Biography of Jacques Poissant

The following is a translation of the introductory chapter to the Généalogie de la Famille Poissant, written by Dr. J.C. Poissant, published in Montreal in 1909. This translation is a work in progress, a labor of love, my contribution to my family’s history. My grandmother, Lorna Diteman (née Fish), was a daughter of the Poissant family; her grandparents are listed in the Genealogy. I find it highly interesting that upon emigrating to the USA, her parents chose to translate the family name to Fish (a few other branches of the family changed the name to Fisher). The Genealogy is a 300-page family tree covering seven generations of Canadian Poissants, from the first ancestor to make the journey from France in 1684 to the time of publication in 1909. That founding ancestor, Jacques Poissant, was embroiled in the great conflicts of his day, including the religious persecution of Protestants and France’s struggle to protect its North American colonies against adversaries both indigenous and British. I wish to make it clear that this translation is in no way intended to glorify colonialism; the source text makes repeated reference to the “savage” Iroquois. I have preserved this wording in the name of historical accuracy, not because I endorse those racist sentiments.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

of

Jacques Poissant, also known as La Saline

Founder of the Canadian Branch

1661-1734

On the 12 of November, 1684, a ship dropped anchor off the coast of Quebec after a long and difficult crossing. It was late in the year for such a journey in those days, considering the capacity of the vessels and the state of the sea in that season, when the storms of the equinox doubled the dangers of sailing. Tossed by wind and waves like little toys or nutshells, the sailing ships of the day often took two or three months to cover the distance that a modern transatlantic can do in a few days. That is what happened to the ship that was bobbing in the harbor, covered with ice and frost. Upon the urging of Monsieur de la Barre and Monseigneur de Laval, who had begged Louis XIV not to abandon the colony to the extreme peril incurred by the resumption of the war with the Iroquois, the king sent 300 soldiers, commanded by captains Montortier, Denos, and Du Rivau. Having left La Rochelle during the last days of the month of August, the vessel that carried them had suffered all the furies of the ocean.

Canada was in a critical situation, and this assistance filled the heart of the old bishop with joy, and he hastened to thank the king. The failure of the government’s campaign against the Iroquois, and the shameful pact that he had been forced to agree to with those savages, were the sad news that Monseigneur de Laval brought to the Court in person when he went to France a few days later. This resulted in the recall of Mr. de la Barre and the appointment of Mr. de Denonville as governor, the following spring, with 500 more soldiers to confront the situation.

The problem was, for half a century already, the two old European rivals, France and England, had continued their secular battles on the new continent. Side by side the two colonies that they had founded kept growing and growing, all the while carrying on the squabbles of the mother countries. Anxious to possess unexplored territories, the missionaries and trappers of the two races traveled the country ceaselessly, penetrating deeper into the forest and taking possession of the land, planting the national flag.

The disbanding of the regiment of Carignan in 1665,[1] with nearly all the soldiers being sent to New France, had been a major boon to the colony. After that, a great number of parishes were established, still today dotting both sides of the river from Montreal to the Gulf. The appointment of Mr. de Talon and the strong administration by Mr. de Frontenac had also contributed to the prosperity of New France. While Jolliet and P. Marquette were discovering the Mississippi, while La Salle was taking possession of the Great Lakes, and the Jesuit priests were exploring all the West, where Nicolas Perrot rounded up the savage tribes at Michillimakinac, Father Albanel claimed the discovery of Hudson’s Bay, contested by the English who, with the assistance of two French merchants, traitors to their country, had set up fur trading posts. This was a new area for disputes. Eager to preserve their trading rights and to ensure that the Bourbon flag would be respected on American soil, Louis XIV, understanding that it was necessary to act with conviction, sent all the troops he could afford.

Among the soldiers who came to defend the French possessions in Canada was Jacques Poissant, known as “La Saline,” founder of the Canadian branch of this name, whose members are traced in this book. He belonged to the regiment of Mr. de Cadillac, according to some historians, or to that of Mr. de Noyan, according to Monseigneur Tanguay. Thus, in his statement of denunciation of Protestantism, reproduced a few pages below, it says that Jacques Poissant was a soldier “under M. de Cadillac,” while in the act of concession of the Monsieurs de Saint-Sulipice, he is listed as a marine soldier “under M. de Noyan.” Did he belong to one regiment first, and then move to the other? That would explain the different listings in the two official documents.

This title “marine soldier” does not, however, imply that Jacques Poissant was a sailor or did maritime service. According to Sulte, it results simply from the fact that, when he took command of the French Navy, Colbert assigned to himself the budget of the regiments deployed in the colonies, instead of leaving it in the hands of the Minister of War. Receiving their salary from the Navy Office, these soldiers where known thenceforth by this name, even though they were not actually in the Navy.

Jacques Poissant was born in Marennes, France, on July 12, 1661, from the marriage of Jacques Poissant “La Saline” and Isabelle Magard or Magos, according to certain Canadian registries; the new defender of New France was therefore only twenty-three years old when he left his country and his little hometown. His parents, who were Calvinists like the majority of the inhabitants of La Rochelle and the surrounding areas, had just died, probably leaving him alone in the world, as no brothers or sisters are listed in the archives of Marennes and the nearby villages. However, they do contain official documents of a large number of Poissants, although nothing indicates familial relations with the one we are interested in.

A few of them were famous, a sculptor among others, named Thibault Poissant, born in Estrees (Somme) in 1605, and died in Paris on September 16, 1668. He had been the student, in Amiens, of Nicolas Blasset, and, in Paris, of Sarrasin, who employed him in works on the Louvre. Thibault Poissant obtained a pension to work in Rome and, on his return, executed a great number of statues and bas-reliefs for the castles of the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden, the Palace of Versailles, and for the churches of Reims, Andelys, and Paris. He was admitted to the French Royal Academy on March 17, 1663. Thibault had a brother who was a talented architect, who died in Paris on April 3, 1669.

Were these two Poissants the uncles of our Canadian ancestor? It is possible. They were, in any case, contemporaries of his father and came from nearly the same province and the same age.

At the time when the Poissants lived in Marennes, the salt trade was still much more important than it is today, and the nickname “La Saline” probably came from a few salt marshes exploited by the family; but this trade does not seem to have been profitable for them, as information gathered from those local areas seem to suggest that they were simple artisans, fishermen perhaps, like a great number of inhabitants of Marennes. This city was in fact an important fishing port at that time. Today, Marennes is the seat of the arrondissement of Lower Charente, on the Seudre River, thirty-one kilometers from La Rochelle, which was the point of departure for nearly all the ships heading for Canada, and six kilometers from Brouage, the hometown of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain. Nowadays it is only two kilometers from the Atlantic, which endlessly gnaws at the beach and with each high tide dumps its excess water in the neighboring marshes. Its population, mostly Calvinist, is approximately six thousand inhabitants. It has a civil and trade court, and still is home to major operations producing salt, wine, marsh beans, peas, corn, and especially oysters, both green and Portuguese, famous far and wide. Imports consist of coal and wood from the North, and there is a chemical factory as well as several distilleries.

Rather well built, but unhealthy due to the nearby marshes which earned it the nickname “Colloque des Iles” (“Gathering of Islands”), Marennes does not have any old monuments except for a Huguenot temple and a Catholic church which dates to the fourteenth century, whose high, gray tower catches the tourist’s eye. In the twelfth century, the city was part of the Abbey of Saintes, but later, around the sixteenth century, it was annexed to La Rochelle, and suffered from the arrangement. In 1548, its inhabitants rebelled against the salt tax and became protestants. That is when the religious persecutions began. Henri the Second, who had succeeded his father, François the First, showed excessive force against the Calvinists. His Edicts of Chateaubriand, in 1551, and of Ecouen, in 1553, declared the death penalty for protestants caught practicing their religion in secret. In 1568, Marennes underwent a siege which would last for two years. The ascension of Henri the Fourth to the throne of France and the publication of the Edict of Nantes, which promised the Calvinists religious liberty and important privileges, brought peace to the people of Marennes, as well as to all of France, which had been suffering for fifty years under internecine religious wars. But the respite was brief. Soon afterward, the persecutions resumed, now crueler than ever. The Cardinal Richelieu had three great ambitions, and one of them was the abolition of Protestantism in France. He brought terrible blows to the Calvinists of Marennes and La Rochelle in particular; finally, Louis XIV, who continued Richelieu’s policies, permanently demolished their power by revoking the Edict of Nantes, which until then had preserved a few liberties for them. This act of oppression led a great number of them to decide to leave the country. More than one hundred thousand Reformists expatriated, bringing their money and industry with them, a major blow to France’s fortune.

Probably swept along in this wave of emigration, Jacques Poissant, orphaned of father and mother, and with no serious tie to his country, resolved to go seek his fortune in America. Was the approach of religious persecution the immediate cause of his departure? We do not think so, because on arriving in Canada he encountered the same laws that were in effect in France. Chance, a spirit of adventure, and the choice of his regiment by the king to go to the aid of New France—these were the only reasons for his departure. Upon his arrival in Quebec, he was ordered to pass the winter in Montreal, with his comrades in arms, in order to protect the inhabitants of Ville-Marie against the incursions of the Iroquois. In the spring of 1685, they were stationed at Pointe-aux-Trembles, recently established as a parish with a resident priest. On Palm Sunday, during great mass, Jacques Poissant renounced Calvinism, along with one of his fellows, Isaac Fore (aka “Laprairie”), and their renunciation is documented in the following statement.

[Source text includes a reproduction of the statement of renunciation in archaic French. I’ll tackle that in my next installment]

TO BE CONTINUED…


[1] In fact, the Carignan regiment was merged with the Salières regiment and sent to New France.

Published by Jeff Diteman

I am a literary translator and scholar working with French, Spanish, and English.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: