First-Hand Accounts of a French Officer in Canada During the Late 17th Century
Note: This article includes historical materials from the collections of Toronto Public Library. Who tells the story, and how the story is told creates tensions when trying to present content written by settlers about Indigenous people. These materials can reflect offensive historic attitudes, and in some cases, were created by individuals directly involved in acts of cultural genocide committed against Indigenous peoples. These materials are included as part of TPL’s commitment to the 69th Call to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which recognizes the inalienable right of Indigenous peoples to know the truth of what happened and why.
Lom D'Arce de Lahontan, Louis-Armand de, Baron de Lahontan, esquire (1666–1715) is someone who might have been lost to history except for the books he wrote. These popular travelogues, the first of which was published in French in 1703, describe his decade in Canada as a soldier and explorer.
Digital Archive Ontario, a project by Toronto Public Library, has made two of Lahontan's travelogues available online.
Overview of the Travelogues
Lahontan was a military officer who fought for New France against the English and Iroquois ("Iroquois" was the term used by the French to refer to the Haudenosaunee). He was in Canada from about 1683 to 1693. In his spare time, he did some hunting and exploring — as well as keeping diaries about his travels. "In the course of my Voyages and Travels, I took care to keep particular Journals of every thing ,” he noted. Using these diaries, he wrote three books:
- Nouveaux voyages de M. le baron de Lahontan dans l'Amérique septentrionale (also available as an early English translation)
- Dialogues de Monsieur le baron de Lahontan et d'un sauvage, dans l'Amérique
- Supplément aux voyage (not available on Digital Archive Ontario)
There is corroborating evidence for much of what he wrote, but not for everything. For example, he claims to have arrived as a marine lieutenant at age 17 in Quebec with three companies of colonial regular troops, but there are no extant documents to prove this.
You can learn more about Lahontan's life and his three books on Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Selection of Events and Illustrations from Lahontan's Books
In May of 1684, Lahontan visited the Île d’Orléans and its surrounding Indigenous villages before being sent to Montreal where he joined an expedition against the Iroquois. He traveled by canoe in the advance party to Fort Frontenac at Cataraqui. The campaign was not successful and the doubtful truce at Arise de La Famine (Mexico Bay, near Oswego) was marked by Onondoga Grand Chief Otreouti's refusal to make peace with the Illinois and respect voyageurs in Illinois.
Lahontan wintered at Montreal where he spent three months hunting with the Indigenous population. In the spring, he led a small detachment to Fort Chambly to monitor the fur trade and then was sent to Boucherville where he remained until May 1687. He spent many winter months hunting moose 225 km north of the St. Lawrence River.
At Montreal in 1687, Lahontan joined Governor Brisay de Denonville’s expedition against the Senecas. At Fort Frontenac, he found a Haudenosaunee man he had formerly befriended among the prisoners. When he protested against their harsh treatment, he earned himself several days confinement to his tent. From there he accompanied Denonville's troops along the south shore of Lake Ontario and witnessed the execution of Abel Marion la Fontaine, a deserter to the English. Lahontan fought the Iroquois in the skirmish that followed. Voyages du baron de Lahontan describes the confusion among the French and exaggerates the losses on both sides.
At this juncture, Lahontan wanted to return to France to settle his father's estate. But because of his knowledge of the Algonkian language, Denonville ordered him to take a detachment to Fort Saint-Joseph on the west shore of the Sainte-Claire River and assume command. That spring, using the excuse of looking for supplies, Lahontan set out for Michilimackinac located between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. He was there when survivors of de La Salle's doomed expedition to the Mississippi arrived on their way back to Montreal. Here, he met Kondiaronk (The Rat) who handed over a slave for execution.
On his journey back to Fort Saint Joseph, he recruited 40 young Anishinaabe/Ojibwe men at Sault Ste. Marie and obtained 40 sacks of grain on Manitoulin Island. Upon reaching Fort Saint Joseph, he learned Fort Niagara had been abandoned after scurvy decimated the garrison. Having only supplies for two months, he and his men burned Fort Saint Joseph and headed back to Quebec south, around Lake Erie. Instead of trying to get there so late in the season, they headed further south to explore.
In September 1688, he set out with his detachment of soldiers and five Ottawa hunters along the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. This expedition caused Lahontan to pen an inexplicable tall tale. He wrote that during the 4,000-mile winter and spring journey over frozen and swollen waterways, they explored La Rivière longue which flowed directly west from the Mississippi.
Lahontan returned east to Montreal. Arriving July 9, he learned that he had lost the barony of Lahontan. Governor Frontenac returned in October. Lahontan sought his permission to return to France, but was denied. In October 1690, news arrived that the English fleet was sailing up the St. Lawrence. Lahontan and Frontenac hurried to Quebec.
Lahontan fought with French forces in the woods below Quebec, deterring the English landing. Frontenac then required Lahontan to make a winter crossing to deliver news of the victory to court. While there, Lahontan pressed for compassionate leave to remain in France. This was denied but he was promoted to captain. By September 18, 1691, he was back in Quebec.
Lahontan resubmitted to Frontenac an earlier proposal for the protection of the western frontier with three forts, one near the mouth of the Niagara River, a second at Saint-Joseph on the Sainte-Claire River and a third in Georgian Bay. Frontenac authorized Lahontan to set sail to France on July 27, 1692 to present the idea to the court. The ship put in at La Plaisance (Placentia NF) to wait for four Basque fishing ships it was to convoy back to France. On 14 September, news came that five English ships were approaching Placentia. Lahontan was stationed with 60 Basque sailors at an advance post called La Fontaine, less than a mile from the fort. On September 17 they prevented several boatloads of English sailors from disembarking. The next day, the French and English attempted a prisoner exchange followed by a bombardment the day after.
Finally in October Lahontan set sail for France and did not return to North America.