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DENYS DE VITRÉ, THÉODOSE-MATTHIEU, ship’s captain and pilot; baptized 8 Nov. 1724 at Quebec, son of Guillaume-Emmanuel-Théodose Denys de Vitré and Marie-Joseph Blaise Des Bergères de Rigauville, grandson of Paul Denys* de Saint-Simon; d. 1775 in England.

The son of a ship’s captain, Théodose-Matthieu Denys de Vitré probably went to sea early. In 1746, a year before being granted legal status as an adult with benefit of age, he commanded a bateau with a crew of 12 sent to Acadia with supplies for troops. In the 1750s he sailed regularly between Bordeaux and Quebec, commanding in 1752 the Angélique owned by Guillaume Estèbe and in 1756 the 350-ton Renommée belonging to Abraham Gradis, a Bordeaux businessman. Returning to New France with the latter ship in 1757, he was intercepted by an English cruiser and taken prisoner.

Vitré himself is the only source for the events which occurred between his capture and his appearance before Quebec in 1759 with the vanguard of the British fleet. Some years after his imprisonment, he prepared a memoir designed to return him to favour in France. Portions of his account, in which he styled himself the Marquis de Vitré and claimed service in the French navy, are so filled with falsehoods that his remarks must be used with caution. According to Vitré, after his capture in 1757 he was lodged with other French prisoners at Alresford, Hampshire, where the British proposed that he pilot the invasion fleet to Quebec. He was dissuaded by a senior French naval officer from trying to escape, but got word to Gilles Hocquart, then intendant at Brest, and other French officials, who arranged an exchange. The French sent two British officers to England in February 1758, but the British refused to return Vitré, who was thereafter under constant surveillance. This tale appears dubious because Vitré was not a senior ship’s master. He may have been under tremendous pressure to aid the enemy, as he later claimed; more than likely, he decided to make the best of a bad situation and cooperate.

Whatever Vitré’s particular case may have been, it is certain that in preparation for the coming campaign the British were actively gathering pilots who knew the route to Quebec. During the autumn of 1758 Rear-Admiral Philip Durell*, who had been left with a fleet at Halifax, collected from Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island, and different settlements of the Gaspésie – Gaspé, Mont-Louis, and Grande-Rivière – at least 17 French pilots familiar with the St Lawrence river and its gulf. In March 1759 Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders requested the governors of New York and Massachusetts to send him any pilots acquainted with the St Lawrence. A number were taken from prisons in England. Vitré was sent on the Neptune, flagship of the British fleet, to Halifax. There, because of his specialized knowledge of the south shore of the St Lawrence, he was transferred to the advance squadron under Durell, and during May and June the ships made their way to Quebec.

Vitré later stated that almost immediately afterward he was returned to England still a prisoner and brought back to Canada the next year on the pretext that he would be allowed to settle his losses. But in 1763, when he petitioned the Privy Council for assistance, Vitré claimed to have piloted warships and transports on the St Lawrence during the summer of 1759 and served the following year in the squadron of Commodore Robert Swanton*, sent to relieve Brigadier-General James Murray at Quebec. Vitré acknowledged then that “his Services on those Occasions are too Notorious ever to admit of his returning to France”; and Admiral Saunders stated on his behalf that “the said Pilot exerted a most uncommon Zeal and Assiduity in the Services on which he was employed, many of which were of very great Importance and Utility to the Success of that expedition.”

Vitré does not appear to have wished to settle in Canada. In 1763 the British Privy Council, acting on Saunders’ recommendation, granted him permission to bring his family from France to England (he had married a woman from a Bordeaux family in 1755) and endowed him with an annual pension of £200, increased by £50 a year later. Considering that other Canadian pilots were paid only £15, and that Augustin Raby, one of the principal pilots of the invasion fleet, received a life pension of 5s. a day, there can be little doubt that Vitré was a collaborator who had done more than pilot a single British ship.

Vitré’s son John became a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and saw service in the West Indies and India. Some time after Vitré’s death in 1775 he tried to obtain redress from the British government for his father’s losses, which he estimated at £10,000. This figure appears to have been based on Vitré’s own dubious claims that his Canadian and French losses amounted to 235,000 livres. Whether any compensation was granted is not known.

J. S. Pritchard

[Both F.-X. Garneau, Hist. du Canada (H. Garneau; 1913–20), II, 230, and Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (2v., London, [1908]), II, 130, confuse Théodose-Matthieu Denys de Vitré with his son John. This error, the result of a misreading of the “Mémorial du lieutenant John Denis de Vitré au Très Honorable William Pitt” published in Siège de Québec en 1759 . . . (Québec, 1836) (and in Le siège de Québec en 1759 par trois témoins, J.-C. Hébert, édit. (Québec, 1972), 51–123, 130), has caused lasting confusion. Stanley, New France, 203, compounds the error, stating that “the last ship Gradis sent to Canada in 1759 was captured by the British on her return voyage, and her captain, Jean Denis de Vitré, was forced, by threat of hanging, to pilot the vessels bearing Wolfe’s army to the walls of Quebec.” The distinction between father and son was established by Philéas Gagnon, “Le sieur de Vitré,” BRH, III (1897), 178–186, but Æ. Fauteux, the editor of “Journal du siège de Québec,” ANQ Rapport, 1920–21, 146, n.85, is one of the few historians to have made use of the information.  j.s.p.]

AD, Gironde (Bordeaux), 6B, 100, f.56v; 102, ff.5v, 73; 272; 402; 409; 412. AN, Col., C11A, 51, ff.103–4; 118, ff.77–78; F2b, 2. ANQ-Q, État civil, Catholiques, Notre-Dame de Québec, 22 sept. 1722, 8 nov. 1724. “Commission de pilote côtier à Louis Roberge, de l’île d’Orléans,” BRH, XXIII (1917), 56. Despatches of Rear-Admiral Philip Durell, 1758–1759, and Rear-Admiral Lord Colville, 1759–1761, ed. C. H. Little (Halifax, 1958). G.B., Privy Council, Acts of P.C., col., 1745–66, 565. [Charles Saunders], Despatches of Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders, 1759–1760: the naval side of the capture of Quebec, ed: C. H. Little (Halifax, 1958). P.-G. Roy, lnv. jug. et délib., 1717–60, I, 148; V, 41. Tanguay, Dictionnaire, I, 181; III, 343. Jean de Maupassant, Un grand armateur de Bordeaux, Abraham Gradis (1699?–1780) (Bordeaux, 1917). W. R. Riddell, “The pilots of Wolfe’s expedition, 1759,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., XXI (1927), sect.ii, 81–82.

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Cite This Article

J. S. Pritchard, “DENYS DE VITRÉ, THÉODOSE-MATTHIEU,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/denys_de_vitre_theodose_matthieu_4E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/denys_de_vitre_theodose_matthieu_4E.html
Author of Article:   J. S. Pritchard
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   June 17, 2024