Jean-Baptiste Francois Deschamps de la Bouteillerie was an unusual man – at least as far as I have been able to tell. When he arrived in Quebec, Intendant Talon mentioned how his arrival should give the King hope for the future of the colony. Deschamps also merited mention by Professor Cole Harris in his definitive history of the seigneurial system in early Canada. Harris specifically referred to Deschamps who chose to live on the land and take an active role in colonizing his grant, as an exception, compared to the majority of seigneurs.
In May, 2015, I visited the village of Hautot-Saint-Sulpice in France, where Robert Levesque was born. There I enjoyed the hospitality of the “Cousins of the New World,” an association formed to welcome the many descendants of Robert and Jeanne who have been seeking out the birthplace of their male ancestor. In one of the association’s annual publications, I read one author’s comment: “Without Robert Levesque, there would be no Rivière Ouelle.”
With all due respect to Robert, who was. after all, my eighth great grandfather, I believe Jean-Baptiste Deschamps deserves a great deal of credit for the founding and initial growth of Rivière Ouelle. While it is certainly true that Robert played a major role in the community, it is also true that Jean Baptiste Deschamps played an even larger role.
Perhaps it’s my business background and education speaking, but I consider Deschamps as one of many early Quebecois entrepreneurs. He made a choice to invest what appears to have been his inheritance in an enterprise in New France. He managed to convince eight men to leave France with him in 1671, to join him in his venture. He paid for their passage to New France and three years of board and room there. He had to provide tools and supplies. And then after three years, he started to divide up his estate and make land grants to those who had helped him get started.
The trip begins
I wonder how he went about arranging for the move. How many conversations did it take to convince Robert Levesque, Damien Berube and others to join him on this adventure in New France? How many others declined? How did he get these men together to discuss their concerns, worries, and questions, without telephones or the Internet? How did they go about gathering information about what to expect, given limited contact with those in New France? Perhaps they asked around for stories in the marketplace in Yvetot, Rouen or Dieppe, since by 1671 there been several decades of lessons from others?
Can you imagine the conversations among those who finally gathered to plan for the trip: “What should we bring? What kind of tools do we need? How many? Can we find them in Quebec or do we need to bring them with us?” And then, even more profoundly, “How can we guard against seasickness and other diseases? How do we protect ourselves in storms or in an attack by pirates?”
Somehow Deschamps was able to persuade several countrymen to join him on the ship that left Dieppe in late June, 1671. Before his grant from the King was official in October 1672, Deschamps had already started work on the seigneurie. To get work started so quickly, they must have had some discussions and planning meetings either before boarding the ship or onboard, in between bouts of seasickness!
Until he died in 1703, Deschamps worked hard to develop his estate. He was able to slowly attract settlers to his land through grants and through their networks of friends from settlements closer to Quebec City. Could a reputation of a seigneur as just and fair have been a possible contributing factor attracting new settlers to this land?
Deschamps’ Entrepreneurial Motivations
In the end, how successful an entrepreneur was he? By financial measures, it doesn’t appear that he enjoyed much success. While it is unlikely that he actually made an investment of 50,000 livres in the estate, as his son claimed in 1719, his efforts took money and he required additional financing. He had to take out loans, delay paying one man the amount he was due under his contract, and ask his family for any additional inheritance due him when his father died. His sons had to pay off his debts after his death. Given the problems the family had in trying to sell the estate, it probably wasn’t all that profitable.
Perhaps he died too soon and left heirs who were preoccupied elsewhere. Professor Harris’s analysis of any seigneurie’s business model was that it needed to reach at least 50 families to really generate profits. Before Deschamps died, there were almost that number of families on the property. He did attempt to expand and protect the activities of the seigneurie, but it appears that he never built a mill on his property as seigneurs were expected to do. Of course, building a mill, such as the one that can be visited in Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies near Rivière Ouelle, was an expensive proposition. And it is possible that in his lifetime, land was still being cleared and people were still being recruited to settle the land so there might not have been sufficient demand or justification for a communal mill until after his death.
Or perhaps his motivation was power and recognition, as the analysis of his signature indicated. How much pomp and circumstance did he require? What was it like for a young man of noble birth to live in Quebec? In the Quebec countryside, at least, there was less formality and presumably more fluid class lines. Was he comfortable with this new position for a nobleman? Once he gave his manor to the church, there is no evidence that he tried to rebuild one, but instead went to live, we suspect, in one of Robert and Jeanne’s homes, certainly a more humble abode than he might have been used to in France.
But then, not all entrepreneurs are motivated by money or power and recognition. Perhaps his motivations included loyalty to the King or a spirit of adventure? After all, what were his options in France? Was he perhaps frustrated with the prospect of life ahead of him in France?
Judging from some of the stories about Deschamps, it appears that he was kind and fair, perhaps even too generous with his grants and arrangements about taxes and other fees due him. He ceded land regularly so that by the time of his death, only a small piece of his estate remained as his own.
Whatever his motivation, he did establish an estate that has grown into the municipality of Rivière Ouelle. The town has evolved and changed over the centuries, but it still has much of its ambiance and history. For this, Jean Baptiste Francois Deschamps de la Bouteillerie deserves more recognition than he has received, certainly in France. The village of Hautot Saint Sulpice does much to honor Robert Levesque. However, in the nearby village of Cliponville, Jean-Baptiste’s birthplace, there is no mention of his name, no monument, however small, to his accomplishments. When I visited there just this spring, I commented on the absence of any deserved recognition of Deschamps to Cliponvillle’s Mayor. He promptly suggested that if I write an appropriate homage, they will figure out how to post it!