CHEVALIER, dit Beauchêne, ROBERT, soldier, adventurer and privateer, writer of memoirs; b. 23 April 1686 at Pointe-aux-Trembles (Montreal), son of Jacques Chevalier and Jeanne Vilain; d. December 1731 at Tours (France).
In Beauchêne’s biography reality and legend overlap. It is now certain that this person did exist and left memoirs, but the story that he told was considerably amplified and modified by Alain-René Lesage.
Let us first summarize the incidents of his life which are vouched for by documents, or which appear probable. The circumstances of his birth are certain. At the age of 20, he and his two elder brothers Paul and Jean entered into an agreement with Lamothe Cadillac [Laumet] to take a canoe full of merchandise to Detroit and to bring back pelts. It also appears likely that he took part in an expedition against Orange (Albany, N.Y.) and Corlar (Schenectady). In 1707 he was one of the group of Canadians recruited by Charles-Joseph Amiot de Vincelotte to go to Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.) and make up the crew of the frigate, the Biche; he then served under the privateer captain Pierre Morpain*.
After a lucrative career in privateering, he is supposed, according to Lesage, to have gone to France. He is thought to have lived for a while at Brest, Saint-Malo, and Nantes, and to have died at Tours during a brawl. In fact, his death certificate, dated 11 Dec. 1731, has been found in the parish registers of that city. He is supposed to have left an autobiography which his wife is said to have entrusted to Lesage, who published it under the following title: Les avantures de monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, capitaine de flibustiers dans la Nouvelle-France.
The authenticity of these memoirs has been hotly disputed. Charles Bourel de La Roncière and A.-L. Leymarie believed them to be authentic. Gilbert Chinard, Aegidius Fauteux, and Gustave Lanctot have subjected them to close scrutiny and have rejected a good portion of them. It seems certain that Chevalier did indeed draft the biographical notes which served as an outline for Lesage. The general framework of the story, the names of obscure personages such as Abbé Périac (Priat), episodes such as the unsuccessful expedition against Corlar, the journey to Acadia, the enlistment with Morpain, and numerous details correspond to historical reality and could not have been invented.
On the other hand, the Avantures mention several fictitious personages, such as Legendre, frequently confuse names and dates, and contain anachronisms and manifest exaggerations. These inaccuracies may be explained by the unreliability of the memory of the author, who drafted his recollections long after the events, but also by the intervention of Lesage. The latter not only touched up the style but also introduced lengthy expansions, for example the one about “marriages in Canada,” inspired by Lahontan [Lom d’Arce]; in addition he invented the long, fantastic story of the Comte de Monneville, which occupies half the book.
In short, Chevalier was a boastful and unscrupulous adventurer who had the good fortune to encounter a writer of talent who could bring him out of obscurity and transform him into the hero of a novel.
[Alain-René] Lesage, Les avantures de monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, capitaine de flibustiers dans la Nouvelle-France (2v., Paris, 1732). Several of the subsequent editions are incorrectly entitled: Les aventures du Chevalier de Beauchêne. Massicotte, “Répertoire des engagements pour l’Ouest,” 240–41. Tanguay, Dictionnaire. Charles Bourel de La Roncière, Histoire de la marine française (6v., Paris, 1899–1932), VI, 508–16. Gilbert Chinard, L’Amérique et le rève exotique dans la littérature française au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1913), 271–79. Gustave Lanctot, Faussaires et faussetés en histoire canadienne (Montréal, 1948), 130–47. Gilbert Chinard, “Les aventures de Chevalier de Beauchêne, de Lesage,” Revue du XVIIIe siècle (Paris), I (1913), 279–93. Aegidius Fauteux, “Les aventures du chevalier de Beauchêne,” Cahiers des Dix, II (1937), 7–33. Robert Le Blant, “Les études historiques sur la colonie française d’Acadie, 1603–1713,” Revue d’histoire des colonies (Paris), XXXV (1948), 105. A.-L. Leymarie, “Robert Chevalier dit de Beauchêne, capitaine de flibustiers dans la Nouvelle-France (1686–1731),” NF, V (1930), 358–62 [4–8].