latter offer”; thus the Jesuits became indirectly de Caën’s responsibility, since it was he who provided for the needs of the Recollets. There is also the dispute between de Caën and the Jesuit Noyrot at Honfleur in 1627, but religion was not the cause of it. Various accusations have been laid against Guillaume de Caën: he defended himself to the satisfaction of the authorities, and a close examination of the documentary evidence reveals that his conduct was in no sense that of a fanatical Huguenot; Recollets and Jesuits are united in their praise of him. Being intimately associated with Roman Catholics (his uncle Ézéchiel and his cousin Émery), Guillaume de Caën could hardly attack the Catholics as such.

The Huguenots were moreover gradually being ousted: Richelieu entered the Conscil d’État in 1624; in January 1626 the Compagnie de Caën was required to nominate two Catholic captains for its fleet, of whom one would be appointed to navigate the ships; Guillaume de Caën, who still held the monopoly, had no longer the right to proceed in person to New France. The following October Richelieu became grand master and superintendent of navigation; in January 1627 he suppressed the office of admiral, and three months later he revoked the Edict of Nantes as applied to New France and founded the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, which he started upon a programme of intensive colonization, exclusively Catholic in character. It meant the end of the Compagnie de Caën.

This company now had to be liquidated. Champlain was ordered to draw up the inventory of possessions; in 1628 the de Caëns were forbidden, “under pain of death,” to send ships and merchandise to New France, but their clerks were permitted that year to trade certain goods which they still had in the St. Lawrence valley. In 1629, on pretext of coming to the colony’s assistance, but in reality to go and get 50,000 écus worth of pelts which he had at Quebec, Guillaume de Caën vainly sought permission to proceed to New France. While involved in lawsuits against the Cent-Associés and against the former Compagnie des Marchands de Rouen et de Saint-Malo, Guillaume de Caën learned in the autumn of 1629 that the Kirkes had carried off to England some furs which he had had at Quebec; he went to London at the beginning of 1630 with Jacques Couillard de Lespinay, and on 9 April the Privy Council granted his request for the return of his furs. But despite the notices served upon the Kirkes, first the keys of the warehouse could not be found, then it was ascertained that a considerable proportion of the furs had disappeared. De Caën now claimed 266,000 livres; the English courts declared partially in his favour, but eight years later the judgement had still not been enforced, and de Caën was still proceeding against the Kirkes.

In 1631 Guillaume de Caën once more obtained the monopoly of fur-trading in the St. Lawrence, but the English cornered all the furs, despite Émery de Caën’s protests. In 1632 Richelieu instructed Guillaume de Caën to arrange for the reoccupation of Quebec: de Caën was given a ship, 10,000 livres and the monopoly of the fur trade for that year, on condition that he did not go there himself and that those who wintered at Quebec were Roman Catholics; his cousin Émery was named commandant. Émery made his appearance in the St. Lawrence, but the English played for time, so as to make sure of the spring fur trade; in addition Émery found the Habitation burned down, with the loss of the 9,000 beaver skins that belonged to de Caën. The latter complained to Richelieu, who replied: “With time you will find ways to make good your losses, which for myself I earnestly desire to see.”

De Caën worked hard to have himself reimbursed. He sued the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, from which he received at last, in 1643, a compensation of 350,000 livres, a sum equal to a capital amount of 150,000 livres, plus interest. Furthermore, because he had prematurely lost his monopoly and his barony of Cap Tourmente, Richelieu granted him in January 1633 the ownership of five small islands in the Antilles not previously occupied by Europeans. This gift was confirmed in 1640, when de Caën took the title of Baron of the Bahamas. In 1642, we find him once more very busy making claims: he served a writ on the Kirkes for the 137,000 livres which were owing to him; he had a Turkish ship sold by auction to compensate himself for 22,000 écus which he had lost to Algerian privateers; he obtained judgement against a certain Le Faucheur for a sum of 30,000 livres. From this point we lose sight of him. He had married Suzanne Petit about 1625, and had had at least two children by her, Hélène and Marie.

Canadian history has recorded that Guillaume de Caën, authorized to trade in furs in New France and responsible for the business of that country, did not concern himself with colonization. Champlain, the viceroy’s lieutenant, dreamed of a true new France, with regular institutions and a stable population, and the full exploitation of the country’s resources. But the population of the colony diminished instead of increasing. The commandant of Quebec found it hard to muster the ten men promised by the company for completing the Habitation and for working on the fort. In 1627 Hélène Boullé was even reduced to taking legal action against de Caën to make him pay Champlain his emoluments. “Provided that the fur trade is carried on, that is all they want,” wrote Champlain.

Guillaume de Caën saw in New France nothing more than a base for the fur trade; and the fur trade could produce a handsome yield: in 1628 it showed a profit of 100,000 livres. But the risk was high; they had to struggle unremittingly against smuggling, particularly smuggling by the men from La Rochelle, who rushed across the ice in early spring to carry off the furs. Besides this, the requirements of France, ridiculously slight from the point of view of colonization, show clearly that before 1627 French officialdom gave no serious thought to it: it is not by settling six families that one populates a country! These factors have to be taken into account before Guillaume de Caën is condemned. There are achievements to his credit: it was at the expense of his company that the Habitation was completed, that the fort was constructed (even if de Caën was at first opposed to it) and supplied with arms; he provided for the needs of the Recollets; he brought cattle and had a farm built at Cap Tourmente; while he was in charge three important fiefs were granted (Sault-au-Matelot, Lespinay, and Notre-Dame-des-Anges); he erected a small fort on the Île Miscou. The record is meagre, but that of the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, for all its extensive resources, did not prove to be very much more impressive. In any case, it is with de Caën that the history of the small commercial companies responsible for colonization comes to an end, and de Caën is also the last Protestant to hold the monopoly of the fur trade in New France.

Marcel Trudel

The relevant sources are numerous but scattered. A large number of documents are in the following collections: AE, Mém. et doc., Amérique, 4, ff.119f. AN, Col., C11A, 2; F3, 3; E, 63, 86, 87a–b, 88a, 95a–b, 111, 117, 126, 167c; G7, carton 1312, no. 194; V6, cartons 59, 60, 62; Série Z1d (for the de Caën lawsuit of 1626 to 1651, liasse 105 in particular). Two sources in BN are worthy of note; MS Fr. 8028 and 16738, ff.132, 143, 148; MS, NAF 9269 (Margry). Documents relating to the activities of de Caën in London 1630–33 have been published in Champlain, Œuvres (Laverdière), 990–1015. Documents for 1630 and 1631 have been published by Joseph Le Ber, in his “Documents inédits,” RHAF, III (1949–50), 587–94. The documents of 1630–31, reproduced in this article, are accompanied by a study by Le Ber, and, particularly important, by a long note, p. 592, in which the genealogist, A. Godbout, proves, on the basis of the Rouen archives, that Émery de Caën was a Roman Catholic by birth and that he was the son of Ézéchiel. PRO, Acts of the P.C., col. ser., 1613–80 [pp. xxxi-iv, 139–56, et passim] contains negotiations regarding the disposal of furs captured by the English; CSP, Col., 1574–1660 [see Decaen].

Champlain, Works (Biggar). Ducreux, History (Robinson and Conacher) (the author states, I, 134, that Guillaume de Caën was named commandant of Quebec in 1632, when actually it was Émery, and the editors have failed to correct this error in a note). JR (Thwaites), IV, 170, 204–6, 210, 256–58, 267; V, 41–43, 59–70, 159, 202, 209, 275, 283; VI, 73; VIII, 288 (the editor, in both his notes and his index, confuses Émery with Guillaume). Lescarbot, History (Grant) (the editors, in II, 26, n.1, repeat the error of an English writer, Josselyn, who in 1672 explained that the name “Canada” was derived from that of De Caën, pronounced “Cane”). P-G. Roy, Inv. concessions. Sagard, Histoire du Canada (Tross), I, 95.

The following studies have been selected from those published to date: E. R. Adair, “France and the beginnings of New France,” CHR, XXV (1944), 246–78. Biggar, Early trading companies, 115–32, 147, 150, 152, 154ff., 158, 160, 163, 165. Bréard, Documents relatifs à la marine normande, 125, 131–34, 216–26. Dionne, Champlain, II, 75, n.1, 73–87, 261–70. É.-H. Gosselin, Nouvelles glanes historiques normandes, 47–50. La Roncière, Histoire de la marine française, IV, 296–306, 334–37, 658f. Régis Roy, “Guillaume de Caën,” BRH, XXXII (1926), 531f.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Marcel Trudel, “CAËN, GUILLAUME DE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/caen_guillaume_de_1E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/caen_guillaume_de_1E.html
Author of Article:   Marcel Trudel
Title of Article:   CAËN, GUILLAUME DE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1966
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   October 2, 2023