Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et Palluau (1622-1698), was a controversial governor general of New France, architect of French westward expansion, and commander of French forces against the Iroquois and the English colonies during King William's War.
The Comte de Frontenac was born on May 22, 1622, at Saint-Germain. His grandfather was equerry to Henry IV; his father was colonel of the Regiment of Navarre and an aide to Louis XIII; and his mother, Anne Phélypeaux de Pont-chartrain, was the daughter of an influential secretary of state. Louis XIII was his godfather.
Entering the army in his teens, Frontenac campaigned during the Thirty Years War and at the age of 21 was colonel of the Regiment of Normandy. He was also a courtier, lived extravagantly, and ran up huge debts. In 1669 he obtained a lucrative appointment with the Venetian forces defending Crete against the Turks, but within 3 months he was dismissed by the commanding general. Three years later he obtained the appointment of governor general of New France.
Plagued by an irascible temper and an exalted opinion of his own capacities, Frontenac quickly quarreled with the senior officials and the clergy. Many of these disputes centered about the fur trade. The minister of marine, Jean Baptiste Colbert, was striving to keep it within bounds to prevent its crippling his plans to diversify the colony's economy, while Frontenac encouraged the expansion of the western fur trade. This brought the French into conflict with the Iroquois, who were allied with the English of New York. By 1681, however, Frontenac had carried his internal disputes to such lengths that the civil administration was disrupted, and the following year he was dismissed.
Frontenac's successors struggled to curb the Iroquois and retain control of the west, with scant success. In 1689 England and France declared war. An assault on New York, by sea and from Canada, was planned. The governor general of New France had requested his own recall, and Frontenac was reappointed. Owing to delay, for which Frontenac was not responsible, the New York expedition had to be abandoned. That winter, as a reprisal against an Iroquois surprise attack that had inflicted heavy damage, Frontenac launched three war parties against the frontier settlements of New York and New England.
These raids did not deter the Iroquois, but they enraged the English colonies. They united their forces for a land and sea attack on Canada. The overland expedition against Montreal foundered, but a New England fleet reached Quebec only to find Frontenac with the entire armed strength of the colony waiting to oppose their assault force of untrained militia. After a few days of skirmishing they gave up and sailed away.
The colony now came under constant attack by the Iroquois, but within 2 years the Canadians had mastered the art of guerrilla warfare and began carrying the war to the enemy. The Iroquois, also under attack by the western tribes, suffered heavy losses while French strength grew with the arrival of troop reinforcements from France. The Iroquois therefore tried to split the French alliance with the western tribes by a peace offensive. Frontenac's subordinates were convinced that he was being duped when he agreed to a cessation of hostilities pending peace talks; they demanded a full-scale invasion of the Iroquois cantons.
It was then discovered that the Iroquois diplomats had informed the western tribes that the French had abandoned them and made a separate peace. They were the more easily persuaded to abandon their alliance and make peace with the Iroquois because they were disgruntled with the French for economic reasons. French traders, with Frontenac's encouragement, had pushed farther west and were trading directly with the tribes that provided the furs to the middleman tribes in the French alliance. These, in turn, resented even more that the French were supplying firearms to their ancient foes, the Sioux.
The French found themselves in a precarious position, their allies defecting, and the Iroquois, their western flank secure, now reopening their attacks on the colony. In 1696 Frontenac was forced by pressure from his subordinates to launch a major campaign against the Iroquois. This crushed their offensive spirit and disrupted their negotiations with the French allies. The following year the war ended in Europe, and the Iroquois, denied English aid, were forced to treat for peace in earnest.
Canada had escaped the military consequences of Frontenac's inept policy, but the economic consequences could not be avoided. The amount of beaver traded in the west had increased during the war until there was a surplus approaching 1 million pounds, enough to manufacture half a million hats. The beaver trade, backbone of the Canadian economy, was bankrupt. Frontenac was by no means solely responsible for this condition, but despite repeated warnings he had done nothing to prevent it and not a little to engender it.
In civil affairs Frontenac's second administration was less turbulent than his first, but he frequently used his authority in a very despotic manner. By 1698 the minister, Louis de Pontchartrain, had become weary of excusing his kinsman's arbitrary conduct to Louis XIV. Frontenac was in imminent danger of again being recalled in disgrace. The aged governor, however, spared the King the necessity of making this decision. He was taken ill, and after making his peace with his subordinates, he died Nov. 28, 1698.
The most recent, and most critical, biography of Frontenac is W. J. Eccles, Frontenac, the Courtier Governor (1959). There are several others, all adulatory and all based on Francis Parkman, Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV (1877), a work which reflects the prejudices of the author and the values of his own society. General background studies which discuss Frontenac include Edgar McInnis, Canada: A Political and Social History (1947; rev. ed. 1959), and J. Bartlett Brebner, Canada: A Modern History (1960; rev. ed. 1970). □