Life of a Voyageur

When Marcel Pronovost’s ancestor, Mathieu Rouillard, arrived in New France in 1661 after a three-month Atlantic crossing, he did not see the gold he had been told would be lying about on the ground, but he knew it could be made by those with strength, intelligence, a will to work hard and ambition. Mathieu had all of these qualities in abundance but he was up against two mighty foes: the unforgiving North American wilderness and the rapacious French colonial government with its systems of trade and feudal seigneurial land grants.

Mathieu and his wife Jeanne were two among a large number of Mr. Pronovost’s Trois Rivières, Quebec ancestors, whose lives and times he has spent many years researching. Intending at first to write a brief history to be distributed among his own family members, he found the huge catalogue of historical data he had collected made that project untenable and so decided to make it a novel in which he could condense the subject of his family’s habitant ancestors into a dramatic tale of one couple whose experience encompassed the best and worst that the new world had to offer. Hearth and Home: The tumultuous life of Mathieu Rouillard and Jeanne Guillet is the result and a lively, fact-filled, fast-paced account it is.

Jeanne is the eldest daughter of a prosperous carpenter who at first welcomes Mathieu, a strong reliable farmhand at the time, to the family (Mathieu has left his own back in La Rochelle, France), but regrets it later when he finds that the young suitor has told a small lie about having property in France and will not provide the financial support for his daughter he had hoped for. Indeed, Mathieu will never be rich, but will be in debt to lenders for the rest of his life, his ambitions being more than even his strong back can bear. The newlyweds love each other passionately, but even Jeanne will become sad and embittered as the years go on and she is left alone for months at times to care for children and harvest crops, while her husband leaves “hearth and home” to pursue his true vocation.

After clearing a strip of land on the Batiscan River, near Trois Rivières, and building a small cabin for Jeanne and planting some wheat, he turns to the business that has captured his imagination since his arrival. He will be a coureur de bois or voyageur, traveling by canoe on the rivers that lead to the north and west to trade with the aboriginal peoples cheap merchandise for valuable beaver pelts. (Pronovost uses the term “Savages” for the natives, as the colonists did.) He loves the hard, adventurous life, but learns that the fur trade is not always profitable–rarely, in fact. Still, he keeps going on longer and longer trips while owing more and more to the merchants who have lent him the goods with which he trades. The payment he receives for the furs he brings back never seem enough to cover the cost of those goods.

Between his trading voyages and brief returns to the ever-affectionate Jeanne, there are battles with the Iroquois and the English. It is the Iroquois who, at first, are the principle enemy of the French. They are a constant menace to both French settlers and other aboriginal nations. Many forts are built and local men are called up to join militias, which are mostly successful at fighting off the raiders, but many lives are lost on both sides. The English forces to the south only enter this narrative late in the story when Mathieu and his friends are forced to smuggle furs to the English forts, where they can get a higher price. The politics and religion of the day are portrayed in all their greed and hypocrisy, although we do see how Jesuit priests did their best to keep the colonists from moral decay. The growing cynicism of the colonists is also shown as they realise how powerless they are against the same social forces that existed in the Old France that they left, in hope of greater freedom.

When Mathieu is in his fifties and feeling his age, his desire to see places further west takes him to the Mississippi River and a trip south to warmer temperatures and fertile land, where he dreams of bringing his wife and children to live more freely and comfortably. Here he sadly meets his end.

Mathieu Rouillard, 1638-1702, holds the dubious distinction of (perhaps) being the first white man to have died and been buried in what is now the State of Louisiana and what was, in 1702, a swampy outpost of the far reaches of New France. A tragic end to a truly tumultuous life. This semi-fiction (most of the names are of persons living in that time) takes us quickly through the years between 1660 and 1702 with energy, passion and a lively style that engages one completely but raises, to my mind, more questions than it answers about the lives and times of the hardy and adventurous people of New France; the role of women, both colonist and aboriginal, is distinctly missing in the scheme of things.

Illustrations from the National Archives of Canada, maps and lists of names of aboriginal nations and historical characters are included. Eileen Reardon provides a translation from the French that matches the spirit of the original. I recommend this first novel as a charming and intriguing introduction to the period.

Hearth and Home: The tumultuous life of Mathieu Rouillard and Jeanne Guillet

Ottawa area family historian Marcel Pronovost has donated a copy of his recently published book about the life of his ancestor Mathieu Rouillard to our Branch Library and asked me to read it and offer a few comments.

It was interesting to read an account of the earliest settlers in Canada, the life of the coureurs de bois, and the battles with the Iroquois and with the English written from the French perspective. Marcel originally wrote the book in French with the title Feu et Lieu and has subsequently had the book translated into English by Eileen Reardon. His research has apparently spanned some 20 years and I understand that there are surviving documents to support much of what he claims.

The facts have been turned into a historical novel by the inclusion of dialogue and using the information about the conditions of the time to “flesh out” the story of his ancestors. It is an interesting way of sharing his story and one that may be very appealing to the many descendants of Mathieu Rouillard and Jeanne Guillet. For any of us attempting to tell the story of an interesting and dynamic ancestor this may be a useful technique. Certainly it is not dull!

Mathieu arrives from France in 1661 and attempts to build a life for himself near Trois-Rivières. He receives land grants which he attempts to clear, marries and has 9 children of whom 7 survived infancy. In order to provide for his growing family he borrows money. In order to attempt to repay the loans he leaves his wife and children to farm on their own and travels to trade for furs. Throughout his life he gets deeper and deeper in debt as calamity after calamity happens. It seems as if many of his neighbours have the same difficulties. The big merchants and the government control all of the phases of the fur trade and the men who take the risks get very little return for their efforts. In the end Mathieu dies in 1702 in what is now the State of Louisiana but was then the latest French colony. Because of his financial difficulties and those of his wife Jeanne after he died, he left a substantial paper trail although he himself signed with an X.

Look for this volume in the library after it has been processed or you may email the author at Since this has been self-published he will be happy to tell you where to obtain a copy. Several outlets in Ottawa have the book and Marcel is looking to have it available elsewhere as well.