A Look at Percheron Emigration of the Seventeenth Century


By Michel Ganivet, Secretary General of the Perche-Canada Association


We are in the reign of Louis XIII. French society seems still frozen in its three estates: wealth and poverty are primarily inherited and everyone, in the words of a history book, "exists in the place God gave him from birth."

Yet signs of change are evident. The middle class, the artisans with their know-how and the farmers with property, are starting a slow but inexorable social ascent. The rate of illiteracy is indeed very high, but writings are circulating. Perhaps those of Samuel de Champlain, who published the story of his voyages with Jean Bergeon in 1613, got as far as le Perche. There is no indication.


So it is doubtless not by chance that in 1621 a doctor who had first been an apothecary at Tourouvre grows interested in New France. This is Robert Giffard, born at Autheuil near Tourouvre around 1587. Since a naval decree requires a surgeon on board every vessel, he takes ship and shortly thereafter sets foot on land near the "Habitation" built by Champlain at Quebec, which then has at most about forty settlers. Among them is Hèbert, a native of the Paris area who is also an apothecary.

Were the two men acquainted before? There is no indication. But one thing is certain: they join in agreeing with Champlain that this New France, despite the hostility of the English-backed Iroquois, deserves to get some fresh settlers. There are pictures suggesting that Robert Giffard spent seven happy years around a cabin called La Canardière by the Beauport River, hunting and fishing at his leisure. But I feel we should be very careful about accepting this under the circumstances. The permanent risk represented by the Aboriginal peoples, the threats of English incursions in reply to the siege of La Rochelle (a French port) and the harshness of the climate would indicate that it was more than a holiday excursion for those already living there, numbering just 80 in 1627. Remember that at this same time more than 4,000 Dutch and English were already settled on the East coast.

Despite the long winters, however, the land is fertile on both sides of the St. Lawrence, and the fur trade in particular holds out immense potential that largely offsets any drawbacks. Persuaded like Champlain that this New France will not survive without the arrival of new settlers, Robert Giffard decides to return to France. At Paris on March 24, 1627, at the request of Guillaume de Caen, Equerry General of the Fleet, he says he "knows the country of New France from having been there and stayed there without interruption for five or six years and knows that this country, along the St. Lawrence River alone, can yield and support fifteen thousand beavers."

In this same year, this veritable "gold mine" prompts (French Cardinal) Richelieu to found the Company of One Hundred Associates, which is given the trading monopoly for this immense territory on condition of settling 4,000 people there before the year 1643.

This is an enormous task. Robert Giffard dreams only of getting back, but first he has to start a family and so marries Marie Regnouard at Mortagne (France). Their marriage contract is signed on February 12, 1628, in the presence of Mathieu Poitevin, notary.

Robert Giffard is no sooner married than he thinks about going back to sea. Leaving his young wife behind, he sets out to assemble an initial contingent of settlers. Fanned by the tensions surrounding the siege of La Rochelle, however, hostilities break out between France and England. The latter loses its grip on Aunis (French province), but is looking for compensation. The vessels chartered by the Company of One Hundred Associates have a very bad end to their voyage. Reaching Tadoussac (Canada), the fleet commanded by the Sieur de Roquemont is intercepted by the fleet of Admiral Kirke in the pay of the English. Giffard is taken prisoner but manages to get back to France: Kirke seems to have agreed to return two vessels to the French to let them get home.

So Robert Giffard is back in Mortagne that autumn for the birth of his first daughter, Marie, baptized on December 28. This happy event barely conceals his disappointment, the end of his dream of settling in New France. Having lost La Rochelle, the English are now occupying Quebec, where Champlain has been obliged to capitulate.

Robert Giffard now settles at Mortagne, where he plies his trade with a heart full of nostalgia for this country of Canada. His first biographer, Alfred Cambray, gives us a picture tinged with lyricism of a Robert Giffard who "in the long fall and winter evenings, even facing his mortars and his jars...relived his travels overseas, went fishing across from La Canardière, travelled the Beauport shore where the hunt carried him," and had only one desire: "to see Quebec again and live there."

And very probably on many occasions, in his family circle, in the inns and on the public squares at Mortagne, Tourouvre and wherever his occupation took him, he did not fail to describe the country of Canada and the banks of the St. Lawrence of a thousand promises.

However, the event now arrives that suddenly makes this crazy dream possible again: on March 29, 1632, the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye restores Canada to France. This news is completely unexpected.

Robert Giffard renews contact with the Company of One Hundred Associates, of which his friend Jean Juchereau is a member. On January 15, 1634, the company grants him a seigniory at Beauport on condition that he settle citizens and colonists there. Local feelings about the plan are made clear by the financial support of Pierre Le Bouyer de Saint-Gervais, Criminal Lieutenant for the bailliage (bailiwick) of Mortagne, who lends Robert Giffard 1,800 pounds.

In agreement to leave in the spring are Henry Pinguet with his wife and children; Jean Guyon, master mason at Mortagne (an ancestor of Céline Dion) and his family; Zacharie Cloutier, carpenter and his family, Jean's brother Noël Juchereau; Robert Drouin, tile maker from Jugué in the Parish of Le Pin, and others for a total of about thirty.

At last the great day dawns. Let us imagine this departure in early March from the foot of the church tower of Notre-Dame de Mortagne, completed only a few years before and much taller than it is now. No doubt many take to the road on foot. Jostling one another are a few carts loaded with meagre possessions on which women and children have found places. Quite probably, this convoy makes a first stop at Tourouvre and is then joined by the party of Jean Bourdon, Abbé Le Sueur and a few parishioners from Saint-Sauveur in Thury-Harcourt. A few days later, having slogged through the mud of the roads, they embark at Dieppe on board four ships. The Percherons, many of them seeing the sea for the first time, take their places on the vessel commanded by Mr. Duplessis-Bochard.

We do not know about the sailing conditions. We may assume that all went well. The annals of the Jesuits already established at Quebec report that "on May 31, 1634, a longboat came from Tadoussac with the news that three ships of the Hundred Associates had arrived."

The first Percheron settlers actually set foot on land at Quebec on June 4, the Feast of the Pentecost, with the rest arriving on the 24th. On June 12, meanwhile, Robert Giffard's wife Marie brings into the world a daughter who will be baptized Marie-Françoise, the first Percheron born in New France. In the colony devastated by the English attack, everything has to be rebuilt.

Telling the rest would be a long process. The outcome is known. The major question to be asked at this point has to do with the reasons why the Percheron settlement was successful. Let us seek the reasons for their determination in their adventurous spirit and the prospect of a better world. However, beyond the obvious wish to get out of a social framework and even, in these powerfully mystical times, act in the "missionary" spirit, we must consider the promise of getting new land free of rents and tithes and the prospect of getting rich on the fur trade--both arguments that surely played a role in the decision to leave everything on the old continent, a family in tow.

We can also reckon on the persuasiveness shown by Robert Giffard along with his very Percheron pragmatism: he shared his enthusiasm while weighing the need to bring woodcutters and builders with him. Used to their forest environment, the Percherons were perfectly at home with the axe and the saw! But they also had to survive the winter. The Guyons, Cloutiers, Drouins and other companions were "builders." They knew how to build solidly before the bad weather set in and so give the new settlers every chance to survive.

Wager won!

The most extraordinary thing is that this initial settlement is followed by many other arrivals over the years to come.

Thus, 1635 saw the turn of Gaspard Boucher and his family to come with the ships. Among their children was Pierre, born on August 1, 1622, who would become a hero in New France.

It would go on like this for nearly thirty years. Percheron immigration was especially well served by the recruiter role played by Robert Giffard's friends Noël and Pierre Juchereau, the first unhesitatingly slipping into the part of travelling salesman between Canada and France while the other, remaining at Tourouvre, is busy getting hopeful emigrants to sign their contracts.

In order, Tourouvre, Mortagne, Saint-Cosme-en-Vairais, Igé... in all, 33 communes from le Perche contribute up to the 1660s, and crucially, to the settlement of Canada. By the death of Robert Giffard in 1668 at age 81, the flow from le Perche is almost over and the population stands at 3,000. They are not all Percherons, but the Percheron contribution would be decisive.

As Mme Montagne writes: "Percheron immigration, the earliest wave, turned out to be remarkably prolific," but also showed a building and fighting spirit. These early arrivals are found at the heart of every struggle that punctuated the emergence of the young colony.

-- Pierre Boucher defends Trois-Rivières in 1652, returns to France in 1662, is received by Louis XIV and Colbert to obtain reinforcements and new settlers and succeeds in having the Carignan-Salières Regiment land in New France with about 1,200 men in 1665. This same Pierre Boucher is responsible for founding Boucherville on the south shore of the St. Lawrence opposite Montreal.

-- Leading this heroic procession we also find Louis Guimond (Champs), martyred for his faith by the Iroquois.

--In 1642, Madeleine de la Peltrie (born at Alençon, part of Bivilliers [France]) participates with Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance--and with Nicolas Godé (from Igé), his wife Françoise née Gadois (also from Igé) and their four children--in the founding of Montreal right in the middle of hostile territory: the decision was viewed as ridiculous by many at the time.

To these great figures of New France are added the Pelletiers from the forest village of Bresolettes and the Bouchards, Crestes, Fortins, Gagnons, Gaudrys, Gaulins, Giguères, Girousts, Hayots, Houdes, Landrys, Langlois, Laportes, Lehoux, Maheusts, Merciers, Rivards, Tremblays (surely the most widespread family name), Trottiers, Trudelles, Turgeons and others whose names appear today on the plaques Perche-Canada has been placing in the region's churches since 1957.

The fighting tradition--in the noblest sense of the term--has been solidly maintained over the following centuries by the clear determination of these Percheron descendants to defend the French language and culture. 


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