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d. 20 April 1865 in York Township, Canada West


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DUBERGER, JEAN-BAPTISTE (he signed John B., Jean B., or J. B. Duberger), surveyor; b. 7 Feb. 1767 in Detroit, son of Jean-Baptiste Duberger, dit Sanschagrin, baker, and Louise Courtois; d. 19 Sept. 1821 in the parish of Saint-Thomas (Montmagny, Que.).

Son of a native of Vivonne, France, Jean-Baptiste Duberger showed early scholastic promise and was sent from Detroit to the Petit Séminaire de Québec, where he completed the last three years of the classical course between October 1785 and the summer of 1788. In June 1792 he secured temporary employment as a deputy land surveyor under Surveyor General Samuel Johannes Holland*. Two years later, under Samuel Gale, he drew the outline of a map of Lower Canada, and this work became a major element in the important topographical map of the province published in 1803 by William Vondenvelden* and Louis Charland*. Duberger received much valuable training with Holland, onto which was grafted an aesthetic taste derived from a circle of friends that included the artist and architect François Baillairgé and the painters Louis Dulongpré* and William Berczy*. These influences are seen in the progress of his work from five relatively crude engravings, executed for a devotional book published in 1796, to later maps and plans which reflect remarkable precision and painstaking attention to detail and which are completed by elegant title cartouches and beautiful swags.

On 8 Jan. 1793 Duberger had married Geneviève Langlais; the two friends who witnessed his marriage contract were the lawyer Alexis Caron and Roger Lelièvre, who became a prominent notary in the city. Some time between 1795 and 1798 Duberger moved his small family out of the commercial bustle of Rue de la Canoterie in Lower Town to the quiet respectability of Rue Sainte-Ursule in Upper Town, where lived several men employed in military construction, including James Thompson. In 1794, following his work on land surveys, he had obtained another temporary position, as assistant draftsman with the Royal Engineers. He engraved a lead inscription plaque for the court-house in 1799, and he subsequently engraved another for the new Anglican cathedral, of which he also drew a plan and elevation in 1801. By his work as assistant draftsman, which lasted nine years, Duberger caught the attention of Colonel Gother Mann, the commanding engineer, and in June 1803, at the age of 36, he secured his first permanent employment, a position in the second class of the Corps of Royal Military Surveyors and Draftsmen in the Royal Engineers. His work was divided between surveying in the field and tending the drawing, or drafting, room adjacent to Porte Saint-Louis.

In 1804 Duberger completed a detailed plan of the city of Quebec and its defences to accompany a report from Mann on the state of the fortifications. At the same time Mann conceived the idea of having a scale model of Quebec constructed to assist the Board of Ordnance in planning major improvements to the defences of Britain’s most important land station in North America. The task was confided to Duberger under the supervision and with the assistance of Captain John By*. Begun in November 1806 on the basis of the plan of 1804, the model was constructed on a scale of 25 feet to the inch. Through the long winter months of reduced activity, Duberger laboured on it by sections at home and transported each completed section to By’s lodgings, a block west on Rue d’Auteuil, where the model was being mounted; to accommodate it By was obliged to knock down the walls separating four rooms. The model was completed at the end of 1807, but, according to By, when Governor Sir James Henry Craig* first saw it, he “expressed himself highly pleased with the correctness” and urged that the work be extended to include the strategic high ground on the Plains of Abraham. Duberger pushed on. By’s lodgings being inadequate to contain the addition, the model was apparently moved to the ballroom of the Château Saint-Louis, and was duly completed in 1808.

Comprising 18 sections and measuring about 27 feet by 20 feet, the final work depicted the city from the Rivière Saint-Charles to the St Lawrence, and from Lower Town to the plains “as far as the spot where [James Wolfe*] died.” The traveller John Lambert* described it as “beautiful” and its creator as “a self-taught genius.” Others appreciated the model less; Duberger noted that it had raised the fears of a number of civilians who had been quietly appropriating crown property and who saw it as testimony of their stratagem. It had had to be completed almost in secret in order not to provoke open opposition to its being sent to England. Finally, in 1811, Craig dispatched it in By’s care to the inspector general of fortifications.

Meanwhile Duberger had been accumulating misfortunes. In 1808 he requested a promotion to first class, and was supported by the commanding engineer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Henry Bruyeres*, who observed that “he surveys and draws remarkably well” and that Craig wished to see rewarded “the great attention and assiduity he has shown . . . under the very increased labor and duty he has now to perform without any assistance whatever.” But the promotion was not immediately forthcoming. In March 1810 Duberger’s wife, Geneviève, was killed in a carriage accident, leaving him with six children. Their single-storey gabled stone house on Rue Sainte-Ursine, purchased in 1801, was sold for only £300 at auction by court order early in 1811. It was well furnished and even boasted a few luxuries such as a mahogany piano, seven pictures, and silverware. Duberger also had a small collection of some 20 books on mathematics and surveying. At the time he owned no other properties and was indebted for about £250, of which £100 was owed to James Fisher. On 27 May 1812 Duberger married Mary Plumby, with whom he would have at least three children. The marriage probably did not represent a social advancement since, although the daughter of a deceased “bourgeois,” Mary could not sign her name. The following year Duberger was granted his promotion. The reversal of fortunes was short-lived, however; his health began to fail. Exposure to cold and wet weather while he was out on his surveys over the years had resulted in rheumatism and impaired eyesight, and though he now worked mostly indoors, he was frequently absent. In early 1815 he was in Montreal drawing plans for the Lachine Canal, and when he returned to Quebec about April he was gravely ill and transferred most of his work to his son Jean-Baptiste. In April 1817 a medical board found him “totally incapable of performing his professional duties, with little probability of recovery.” He took temporary medical leave, but by October, recognizing that it would “scarcely be possible to draw or copy any Plans whatsoever,” he retired from the service.

Irritated not a little by bad health, Duberger also suffered from injured pride at not having received proper recognition for his work. In April 1817 he complained to British military authorities that the map of Lower Canada published by Joseph Bouchette* in 1815 had been copied from one he himself had compiled for the use of the Royal Engineers’ drawing room. At the same time he asserted that the model of Quebec had been taken to England without his concurrence, and that he believed “the merit of the work has been claimed by another.” Concerning the model, his first charge was clearly false, since in 1807 he had feared that the work might not be sent to England, but there was much to substantiate his second accusation, for By had engineered the credit for the model to his own advantage.

Although Duberger retired in the bitterness of unrecognition, during his career he had established ties to the British authorities and population that ensured the future of at least some of his children: Jean-Baptiste had followed him into the Royal Engineers as surveyor-draftsman in 1812, and two daughters made excellent marriages with British inhabitants in 1817. None the less Duberger appears to have maintained his religious and social connections with the Canadian population. Although he may have lived for a time with a daughter and her English-speaking husband on the seigneury of Mount Murray, near La Malbaie, he spent most of his retirement years in the Canadian rural parish of Saint-Thomas. He was an extremely devoted father and from Saint-Thomas corresponded regularly with his daughters, in French. In 1818, for example, he pressed one, “In the name of God let us know how you are and set me at ease,” and closed with the assurance, “I am your father forever and sincere friend.” That year he suffered a stroke that paralysed his right side, and he died in 1821 at Saint-Thomas.

Bernard Pothier

[Jean-Baptiste Duberger ultimately received the recognition denied him in his lifetime. The story of John By’s injustice circulated freely at Quebec and over the years became much expanded and embellished at the hands of such writers as the French romantic Xavier Marmier in his Lettres sur lAmérique (2v., Paris, [1851]), 1: 115–18. In recent years, however, Jean Ménard’s Xavier Marmier et le Canada, avec des documents inédits: relations franco-canadiennes au XIXe siècle (Quebec, 1967) and Bernard Pothier’s The Quebec model (Ottawa, 1978), a critical study of both the history of the model and the genesis of the thorny legend that grew up around it, have contributed to a more accurate understanding of Duberger and his renowned work. In due course his model was set up at the Royal Military Repository, later the Rotunda Museum, Woolwich (London), where it remained on exhibit for nearly a century before being returned to Canada in 1908  without the section depicting the Plains of Abraham which had been damaged in 1860  as a gift to the Dominion. It was placed in the custody of the federal Archives Branch, later the PAC, in Ottawa, until the creation of the National Museums of Canada in 1967 when it devolved to the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa. In 1981 the work was transferred on permanent loan to Artillery Park, Quebec, where it was placed on display. Duberger’s maps and sketches are in the National Map Coll. at the PAC. Five early engravings were printed in Amable Bonnefons, Le petit livre de vie . . . (Quebec, 1796).

The present biography has been based in large part on The Quebec model, which contains a detailed and critical bibliography. The following sources may be added to those given therein.  b.p.]

ANQ-Q, P-267. PAC, MG 23, K7, 3; RG 1, E1, 30: 71; E15, A, 277-1, 282. “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 87, 118, 169. Quebec Gazette, 17 Nov. 1785; 5 July 1798; 18 July 1799; 26 May 1803; 30 June 1808; 8 March, 27 Sept., 8 Nov. 1810; 31 Jan. 1811; 6 Nov., 18 Dec. 1817; 27 Sept. 1821. Jean Bruchési, “Le journal de François Baillairgé,” Cahiers des Dix, 19 (1954): 120.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bernard Pothier, “DUBERGER, JEAN-BAPTISTE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/duberger_jean_baptiste_6E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/duberger_jean_baptiste_6E.html
Author of Article:   Bernard Pothier
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   April 20, 2024