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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada




JULY, 1971

(Fortress of Louisbourg
Report H A 13)


1717 - 1719

The engineer appointed to begin work at Louisbourg was Jean François de Verville, whose service with the Corps of Engineers in France had begun in 1704. Ten years later he was appointed assistant chief engineer at Douai in Flanders, and in 1717 came to Isle Royale as Chief Engineer and Director of Fortifications, having turned down a post in Spain (1) a decision he probably later regretted. From the beginning he alienated many of the officials in Louisbourg. In that first year De Verville complained that officers were losing their time and fortunes in commerce, and the following year recommended that officers be prohibited from engaging in fishing (2) a recommendation that was soon implemented.(3) The officials were resentful that De Verville was responsible for gathering all the material concerning the choice of the site for the fortifications (4) and had their own complaints against the engineer. Both the governor, Joseph de Saint Ovide de Brouillan, and the ordonnateur, Pierre-Auguste de Soubras, criticized De Verville's preliminary plans as impractical for that part of the world.(5)

In this heated atmosphere preparations for construction were undertaken. De Verville put forward a number of recommendations to streamline work and, at the same time, improve his position. He wanted to have full control over the workers and even the officers, including the power to imprison soldiers, only having to inform the governor of the fact. He wanted better quarters for himself and his draftsmen and a guard for his papers. When he was away for his winters in France, he proposed that the governor not interfere with work in progress and that the sub-engineers not be taken from supervisory work to write memoranda or do drafting.(6) All these conditions were agreed to by the Ministry in France,(7) but probably did little to improve De Verville's relations with other officials.

The contractor, Michel-Philippe Isabeau, a veteran builder from France who had favourably impressed the governor and ordonnateur on his first visit in 1717, was awarded the contract for work at Louisbourg in 1719,(8) but he too had complaints. In wage disputes he claimed the officers sided with the soldiers, and allowed them to go and work for townspeople so that he could not get on with his work. He also voiced the familiar complaint that the soldiers' wages were being squandered on drink and smoke to the profit of the officers and their taverns, and the detriment of their work.(9)

During the summer of 1719 De Verville went to France to discuss construction plans, and returned that autumn with the new ordonnateur, Jacques-Ange Le Normant De Mesy, who immediately created an unfavourable impression prompting strong reaction from both the engineer and the governor. Saint Ovide accused De Mesy of wanting to rule the colony absolutely; It was, he said, impossible to live in peace, (10) to which De Mesy retorted that he was not a clerk.(11) Perhaps as a concession to the engineer to gain his alliance against this new threat, Saint Ovide reported that henceforth only De Verville would decide on the allocation of construction funds.(12)

The engineer was also troubled by De Mesy and wrote to France asking if this ordonnateur had any other rights in the construction except to approve the bills and work orders.(13) Obviously, De Mesy was feeling left out of the basic planning of the fortifications. De Verville, in another letter to France, said he understood that De Mesy might have felt that he, the engineer, was usurping some of the ordonnateur's functions; he assured the ministry of his loyalty and service, and added in rather a condescending tone:

It is excusable for people to speak of a trade they don't know, [however] speculation and practice, to be well married, must find themselves in a single person in order to bear the fruit of execution.(14).

The engineer was also surprised to discover that contrary to instructions from France, Saint Ovide had ordered certain works during his absence and without his approval. The ministry, when informed of this, indicated its "strong surprise" at the expense involved. Since the works had been done "without [the King's] orders and perhaps without necessity," De Verville was ordered to check into the accounts and pay only those workers who had done necessary work. Presumably, the governor would have to pay for those accounts not deemed "necessary".(15)

The first indication of what was intended as a barracks for Louisbourg came from a report by De Verville in 1717. The main fortified place in Louisbourg was to be:

a strong bastioned redoubt constructed in masonry... in the gorge of the work will be a barracks capable of housing at least four infantry companies with their officers, around this barracks will be a small ditch or covered way or both.(16)

It was estimated that the building would cost 36,441 livres. All of this seemed to be quite modest in intent and the first barracks plan  (Fig. 3 [1718-1: Presently Unavailable]) was in keeping with this, showing a rather simple structure with a mansard roof. There was little elaboration, and no indication that it was to be used for anything beyond housing troops and their officers. Somewhere between that time and the beginning of construction two years later the concept was changed, probably during De Verville's visit to France in the winter of 1718-19. No reasons have been found for the changes reflected in an undated plan (Fig.4 [ND-52: Presently Unavailable]) from the preconstruction period. The new concept showed the same general foundations as the first plan, but featured a continuous ridge roof rather than the mansard roof which had a break at the north (right) end. The fireplaces had all been moved from the long centre wall to the short partition walls.

By the time construction began in 1720, another more basic change had been effected, probably the result of De Verville's first winter spent in the colony. (17) The building found itself with a new foundation plan, the long and narrow wings of the first two plans becoming almost square (Fig.5 [1720-1: Presently Unavailable]), and with another storey. The elaborations in the cellar shown in the 1718 plan were eliminated except for the bake ovens. No excavations were made beneath the chapel, which was bigger in the new plan, and the altar was moved to the opposite end. The small bell tower of the original plan was replaced with a large impressive clock tower centered over the entrance and large windows were added in the chapel. In the earlier plan the masonry partitions had created 42 small and 22 large rooms, but by 1724 (Fig.9 [1724-1: Presently Unavailable]) there were only large rooms, 52 in all, plus a long narrow room over the central passageway. The counterforts shown in 1720 (small buttresses along the courtyard north wall seen in Figure 5 [1720-1: Presently Unavailable] (did not appear in the later plans, but four were uncovered in excavations.(18) A provisional work account referred to 7 of these counterforts and gave the measurements, in pieds, as 2 by 2 by 8 (approx.) including the foundation.(19) Apparently this area, which had a lower bed rock than the southern half (see dotted line on Figure 3 [1718-1: Presently Unavailable]), needed these counterforts for support.


1. F. J. Thorpe, "Jean-François de Verville,'' Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 2, 1701-1740 (1st ed.,1969): 648-50.

2. De Verville to Minister, 27 April 1718, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 2, ff. 119-119v. De Verville, Remarques sur l'arrivee 1717, CTG, Art.14, carton no. 9.

3. Memoire du Roi à Saint Ovide et De Mesy, 18 July 1718, AN. Col., B. vol. 40(5), ff. 556-556v.

4. Saint Ovide and Soubras to Council, 9 January 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 3, ff. 76-91.

5. Saint Ovide to Council, 4 January 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 150-162, Council, letter of Soubras, 1 April 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 39-45.

6. De Verville to Council, July 1719, AN, Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 107-08v. Memoire du Roi, 10 July 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 120-23v.

8. Among the papers found after his sister's death were 44 contracts he had made with various individuals; Planton Inventory, AN, Section Outre-mer, G2, vol. 180, ff. 617-46, Saint Ovide and Soubras to Council, 13 November 1717, AN.Col., C11B. Vol.2, ff. 163-184v.

9. Isabeau to Council, 22 October 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 248-49.

10. Saint Ovide to Council, 22 June 1720, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 5, ff. 166-70.

11. De Mesy to Council, 10 November 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, f. 214.

12. Saint Ovide to Council, 28 November 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 211-13v.

13. De Verville to Council, 19 November 1719, AN. Col., C''B, vol 4, ff. 237-41.

14. De Verville to Council, 29 November 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 244-44v.

15. Council letters of Saint Ovide and De Verville, 20 April 1720, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 5, ff. 116-18.

16. De Verville, Remarques sur les avantages, 1717, CTG, Art. 14, Carton 1, no. 7.

17. Memoire du Roi, 10 July 1719, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 4, ff. 120-23.

18. Memorandum, Walker to Larrabee March 24, 1965 and Photo G3398, Fortress of Louisbourg collections.

19. Toisé Provisionel, Verrier, 15 November 1727, AN. Col., C11B, vol. 9, f. 238. A French pied equals 1.066 feet. There are 12 pouces in a pied and six pieds in a toise.

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