Louis Hébert, the first European settler of Quebec

Week 1

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

This post is part of my commitment to Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks for 2021.

Louis Hébert monument. Photo by Jean Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0
Louis Hébert monument. Photo by Jean Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0

In Quebec City, the Louis Hébert Monument stands in the corner of the garden of the Hôtel-de-Ville. The work of Canadian sculptor, Alfred Laliberté, the statue represents Louis Hébert, the first European settler of Canada, standing on the plinth, offering to God the first sheaf of wheat harvested on Canadian soil. At the base of the pedestal, on the right, is a group of children surrounding the courageous wife of Louis Hébert, Marie Rolet, considered the first teacher of the country; on the left, is represented full of nobility and pride, Louis Hébert’s son-in-law, Guillaume Couillard, the first to plow Canadian soil.

I descend from all three of the individuals depicted on this statue. Louis and Marie are my 12th Great-Grandparents. Their daughter, Marie Guillemette Hébert, married Guillaume Couillard, and they are my 11th great-grandparents. That means my ancestors were the first European settler, first European farmer, and first European teacher of Canada.

You would have to roll back the calendar to 1606 to discover when Louis Hébert first set foot on the new continent. He was an apothecary, which at that time meant he studied and cultivated plants for medicinal purposes. But on this new continent he also needed to study which European plants could be cultivated for food, and which new plants would he find for both food and medicinal purposes. It also helped that Louis was studied in what was considered medicine at the time and could substitute as a doctor. It is these reasons that he was engaged by the explorer Dugua on his voyage to the New World.

Like many at that time, Louis took on the same occupation as that of his father. But his father wasn’t an ordinary apothecary, he was the Queen’s (Catherine de’ Medici) apothecary and physician, and helped care for the gardens of the Louvre in Paris. He was also landlord for about 10 homes in Paris. Louis grew up just down the street from the Royal house, at 129 de la rue Saint-Honore. But the affluence of Louis childhood suddenly ended in 1580 when his mother fell victim to the plague. Louis mother dying while he was a child, it was his elder sister Charlotte, and her husband, who acted as guardians for Louis as late as 1602.

Louis was born abt 1575 to Nicolas Hébert and Jacqueline Pajot. His mother was on marriage two, having been widowed by Louis de Cueilly. This is where the affluence came from, as the homes managed by Nicolas actually came from his wife’s first husband’s first marriage. They were intended for his children, not subsequent children born to Nicolas and her. Added to that, France was in disarray. From 1588-1590 Paris was under siege due to the War of Religion occurring in France by King Henri III and his successor, Henri de Navarre. With Queen Catherine de’ Medici dying in 1589, it comes as no surprise that in 1596 we find Nicolas imprisoned two years for debts.

Like his father before him, Louis received an early education of Latin, grammar and humanities. After his education was complete Louis began study under the guidance of masters in apothecary. In 1600, at the end of his education Louis deigned himself a Parisian bourgeois, grocer, and apothecary merchant. His future plans, however, would be hard-pressed by his mounting debts. It is under the pressure of these debts that Louis saw the advantage of serving with Pierre Dugua de Monts at Port Royal for one year starting in March 1606. In September of 1606, Louis accompanied Dugua and Samuel de Champlain on a further exploratory excursion south along the Atlantic seacoast. On this excursion the party would stop at various points along the route and plant wheat and vines. On 2 October 1606 the party landed their boat at Port Fortuné which is now Stage Harbour in Massachusetts. That night, five of the party who stayed on shore were attacked by the Abenaki. Louis and another unnamed Frenchman who had stayed on the boat were alerted to the attack by shouts and came to the aid of those on shore. Unfortunately, while the two were able to fend off the assailants, only one of the men on shore survived. His hand partly blown off by the explosion of his own musket, Robert Gravé would be healed by Louis, and eventually founded the first European settlement in New Brunswick. Dugua lost his fur trading monopoly  in 1607 and his excursion returned to France.

Louis returned to Port Royal in 1611. While there his status at the struggling outpost grew and he eventually found himself the mediator between the young governor and the Jesuits. The Jesuits had asked for more assistance from the authorities and until they received it they deprived the colony of it’s religious ceremonies. Unable to come to terms, the Jesuits left Port Royal and settled further south. Two years later, in 1613, at a time of Governor Biencourt’s absence, Louis took temporary charge of Port Royal. Before the British invaded Port Royal in October 1613, though, Louis had returned home to France and his family.

In 1617, Louis divested himself of his holdings in France and took up employment with the Compagnie des Marchands de Rouen et de Saint-Malo. He desired to take his entire family with him to New France, and settle the new outpost at Quebec. His final agreement with the company was to work for two years at 200 livres per year, and afterward, he would need to be reliant on him own work. During that two year period, anything Louis cultivated would be given to the company for distribution amongst the community, and his medical work would be provided free of charge. On 6 March 1617 he signed the contract even though the company had at the last minute demanded it be changed to their benefit. Having divested his holdings, with no material possessions but the few bags they carried, he was in little position to change his mind so late in the process.

On 14 June 1617, Louis and family arrived at Tadoussac, and less than a month later traveled to Quebec, probably by canoe. Once there, with the help of the company he built a small wooden house. Within three years, he would build a stone house, and it would serve as the only private residence in Quebec into the 1630’s. In 1623 the Duc de Montmorency, viceroy of New France, recognized Louis’s ownership of his lands on the promontory. Champlain complained to the Company that only Louis was farming. At that time, along with the stone house, Louis had cleared the land and planted a plot of grain, vegetables, and various herbs. He also had grape vines, apple and plum trees. All other members of the company were active in the fur trade and reliant on Louis, the friendly Natives, and the Company for their sustenance.

Louis struggled with his contract. The de Caëns, a Protestant family which headed up the commercial interests of Quebec, consistently made things difficult for Louis. They rebuffed his requests for a plough and two hired men to assist with the gardening, and they rejected complaints of damage their pigs were doing to Louis garden. The community was split between the two factions, those aligned with the commercial interests of the de Caëns, and those aligned with the Héberts. Eventually the de Caëns settled with Louis, and agreed to pay him 100 livres annually in provisions. Through all of this, Louis continued to supply the struggling community with the produce it needed to survive.

In the winter of 1627 Louis died after a fall on the ice. His body was first buried in the Recollect cemetery, but was later transferred to a vault of the Recollect chapel and laid beside the body of Brother Pacifique Duplessis.

If I look at the life of Louis I see a man driven by his earnest attempt to provide for the needs of his family, his community, and his nation. It is an attribute all men should try to achieve in life.

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