Name: Nicholas DENYS
Given Name: Nicholas
DENYS, NICOLAS, one of the leading figures in Acadia for over half of the 17th century; b. 15 98 in Tours; d. 1688.
Change Date: 12 Dec 2005 at 00:00:00
Nicolas Denys was the son of Jacques Denys de La Thibaudière and Marie Cosnier. He himself st ated that he belonged to ?a family of engineers.? While little is known of his early years, w e can say he received little formal education but became proficient in navigation, the fishin g business, lumbering, and administration. In 1632 we find him a merchant at La Rochelle an d charged as agent and representative of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France with the respons ibility of recruiting volunteers and fitting out the expedition being sent to Acadia under th e command of Isaac de Razilly to take possession of the country under the terms of the Treat y of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and to endeavour to establish a colony there.
The Razilly party, numbering some 300 men in three vessels, arrived at La Hève (near the mode rn Bridgewater, N.S.) on 8 Sept. 1632. Shortly afterwards, Denys started a sedentary fishin g operation at Port Rossignol (now Liverpool). In 1634 Denys received from the commander a gr ant to a large, heavily wooded area at La Hève and the next year he began cutting white oak i n the form of planks and beams for export to France in vessels owned by Razilly, his partne r in this first Canadian lumbering venture. Razilly?s death late in 1635 resulted in a sever e set-back for the colony generally and Denys in particular. Charles de Menou d?Aulnay, one o f Razilly?s lieutenants and his cousin, now assumed full authority and refused Denys permissi on to export his timber. This and the seizure without compensation of a ship and cargo of co d in a Portuguese port a few months earlier were the first misfortunes in this dauntless man? s life. Indeed misfortune was to plague him continuously and limit sharply any lasting effec t he was to have in the development of Acadia.
In the face of d?Aulnay?s enmity and the confusion and strife that prevailed, Denys returne d to La Rochelle where he again acted as the representative of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-F rance. In addition, he arranged his own fishing and trading voyages to the coasts of Newfound land and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, probably for the most part to the latter. About 1645 he ob tained a concession from the company and built a fortified fishing and trading post on the so uth shore of Miscou Harbour. In addition he had land cleared and crops planted by the colonis ts he established. However, d?Aulnay by this time held the king?s commission as governor of A cadia and refused to recognize the company?s right to grant this privilege without his concur rence. In 1647 he seized the Miscou post and expelled Denys. Although he agreed to pay for th e trade goods and other property seized, this was never done. There is a possibility that fol lowing this set-back Denys built a trading post on the Miramichi.
We do know, in any case, that on the receipt of the news of d?Aulnay?s death in 1650, Denys w ent to Cape Breton with his brother, Simon, for the purpose of fishing and trading. In the fa ll of 1651, soldiers sent by Mme d?Aulnay [see Motin] captured two posts occupied by the Deny s, Saint-Pierre and Sainte-Anne, and took the two Denys as prisoners to Quebec. This seizur e cannot have been recognized as legal by authorities there because Denys soon obtained his r elease and returned to Saint-Pierre. While remaining active there, in 1652 he built another b ranch at Nipisiguit (Bathurst). But he was not to enjoy this success for long. D?Aulnay had d ied heavily indebted to Emmanuel Le Borgne, a La Rochelle merchant who now claimed d?Aulnay? s rights in Acadia until his claim against the estate was satisfied. In 1653 he ambushed an d captured Denys at Saint-Pierre, seized all his goods found there and at Nipisiguit, and too k him a prisoner to Port-Royal where Denys was chained and placed in a dungeon. Although he c ould not save himself, Denys had managed to warn Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour, who wa s able to withstand Le Borgne?s subsequent attack on his fort. On Denys?s release he hastene d to France where he lodged a protest, for he claimed his post had been built under a commiss ion from the company. Again, as in his dispute with d?Aulnay over the capture of his propert y at Miscou, the king ruled in Denys?s favour. No compensation for loss was received, however , although the posts themselves were restored.
During this visit to France, Denys late in 1653 purchased from the Compagnie de La Nouvelle-F rance for 15,000 livres the rights to the coast and islands of the Gulf of St. Lawrence fro m Cap Canso to Cap des Rosiers on the Gaspé. This vast territory included Cape Breton as wel l as the Îles de la Madeleine, Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), and all other islands i n the gulf. Shortly afterwards he was appointed governor and lieutenant-general of this terri tory. Denys now turned to organizing a fishing and trading company to operate within the limi ts of his grant. Partners with him in the venture were Christophe Fouquet de Chalain and th e brothers Jacob and Abraham Duquesne. The new company made annual voyages between 1654 and 1 664. Their vessel would leave France at the beginning of May and return in October with cod a nd furs. On the average, 15 sailors, 10 soldiers, and 16 tradesmen made up the party. The cos t of each of these trips varied from 12,000 to 15,000 livres, exclusive of salaries.
Once this latest business venture was launched, Denys returned to Saint-Pierre and was succes sful in re-establishing his fishing station and his trade with the Indians, both there and a t Nipisiguit, where Jean Bourdon de Romainville was his lieutenant. Saint-Pierre remained hi s headquarters, and there he fished, traded, did some farming, built several small vessels, a nd cut timber. About 1659 he built another fishing establishment at Chedabouctou (Guysborough ). In addition, he brought in cattle and settlers to fish and work the land. He began growin g wheat, and made plans for a flour mill and the making of beer, which he hoped would replac e imported wine as a beverage. The following year he dispensed with the services of all soldi ers in his employ and moved with his family to Chedabouctou. The fact of the matter is that h is fishing and trading company had not been a success. By 1658, his debts in this venture amo unted to 51,520 livres. In 1664, he wrote Fouquet, president of the company, that he would no t be able to pay off debts that his partners estimated were now close to 100,000 livres. Beca use of this, avenues of possible financial assistance were closed to him in the future.
Meanwhile, things were not going at all well at Chedabouctou. A M. de Canger and his lieutena nt, La Giraudière, had been located there since 1658. By trickery and misrepresentation the y succeeded in having the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France extend their concession to includ e Denys?s Chedabouctou post. An armed clash resulted and the conflict persisted for some year s until Denys went to France and quickly secured a reaffirmation of his rights in Acadia b y a grant issued on 9 Nov. 1667.
During the dispute with Canger, Denys had apparently moved his family back to Saint-Pierre. I t was here his checkered career reached one of its lowest points during the winter of 1668?6 9 when his home and business at Saint-Pierre were completely destroyed by fire. This catastro phe brought him to financial ruin. Already, because of fire, plunder, and war, his business l osses had amounted to well over 100,000 livres, a sizable sum for those days. Now, alread y a man of 70, he was forced to move his family to the post he had built at Nipisiguit (now B athurst, N.B.). It consisted of an 18-foot-high stockade with four bastions enclosing his re d sandstone house. Here it was that he turned to yet a new career: that of author.
It should be understood that Denys?s most lasting contribution was neither as fisherman-trade r, nor as promoter of settlement, but rather as the author of Description géographique et his torique des costes de l?Amérique septentrionale: avec l?histoire naturelle du païs. Written a t Nipisiguit, this work is one of the most valuable accounts of Acadia produced in the 17th c entury. On its completion, Denys prepared to leave for France to see to its publication becau se he obviously felt it would focus favourable attention on the country and stimulate settlem ent here. Before leaving, he appointed his son, Richard Denys de Fronsac, as lieutenant, to b e assisted by his mother, Marguerite Lafite. She had married Denys in 1642, accompanied him t o Acadia, and bore: Richard; Marie, who married Michel Leneuf* de La Vallière; and possibly M arguerite, who married Capt. James Forsayth.
In France, Denys succeeded in having his study published in 1672. It comprised two volumes. T he first is devoted to a description of the coastal area of Acadia from the Penobscot to Gasp é and to some of his experiences in this region. The second volume deals with fish and fishin g, the natural resources generally of the region, and the Micmac Indians among whom he had li ved for 40 years. It carries the title Histoire naturelle des peuples, des animaux, des arbre s & plantes de l?Amérique septentrionale, & de ses divers climats: avec une description exact e de la pesche des moluës, tant sur le Grand Banc qu?à la coste; & de tout ce qui s?y pratiqu e de plus particulier.
Poorly written, indicating both the author?s lack of literary skill and his poor education, s till this book is entertaining and of great value. Denys himself states in its pages: ?You wi ll excuse a fisherman. If I had given as much time to study as I have to instructing myself , and to investigating means, for following the Cod, . . . I should have given you more satis faction in all this account than I have done.? In writing, Denys appears to have made few not es, relying mainly on his recollections at the cost of a number of errors. Yet he provides a n invaluable picture of the country and its people, as well as of his own activities and thos e of such contemporaries as Razilly, d?Aulnay, La Tour, and Le Borgne. His description of th e cod-fishery, for instance, has been termed the most complete and authoritative available. T hose sections that deal with the other natural resources are, for the most part, remarkably e nthusiastic and reflect his unquenchable optimism for the country. When we come to the Indian s, he supplies the most satisfactory description that had yet appeared. In all, the book is c learly the product of the man of action, one who has a thorough knowledge of his subject bu t who lacks the fluency of style necessary to capture the attention of a large body of the re ading public.
In Denys?s eyes, the book must have seemed largely a failure because it neither cured his fin ancial plight nor aided his efforts to settle Acadia. Yet, with his unbounded confidence in t he future of this land, he continued to interest himself in his vast domain, although he appa rently remained in France.
Of the several families of colonists which Denys had succeeded in bringing to Acadia, few rem ained. In 1662, for instance, he had only seven families of permanent settlers. Yet, by the t erms of his 1653 grant, he had agreed to establish 80 such families. As a result of this fail ure to settle his lands as called for in his grant, the company from 1663 started issuing gra nts to part of Denys?s territory, making concessions at Îles de la Madeleine, Chedabouctou, a nd Percé to others, such as Gautier [see Bergier]. This breaking up of his seigneury was to t rouble him deeply during these last years of his life. Even Denys?s natural optimism must hav e been severely strained by this whittling away of his Acadian domain and by the fact that h e was now absolutely without financial resources. We read, for instance, that early in 1685 h e was living in beggary in Paris. It was probably in that same year he returned to Acadia t o spend his last years at Nipisiguit. Because of his advanced age, it is unlikely that he too k much part in business, being content to leave the management to his son. In 1687 the origin al grant to Nicolas Denys was revoked and on 17 April of that year the right to a large seign eury, ?later to be chosen? was issued.
Nicolas Denys died in 1688 at the age of 89, in all probability at Nipisiguit. From his own w ritings and those of contemporary chroniclers we are able to piece together an impression o f the man himself. He was blessed with a vigorous constitution, so much so that we gain the i mpression that he thrived on hardship. Little is known of his physical appearance except tha t he had a full, white beard which caused many of the Micmacs to refer to him as ?La Grande B arbe.? Among these Indians he exerted a strong influence. Tracing his activities, we become a ware of an individual endowed with courage and determination, ability to command, business sk ill, and confidence in himself. Above all, he had no interest in war and conflict, having ?n o other aim than to devote myself in my district to my establishment and my business withou t mixing in the affairs of others.? That he was unusually generous is borne out by the fact t hat twice he befriended the children of men who had done him ill. Possibly his prime qualit y was his honesty, a trait of character that is accepted by almost all historians. As a resul t, we are able to place unusual confidence in his statements concerning Acadia at a time whe n its development had been brought to a standstill by domestic squabbles and war.
A visionary, always striving to transform his dreams into reality, Denys sought to develo p a great seigneury on New Brunswick?s north shore. A forceful merchant, fisherman, and pione er in the work of settlement, this man of astonishing activity clearly dreamed of his lands u nder cultivation, his ships loading cod and other fish for the European market, and great log s being rafted down the rivers to the sea for shipment to France. Unquestionably, much of thi s good would have been realized had his plans not been blocked and his financial ruin brough t about by war, fire, heavy costs, and ruinous rivalries. What is more, his failure was no wo rse than that of a half dozen of his contemporaries, among them Le Borgne and d?Aulnay. Had h e lived in another era, he might well have succeeded. As it was, none of his posts at Miscou , Nipisiguit, Saint-Pierre, and Chedabouctou became permanent. Yet the very fact that he ha d established these posts and through his writing mode the country better known later encoura ged others to come to these places and continue the work of pioneering. He himself observes i n his study, ?I believe that I have not altogether lost my time, even though it has been thwa rted by a thousand misfortunes.? Above all else, he was intimately connected with the materia l development of the country, a maker of history in Acadia for over half a century. His is th e distinction of being the first Acadian author and lumberman, an arresting figure whose rema rkable ability and force made him one of the principals in this new land during its infancy.
Father: Jacques DENYS b: 1561
Mother: Marie COSMIER b: 1 Apr 1573
1 Oct 1642
in Larochelle, Charente Maritime, France
- Marguerite Marie DENYS b: Jun 1645
- Richard DENYS De Fronsac b: 1654 in St Pierre, Cape Breton