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Make Way for the Jesuits

In the 17th instalment of ‘Nations of Canada,’ Greg Koabel describes how The Society of Jesus became a powerful player in the colonization of North America.

· 24 min read
Make Way for the Jesuits
Portrait of Ignacio de Loyola (1491-1556) engraved by W. Holl. Via Getty.

What follows is the seventeenth instalment of The Nations of Canada, a serialized Quillette project adapted from Greg Koabel’s ongoing podcast of the same name.

By the early 1610s, Samuel de Champlain had turned Quebec into a viable French-controlled fur-trading post and potential colony. But the St. Lawrence River region hadn’t been the first French attempt at colonization in (what is now) Canada. Between 1604 and 1607, the French had attempted to settle on the Atlantic coast, a story I began telling in our twelfth instalment. An initial expedition, which included Champlain, established a base at Port Royal, on the Nova Scotian coast of the Bay of Fundy. There, a natural harbour offered better protection from the weather, and the settlers struck up a beneficial relationship with the local Mi’kmaq population.

However, Acadia (as the French called their settlement efforts in the region) was abandoned in 1607. Port Royal was too far from the main fur-trading centre, then located at the junction of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers, to enforce a fur monopoly on behalf of the Company that Champlain and his companions had formed; and several efforts to explore the coast to the south (modern Maine) had come up empty. The Company’s monopoly was revoked by the French Crown, leading to Champlain’s long (and more successful) campaign to re-establish a new settlement on the St. Lawrence at modern-day Quebec City.

But while Champlain turned to the greater commercial potential of the St. Lawrence, some of the other veterans of the Acadian experiment refused to give up on (modern day) Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine. And it is their story I will take up in this instalment, putting Champlain’s adventures on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers on hold while we go back in time a few years to catch up with events in Atlantic Canada.

Chief among the Acadian die-hards was Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt et de Saint-Just—an adventurous middle-aged French aristocrat who saw the Americas as an opportunity to rebuild his ruinous finances. Poutrincourt, who’d been with Champlain on the initial Acadian voyage, was the first to see the potential of the natural harbour at Port Royal. He requested the land from Pierre Dugua de Mons, the well-connected commander of that expedition. De Mons agreed, as this was a handy way of getting an influential figure such as Poutrincourt personally invested in developing and improving the land.

A University of Maine map showing the exploration routes of Champlain and de Mons (rendered here as “de Monts”).

Legally speaking, however, it wasn’t entirely clear what the arrangement between de Mons and Poutrincourt actually entailed. In running things at Port Royal, was the latter acting as the Company’s official deputy in Acadia? Or a personal owner of the settlement? This is to say nothing of what the local Mi’kmaq community would have thought of such an arrangement, even if they’d been consulted (which, of course, they weren’t). 

Such legal ambiguities became moot in 1607, however, when the Company’s monopoly was withdrawn. Without state backing, the investors pulled out. Port Royal had struggled to survive even when it was getting regular supply runs from France, and there’d be no hope whatsoever if it had to go it alone. The settlers pulled up stakes and headed back to France. Membertou, the venerable chief of the neighbouring Mi’kmaq, pledged to protect the colony’s buildings until the French returned. But no one knew when that might be.

A Canadian stamp honouring Henri Membertou, Grand Chief of the Mi'kmaq, who greeted French explorers in 1605.

For his part, Poutrincourt was determined to salvage his personal stake in Acadia. In the winter of 1607-1608, he lobbied his friend, King Henri IV, to formalize the arrangement he’d made with de Mons regarding his ownership of Port Royal. The King agreed, as did de Mons, on condition that Poutrincourt bore the costs of developing the land himself.

Although this was an ad hoc arrangement, it would end up setting a pattern for land settlement in New France: The Crown granted land to wealthy subjects (usually though a corporate intermediary), contingent on their ability to bring in tenants to clear and farm the territory.

For the moment, however, all of this was purely theoretical, as Poutrincourt didn’t have the resources to set up a colony. Nor did he have a fur monopoly that might be used to entice investors, though that fact didn’t discourage him: In the long run, Poutrincourt envisioned Port Royal and the surrounding Acadian territories as a farming colony rather than a fur-trading hub. His goal was to turn his property into a miniature Canadian version of France. 

Poutrincourt spent 1608 and 1609 in France while Port Royal remained an abandoned ghost town. Traders affiliated with de Mons continued to visit the region to do business with the local Indigenous population, but no Frenchmen stayed over the winter.

In early 1610, just a few months before his assassination by a Catholic zealot, King Henri reminded Poutrincourt of his obligations: Either he started developing Port Royal, or the land would be surrendered back to the Crown.

At around the same time, Poutrincourt received an even greater spur to action from a potential colonial rival. This time, the rival wasn’t British, Spanish, or Dutch, but rather another player within France’s power structure—the Jesuit Order. 

The Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, had been founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola and six of his companions as a means to spread the Catholic message through missionary work and teaching. In time, it became a leading force in the Counter-Reformation that pushed back against Protestantism.

During the French Wars of Religion of the late sixteenth century, the Jesuits were well-represented among the Catholic forces fighting against the Huguenot side, whose Protestant ranks then included the man who’d become King Henri IV. Henri famously converted to Catholicism as a means to bring the fighting to an end, but still (rightly) suspected that he was being targeted by Catholic radicals and Spanish spies. The Jesuits came under suspicion during this period, and Henri banished them from France.

When Henri began feeling more secure on the throne, however, he allowed the Jesuits to return (though they were required to take oaths of loyalty to the French Crown). He even invited one of the leading French Jesuits, Pierre Coton, to become his personal confessor—part of a larger program of reconciliation with the King’s former Catholic enemies.

Pierre Coton (1564-1626), as depicted in an 1893 engraving contained in Galerie illustrée de la Compagnie de Jésus.

Yet old sectarian animosities did not disappear. Many of the king’s long-time loyalists, including Poutrincourt, continued to suspect that Coton had actively schemed to assassinate Henri during the war—a plan that (they believed) he hadn’t entirely abandoned despite the outwardly friendly atmosphere at court.

From the time Poutrincourt returned to France in 1607, the deep-pocketed Jesuits had been offering their services to help settle Acadia. This put the would-be colonist in a bind. Poutrincourt himself didn’t have any money. If he refused the help of a group that did, the King might question his devotion to the colonial project, and revoke his rights in Acadia. But if he accepted Jesuit aid, on the other hand, Poutrincourt would be forced to work with men he regarded as Catholic fifth columnists who might be serving Spanish masters.

The Jesuits wielded considerable power at court. Their ranks included not only Coton, but many veterans of the civil-war-era Catholic League. Much of their wealth flowed from one Antoinette de Pons-Ribérac, comtesse de La Roche-Guyon and marquise de Guercheville—better known as Antoinette de Guercheville—the première dame d’honneur (lady in waiting) to Queen Marie de Medici, and wife of the governor of Paris.

Antoinette de Guercheville (1560-1632), as depicted by French painter François Quesnel (1543-1619).

Guerchville took an interest in New France as a potential site for missionary work. She was encouraged in this by her confessor, a Jesuit named Énemond Massé who was closely affiliated with Coton. A successful mission in Acadia would win the Jesuits prestige in France and Europe as a whole, and perhaps strengthen their political position. Moreover, missionary work was one of the core imperatives of Jesuit life.

So it was that in 1608, Massé and another Jesuit, Pierre Biard, were officially attached to Poutrincourt’s Acadian project. It would be stretching things to say that they were working together, though. Poutrincourt kept the Jesuits in the dark in regard to his preparations, and obstructed their attempts to fund the enterprise. In the Spring of 1608, when Massé and Biard travelled to Bordeaux in expectation of a voyage to Acadia, they found that Poutrincourt had cancelled the trip due to a lack of funding—without telling them.

This all brings us back to early 1610 and the events I described in the opening paragraphs: Poutrincourt was resolved to re-establish a presence in Acadia, but without the aid of the Jesuits. He had to bury himself in debt to do it, but (as he saw it) there was no other choice.

Poutrincourt assembled what partners he could find—in total, just over 20 men, including his eighteen-year-old son, Charles de Biencourt de Saint-Just (who will be known to us simply as Biencourt). There was also Louis Hébert, an apothecary who’d been on the earlier expedition to Acadia, and Claude de Saint-Étienne de la Tour, a navy captain who’d served in the French Wars of Religion. De La Tour brought his own son, also named Charles, who was around the same age as Biencourt.

Perhaps the most important of Poutrincourt’s men, at least in the short term, was Jessé Fléché, a priest. Fléché was a noteworthy inclusion because the Acadian project already had clergy attached to it, even if they wouldn’t be crossing the Atlantic with the others. These were the Jesuits Massé and Biard, whose exclusion from the voyage violated the terms that the King had set down for Poutrincourt.

Much in the style of Henry Hudson, Poutrincourt was hoping that his rogue behaviour would be forgiven once the powers that be observed his impressive results. Specifically, he hoped to successfully plant a settlement; convert the local Mi’kmaq population to Christianity without the aid of the Jesuits; and then sail back home to a grateful King who, in light of this fait accompli, would agree that the Jesuits weren’t necessary for the project to succeed.

Sailing Into Canada’s Great ‘Northern Sea’
In the fifteenth instalment of his series on the history of Canada, Greg Koabel describes Henry Hudson’s tragic 1610-11 voyage to the saltwater bay that now bears his name.

They sailed from Dieppe in early 1610 and arrived at the old site of Port Royal in the middle of June. Despite being abandoned for two and a half years, the settlement was in decent shape. The roofs had collapsed, and the mill had broken down, but the basic structures were still there. With a few repairs, the colonists would soon be living comfortably.

All of this was thanks to Membertou, the Mi’kmaq chief whom the French had befriended back in 1605, and who’d proved good to his word when he pledged to protect the abandoned settlement. Friendly relations were immediately renewed. In fact, Membertou was far more useful to Poutrincourt than the old chief realized. Even as the proto-colonists were re-stablishing Port Royal, the Jesuits back in Paris were airing their grievances at court. Upon his return to France, Poutrincourt knew, he’d need to present the authorities with evidence that he was successfully spreading Christianity in the Americas. Thus did it come to pass that Membertou of the Mi’kmaq became the first Indigenous person in Canada to convert to Christianity.

Except… not really. Fléché performed the baptism rituals to Membertou and over twenty members of his family less than a week after the Frenchmen arrived at Port Royal. Although Poutrincourt and his priest would later present this hastily conducted affair as evidence of Membertou’s deep devotion to the Christian faith (the man simply couldn’t wait), it’s highly unlikely that any of these new “converts” really understood what Christianity was, let alone exhibited a sincere desire to embrace its doctrines.

In reality, Membertou probably saw baptism as just another ceremony meant to strengthen his relationship with the French. After all, Indigenous nations themselves had all sorts of well-developed rituals they used to demonstrate friendship with their neighbours. It hardly would have surprised them to learn that the Europeans had their own analogous rites.

For Pourtincrout, however, such abstract questions were irrelevant: He’d secured France’s first (nominal) missionary “success” in Canada, all without the aid of those meddling Jesuits. He immediately dispatched his son, Biencourt, back across the Atlantic to relay the good news and forestall any Jesuit attempts to horn in on the great Acadian project.

As it turned out, however, Biencourt sailed back to a France that was very different from the one he’d left a few months earlier. Upon coming ashore in August 1610, he was greeted with terrible news: Henri IV had been assassinated—exactly the fate that the King had feared back in 1594, when he’d banned the Jesuits. Had the Jesuits now finally achieved through subterfuge that which they’d failed to achieve through France’s civil war?

The Assassination of Henri IV and the Arrest of [François] Ravaillac on May 14, 1610, by French painter Charles-Gustave Housez (1822-1894).

The new political landscape at court wasn’t favourable to Pourtincrout and his son, both of whom resented the new Jesuit presence at court: The country was now governed by a regency council dominated by Catholic supremacist Marie de Medici, ruling on behalf of the child king, Louis XIII. The Jesuits’ primary backer, Madame de Guerchville, now served as lady in waiting to the most powerful person in France. In this political environment, Biencourt’s gambit of showing off some quick Mi’kmaq conversions fell flat.

Unable to win political support, he turned his attention to the private sector, and attempted to drum up funds from pious would-be investors by offering them the chance to become godparents to the newly baptized Mi’kmaq. It was a savvy idea (and one that’s still used, in adapted form, by modern charities that offer donors a chance to sponsor families in poor countries). But many of the prospective donors most likely to participate in the scheme were associated with the Jesuit faction at court, and so the fund-raising effort fizzled.

Next, Biencourt started talks with the hatters of Paris, many of whose wares were produced using Canadian fur. They expressed willingness to fund the colony, but only if it could establish a fur-trading monopoly in Acadia. When resistance at court stymied this option, too, and the hatters pulled out, Biencourt was forced to face reality: If Port Royal was to survive, he and his father would need to partner with the Jesuits.

In the end, Biencourt secured a compromise of sorts from the regency council, which now ordered him to personally escort the Jesuit priests, Massé and Biard, to Acadia as soon as possible. On the plus side, the new administration would also recognize Poutrincourt’s authority in Acadia, and give Biencourt the title of vice-admiral of the Acadian fleet. In January 1611, the uneasy partners finally set out across the Atlantic. 

Meanwhile, in Acadia, Poutrincourt had been operating on a shoestring budget, in a desperate attempt to prove he didn’t need Jesuit assistance. Over the winter, he and his men paid for his penny-pinching with their health. Short on provisions, Poutrincourt was forced to seek the aid of his neighbour, Membertou, and several of the colonists ended up living among the Mi’kmaq for most of the winter.

In March, while Biencourt and the Jesuits were still en route, the French settlers returned the favour when Membertou became gravely ill. His claims to have been over 150 years old may not have been accurate, but he was definitely quite old, and it didn’t seem like he’d recover. The Mi’kmaq chief accepted Poutrincourt’s invitation to convalesce at Port Royal—a sign of the growing friendship between the two groups. But that special relationship rested on a personal connection with Membertou. And it wasn’t clear if it would survive the chief’s death.

Things were getting desperate by the time winter finally broke. Finally, in April, the French and Mi’kmaq alike celebrated the return of the seasonal fish. A few days later, Poutrincourt enjoyed the welcome sight of his son sailing into harbour with much-needed supplies.

Their early-season crossing of the Atlantic had been almost as harrowing as the winter the colonists suffered through at Port Royal. Biard reported that they’d seen icebergs as tall as Notre Dame cathedral.

Both father and son had many reasons to celebrate their reunification. But the joy was short-lived. Biencourt brought the unwelcome news that King Henri IV was dead, and that the Jesuits were now set to take up their stations in the colony. Further resistance would be pointless: They enjoyed the full support of the new regime in Paris.

For their part, the Jesuits immediately started questioning Poutrincourt’s management methods. In particular, Massé and Biard were unimpressed with Fléché’s supposed “conversions.” Biard wrote back to France that Fléché “has not been able to instruct them as he would have wished, because he did not know the [Mi’kmaq] language.”

Even Membertou, supposedly the most devoted of the new Christians, seemed troublingly unaware of what his baptism had signified. The two Jesuit priests correctly identified these initial baptisms as empty political gestures on the part of Poutrincourt. If France really wanted to win over Canadian souls, it would require patience and hard work, qualities that Jesuit missionaries saw as their calling cards. 

It also became apparent that the Jesuits would make their presence in Acadia felt in other areas, as well—including the conduct of the fur trade.

Part of Biencourt’s mission in Paris had been to win a trading monopoly from the French government. As he’d failed in that endeavour, the 1611 trading season started up with the residents of Port Royal unable to extract fees from the seasonal traders who were now sailing from Europe.

The matter came to a head in June, when reports reached Port Royal of French traders making a nuisance of themselves on the other side of the Bay of Fundy. In particular, François Gravé (more often referred to in historical texts as Pont-Gravé), a veteran French sailor well known to Poutrincourt, was trading with Etchemin-speaking Algonquin traders at Saint Croix Island—site of the abandoned 1604 French settlement on the New Brunswick side of the Bay.

Biencourt, acting in his capacity as the region’s vice-admiral, sailed out to confront his father’s old shipmate. He accused Pont-Gravé of abusing the Etchemin traders, and claimed that his new title gave him the authority to police the waters in the name of the French Crown. Essentially, this was an attempt to enforce a monopoly by alternative means.

Pont-Gravé, well aware that the Port Royal settlers had no monopoly, and few friends at court willing to back them up, refused to cease trading. A stand-off ensued, which was resolved only through the mediation of the Jesuits. Pont-Gravé eventually recognized Biencourt’s authority as vice-admiral, but Biencourt was forced to admit that Pont-Gravé and his men had full trading rights.

The result was a double defeat for Biencourt and his father. The incident firmly established their lack of control over the fur trade in the Bay of Fundy, while, at the same time, allowing the Jesuits to establish a political role in the colony’s management. Poutrincourt could see what little power he still had in Acadia slipping away.

Almost immediately after the clash with Pont-Gravé, Poutrincourt sailed for France, leaving his son in charge of Port Royal while he was gone. This was a bit of a gamble. Biencourt, after all, was still just a teenager. He also was hostile to the Jesuits, whom he saw as undermining his authority at every turn. The result was a toxic atmosphere at Port Royal.

Biencourt’s suspicions were heightened in August when Biard decided to visit Pont-Gravé’s base of operations, which sat at the mouth of what is now called the Saint John River (near the modern New Brunswick city of Saint John). Biard said that if the Jesuits’ missionary work was going to make any progress, he’d have to learn Indigenous languages. He proposed a lengthy stay with the Etchemin-speakers (who are also often referred to simply as the Etchemin), Pont-Gravé’s trading partners. An increasingly paranoid Biencourt saw this as a pretext for his two French rivals to plot with each other. He wasn’t sure he could stop Biard from going, so instead, the vice-admiral offered to escort the Jesuit across the bay himself, so he could keep an eye on his activities.

Another reason Biencourt escorted Biard was that he hoped the Etchemin could help keep Port Royal fed through the coming winter. The previous winter had almost sunk the colony, and there were indications that the next one would be worse. Poutrincourt hoped to send supply ships from France before the year was out, but no one was especially optimistic about the chances that this would happen. And Membertou, whose generous support had saved Port Royal while Biencourt was in Paris, died in September. He was interred within the grounds of Port Royal as a Christian—an (apparent) success for the French missionary project. But it was unclear whether his successor would follow in his benevolent footsteps.

Biencourt’s trading mission among the Etchemin in the late summer went poorly, however, as the Indigenous traders were more interested in doing business with Pont-Gravé’s men, who were better supplied with European goods. Biencourt also had little success when he renewed his demands from Pont-Gravé and the independent traders for a 20% cut on all trading in the Bay of Fundy. By November, he was back at Port Royal, having succeeded only in acquiring some rotting biscuits from a ship out of La Rochelle.

Biencourt’s father was making no better progress in France, where he tried a strategy of bluff and bluster. His target was the aforementioned Madame de Guerchville, that well-connected patroness of the Acadian Jesuits. In a series of meetings, Poutrincourt promised to end all resistance to the Jesuits, in return for her recognition that he had sole authority over the entire Acadian region.

This would have been, in fact, a broad expansion of Poutrincourt’s authority. His royal grant covered the settlement of Port Royal and its immediate environment. What Poutrincourt was talking about now was the entirety of modern day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and much of the south coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

If Poutrincourt had been hoping to manipulate a naïve woman, Guerchville quickly proved that he’d chosen the wrong target. Before agreeing to anything, she asked to see Poutrincourt’s royal charter. Poutrincourt weakly explained that the paperwork was across the Atlantic in Port Royal, and could not be consulted just now. Guerchville instead went to Champlain’s partner Pierre Dugua de Mons, who then served as Lieutenant-General of all French possessions in North America (even if that title was fairly empty without a trade monopoly to go along with it). He informed her that Poutrincourt’s grant applied to Port Royal alone.

At that point, Poutrincourt’s gambit truly blew up in his face. Guerchville paid de Mons to take over Poutrincourt’s authority in the Acadian region. De Mons—who, as we learned in the last instalment, was then scrambling to raise money for Champlain’s colony on the St. Lawrence—readily agreed. And since neither he nor Champlain had any real ability to project power in Acadia, effective control in that area would devolve to the Jesuits. It was now clear that Poutrincourt’s role was that of glorified property manager at Port Royal.

A new French voyage to Acadia would not be mounted until January 1612, which meant the colonists at Port Royal were left to fend for themselves for another winter. But this new voyage would be far more than a re-supply mission. Guerchville and the Jesuits had an entirely new vision for the region, which would be implemented by Acadia’s new effective ruler, a Jesuit named Gilbert du Thet.

Predictably, Biencourt attempted to resist this arrangement. Upon Du Thet’s arrival at Port Royal in the Spring of 1612, a dispute emerged over the ownership of the newly arrived provisions. Biencourt, who’d barely held Port Royal together over the winter, claimed the cargo was his to dispense. The Jesuits were happy to assist the struggling colonists, but insisted that they were in charge of distributing supplies.

But this wasn’t just an argument over material goods. Biencourt accused the Jesuits of attempting to overthrow his father’s claim to Port Royal. Even more provocatively, he claimed Du Thet had made treasonous remarks about King Henri IV’s murder—thanking God for the assassin’s knife. Needless to say, Du Thet denied the charge. 

Biencourt placed Du Thet in a kind of house arrest within Port Royal, along with Massé and Biard. They were free to move around within the settlement, but Biencourt barred them from leaving. In protest, the Jesuits refused to minister to the colonists. Biencourt surely realized he was in a weak position. His father did not have the resources to operate the colony without Jesuit aid, and the Jesuits had the full support of the government back in France.

Then things got worse when an epidemic—likely resulting from contact with Europeans—cut its way through the local Mi’kmaq population. The fatality rate may have been as high as 50%. Aside from inflicting pain and devastation upon these communities, this tragedy also meant that the Mi’kmaq neighbours were unlikely to be in a position to assist Port Royal through the winter of 1612-13.

By the end of June, Biencourt realized he had no choice but to reconcile with the Jesuits, and he allowed Du Thet to return to France in order to secure the provisions necessary to survive the winter. He hoped there’d be enough time for him to make the return trip before the weather turned.

For Du Thet, however, his brief visit had convinced him that Port Royal was a lost cause. The father-and-son duo of Poutrincourt and Biencourt were more trouble than they were worth. Since Madame de Guerchville held dominion over all of Acadia, why not strike up a new settlement somewhere else in the region, and be rid of this troublesome family altogether?

As it turned out, Poutrincourt wasn’t in much of a position to kick up too much of a fuss about these developments, as he was imprisoned for failing to pay his many debts. And when the next French ships arrived in Acadia, in the Spring of 1613, they stopped at Port Royal just long enough to pick up Massé and Biard, before moving on to found a new colony.

They’d brought with them just under a hundred settlers, which would make their new settlement more than twice as large as Port Royal. Once again, it was Du Thet in the lead. Assisting him would be an associate of Guerchville named René Le Coq de La Saussaye, who would oversee civil and military affairs.

The original plan had been to settle in modern-day Maine, as the past few years had demonstrated that the west side of the Bay of Fundy had access to larger swathes of fur-trapping territory. Back in France, Du Thet and the venture’s backers had selected a site on what’s now known as the Penobscot River, inland from the coast, near modern-day Bangor. The location would be easier to defend than a coastal settlement, and the river might eventually be found to provide access to the St. Lawrence (though they really had no idea), thereby increasing the colony’s commercial value.

A map of Maine lakes and rivers, with the Kennebec (left) and Penobscot (right) rivers highlighted in red.

But the ships’ crews were in unfamiliar waters. Aside from the exploratory voyages made by Champlain and Poutrincourt a few years earlier, French cartographers hadn’t done much work in mapping the coast of what would soon become known as New England. The pilots weren’t confident they could navigate the rocky inlets along Maine’s shores.

The sailors feared other dangers, too. Both France and England claimed North America’s Atlantic coast. Technically, even Port Royal was disputed territory—though, in practice, the French had plied the Bay of Fundy unopposed for years.

As the ships moved further south, they entered a kind of no man’s land, where English raids were a real possibility. In Europe, England and France were at peace, but on the disputed shores of North America, the rules of engagement were far from clear.   

Facing stiff resistance from the sailors, Du Thet decided to stop short of the original destination. The colonists disembarked on the mainland opposite of Mount Desert Island, near the modern resort town of Bar Harbor, about 40 kilometers short of the Penobscot River. The Jesuits named their new colony St. Sauveur (not to be confused with the modern Laurentian ski town of Saint-Sauveur in Quebec).

The first choice facing the colonists was whether to prioritize the planting of crops, or to enhance perimeter security. It was already late June, so if they wanted to bring in a good harvest before winter, they’d need to start planting right away. On the other hand, until the settlement had adequate fortifications, it would be vulnerable to attack. Saussaye and Du Thet agreed to focus on food. They were gambling on the fact that well-armed English vessels didn’t typically make the trip this far north into Maine’s waters.

Considering the odds, it was, perhaps, the right bet. But the right bet can still sometimes lose. Just days after the French founded St. Sauveur, an English warship appeared offshore.

The captain of the English warship, Samuel Argall, wasn’t hunting for Frenchmen, but rather for English interlopers. Just after the first settlement at Port Royal had been abandoned (for the first time) in 1607, the English had attempted to set up their own colony on Maine’s Kennebec River, just a few kilometres down the coast from the Penobscot. The English abandoned that colony after a typically harsh winter, and, since then, the status of the English presence in the region had been somewhat ambiguous.

Technically, the English divided the American coast into two zones, supervised by two different companies. The southern portion of the coast was overseen by the Virginia Company (populated by London merchants), which, by now, had established a permanent colony at Jamestown. The northern portion of the coast lay in the jurisdiction of a group of West Country merchants, based out of Bristol. After the failure of the Kennebec colony, the Bristol traders had abandoned the idea of permanent settlement, and instead focused on fishing and fur.

Lands granted to the Virginia Company, lying between the dashed-and-dotted lines, as calculated by early nineteenth-century researchers.

The Virginia Company argued that by abandoning colonization, the West Country men had forfeited their rights in the northern zone. As far as they were concerned, it was the Virginia Company that now controlled the entire American coast.

Argall (who is best known to history for his kidnapping of Pocahontas earlier in 1613) had been commissioned by the Virginia Company to take a well-armed ship, and sixty soldiers, and sweep out any interlopers he found. Primarily, he was on the lookout for unlicensed English fur traders, as well as Dutchmen who might be following up on Henry Hudson’s Dutch-sponsored voyage of 1609. Neither he nor his corporate bosses had any idea that French Jesuits were setting up a colony in the disputed zone. Upon catching sight of each other, Argall was just as surprised as the French.

It was the Englishmen who overcame their confusion first. After all, they’d come primed and ready for battle. And the fact that these were Frenchmen didn’t fundamentally change their approach.

The French on the other hand, were entirely caught off guard. Most of the men were on shore, doing agricultural work. The ships were manned by skeleton crews, and were totally unprepared for battle. Du Thet happened to be aboard and rushed to man one of the cannons. However, his Jesuit education had not included gunnery, and he was quickly shot and killed by one of Argall’s musketmen.

Argall easily captured the French ships, and found the grant from the French Crown authorizing the creation of a new colony, which had been among Du Thet’s papers. Argall either destroyed or stole this document, and then accused the defeated Frenchmen on shore of illegally settling on English land. Saussaye protested that they were no pirates, but had been acting under the protection of the French Crown. Since the Frenchmen couldn’t produce the paperwork to back up these claims, however, Argall detained them as common trespassers and thieves.

Argall then burned what structures the French had built, thereby ending the extremely brief life of St. Sauveur. He took some of the Frenchmen (including Biard) back to Jamestown, and allowed the rest to return to Acadia.

Argall’s superiors in Virginia were alarmed at the southern expansion of French settlement, and immediately ordered him back to Acadia. His mission this time was to sweep the French out of their established bases in the region—including Port Royal. In the fall of 1613, Argall did just that, destroying the makeshift trading posts the French had erected on the continental side of the Bay of Fundy.

Then Argall arrived at Port Royal to finish the job. He found the settlement empty, as Biencourt and his small group of settlers were then meeting with Mi’kmaq allies. The Virginia men demolished Port Royal, then waited for its residents to return. Outgunned, and now with no settlement to defend, Biencourt decided to talk rather than fight. He accused Argall of infringing on the legitimate property of the French Crown. Unlike the Jesuit colony at St. Sauveur, Port Royal was not a new settlement in previously contested territory. The French had long-established rights there. In effect, Argall had committed an act of war.

The Englishman refused to be swayed. His only response to Biencourt was a simple explanation of his mission: “I am here to run you out.”

By this time, Massé and Saussaye had managed to get back to France, where they’d spread news of the attack on St. Sauveur. An official diplomatic complaint was lodged with the English. But Canada wasn’t really a priority for Marie de Medici and the regency council at this time. Their focus was on European affairs, and, in particular, a continent-wide competition to secure an alliance with England through a marriage to Charles, King James I’s oldest surviving son and heir to the throne.

In a sense, this second end to the Port Royal colony was more devastating than its original abandonment in 1607. Back then, Poutrincourt and his allies had been forced to give up due to lack of funding—but the physical structures of the settlement remained, as did the legal claim to the land. Now, Port Royal was destroyed, and the legal and diplomatic status of Acadia was in dispute.

The English had established a precedent: They were willing to use force to frustrate French designs, even in the heart of Acadia. Madame de Guerchville still held title to the entire region, but she would never again sponsor a colonial venture.

Poutrincourt, who still nursed his claims to the ruins of Port Royal, visited his razed property in the Spring of 1614, after he’d gotten out of jail. He found that his son, Biencourt, hadn’t even begun the work of rebuilding. He and a handful of settlers sought refuge among the Mi’kmaq that winter, and were near starvation. Crestfallen, Poutrincourt sailed for home, and died less than a year later, at age 58.

Biencourt inherited his father’s claims on what used to be Port Royal, and was determined to rebuild French Acadia. But in the immediate term, it wasn’t clear what he could accomplish on his own.

Acadia’s more important legacy to the French was the emerging connection between religion and colonization in French Canada. However unwillingly, Poutrincourt had been forced to recognize that he could not maintain his colony at Port Royal without the aid of the Jesuits and their zealous benefactors.

Up on the St. Lawrence, Samuel de Champlain was reaching a similar conclusion at around the same time. And in our next instalment, we’ll see what he learned from the mistakes that Poutrincourt and his son had made in Acadia.

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