TONTY, ALPHONSE (de), Baron de Paludy, commandant at Forts Michilimackinac, Frontenac, and Pontchartrain (Detroit), captain in the colonial regular troops, younger brother of Henri Tonty; b. c. 1659 in France, son of Laurent (Lorenzo) de Tonty, Baron de Paludy, and of Isabelle de Liette (di Lietto); d. 10 Nov. 1727 at Detroit.
Laurent de Tonty moved to Paris from Italy around 1650 after having taken part in an unsuccessful rebellion. In 1669 he was committed to the Bastille and remained there for eight years, probably as a result of the failure of an insurance scheme which he had presented in 1653 to Cardinal Mazarin. Laurent’s eight years in the Bastille coincided with Alphonse’s youth, and no doubt contributed in part to the latter’s irascible temper. In 1684 Alphonse quarrelled violently with René-Robert Cavelier* de La Salle over the wages he was to be paid if he sailed with the explorer to the Gulf of Mexico. As a result he did not participate in La Salle’s tragic last voyage. His disagreeable manner had perhaps spared him from an early death.
Alphonse was probably aboard the first ship to leave for New France in 1685. He took up lodgings in Montreal, where, on 17 Feb. 1689, he married Marie-Anne Picoté de Belestre, daughter of the deceased Pierre Picoté* de Belestre, fur-trader and merchant. Alphonse’s income as a lieutenant in the colonial regular troops was a mere 720 livres per year, but he was not unaware of the potential profits to be made in the fur trade and gave his attention to the west, hiring men and outfitting canoes for the Illinois country. In 1693 he was commissioned half-pay captain, and moved from Rue Saint-Joseph to a larger home on Rue Notre-Dame. He represented his brother in any legal or financial disputes which arose from his activities in the west and continued to make his own investments in the fur trade.
In 1697 Antoine Laumet, dit de Lamothe Cadillac, returned from Michilimackinac to account for his activities there. Although the minister of Marine had ordered the evacuation of the western posts because of the saturation of the beaver market, Governor Louis de Buade* de Frontenac appointed Alphonse to serve in Cadillac’s place. He left Montreal with 25–30 indentured employees, and a cargo of trade goods worth approximately 35,000 livres. The understanding was that Alphonse would receive 50 per cent of the profit realized in their sale. His command at Michilimackinac lasted only one year, but it enabled him to meet with his cousin, Pierre-Charles de Liette, and his brother, Henri. On this occasion the latter ceded to him half of his share of Fort Saint-Louis (Pimitoui) in the Illinois country.
The financial outcome of Alphonse’s first major trading venture is not known; similarly the returns on the purchase and sale of a house on Rue Saint-Paul and the purchase and lease of another on Rue Notre-Dame cannot be ascertained. Nevertheless, his financial career until 1701 could by no means be termed a success – in that year his balance sheet with one merchant alone showed a deficit in excess of 11,000 livres. During these years, however, he had been able to make some powerful allies, including Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil who frequently acted as his protector in later years.
In June 1701, when Cadillac led an expedition from Montreal to build a fort (Pontchartrain) on the straits between Lakes Erie and St Clair, Alphonse, who held by now the rank of captain, accompanied him as second in command. As Cadillac’s presence was frequently required in Montreal and Quebec during the following four years, the command of Detroit was often entrusted to Alphonse. He discharged his military responsibilities well, averting an Iroquois attack on the fort and dissuading several bands of Indians from going to Albany to trade. Unfortunately, his salary proved insufficient to settle his debts and to maintain his family. As a result, his personal trade became so considerable that the court was obliged to intervene. Vaudreuil complied with ministerial instructions in 1705 and removed Tonty from Detroit, replacing him with Étienne de Véniard de Bourgmond the following year.
In 1706 Alphonse’s younger brother who resided in Paris submitted a memoir to Pontchartrain about a mine near Temiscaming which Alphonse was prepared to exploit. According to this memoir, two canoes and six men would be needed each year to convey munitions and trade goods to the Indians who traded with the English of Hudson Bay, and to bring the metal (which was not named) back to the colony. The intendants, Jacques and Antoine-Denis Raudot, thought the plan a good one but firmly rejected the trading privileges requested by Tonty. Pontchartrain, it would seem, endorsed their modification, for the Tontys soon dropped the matter. It is interesting to note, however, that the exploitation of minerals in this area 200 years later gave rise to the town of Cobalt.
Within 12 months of his dismissal from Detroit, Alphonse was appointed commandant of Fort Frontenac. His two-year command at this post proved to be similar to his previous appointment. He charged exorbitant prices for brandy, ruled despotically and selfishly, and had little regard for honesty. In 1708, as a result of François Clairambault d’Aigremont’s unfavourable report, which was based on the testimony of soldiers, settlers, and Indians, Alphonse was removed from Fort Frontenac and replaced by Zacharie-François Hertel* de La Fresnière.
Alphonse’s stock at the French court was now at its lowest ebb, but Vaudreuil had not deserted him. In 1711, he carried the governor’s orders to Detroit, returning with a convoy of Indians and canoes, and the following year Vaudreuil submitted Tonty’s name for consideration as commandant of Chambly. On 11 Sept. 1714, Tonty’s wife died, 16 months after giving birth to her 13th child. He remarried on 3 May 1717, taking as his second wife Marie-Anne de La Marque, widow of Joseph-Antoine de Frenel. One month later, Alphonse left Montreal to assume command at Detroit, and before the end of the year Vaudreuil had recommended him for the cross of the order of Saint-Louis.
What occurred at Detroit during the next ten years must have come as no surprise to anyone. In order to make the money he needed to settle his debts, Alphonse behaved greedily and autocratically and was soon detested by everyone. Travellers had to buy supplies from him alone, at a mark-up of, 100 per cent, and were charged room and board when they stayed at the post. Settlers paid an annual land tax, and were obliged to make money available for the purchase of gifts for the Indians. Persons wishing a permit to travel from Detroit to Montreal had to pay the commandant 500 livres. Numerous complaints about Tonty’s conduct were sworn before notaries, and petitions were signed asking for his recall, but Vaudreuil adamantly refused to take action against his protégé. The governor’s attitude no doubt seemed to confirm the allegation of Jacques Baudry de Lamarche that Tonty was paying Vaudreuil 3,000 livres a year for the command of the post.
In 1726 Alphonse farmed out the Detroit trade for 7,000 livres annually and requested the command of the post for three more years. This, he believed, would allow him sufficient time to clear his debts. Vaudreuil, however, was dead when he made this request, and in 1727 the Hurons threatened to leave Detroit if Alphonse were not replaced. After discussing the matter with some of the senior military officers, the new governor, Charles de Beauharnois* de La Boische, decided to recall him the following spring. Tonty, however, died before the decision could take effect.
Tonty was survived by at least 6 of his 13 children. Three of his sons became officers in the troops – Alphonse served at Île Royale (Cape Breton Island); Charles-Henri-Joseph, Sieur de Liette, served among the Illinois; and Pierre-Antoine died along with François-Marie Bissot de Vinsenne at the hands of the Chickasaws in 1736. One daughter, Marie-Françoise, joined the Congrégation de Notre-Dame; another, Marie-Josette, married Louis Damours de Louvières; and Thérèse married François Desjordy.
Alphonse was undoubtedly a talented officer. On many occasions he dissuaded the Indian allies of New France from going to Albany to trade. There was, however, a streak of greediness in him and this tended to become the dominant characteristic of his personality as he strove to make the money that would have enabled him to clear his debts.
The main documentary sources for Alphonse Tonty’s life are: AN, Col., B, 29; C11A, 28–52; C11G, 3; and AJM, Greffe d’Antoine Adhémar. Tonty’s disagreement with La Salle is detailed in Beaujeu’s correspondence with de Villermont, published in Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry), V. The recommended printed primary source for Tonty’s term at Detroit is Michigan Pioneer Coll., XXXIII, XXXIV. The best secondary sources for the period 1701–6 are the following articles by Jean Delanglez: “The genesis and building of Detroit,” Mid-America, XXX (1948; new ser., XIX), 75–104; and “Cadillac at Detroit,” Mid-America, XXX (1948; new ser., XIX), 152–76, 233–56. Vaudreuil’s correspondence with the court may be consulted in APQ Rapport, 1938–39, 1939–40.
Other material consulted includes NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), IX; Ill. State Hist. Lib. Coll., XXIII; Wis. State Hist. Soc. Coll., III; Tanguay, Dictionnaire, I, VII. [Most secondary sources are partial and incomplete. c.j.r.]