Claude de Ramezay

Claude de Ramezay, (born 15 June 1659 in La Gesse, France; died 31 July 1724 in Quebec City). Claude de Ramezay came to New France as an officer in the troupes de la marine. He served as governor of Trois-Rivières (1690–99), commander of Canadian troops (1699–1704), governor of Montreal (1704–24), and as acting governor general of New France (1714–16). Throughout his time in New France, he pursued fur trade and lumber interests. He is also remembered for his home, Château Ramezay. Built in 1705, it is now a museum and one of Montreal’s landmark historical buildings.



claude-de-ramezay

Early Years

Claude de Ramezay was born into French nobility. His family owned fiefdoms in France’s Burgundy area. He arrived in New France in 1685 as a lieutenant in the troupes de la marine. Within two years he was a captain. In 1690, he paid 3,000 livres to the widow of the recently deceased governor of Trois-Rivières to become the new governor. While only a village of 358 people, its location between Montreal and Quebec City allowed de Ramezay to meet and host New France’s most important leaders. In November 1690, de Ramezay married Marie-Charlotte Denys, the daughter of Pierre Denys de La Ronde; he thereby became a member of one of New France’s most influential families.          

Governor of Trois-Rivières

Ramezay initiated the building of fortifications around Trois-Rivières to bolster its defence against British and Indigenous enemies. He also involved himself in the fur trade. He angered French and Indigenous traders by demanding that they surrender their best pelts to him in return for guaranteeing their safety. He earned a reputation for being gruff and ill-tempered.                           

In 1699, Ramezay was placed in command of all Canadian troops in New France. The British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard were worried that French colonies were encircling them — Quebec in the north, Acadia in the north-east, and expanding around the Great Lakes and down the Ohio Valley. There were numerous military engagements as France and Britain fought to expand and secure their territories. They also both fought Indigenous nations who sought to maintain their land and security while negotiating alliances with whichever European power could best advance their goals. In 1702, Ramezay travelled to France to ask for more troops and returned with 300 new recruits. The next year, he was awarded the prestigious Cross of Saint-Louis.

Governor of Montreal

In 1704, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil completed his term as governor of Montreal and was appointed governor general of New France. Ramzay succeeded him as Montreal’s governor. He purchased property on Rue Notre-Dame and oversaw the construction of a grand home. New France’s most distinguished architect, Pierre Couturier, designed a 66-foot long, three-storey house, with rich appointments throughout. (See Château Ramezay.) According to historian Brett Rushforth, Ramezay also owned many enslaved persons “to indicate his social and political power and to serve his family and the many dignitaries who visited the governor’s residence.” (See also Black Enslavement in Canada; Enslavement of Indigenous People in Canada.)       

Château Ramezay
The château that Claude de Ramezay built in 1704-05 is now a historic site in Montréal.

Ramezay’s profligate spending left him in desperate financial straits. He borrowed heavily. He also re-entered the fur trade, again angering traders by ensuring that he and his family members were given preferential contracts. In 1702, he entered the lumber business with the building of a small mill in Baie Saint-Paul, east of Quebec City. Four years later, he constructed a second mill.             

There were many rivalries among New France’s leading families and ambitious leaders. Among them was a feud involving Ramezay and Governor General Vaudreuil. Ramezay wrote to colonial officials in Paris accusing him of mishandling conflicts with the British and Indigenous nations at Detroit and, ironically, of interfering in the fur trade for his personal gain. Vaudreuil accused Ramezay of damaging the fur trade for his family’s benefit, of reckless personal spending, and of being a puppet to Jesuit leaders.            

The rivalry was put aside when the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) led to war between France and Britain. New hostilities in North America ensued. The tense situation was made worse by the shifting alliances between Indigenous nations and the French and the British. Montreal was especially exposed because of its physical distance from the more heavily fortified and easily defended Quebec City, as well as from the fur trade, which linked the city’s merchants with Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and British traders. When European market conditions led to a collapse in fur prices, New York’s governor clamed down on the rampant smuggling of French furs through Albany. Tensions rose even higher.               

In the summer of 1709, as part of a plan to invade and capture New France, three thousand New York and Massachusetts militia and Iroquois warriors assembled at the south end of Lake Champlain, at the Wood Creek portage. Ramezay personally led 1,500 troops to meet them. A scouting party led by Ramezay’s notoriously incompetent nephew, Pierre-Thomas Tarieu de La Pérade, stumbled upon a British advance unit and destroyed the element of surprise. The brief encounter led the British to halt their advance. Ramzay learned of the overwhelming numbers before him and retreated. When the British were informed that ships that were to attack Quebec City had been sent elsewhere, they too withdrew.

Acting Governor General of New France

In the fall of 1714, Vaudreuil undertook a leave of absence in France. Ramezay became New France’s acting governor general. Paramount among the issues facing New France at the time were changes brought about by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). It had ended British-French hostilities in Europe’s War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). The treaty awarded Britain control of Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Acadia (New Brunswick), while leaving undefined borders between the British and French colonies.           

British colonial leaders took advantage of the treaty by expanding westward. They took Indigenous land and threatened French fur trade routes. Ramezay encouraged Indigenous leaders to maintain their ties with New France and to confront British settlers and traders. Among the more aggressive actions was the 1715 French attack on the Mesquakie (Fox) nation. The Mesquakie had been French allies. But French traders threatened their independence and their territory west of Lake Huron was threatened by the Sioux to the west and Chippewa and Iroquois to the east. They retaliated with violent attacks on the French and their Indigenous enemies. Ramezay responded by sending troops in what became known as the French-Fox War (1712–1716). The Mesquakie were defeated and pledged to live peacefully with the French and their neighbours. One of Ramezay’s sons died in the Mesquakie campaign.         

Ramezay wrote letters to Paris stating that New France’s border must be more firmly established and secured or else the British colonies would eventually force the French out of what is now the American mid-west.

Final Posting

In 1716, Vaudreuil returned and Ramezay again became the governor of Montreal. He did not win the French government’s request to expand his fur trade rights. But he secured generous six-year government contracts for lumber, which allowed his business to prosper. He continued to engage in struggles with the Jesuits such as unsuccessfully demanding that soldiers be housed at their Sault-Saint-Louis mission. Good relations with Vaudreuil were maintained until 1723 when a disagreement regarding Iroquois policy led to public arguments and more letters to Paris.

Legacy

Ramezay died in Quebec City in July 1724, leaving his wife, two sons and five daughters, including Louise. Born in 1705, Louise watched her mother take control of Ramezay’s lumber business and, by 1739, she was running it. Over the next thirty years, Louise expanded the business so that she owned three successful mills and a tannery, becoming one Quebec’s pioneering women entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, Ramezay’s house, Château Ramezay, became government property. It was the first building in Quebec to be declared a historical monument. It is now the oldest private history museum in the province.

Château Ramezay
Historic Site and Museum of Montréal, ©Château Ramezay. Photo : Michel Pinault.