LE PESANT (“The Heavy,” so-called because of his corpulence; also known as “The Bear”), the leading chief of the Ottawas du Sable, he provoked inter-tribal warfare at Detroit in 1706; fl. 1703–12.
In his attempt to build up Detroit at the expense of Michilimackinac, Cadillac [Laumet] lured Le Pesant’s band there shortly after 1701. The chief and other Ottawas went to Montreal in the summer of 1703 to complain to Rigaud de Vaudreuil of their situation: Cadillac had promised that Jesuits would come to Detroit, and none had yet arrived. Le Pesant also complained that Detroit was not the great centre that Cadillac had promised, and he feared that prices at Detroit would soon rise. He repeated these charges in front of Cadillac later that year.
In June 1706 an incident occurred that became known as the Le Pesant affair. There had been bad feeling, for which Miscouaky and others later gave several reasons, between the Ottawa tribes and the Miamis and Hurons also living around Detroit. Then, while on their way to make war against the Sioux, the Ottawas learned that the Miamis and Hurons planned to take advantage of this absence to plunder their camps. The Ottawas returned to Detroit and were joined by Le Pesant and Outoutagan, who presumably were returning from Michilimackinac. Led by these chiefs, the Ottawas surprised eight Miami chiefs near the fort and slew seven of them. The eighth escaped to warn his people, and the Miamis and Hurons sought refuge in the fort. Father Constantin Delhalle and a soldier, La Rivière, were accidentally killed by the Ottawas. Cadillac, not expecting a crisis, was in Quebec at this time. Véniard de Bourgmond, the ensign left in charge, decided not to take any action. For the next few weeks skirmishes continued between the Miami-Huron forces and the Ottawas. Intervening in the warfare undoubtedly would have been dangerous for the small garrisons at Detroit and Michilimackinac, but the cost of French inaction was the failure of many attempts at negotiations and the death of scores of Indians. When Cadillac returned, Le Pesant and other Ottawas fled to Michilimackinac, realizing that the death of two Frenchmen would lead to punishment.
The western country remained in turmoil during the next year, as delegations of chiefs and Frenchmen moved between Michilimackinac, Montreal, and Detroit. Vaudreuil insisted that Le Pesant, who was blamed for the entire affair, be turned over to the French. The Ottawa chiefs were reluctant to comply, though they admitted that he should be punished. Outoutagan warned Vaudreuil in June 1707 that the “great bear” had alliances with all the tribes of the pays d’en haut. The very nature of tribal organization also stood in the way, as Vaudreuil recognized, for “the savages have no sufficient authority over each other to be able to hand anyone over.” Faced with the alternative of a punitive war which would drive the Ottawas into the arms of the Iroquois, he avoided an immediate decision and asked Cadillac to deal with the situation on the spot. In a council held at Detroit in August 1707, the Ottawas finally agreed to help the French secure Le Pesant. Jean-Paul Legardeur de Saint-Pierre and Pierre d’Ailleboust d’Argenteuil, accompanied by Kinongé, Koutaoiliboe, and other chiefs, went to Michilimackinac, apprehended Le Pesant, and sent him to Detroit.
Vaudreuil had given Cadillac authority to deal with Le Pesant, assuming that the chief would be executed. Soon after Le Pesant arrived at Detroit, he escaped by climbing the palisade. Vaudreuil did not believe that the chief – 70 years old and corpulent – could thus escape from a heavily guarded fort, and suspected that Cadillac had engineered the escape. But Cadillac had arrested Le Pesant, thus establishing French authority, and by allowing him to escape, had regained favour with the Ottawas, old allies of the French and important partners in the fur trade. Vaudreuil agreed that it was probably right for Cadillac to have freed Le Pesant, since the Ottawas would be needed in case of a union between the Miamis, Hurons, and Iroquois against the French. Yet in his reports to the minister, Vaudreuil pointed out that because of Cadillac’s consistent dishonesty, it was difficult to understand the situation. He also suspected that Cadillac was trying to create an empire for himself in the pays d’en haut.
Le Pesant is the villain in most versions of the affair, although the Ottawas apparently had just cause to suspect Miami treachery. If this circumstance had been admitted, however, Cadillac’s leadership at Detroit would have seemed inadequate. He appears to have found a scapegoat in Le Pesant, with whom he had already had differences. Certainly Cadillac was unjust in putting all blame for the initial attack on the chief. As Clairambault d’Aigremont remarked to the Ottawas in his final report on the affair, “their chiefs have no right to say to the others – ‘Do so and so,’ but only – ‘It would be advisable to do such and such a thing,’ without naming anyone, for otherwise they would not do it at all, as they hate all compulsion.” Although respected and feared, Le Pesant could not have led the others to attack had they been unwilling. But by making the chief entirely responsible Cadillac turned the affair to his advantage: in return for pardoning him Cadillac insisted that the Ottawas still at Michilimackinac settle at Detroit, away from the Jesuits whom he disliked.
Even Vaudreuil admitted in 1707 that Cadillac, in spite of his schemes, seemed to have settled the affair satisfactorily. Events soon proved otherwise. In 1708 Le Pesant was again living at Detroit, and the Miamis, angry that he had not been executed as promised, attacked the fort in revenge. According to Vaudreuil, Cadillac, “thinking to do something brilliant which he believed must do him honour, has spoilt everything.” Le Pesant remained at Detroit for the next few years, but did not figure prominently in the affairs of the fort. In 1712 Father Joseph-Jacques Marest, writing from Michilimackinac, reported that Le Pesant had left Detroit to settle on Manitoulin Island, traditional home of the Ottawa nation.
Contemporary accounts by a half-dozen leading participants, Indian and French, do not agree on the cause of the attack, the attribution of guilt, and the roles of Cadillac and Vaudreuil. Secondary studies reflect this confusion.
AN, Col., C11A, 24, f.259; 26, ff.75–79, 106–16, 124, 138–41; 28, ff.3–60; 29, ff.25ff. Charlevoix, History (Shea), V, 185–90. “Correspondance de Vaudreuil,” APQ Rapport, 1939–40, 389. Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry), English MS translation, V, 432–33. Michigan Pioneer Coll., XXXIII, 258–85, 288–94, 319–36, 342–67, 383–86, 395–99, 401–52, 553–54; the complete story can be found in documents printed in this volume, but the arrangement is poor, and some of the translations are inadequate. NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), IX, 809. Wis. State Hist. Soc. Coll., XVI, 240–43. C. M. Burton, “Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit – 1701 to 1710 – under Cadillac,” Michigan Pioneer Coll., XXIX (1899), 240–317, contains a long summary of the affair which usually accepts uncritically Cadillac’s version of events. The best secondary account is in Jean Delanglez, “Cadillac, proprietor of Detroit,” Mid-America, XXXII (1950), 226–58, but the author, a Jesuit, is far from objective when discussing Cadillac’s role, and there are errors in ethnological details. Sheldon, Early history of Michigan, combines narrative with primary sources; the translation is inferior, however, dates are often missing, and the interpretation is erroneous. [d.c.]