The cool morning air invigorated Jean as he set out on the three-mile walk from his home in Esnandes to the port. His meager belongings and the bit of bread and cheese, he carried did not slow him down as he made his way to La Rochelle. It was a bittersweet day. At the age of 25, his father had expected Jean to help him work the small patch of farmland the family leased. It was a hard life and one where his family survived from day to day, harvest to harvest, never progressing beyond their meager means. They were always needing something and no matter how hard they worked, it was others who profited. The few livres his father pressed into his hand this morning represented a great sacrifice to his family and he was grateful for their generosity and support.
Depending on how things went for him in LaRochelle, there was a good possibility he would never again see his family after today.
Jean was lost in his own thoughts as he walked the path approaching the port city. The narrow dirt road was becoming wider and well-worn from the carts and people traveling it each day. Many men from the nearby villages had done their part to tamp the earthen path hard and smooth on their way to what they hoped would be a better life. Jean would not be the last man to walk in the footprints of those who made this journey before him – the life-changing journey to a new land.
As he climbed a small rise he was rewarded with a stretch of new grass, glistening with morning dew and waving a bit in the breeze, beckoning Jean to stop for a moment and cool his bare feet. His only pair of almost worn-through shoes was safely packed away in his sack, saved for his arrival in Nouveau France. He sat on a small outcropping and wiggled his toes in the wet grass. As he chewed on a piece of bread, he took in the scene before him. The port city had grown and prospered in the last few years, and regularly the small harbor was crowded with ships jockeying for a place to dock. Jean could see the two massive towers that guarded the port. The five-sided St. Nicolas Tower, the larger of the two stood opposite Tower de la Chaine, so named because at night a big chain was strung between it and St. Nicolas Tower to close the port. Just beyond, he could make out the very tip of the Tower de la Lanterne which had just recently been constructed to serve as a lighthouse.
The seaport was bustling with trade between Africa, Nouvelle France and the West Indies and Jean had heard about the opportunities available to willing and able men who wanted to travel across the sea. He was a plowman by trade and was pretty handy with a saw and hammer when he needed to be. He imagined that his skills would be much needed in a new and growing colony. Men were becoming wealthy trading the furs of the New World, slaves from Africa and the spices and fruits of the West Indies. Jean wasn’t really all that interested in making a great deal of money – but in a new and burgeoning colony, he would be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Many men were leaving for better opportunities abroad and there was nothing binding him to the small hamlet where he lived with his parents. So he traveled the short distance from his home to the port of La Rochelle to see if what he had heard was true – that he could travel to the new world for free if he was willing to work hard.
From his comfortable spot beneath a tree Jean could hear the sounds of the port below him. The air hummed with the voices of people shouting and the creak of boat lines straining, punctuated by the occasional thump of cargo being dropped onto the docks. People seemed to be everywhere. Boats were arriving and departing on the high tide. Although he had been to the port many times before, his view of the city was different this time – because his reason for being here today would, hopefully, change his life. Or end it … it was a dangerous journey across the sea and there were no guarantees he would ever see land on the other side.
But his mission today was clear. And so, his small breakfast of bread finished, he headed into the port. He wandered along the rue de la Merciers, fascinated by the houses built over the arcades. Many of them were decorated with gargoyles and strange figures that Jean thought might look better on a church. He turned onto the Rue Sur les Murs, which was home to numerous pensions and boissons. Jean held tight to his small package of belongings as he was jostled, bumped and pushed along the narrow quay. Everyone appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere. The port was bursting with people screaming, boats bobbing, crates of cargo coming or going, and foul-mouthed sailors trying to do their jobs.
“Mon Dieu!”, muttered Jean under his breath. “Where do I begin?”
It appears that Dieu was listening because Jean suddenly found himself pushed aside and flat on his arse in front of a small tavern. It was as good a place as any to start.
After picking himself up and brushing off his only good pair of breeches, he walked into the dark and noisy tavern and found he could hardly see. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but his nose was immediately assailed with the scent of stale ale and pungent tobacco brewing in the heat, seasoned with the distinctive aroma that comes from many unwashed bodies in a small space.
“Don’t be standing the doorway, deary”, the barmaid called out to him. “Either put your sous on the counter for a pint or get out of the way. You’re keeping the paying gents from getting in.”
Jean was about to turn and leave, not wanting to spend any of his precious money on ale, when a thought came to him. “I am just on my way to meet some friends, “ he explained. “I see them sitting in the back”.
Jean had heard that there was a Rochelois merchant named Pierre Prevost who worked as a clerk in LaRochelle for the Company of the Cent-Associés, the fur trading and colonization company. After asking about anyone who could help him, he was directed by a few of the locals holding court at a back table to two men sitting at the table by the front window. Jean hesitantly walked over and in a tentative voice said, “ Excuse-moi, do either of you know where I can find Pierre Prevost?”
Francois Bartillet, who Jean later learned was a carpenter, answered, “Down the street you will find the cooper’s shop. Monsieur Prevost has an office upstairs. Jacques and I were just there yesterday. Why do you ask?”
Jean explained that he was looking to travel to Nouveau France and understood that Monsieur Prevost could make arrangements for him to do that for free, if Jean would sign on to work in the new land. Jacques Richard, who it turns out is also a plowman like Jean, went on to explain that he and Francois had signed on with Monsieur Prevost just two days before on 30 April to travel to Nouvelle France to work for Mr. de Repentigny. If Jean signed on the three men would be traveling companions on the Dauphin being captained by Jean Gaudouin.
“Go to Monsieur Prevost’s office and ask to speak with the notary, Monsieur Teuleron. He will take care of you,” explained Jacques.
“But you had better hurry,” said Francois. “The ship will fill up fast.”
And so it was that on a bright and sunny Monday 2 May 1644, at the age of 25, Jean found himself before the notary Teuleron where he signed up for his trente-six mois.
“So,” said Monsieur Teuleron, “once you make your mark, there is no turning back. Do you understand that you are making a commitment of thirty-six months of labor?”
“Oui”, Jean repled.
Monsieur Teuleron continued, “Monsieur de Repentigny is a fair and honest man. In return for your promise to work for him for three years, he will provide food, housing, and a small salary of 60 livres per year. At the end of the three years, if you decide you do not want to remain in Nouveau France, Mr. de Repentigny will pay your return passage to France. Is that agreeable?”
“Oui, Monsieur Teleuron, je comprends,” replied Jean.
“Bon,” said Mr. Teuleron. “But I should warn you; this is not an easy journey nor an easy life. You will be challenged at every turn from the moment you step on board the Dauphin. The ship should be ready to depart within two weeks. Bonne chance Monsieur Doyon.”
Having made his commitment to Mr. de Repentigny, Jean walked along the quay, still unsure of what he was getting himself into and hoping he had made the right decision. He passed the dock where the Dauphin was being readied for its journey. It was hard to imagine this fragile looking vessel could sail all the way across the vast ocean and Jean began to wonder if he would even survive aboard the small ship.
Jean warily assessed the Dauphin. Her ballast had been removed and she was heaved onto her side. Seeing the entire hull of the ship exposed only strengthened Jean’s doubt about the sea-worthiness of the Dauphin. The crew was working to replace rotten planks. They stopped up cracks and poured pitch and hot tar onto the hull to waterproof it. Jean found out from one of the crew, that it would, indeed, take a least a week to scrape and paint the hull. Then ballast, cargo and provisions would be laded. Once all was ready, the wind and tide would determine when the Dauphin would set sail.
Jean could travel back to his family to spend a few more days with them before he left forever.
Ten days later, Jean, along with Francois and Jacques, stood at the rail of the Dauphin and watched as she made its way out of the harbor, past the Chain Tower and into the open sea. They decided to stay on deck as long as possible, and for as long as good weather prevailed because they had already discovered that life below decks was going to be a lot less civilized than even two plowmen and a carpenter from the villages surrounding LaRochelle was used to. It was obvious to all three men that this journey would not be easy. Not only did the vessel have to accommodate its crew, but it also had to make room for passengers, livestock, and provisions. Everything had to be lashed on board with all the weight distributed evenly so that the ship could maintain its balance. During the first bout with bad weather, they discovered that the livestock got the worst of it, often buffeted around to the point they died. Casks of wine were often used as ballast and had to be filled with seawater when empty in order to maintain the balance of the ship.
One of the first things Jean learned was that his accommodations were made up of one small hammock strung up below decks wherever room could be found. Provisions were dolled out according to how much you paid for the voyage. For 30 livres you got crew rations (watered down red wine and hard-tack). One hundred and fifty livres got you a place at the captain’s table and some better food. It is doubtful that Jean or his companions would sample any of the food at the captain’s table. Meals were eaten on deck unless cold and rain drove everyone between-decks.
The crew swept once a day, and animal droppings were thrown into the sea twice a day. Vinegar was used as a disinfectant when necessary but the high humidity and the concentration of people and livestock caused condensation on the walls and beams. Any water seeping into the hold became stagnant and just surviving these soupy conditions took a great deal of strength and fortitude. Transatlantic travel in the 17th century was not for the faint of heart or the weak.
About ten days into the voyage, Jean, Jacques and Francois were sitting on the deck eating yet another hard biscuit.
“What I wouldn’t give for some of my mother’s fine bread,” remarked Jean.
“And some cheese!” exclaimed Jacques. “You don’t have any of that cheese your mother gave you, do you Jean?”
“I only wish,” said Jean. “Even my mother’s stale bread could be soaked in some goat’s milk to make a tasty mash. But the watered down stuff that passes for wine on board does nothing to improve these biscuits.”
Jacques piped in, “There was a boulangerie near the quay that I visited one day while waiting for the Dauphin to be made ready to sail. They made a lot of the hard-tack for the ships in the port. One of the boulangers told me that these things are made almost entirely of wheat and bran and they bake them at least a month before bringing them to ships. They were stale before they even came onboard. I helped one of the sailors who was struggling with a sack of these biscuits. It must have weighed 60 pounds!”
“Well,” remarked Jean. “Maybe we will get lucky and during the next storm, one of the pigs will come loose from its leash, crash into the side of the ship and die. I bet the cook can do wonderful things with a piece of fresh pork. It would be worth getting sick just to get an egg!”
“Ha!” replied Francois. “For the Captain’s table, maybe, but not for us. We are stuck with two of these sea biscuits and barely two cups of wine each day. There will be nothing left of us if and when we reach Nouveau France.”
During good weather, Jean spent most of his time on deck, which provided a much healthier environment than the conditions below deck where all manner of disease and infection ran rampant and where space was shared with horses, pigs, cows, and other livestock also making the trip to the new world. If you got sick, your rations improved a bit, allowing for eggs (if they were available), fresh meat, rice, butter, plums, and sugar. Vitamin deficiencies were common.
And these sailing conditions could last anywhere from 35 days to 4 months depending on the winds, the tides, and the weather. If you were strong, and a bit lucky, you were rewarded, eventually, with the site of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland – a sign that your journey was nearing its end.
Obviously, I have no way of knowing how Jean’s journey really began. It is a testimony to the French system of record-keeping that we have access to original documents signed by him, and many others like him, dating back to the 17th century, that can place him in La Rochelle on 2 May 1644. My stalwart ancestor, Jean, making the decision to emigrate to Nouvelle France, more than likely gave this decision a great deal of thought. It was not one to be taken lightly. There was a better than 50-50 chance that he would not make it to Quebec alive.
But he did make it, landing in Chateau-Richer sometime in June of 1644 having spent perhaps 30 days or so at sea.
And so, the story of my French-Canadian ancestors settlement in the new world begins …
This plaque is located near the port in LaRochelle and was placed there in 1995 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Jean’s journey to the new world.
If you go to the chain tower at the port of LaRochelle you will find a list of those brave souls who departed there on their journey to Nouvelle France. Among those names, you will find Jean Doyon (1619-1664).
- The records of this notary is kept in the archives department of Charente-Maritime, La Rochelle
 – Back in the late 1600s, one pound sterling was the equivalent of 23.2 livres (23 livres, 3 sous, 6 deniers). Today, one pound sterling is worth about $.77. So, Jean’s annual wage in 1644, applying these equivalencies, would be about $46 today. Assuming Jean worked 6 days per week, that comes out to about $.15/day.
Harrison, Simon. French Third Rate Ship ‘Le Dauphin’ (1638), threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_ship&id=18504.
Hebert, Tim. ACADIAN-CAJUN Genealogy & History: Sea Travel, www.acadian-cajun.com/seatrav.htm#The.
MONETARY VALUES IN 1650 – 1750 IN NEW FRANCE COMPARED TO TODAY http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~unclefred/genealogy/MONETARY.htm
Proulx, Gilles. Between France and New France: Life Aboard the Tall Sailing Ships. Dundurn Press, 1984.
The Navies of New France – http://naviresnouvellefrance.net/html/pages16431645.html