Le Québec Visitant

Across the street from Montreal’s magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica stands the Place d’Armes. At its center is a fountain with relief images of various characters from the city’s early history including Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the town’s founder, a Huron Indian and Charles LeMoyne.

LeMoyne made a name for himself in the early days of the French colony as an Indian fighter and as a pioneer. For his efforts, the town’s leaders granted him some land in what was then the countryside as well in the center of the young city, near the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, at the corner of Saint-Paul and Saint-Sulpice streets in 1681.

After visiting the church and examining the fountain, we walked down a narrow street to that corner. On the left was the place where the hospital once stood. At the corner was a 19th century stone building, now used as a warehouse. That site where the stone building now stands is of great importance to the history of New Orleans and to the original Louisiana territory because of what once stood there. It was where Charles LeMoyne built a two-story home of stone and timber.

According to our tour guide – a former TV journalist with a keen sense of history – Micheline Giard,  “Mr. LeMoyne received this land the same year he married Catherine Thierry dit Primot. They had 14 children and only one died during its infancy, which was very remarkable for the time. Ten boys would be part of Nouvelle-France history through their military career, while the two girls would marry officers. So, yes, it’s the birthplace of Mr. Bienville.”

Long before he would assume the noble title of Sieur de Bienville the young boy known as Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne saw the world through the prism of what was then known as “Ville-Marie” and is now Montreal. Standing at the corner of Saint-Paul and Saint-Sulpice streets, I tried to imagine what Jean-Baptiste saw from his front door.

Most obvious is the St. Lawrence River. In his day, long before a highway was built, the river was even closer to his home – no more than three blocks away. It was on that river that explorers made the connection to the Atlantic Ocean in their journeys to and from France or the Caribbean. The St. Lawrence is as much a part of the history of the founding of French Louisiana as are the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. Young Jean-Baptiste, I suspect, couldn’t help but be inspired by the river and to wonder, like young boys do, of adventurous places to which the river might one day take him.

Certainly older brother Pierre LeMoyne must have heard the muse. He became a ship captain, warrior and explorer extraordinaire. It was he who, years later with the title Sieur d’Iberville, attached to his name to and led an expedition on behalf of the king of France toward the mouth of the Mississippi River.

It is now the stuff of legend that Iberville’s party spent its first full day on the banks of the Mississippi (in what is now lower Plaquemines Parish) on March 3, 1699. The day happened to be Mardi Gras, so the little bayou near where they settled was given that name.

Included in Iberville’s party was his younger brother Jean-Baptiste who was primed to one day claim his place in history. That happened 19 years later when he selected a spot about 100 miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi, and decided to build a city there. The location offered several advantages. It was located at a big bend in the river. Surrounding it were lakes – including the largest one, which he named after France’s Secretary of State, the Compte de Pontchartrain.

We can only speculate that Jean-Baptiste may have been impressed that the spot had lakes around it and a great river to its side, so it was technically an island. Montreal, enveloped by the Rivière des Prairies on one side and the grand St. Lawrence river at its front, was also such an inland island. Might Jean-Baptiste have been partial to the site because it reminded him of his hometown geography? He would name the land on which his new town would be built the “Isle d’Orleans.”

Back in his native Quebec province, there’s another island with the same name.
As Via Rail Canada made its mid-day trip from Montreal north to Quebec City the St. Lawrence River was never very far way. The luxury train raced through farm lands spotted with big silos and barns. Winters can be long and harsh along this part of the continent but when spring comes, crops grow quickly and the land provides a bounty of fruits and vegetables including, to my surprise, lush strawberries as well as flavor-packed tomatoes that would rival our Louisiana Creole varieties.

This has been a big year for Quebec City, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary. The old town is as quaint and charming as the best blocks of our French Quarter but with a major difference – French is truly spoken there as a first language. As in Montreal, the town thrives off of the St. Lawrence River, which is wide alongside the city than narrows at its northern border before opening again. At one point the river is so broad that it contains a 25-mile long island.

Elyse Busque, our tour guide for this day, drove us across the suspension bridge that connects the Quebec province mainland with the island. As a native New Orleanian, I was surprised that we had never heard more about this other Isle d’Orleans, which is a charming place with the ambiance of the French countryside. There are no hotels on the island, just auberges providing a room and country cooking to guests. Like Louisiana, the island is divided into parishes, each with an ancient church after which the parish was named. One road encircles the island and along its way are shops that sell cheeses, berries, meats, breads and wines. A person could provide for dinner without ever leaving the road.

We did deviate at one point to visit a small museum used to study family names. Since Louisiana’s French population is mostly either Acadian, descendants of military directly from France or Haitian, there were few familiar family names here other than a varied spelling of “Thibodeau.” There was one name that really stood out. On a wall was an enlarged reproduction of a written order issued in 1709, listing the names of all the families of the island. In bold letters the citation proclaimed that the order was made by the French Secretary of State, the Comte de Pontchartrain.

“Mmmm,” I thought while marveling at the obvious, “Isle d’Orleans; Pontchartrain.”
That night we were back in old Quebec City. The town is festive most anytime but in this anniversary year it seems to never sleep, plus it happened that on this day there was a sub-festival celebrating “New France” and the cultural link between the old country and city. The highlight of the celebration was the march of the Geants, towering walking figures depicting various characters from history and fiction. We reached the parade just in time to see a figure of what seemed to be an early colonial man swagger by. The sign in front identified the geant as Charles LeMoyne.

Locals probably recognized LeMoyne from the tattered memories of their Quebec history books. I, on the other hand, saw him as being, in a sense, New Orleans’ grandpa. In that context, it was fitting for him to be represented in a parade.

Across the street from New Orleans’ magnificent St. Louis Cathedral stands what was formerly known as the Place d’Armes. One afternoon in 1803, a ceremony was held there, formally transferring the Louisiana territory from France to the U.S. The town created by French Canadians was now in American hands; the square would eventually be renamed after an American general. History, like great rivers, continues its flow and near its banks there still are adventurers anxious to see where it will take them.

Other Attractions

Montreal
Old Montreal: Safe, clean, picturesque and oozing with history – a must see.
Harbor Cruise: A good way to see the city’s landscape.
Montreal Biodome: An ecology museum located in a geodesic sphere that housed the United States pavilion at the 1967 Montréal World’s Fair.
LaTour de Montreal: A great view as seen from a purposely-made leaning tower located next to Exposition Stadium.

Quebec City
Old Town Quebec: Just walk the picturesque streets of this walled city and marvel. There are many museums (including Passengers, about the “human flow” of Quebec history) shops, parks and restaurants all within a picturesque setting.
Parc de la Chute-Montmorency: Located just past the edge of town, the centerpiece is this park that locals like to boast is higher than Niagara Falls.
Le Chateau Frontenac: A grand old hotel located on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill and the Canadian Prime Minister strategized for World War II here. Worth stopping by for a drink.

Getting there.  The quickest route between New Orleans and Montreal is by Delta Airlines through Atlanta. Between New Orleans and Quebec City Continental Airlines has service through Newark. Between Montreal and Quebec City Via Rail Canada is the best bet. The scenic trip takes about 2.5 hours.

Where to stay. If money isn’t an issue but style is, Quebec City’s Château de Frontenac (see Other Attractions, left) is one of the grand hotels on the continent. Both Montréal and Quebec City are busy tourist centers, so most of the major chains, and smaller independents, are established there. My experience in Montreal was at Le Crystal de La Montagne, a sparkling new hotel near downtown. Most rooms are mini-suites and there’s an outside jacuzzi overlooking the city from the 12th floor. In Quebec City, I experienced the Hotel du Capitole to be a quirky little place carved into a complex that also houses the theater. (Les Miserables is playing in the theater for the entire anniversary year. An image of the peasant girl who is the musical’s symbol even adorns the hotel’s elevator doors). The hotel is only steps away from the old town.

What’s in a name?
The origins of “Bienville” and “Iberville”.
For most of their lives they were known by their baptismal names of Jean-Baptiste and Pierre LeMoyne, yet the landmarks in their honor, which include parishes in Louisiana, streets in New Orleans and a town in Mississippi, remember them by add-on ceremonial names, Bienville and Iberville. Where did those names come from?

Due to the exploits and lineage of their father, Charles, the LeMoyne family had achieved French aristocratic status in Quebec. The French title of “Sieur” is equivalent to “Sir” in British aristocracy. As was the custom, nobility was often identified by land that they controlled. According to research done by tour guide and historian Micheline Giard for this article, “Sieur d’Iberville got his name from a fief held by his father’s family, near Dieppe, in the province of Normandy.”

Less certain is the place known as Bienville. “We do know that Jean-Baptiste assumed the title by default after the death of a sibling. According to Giard: “When his brother François sieur de Bienville, died in 1691, Jean-Baptiste received the landed title by which he would be known to history.”  

There is a city in France called Bienville but there’s no written evidence of a connection between it and the LeMoynes – though we might assume that there was a relationship because Charles owned several pieces of land in France as well as Canada.

What is certain is that the LeMoyne brothers made two obscure French names forever famous as part of Louisiana history. 

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