MICHEL DE VILLEBOIS DE LA ROUVILLIÈRE, HONORÉ, king’s councillor, commissary of the Marine and subdelegate of the intendant, general commissary and ordonnateur in Louisiana; b. 1702 near Toulon, France, son of Jean-Baptiste Michel de Villebois, financial commissary, and Anne de Rostan; d. 18 Dec. 1752 in New Orleans.
Honoré Michel de Villebois’s ancestors were of the robe, and his family was deeply involved in the administration of the Marine. His father was a commissary at Bordeaux during the 1720s, where his uncle, Henri de Rostan, later served as financial commissary. Two of his brothers were also in the navy commissariat. He began his career at Brest, in 1719, as a writer in ordinary and was promoted, on 1 Jan. 1727, chief clerk at Toulon. He remained there until 25 March 1730, when he was chosen to replace Jean-Baptiste de Silly*, who was retiring, as commissary at Montreal. Gilles Hocquart*, the acting intendant in New France, was disconcerted by his appointment. Though Michel was intelligent and “very willing,” he remarked in 1730, his inexperience and lack of familiarity with Canadian affairs were serious handicaps, particularly since the backlog of business at Montreal precluded retaining him at Quebec for a winter of thorough instruction. To maintain closer control of Michel, Hocquart also appointed him, in October 1730, as his subdelegate at Montreal.
Michel, however, rapidly overcame Hocquart’s misgivings. Various accounts describe him during the 1730s and 1740s as an efficient bureaucrat with a taste for hard work, a penchant for detail, and a passion for power. Certainly he displayed all of these qualities in performing his onerous duties. Briefly summarized, these entailed directing the commercial and financial transactions of the crown at Montreal, paying and provisioning the troops garrisoned there as well as in the western posts, and maintaining order in the jurisdiction through the exercise of “police” powers delegated to him by the intendant. His many ordinances regulating cabarets, enforcing corvées, improving sanitation, etc., testify to his energy in this last sphere. Moreover, as Hocquart’s confidence in him grew he was able to extend his authority. In 1733, for example, he obtained a rank in the Conseil Supérieur, which also empowered him to preside when the intendant was absent. In 1736 he was named acting intendant while Hocquart was in France for a year. Following Michel’s return to Montreal in 1737, Hocquart relied entirely on his judgement for the administration of that jurisdiction.
Although Michel apparently failed to make his fortune in Canada, his private affairs did prosper. In 1734, for instance, his salary was raised from 1,800 to 2,400 livres and he was granted freight privileges on the king’s vessel. He also received over 9,500 livres in special bonuses between 1731 and 1747 including 3,000 livres for his brief service as intendant. Moreover, 500 livres were paid annually to the commissary at Montreal by the Compagnie des Indes. In 1737 Michel married Marie-Catherine-Élisabeth Bégon, daughter of Claude-Michel Bégon de La Cour who was a brother of the former intendant in New France, Michel Bégon, and who was serving then as governor of Trois-Rivières. Besides gaining him the support of the powerful Bégon family in France, this alliance helped to reinforce his influence at Montreal, for his wife was related, through her mother, Marie-Élisabeth Rocbert de La Morandière, to many prominent persons there including Étienne and Louis-Joseph Rocbert, the king’s storekeepers. Between them, Michel and the Rocberts conducted most of the crown’s business at Montreal and the evidence indicates that they did so with a sharp eye to their own interests as well as to those of their relatives and intimates.
This self-interest was undoubtedly why the latter years of Michel’s administration were scarred by controversy. During the early 1740s, for example, several complaints about his patronage practices, especially his methods of purchasing goods locally for the king’s service, reached beyond Hocquart, his patron, to the French court. In addition, he antagonized Governor Josué Dubois Berthelot de Beaucours and the Montreal military élite in a dispute over payments due to officers for those of their troops stationed in the far west. By far the most damaging confrontations stemmed from his bitter power struggle with Jacques-Joseph Guiton de Monrepos who was sent to New France in 1741 to serve as lieutenant general for civil and criminal affairs at Montreal. They quarrelled in public for several years over their respective powers and honours and, after fruitless attempts by Hocquart to resolve their differences, the king was forced to sign a ruling spelling out their functions in detail. Perhaps because of this long dispute Michel was passed over in the large-scale promotion of commissaries in 1743. It was only after his relatives in France, particularly the Bégons, delivered “strong recommendations” to Maurepas on his behalf that he was finally promoted, on 1 Jan. 1747, commissary general and ordonnateur in Louisiana. Because of the heavy wartime work-load at Montreal, Hocquart delayed Michel’s departure until the autumn of 1747 and he did not actually arrive at New Orleans until May 1749.
Michel’s brief administration in Louisiana was undermined by his numerous disputes with Governor Pierre de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil. It is of interest in the Canadian context chiefly because of the fascinating correspondence addressed to him by his mother-in-law, Mme Bégon, beginning in 1748. It seems that she had fallen in love with him sometime after the death of his wife, her daughter, in 1740. Mme Bégon moved to Rochefort, France, in 1749 with Michel’s two children, Honoré-Henri-Michel-Étienne and Marie-Catherine-Élisabeth, and she continued to write to him from there with all the news from New France. She also endeavoured to use her family’s influence in the ministry of Marine to offset the poor impression his disputes with Vaudreuil created. Michel, however, did not appreciate her efforts and he answered her affectionate letters sarcastically, threatening to remove his children from her custody. Indeed he ended his days in Louisiana in a pitiable state of distemper, lashing out at both friend and foe. As one historian concludes, he was a talented and efficient functionary who lacked the personal qualities needed to survive in a government system that turned on patronage, not efficiency.
AN, Col., B, 54–58; C11A, 55–87, 113–15; C13A, 35–36; D2C, 222/2, p.74; D2D, 10; F1, 34; F3, 11–12; Marine, C2, 55, ff.36v, 232v, 323v. ANQ-M, Registre d’état civil, Notre-Dame de Montréal, 25 oct. 1738, 23 oct. 1739. “Correspondance de Mme Bégon” (Bonnault), APQ Rapport, 1934–35, 1–277. Documents relating to Canadian currency during the French period (Shortt), II, 634 n.2, 636 n.3. Lettres au cher fils: correspondance d’Élisabeth Bégon avec son gendre (1748–1753), Nicole Deschamps, édit. (Coll. Reconnaissances, Montréal, 1972), 18–19, passim. A. Roy, Inv. greffes not., XVI, 148, 171–72. P.-G. Roy, Inv. ord. int., III. Frégault, Le grand marquis. Gipson, British empire before the American revolution, IV, 1201–3. Nish, Les bourgeois-gentilshommes. Isabels Landels, “La correspondance de madame Bégon” (unpublished doctoral thesis, Université Laval, Québec, 1947). P.-G. Roy, La famille Rocbert de La Morandière (Lévis, Qué., 1905). N. M. M. Surrey, The commerce of Louisiana during the French regime, 1699–1763 (New York, 1916).