LEBEAU, CLAUDE, adventurer and traveller; dates and places of birth and death unknown.
Little is known about Lebeau’s life, apart from the somewhat fanciful details that he recounted himself. He claimed that he came from Morlon, in the canton of Fribourg (Switzerland). His father, who was serving in the Swiss Guards of the household of the king of France, brought Lebeau to France. He studied law and was called to the bar of the parlement of Paris on 8 Aug. 1724. Having lost his mother, who, he declared, had been “as gentle as his father was unbending,” and having no cases to plead, he seems to have worked for an attorney. He apparently quarrelled with his father, and the latter, a friend of Intendant Hocquart*, possibly decided to entrust Lebeau to the intendant to act as his secretary during his service in Canada.
Lebeau claimed that he left Paris 10 April 1729, to be presented to his protector at La Rochelle. The facts, however, are rather different. Indeed, on 28 May 1728 an order from the king dispatched Lebeau to Bicêtre; in this prison, reserved for wrong-doers of inferior social condition, he was to be detained, “no doubt for libertinism”, until further notice, “in consideration of a sum of 100 livres for his keep, which will be paid by his father.” He was transferred on an unknown date to the Hôpital Général, since on 29 April 1729 the king wrote to the administrators of that institution instructing them to hand over François Legrand, Jean and Antoine Tancré, Claude Lebeau, and others to the corporals of the watch. On the same day, an order from the king prescribed that these individuals should be transferred to Canada, “to remain there for the rest of their lives.”
On 2 May 1729 Maurepas wrote to Beauharnois* de La Chaussaye, the intendant of the Marine at Rochefort, to send him the list of the 15 prisoners who were to be embarked on the flute Éléphant. “You will see,” added the minister, “that some of them are attached to persons of rank and that the others are for the most part sons of good families who have been imprisoned for libertinism.” It was therefore in a convoy of prisoners that Lebeau left Paris for La Rochelle. He could not have reached Quebec on 18 June 1729, as he claimed, for the Éléphant, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Vaudreuil [Rigaud*], did not sail until 28 June, at 3 o’clock in the morning, having embarked the prisoners at Île d’Aix. After a long crossing, the vessel was shipwrecked at about 8 in the evening on 1 September at Cape Brûle, some 30 miles from Quebec. The crew and passengers were saved.
Lebeau claimed that he was appointed a clerk in the Beaver Office (Bureau du Castor) and then chief clerk in the king’s warehouses on the recommendation of Father Dubois, the Recollets’ provincial, in whose residence he was living. He became bored, his job not being important enough to induce him to remain in Canada, and as he was sunk in “an indescribable depression,” he attempted to run away. Unable to obtain a passport, he says that he stole gunpowder from the warehouses and set off in the direction of New England. On 14 Nov. 1730 Intendant Hocquart issued a warrant for his arrest, promising a reward of 300 livres for his capture. Hocquart described Lebeau as follows: “of small stature, wearing a brown wig, with a pock-marked face, small, black, rather deep-set eyes, and a slight stammer.” Nevertheless Lebeau managed to escape, tried to abduct a young Abenaki girl who refused to follow him, and reached Boston, whence he sailed for Holland. On 12 Jan. 1731, Hocquart sentenced the Sieur Lebeau in his absence “for the crime of fraudulent circulation of counterfeit card money”; he was to be hanged and garotted until he was dead. This judgement was executed the following day; since Lebeau had fled he was hanged in effigy.
In 1738 there appeared at Amsterdam, in two volumes, a work entitled Aventures du s. C. Le Beau, avocat en Parlement, ou Voyage curieux et nouveau parmi les Sauvages de l’Amerique septentrionale dans lequel on trouvera une description du Canada avec une relation très particulière des anciennes coutumes, mœurs et façons de vivre des barbares qui l’habitent et de la manière dont ils se comportent aujourd’huy. This work, which belonged to a type of exotic literature popular from the second half of the 17th century on, must have enjoyed a certain success, since a German translation of it was published at Frankfurt in 1752.
Lebeau does not lack talent as a writer, and his book is pleasant reading; but its originality is slight, for he borrows generously from his predecessors. The Journal de Trévoux published a severe review, calling the work a novel; it does however concede that the author deserves credit for painting an exact picture of the customs and character of the Canadians, although his geographical knowledge is poor. The best chapters are those that discuss the habits of beaver and the religious ideas of the Indians. Taken all round, the work is more indicative of the author’s imagination than of a scientific spirit, which is in any event seldom found in travel accounts of this period.
AN, O1, 72, f.201; X1a, 9327; Col., B, 53, ff.152, 172, 548v, 572, 573; C11A, 51, ff.103–6, 237–39, 387–88, 398, 476; E, 265 (dossier Lebeau). Dictionnaire géographique de la Suisse (6v., Neuchâtel, 1902–10), III, article Morlon. Dictionnaire historique et biographique de la Suisse (8v., Neuchâtel, 1921–34), IV. J.-E. Roy, “Des fils de famille envoyés au Canada – Claude Le Beau,” RSCT, 2d ser., VII (1901), sect.i, 6–33.