VERRIER, ÉTIENNE, engineer; b. 4 Jan. 1683 at Aix-en-Provence, France, son of Christophe, master-sculptor (d. 1709) and Marguerite Ferrant (Ferran); m. 1709 Hélène Papin, by whom he had at least four children; d. 10 Sept. 1747 at La Rochelle, France.
Admitted into the engineer corps in 1707 at La Rochelle, Étienne Verrier served there and at Rochefort for the next 17 years, except for an expedition in 1720 to the islands of Poulo Condore off the coast of present-day Vietnam. In 1720 he was promoted infantry captain in the Régiment de Navarre and awarded the cross of Saint-Louis. In 1724 the minister of Marine, Maurepas, asked Claude-François Bidal, Marquis d’Asfeld, for Verrier’s services as resident chief engineer at Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), a post he was to hold until the surrender of the fortress to the British in 1745. For one construction season, Verrier worked under the orders of Jean-François de Verville*, director of fortifications. In 1725, upon Verville’s transfer to Valenciennes in northern France, the position of director was discontinued and thenceforth Verrier directed the works himself.
During the next 20 years, he completed the landward front of fortification, the Royal and Island batteries, and the chief public buildings of the town; designed the lighthouse and redesigned it after a destructive fire; designed and built the whole harbour front which completed the enceinte; and planned and directed the construction of essential works and buildings at Port-Dauphin (Englishtown, N.S.), Port-Toulouse (St Peters, N.S.) and Port-La-Joie (Fort Amherst, P.E.I.). Verrier would have liked to have been made director of fortifications at Louisbourg, or allowed to return to France to seek advancement in the corps. For the latter he had to await the fall of the fortress. He supervised the defensive works of Louisbourg during the Anglo-American siege of 1745 and participated in Louis Du Pont* Duchambon’s decision to surrender the fortress to Peter Warren and William Pepperrell. In 1746, after an unsuccessful bid for the directorship of fortifications at La Rochelle, he was named chief engineer of the Île d’Oléron off the west coast of France. He died the following year.
Verrier arrived at Louisbourg with an established reputation as an engineer and an inherited flair for the aesthetic. His approach to the construction of fortifications and public buildings was pragmatic. He dealt through trial and error with the effects of climate and defective building materials: he covered exterior walls with boards to protect them from the alternating frost and thaw; he experimented with proportions in the ingredients of mortar; and he replaced building materials of poor quality wherever possible. If the design was faulty – as in the barracks of the King’s bastion – he proposed no expensive new design, but patched up the defects in order to reduce the trouble. He found it politic not to recommend costly improvements to the court and to the senior officers of the engineer corps who could decide his future career.
Verrier was indeed very much aware of political realities. Although his views did not always coincide with those of Saint-Ovide [Monbeton], the governor of Île Royale from 1718 to 1739, Verrier avoided confrontations with him. His relations with other officials of the colony, such as the financial commissaries, Jacques-Ange Le Normant de Mézy and his son, Sébastien-François-Ange*, and François Bigot*, were calm. He was loyal to his assistants, Jean-Baptiste de Couagne* and Pierre-Jérôme Boucher, and to the contractors François Ganet and David-Bernard Muiron. He defended the last two against criticism of shortcomings in their work which he felt were beyond their control. Preferring Ganet to Muiron when the general construction contract came up for renewal in 1737, he recommended Ganet for subsidiary work after Muiron had made the successful bid. Yet he worked well with Muiron. Although the court warned him – as it did most engineers – against financial collusion with contractors, there is nothing to suggest that the warning to Verrier was particularly necessary.
In spite of his political skill, Verrier eventually encountered criticism for his financial management. His chief fault in official eyes was that he underestimated costs. In 1730, for example, he estimated the construction of the lighthouse at 14,000 livres but had to revise his estimate to 26,000 in 1731. He estimated at 6,000 livres the alterations to his official residence (which originally had not been a dwelling); the cost reached 28,000! The minister of Marine admonished Verrier for rendering some erroneous and incomplete accounts, and slipping back – after ten years at Louisbourg and against official instructions – into Verville’s practice of not providing annual statements of work finished. Although Verrier undertook to follow instructions more closely, he steadfastly resisted attempts to have him provide prematurely the final calculations necessary for settling accounts between the crown and the successors of Michel-Philippe Isabeau*, the general contractor from 1720 to 1724. He maintained – successfully – that it was impossible to indicate how much the estate owed the crown and vice versa until the work was completed. The necessary toisé definitif was submitted in September 1731.
As the senior engineer, Verrier was the key officer of the garrison in the defence of the fortress. He had been trained in the French engineer corps, had had extensive European experience in it, and, by the time of the Anglo-American attack of 1745, had spent 20 years in directing the construction of the permanent defences of Louisbourg. An important part of his training – which admittedly he had had little opportunity to put to the test – comprised the defensive tactics of siegecraft. According to Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, by whose precepts French engineers were being trained, the latter “would be wrong to believe that with all the secrets of the art and all the advantages of nature you could make a place impregnable; they can all be taken by an enemy who combines strength and resolution. The defense that I teach . . . certainly cannot hold a fortress invulnerable, but it can contribute greatly to making a siege long and difficult, perhaps until it is lifted by some happy chance.” A professional in siegecraft, Verrier faced (until the arrival of John Henry Bastide ten days before the surrender) only amateurs in the art. On the surface, therefore, a large share of the responsibility for the fall of Louisbourg rests on his shoulders. However, a balanced view must be taken. French naval strength was insufficient for the protection and supplying of the garrison, and the garrison itself was pitifully small in relation to the attacking force. Neither of these difficulties can be laid at Verrier’s door. None of the field defences, however, appear to have increased the effectiveness of the besieged; with the proper quality and quantity of defensive works, a much smaller force than the attackers’ might have held on for a considerable time before retiring behind the fortress walls.
Verrier’s most serious fault, however, was surely the advice he gave respecting the Royal battery. On 11 May 1745 he voted in council of war for its abandonment without a fight and, as a minority of one, against its demolition. After the siege, he defended his action to Maurepas on the grounds that major alterations, begun on the orders of the late governor, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Le Prévost Duquesnel, while Verrier himself was on leave in France in 1743–44, had not been completed and had left the battery defenceless from the landward side. In particular, the breastwork or epaulements had been demolished to increase the number of embrasures in order to accommodate additional guns brought from the Grave battery. Verrier had written to the minister in November 1744 that the demolition had been unnecessary and the whole operation unwise because of the exposure of the structure. Nevertheless, he had forecast that the work of reconstruction could be finished in the spring of 1745 within a month and a half. His prediction proved over-optimistic, as he admitted after the siege: “in the month of April I was unable to rebuild either the walls of the epaulement or the palisades of the covert way, given that the lime and the ground were frozen that month. The battery being in disorder, it would have meant sacrificing almost 200 men . . . [during the siege] and there would have been fewer in Louisbourg.”
Roger Wolcott, the Connecticut commander, held a contrary view. Since the gun-swivels were still mounted on the towers of the battery, though the defensive walls were down, he wrote, “two hundred men might hold the battery against five thousand without cannon.” One of the besieged held a similar opinion, and the British engineer, Bastide, agreed with it by implication. Presumably behind temporary cover, such as gabions and fascines, and separated from the attackers by a glacis and a ditch ten feet deep and 12 feet wide, the gunners could have held out for some time against infantry attack from the hills to the rear. After that, orderly evacuation of men and armament might have been attempted. Since Verrier had not provided for such an eventuality, he favoured abandonment. Once abandonment had been decided upon, demolition was a logical corollary. Evidently Verrier could not bear the thought of deliberately destroying works which had cost the king so much, which represented such an important part of the chief engineer’s own accomplishment, and which might remain French after the war. It is a measure of Verrier’s importance to the besieged that his lone vote persuaded Duchambon not to order the battery demolished. On the night of 11 May it was hurriedly abandoned by its commander, François-Nicolas de Chassin de Thierry. Fearing that there was too little time to remove the guns or even to spike them properly, the garrison of the battery left it in such a state that the Anglo-Americans under Samuel Waldo were able to use some of its guns and ammunition effectively against the town long before manhandling their own field artillery across the marshes west of the town to Green Hill. The abandonment of the battery must have hastened the fall of the fortress. By 26 June Verrier’s reports to the council of war revealed serious damage to the landward defences by enemy bombardment. Persuaded by these reports and by the misery of the besieged civilians, the council of war voted unanimously for capitulation.
Verrier’s ability as a military engineer was severely tested by those events of the spring of 1745 (when, incidentally, he was over 60 years of age). There is no question, however, that he deserves to be remembered for his town-planning and architectural achievement. The public buildings of Louisbourg bore witness to the 18th-century French flair for attractive design. The original plans for which Verrier was responsible were over 100 in number and survive in the Archives Nationales, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the archives of the Comité technique du Génie, and other Paris repositories. They include several plans of the king’s hospital, of the Dauphine gate, of the lighthouse, of the Maurepas gate, and of the king’s stores; and a score of plans of the town. Verrier prepared a plan for the parish church that was never built. He was also responsible for a number of plans of buildings and forts at Port-Dauphin, Port-Toulouse, and Port-La-Joie. It was his son, Claude-Étienne, however, who painted the well-known watercolour view of Louisbourg in 1731. In 1750, Verrier’s successors at Louisbourg were still trying to recover from his widow all the plans of Île Royale and its dependencies that he had taken to France with him after the siege.
Verrier spent most of his 21 years at Louisbourg without his wife. She, with their daughter, experimented briefly with life in the colony from 1732 to 1735 but returned because of poor health to La Rochelle. By 1735 he himself was suffering from sciatica as well as from over-exposure to colonial service. In 1743 he took home leave for his health, returning to the colony in the spring of 1744. Throughout most of his stay in Île Royale he had the assistance of his son Claude-Étienne until the latter, admitted to the engineer corps in 1734, was called in 1736 to serve in France. His place was taken at Louisbourg by one of Verrier’s other sons, the one known as the “chevalier.”
The vast majority of Verrier’s maps are to be found in original form in AN, Col., C11A, 126; Section Outre-Mer, Dépôt des fortifications des colonies, Am. sept .; and CTG, Archives, art.14. There are copies of many of these maps in PAC, National Map Collection.
AD, Bouches-du-Rhône (Aix-en-Provence), État civil, Sainte-Madeleine d’Aix-en-Provence, 4 janv. 1683; Charente-Maritime (La Rochelle), Greffe de Me Hirvoix, 19 août 1709; État civil, Notre-Dame de La Rochelle, 12 sept. 1747. AN, Col., B, 46–50, 52–55, 57–59, 61, 63–66, 68, 70, 72, 74, 76, 78, 84, 86; C11A, 126; C11B, 7–27; C11C, 11–13, 16; D2C, 222/2, p.305 (PAC transcript); F1A, 23–35; F3, 50; Marine, C7, 344 (dossier Verrier); Section Outre-Mer, G3, 2046; Dépôt des fortifications des colonies, Am. sept., nos.150–80, 184–214, 248–53, 264–67, 272–74. Archives maritimes, Port de Rochefort, 1E, 103, 105. CTG, Archives, arts.3, 14; Bibliothèque,
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Cite This Article
F. J. Thorpe, “VERRIER, ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 20, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/verrier_etienne_3E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||F. J. Thorpe|
|Title of Article:||VERRIER, ÉTIENNE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1974|
|Year of revision:||1974|
|Access Date:||March 20, 2023|