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Original title:  Michel-Jean-Hugues Péan

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PÉAN, MICHEL-JEAN-HUGUES, officer in the colonial regular troops and adjutant at Quebec; b. in the manor-house of Contrecœur and baptized on 18 May 1723 at Saint-Ours (Que.), the son of Jacques-Hugues Péan* de Livaudière and Marie-Françoise, daughter of François-Antoine Pécaudy* de Contrecœur; d. 21 Aug. 1782 at Cangey (dept of Indre-et-Loire), France.

Michel-Jean-Hugues Péan, the eldest son of a prominent officer in the colony, progressed quite rapidly through the military ranks in New France. Joining the colonial regulars at an early age, he was appointed second ensign (1738), ensign (1742), adjutant (1745), and captain (1750), before being awarded the cross of Saint-Louis in 1756. Although Péan’s military aptitudes were praised by some – for example Charles Deschamps de Boishébert, his commanding officer in Acadia – his chief talent was a skill in obtaining favours from those holding the highest administrative offices in the colony. His opportunism and extraordinary gift for organization enabled him to become a favourite of governors La Jonquière [Taffanel*], Duquesne, and Vaudreuil [Rigaud]. Duquesne later remarked that he was “a man of prodigious talent, ability, resourcefulness, and zeal.”

Taking advantage of his privileged position as adjutant of the town and Government of Quebec from 1745 on, his marriage in 1746 to Angélique Renaud d’Avène Des Méloizes, and family and social connections, Péan began making his fortune soon after Intendant Bigot’s arrival in 1748. He became a veritable middleman between suppliers and the intendant, participated in all the undertakings and all the contracts, and influenced the recommendations and appointments made by the intendant.

In 1749 Péan entered into partnership with Bigot, La Jonquière, and Jacques-Michel Bréard to operate and supply the posts of Mer de l’Ouest (the Lake Winnipeg region) and Baiedes-Puants (Green Bay, Mich.). The partners made substantial profits by having the government pay for all the trade goods as presents for the Indians. Péan managed about two per cent of the business, but his interest accrued, he said, from assignments that the partners made on their shares.

Péan also became involved in the wheat trade and in providing flour and meal for the government. In the spring of 1750 he had no difficulty in obtaining the contract for supplying flour and meal which had been cancelled by his aunt, Louise Pécaudy de Contrecœur, François Daine*’s wife; it seems, however, that this operation was carried on through a front man. In addition he received the commission to supply wheat to the king, and the Treasury advanced him the necessary funds for his purchases; in this way he bought an immense quantity of grain at a low price. Subsequently the intendant fixed the price of wheat higher, so that Péan was able to make extensive profits without spending a sou. Since the milling was done in his mill and the screening in his warehouses, he could collect seigneurial dues of a twelfth and of two sous per bushel respectively. Péan also made attractive profits from exporting flour and meal. According to the anonymous author of the “Mémoire du Canada,” the huge warehouses that he had erected on his seigneury of Saint-Michel (Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse) were the loading point for wheat being sent to the West Indies.

Numerous complaints were made to the court about Péan because of his active role in the procuring of grain and the provisioning of the troops. In reply to La Jonquière’s repeated requests for promotion for this officer, Rouillé, the minister of Marine, granted him a captain’s commission on 14 June 1750; he added, however, that if the accusations of corruption in the procurement of supplies involving Péan proved correct, he would have to hold up the commission. The governor rejected all the accusations. The same suspicions were expressed again in 1756, when Intendant Bigot obtained the cross of Saint-Louis for Péan from the minister of Marine, Machault. Despite this rejection of complaints, Jean-Victor Varin de La Marre levelled the accusation against Péan during the inquiry at the Châtelet in Paris following the conquest. He declared that, at Péan’s request and with Bigot’s assent, he had overcharged by a quarter for the goods supplied between 1752 and 1757. Péan and Bigot had each had a 25 per cent interest in the enterprise, Bréard 20 per cent, and Varin himself 30 per cent. In 1756 Bigot and Péan are said to have formed a partnership with Varin to purchase a business belonging to Guillaume Estèbe and Jean-André Lamaletie which could, as it happened, supply exactly the provisions the king’s stores were lacking. The three partners then made profits of 155 per cent. At his trial Péan admitted having played a role in this business but denied having had any knowledge of its shady side.

In 1756 some entrepreneurs known as the Grande Société concentrated the economic activity of New France in their own hands. As a result the “purveyor’s deal” was made, which through a contract signed at Quebec on 26 October gave them a monopoly on the sale of supplies to the king’s stores and allowed them to corner trade in the colony. Although Joseph-Michel Cadet was officially the director of this company, Péan was its real protector. He had no expenses; according to Cadet, he simply pocketed 50 and later 60 per cent of the profits which the director made with his protection. Through his position as adjutant and numerous trips to the pays den haut, Péan was able to give Cadet valuable advice about procurement in the forts and the composition and price of rations. Manipulating the supply inventories of the forts constituted an important commercial activity for the Grande Société. Cadet had agreed to purchase from the government the stock on hand when the contract came into effect. Louis Pennisseaut, who was responsible for drawing up such an inventory, was ordered by Péan to adjust the returns so as “to reduce the total by half.” At the same time Péan is supposed to have given him a ration chart indicating the quantity of goods to be supplied to each establishment over and above what the garrison had actually consumed. Pennisseaut carried out this task, substantially inflating the figures for the supplies the government would have to purchase from Cadet.

Because of his association with Bigot at all levels of trade in the colony, Péan also had close commercial relations with the Gradis family of Bordeaux. In 1757 and 1758 he is supposed to have participated in providing supplies for Canada as a partner of these merchants, for whom he acted as a liaison with Bigot. It is highly probable, in fact, that Bigot had a part of the share belonging to Péan, who through this partnership accumulated a fortune which some estimates placed at nearly seven million livres at the time of the conquest.

Being in regular contact with the mother country, Péan was able to take advantage of the presence there of his brother, René-Pierre, who was commissary of the Marine at the port and arsenal of Brest, to promote certain commercial undertakings. Although he was Canadian by birth, Péan was closely linked to France, and this tie may explain his desire to take up residence there. It may even be conjectured that these contacts in France helped not only in his commercial undertakings but also during his trial. Péan’s personal abilities and the value of his family and social connections must not be underestimated. There is no doubt, moreover, that Mme Péan’s friendship with Bigot enabled her husband to occupy a privileged place in society in the colony and that his status furthered the business dealings of those close to him.

Péan invested large sums in real estate. He rounded out his seigneuries of Saint-Michel and La Livaudière through agreements with his brother, who on 16 July 1750 made over to him, for 12,000 livres, all his rights to them; similarly, on 1 Aug. 1757 Péan acquired all his brother’s properties in Canada for the sum of 15,000 livres. Péan also owned several houses in the town of Quebec, including his residence, the Maison Arnoux, purchased in 1751 for 9,000 livres.

On the eve of the conquest Péan was one of the most prominent men in the colony. When he went to France in 1758, on the pretext of having to go to a spa for rheumatic pains, Governor Vaudreuil entrusted him with reporting Montcalm*’s latest victory, at Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga, N.Y.), to the minister. But certain people distrusted Péan; in fact, the financial commissary of wars, André Doreil*, gave Lieutenant Jacques Kanon* the task of announcing the victory at Carillon ahead of Péan and, in a letter of 12 Aug. 1758, warned Massiac, the minister of Marine, “concerning M. Péan, an officer who is M. de Vaudreuil’s and M. Bigot’s creature, . . . [who] has made such a quick fortune in eight years that he is held to be worth two million.” In another letter, dated 31 August of the same year, he named Péan “as one of the chief causes of the bad administration and ruin of this unfortunate country.” Berryer’s arrival at the ministry of Marine on 1 Nov. 1758 was to bring about a sudden change in Bigot’s and Péan’s careers; the minister not only refused to listen to Péan, but also sent a special delegate to Canada, Charles-François Pichot de Querdisien Trémais.

After Montreal surrendered, Bigot, Péan, and his wife sailed for France in September 1760 on the Fanny. In November 1761, as a result of the investigations into the administration of Canada, Bigot, Péan, and four other suspects – Vann, Pennisseaut, Boishébert, and François-Marc-Antoine Le Mercier – were ordered to be arrested. The prisoners were taken to the Bastille where they were treated according to their rank; Bigot was entitled to 20 livres a day for his keep and his needs, whereas Péan had to be content with 15 livres. During their stay in prison they bought and had themselves sent many things, such as clothing and furniture, and every week Péan received bottles of wine from Bordeaux. After 20 Feb. 1762 the two confederates were allowed to go for a walk once or twice a week, but separately and under close guard.

On 12 Dec. 1761 a decree from the king’s council had set up a court at the Châtelet to judge the officials from New France. Nan’s interrogation began on 27 Jan. 1762. The proceedings went ahead, but the prisoners were still unable to have recourse to a lawyer. In the spring Mme Péan, looking after her own interests, attempted to correspond secretly with her husband by inserting letters in the lining of a coat, and she made use of her relations to keep him from being disgraced and losing his fortune.

Although Péan was one of those chiefly responsible for the scandals in the administration of Canada, he was highly successful in extricating himself from the various accusations. After having banished him for nine years, the judges reconsidered their decision and subjected him to “further inquiry for six months.” On 25 June 1764 Nan’s case was dismissed and he was sentenced to make restitution of 600,000 livres – a sum he immediately deposited in Canadian bills of exchange – but there was no hint of dishonour attached to his name.

After his release Péan retired to his domain of Orzain not far from Blois, France, where he lived as a seigneur. In 1771 he obtained permission to have his former companion, Bigot, come to visit him. Mme Péan chose to live at Blois where she supported the Canadian families who had followed them to France. Péan died at Cangey in August 1782; his wife survived him by ten years. Their daughter, Angélique-Renée-Françoise, who had been born at Quebec, had in September 1769 married Louis-Michel de Marconnay, an infantry colonel and provost marshal of Pas-de-Calais, but had died childless in March 1779.

Guy Dinel

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Guy Dinel, “PÉAN, MICHEL-JEAN-HUGUES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pean_michel_jean_hugues_4E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pean_michel_jean_hugues_4E.html
Author of Article: Guy Dinel
Title of Article: PÉAN, MICHEL-JEAN-HUGUES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1979
Year of revision: 1979
Access Date: July 31, 2014