Nicolas Denys: Man of a Thousand Misfortunes

Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) and Samuel de Champlain (c. 1570–1635) are well known and rightly so, for exploring sections of the Eastern Canadian coastline. Although by no means the first Europeans to visit these shores, they were among the earliest to leave documentary evidence of their visits. Less recognized is Nicolas Denys (1598–1688) trader, entrepreneur, explorer and author. This is unfortunate, for he was a leading figure in 17th century Acadia. Further, both Denys and one of his granddaughters, were destined to haveconnections with the Tantramar region.

Nicolas Denys was born in the city of Tours, in the historic Loire valley, home of many Acadian settlers. Little is known of his early life. Some biographers suggest that he was a descendant of Jean Denys, whose map of the New World was published in 1506. We do know that he was a skilled navigator, who by 1630, had established himself as a merchant in La Rochelle. Here Denys became involved with the Company of New France and for the next half century was closely linked with the fortunes, both of this company and the colony that became known as Acadia.

In 1632, Denys joined a French expedition under the command of Captain Isaac de Razilly (1587–1635) recently named governor of Acadia. The fleet reached the present coastline of Nova Scotia at La Hve (La Have) on Sept. 8, 1632. Immediately, he threw himself into entrepreneurial activities; establishing an inshore fishery at Port Rossignol (Liverpool) and another venture at La Hve to export timber to France. Then disaster struck. In December 1635 de Razilly died and was succeeded by Charles d’Aulnay (c. 1604–1650). The latter refused to grant Denys permission to sell timber. At about the same time, one of Denys vessels loaded with cod was seized by Portuguese authorities. Thus began a half century of misadventures and misfortunes. These included two cases of imprisonment by his enemies, numerous trips across the Atlantic to redeem his reputation at the French court and losses, by fire and enemy capture, of several trading posts.

The peak of Denys career came in 1653 when he purchased from the Company of New France trading rights to a territory that stretched from the Gasp Peninsula to Canso. Included within this vast domain were all the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Shortly afterward, Denys was appointed governor and lieutenant-general of this region. Unfortunately, trading posts established at Miscou NB, St. Peter’s in Cape Breton and Chedabouctou (Guysborough, NS) were never successful. Soon Denys was hopelessly in debt.

Such setbacks give meaning to Denys comment written near the end of a long life: I have not altogether lost my time, even though it has been thwarted by a thousand misfortunes. Over the years historians have tended to emphasize Denys failures, while neglecting his triumphs as one of the first serious explorers of the Eastern Canadian coastline. Lastly, Denys greatest achievement, the writing of The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America [actually Acadia], 2 Vols., (Paris 1672), is often overlooked.

Denys once landed on Cape Tormentine and penned the following description: Cape Tourmentin is a great point which advances into the sea and is only two leagues and a half from le Saint Jean. [A league is about five kilometres.] This is the narrowest place in all this strait. In front, some rocks are visible, while others are only uncovered at low water. All over the top… there are pines and firs, and some few other trees.

Denys then proceeded [about ten leagues] along the coast where he made another landing near the mouth of a river. Having passed a little island [Cocagne Island], one is well under shelter, and finds water enough. The anchorage was in front of a large meadow. I named the river, the River of Cocagne, because I found there so much with which to make good cheer, during the eight days, which bad weather obliged me to remain there. All my people were so [well fed] with game and fish that they wished no more.

He then goes on to list: wild geese, ducks, teal, plover, snipe, partridges, hares, salmon, trout, mackerel, smelt and oysters as being found at Cocagne. The latter word is the French equivalent of Utopia, a land of fabled abundance, with food and drink for the asking. Cocagne has remained on the map to this day a silent reminder of a visit by Nicolas Denys.

Denys family link with this region is also of interest. His daughter, Marie, married Michel LeNeuf de la Vallire (16401705) seigneur of Beaubassin and governor of Acadia. The centre of the seigneury, le de la Vallire (now Tonges Island), is a prominent local landmark, located just east of Fort Beausjour.

La Vallire renamed the nearby Missaguash River, Rivire Marguerite, in honour of his favourite daughter. When the latter refused to marry the husband selected for her; she was disowned, and the old name Missaguash returned to the map. To make matters worse, Marguerite eloped with a local farmer, one Louis de Gannes. According to local folklore, she still haunts the banks of the river, swinging a lighted lantern in defiance of her father. By an ironic twist of fate, in more recent years, a branch of the same de Gannes family has returned to live in Amherst NS, thus reviving locally, this ancient Acadian surname.

While the first volume of Denys monumental Description and Natural History of the Coast is concerned with local geography, the second turns attention to natural history. In this volume, the reader is given a firsthand account of the 17th century North Atlantic cod fishery. Denys also explains in detail, life among the Mikmaqs.

The English translation of Denys work, published in 1908 by the Champlain Society, is now out of print. Fortunately, it has been made available by Early Canadiana Online. Check for these and other rare books on Canadian history. As a special Millennium Project the Champlain Society has also placed a number of its publications online. See for their listings.

Denys was at his best in describing the North Atlantic cod fishery. Writing from personal experience, he traces in detail every aspect, from the construction of boats to that which is practiced when they are on the fishing grounds the method of dressing and salting cod and the final transportation to the European market. Interspersed are comments on the daily life of the fishermen, along with information on other species of fish to be found on the Grand Banks. It would be be a staggering blow for Denys to learn that the once plentiful cod would, in 2001, be an endangered species.

The English edition of Denys work was edited by a New Brunswick historian/scientist Dr. William Francis Ganong (1864–1941). Ganong brought his great knowledge of local history and geography to bear with helpful background material and explanatory footnotes. However, throughout, he is highly critical of Denys. To place the two volumes in perspective, it is important to recall that Denys was largely self-educated, and that he was, by his own admission, well aware of his literary shortcomings.

To be fair, in his final conclusion, Ganong provides a balanced view: But the errors of the book are of small account in comparison with the truth it holds. Let us not commit the unpardonable historical blunder of judging it in the light of our own times. It was well calculated to give the reader in France a correct idea of the geography, the natural resources, the misgovernment of Acadia, and in its field it is without a rival. Not a bad review for the man of a thousand misfortunes!