Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville


Céloron de Blainville, Pierre-Joseph, officer in the colonial regular troops; born 29 December 1693 at Montreal, son of Jean-Baptiste Céloron de Blainville and Hélène Picoté de Belestre; married 30 December 1724 at Montreal to Marie-Madeleine Blondeau; married again 13 October 1743 at Montreal to Catherine Eury de La Pérelle; died at Montreal 12 April 1759.

          Grandson of a member of the nobility of the robe and son of a captain in the colonial regulars, Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville entered that force as a cadet in 1707, at the age of 13.  He received the expectancy of a commission in 1712 and three years later was made first ensign.  In 1731 he was promoted lieutenant and in 1738 captain.  He received the latter rank a few months after his appointment to the command at Michilimackinac.

          When in 1739-40 Governor Bienville [Le Moyne] of Louisiana launched a full scale campaign against the Chickasaws, a tribe friendly to the English, Céloron commanded the western detachment of 200 Canadians and 300 Indians who travelled south to participate.  A vigorous assault by his force was credited with preventing a French defeat and allowing a negotiated peace.  In recognition he was awarded the cross of Saint-Louis in 1741.  The following year he was transferred from Michilimackinac to command at Detroit.  The Ottawa chiefs at Michilimackinac expressed a high regard for him and requested that his successor should be an officer of the same calibre.  The merchant fur-traders at Detroit did not come to share this opinion.  They claimed that he inhibited their commercial ventures.  Their complaints were given credence by Governor Charles de Beauharnois and Intendant Gilles Hocquart; Céloron was therefore removed from Detroit in 1744 and given command of Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, New York).  Similar objections were made by the traders there; as a result he was recalled late in 1745.

          Beauharnois, nevertheless, had confidence in his military abilities for in the spring of 1747, with war raging, Céloron was appointed commandant at Fort Saint-Frédéric (Crown Point, New York) on Lake Champlain, the forward bastion of the colony's defences.  The following spring troop reinforcements and supplies had to be rushed to Detroit to quell an insurrection of western tribes that threatened to drive the French out of the west [see Orontony], and Céloron was placed in command.  Beauharnois's successor, La Galissonière [Barrin], later stated that the Indians had been cowed by Céloron's cool but tough attitude.

          The situation in the west, however, was still dangerous.  Traders from Pennsylvania and Virginia had begun to establish posts in the Ohio valley and had formed commercial alliances with the tribes of the region.  The Indians who traded with the French were sorely tempted by cheaper English goods and liquor.  Moreover, by the treaty of Utrecht (1713) the French had acknowledged the Iroquois to be British subjects, and the English now claimed title to the Ohio valley by virtue of its being Iroquois territory.  Land speculators in Virginia and Pennsylvania were forming companies to open the Ohio valley to English settlement.  Their activities posed a serious threat, not only to communications between Canada and Louisiana, but to the entire French position in the west.  The French decided, therefore, to send an expedition through the Ohio valley to assert their claims to the region, to map the route, and to drive out the English traders.  Céloron was given the command.

          On 15 June 1749 he left Montreal with 213 men: regulars, militia, and a few Indians.  Their route took them by way of Niagara to Lake Erie, along the south shore of that lake to the Chatacouin portage (near Westfield, New York), then south to the Allegheny River, where Céloron buried the first of a series of engraved lead plates claiming the land for France and attached a plaque with the royal arms to a tree.  Farther down the Ohio he encountered small groups of English traders whom he ordered to return whence they had come.  To one such group he gave a letter addressed to the governor of Pennsylvania, protesting the trespass on French soil of men from his jurisdiction.  Céloron also made the disturbing discovery that the Mingo, Shawnee, and Miami tribes were more strongly wedded to the English interest than had been feared.  His blandishments and threats alike had little effect, and some of the tribesmen manifested open hostility.

          At the end of August, with supplies running low, Céloron buried the last of his lead plates at the mouth of the Rivière à la Roche (Great Miami River), then turned north.  On 13 September he reached the village of the Miami chief Memeskia (La Demoiselle) who made it plain that his tribe would not abandon its alliance with the English.  After pausing briefly at Fort des Miamis (probably at or near Fort Wayne, Indiana), the French outpost south of Lake Erie, Céloron and his men began the return journey to Montreal, arriving on 9 November.  It had required five months and 18 days to travel over 3,000 miles [over 5,000km] through unmapped and hostile territory.  It is a tribute to Céloron's capacity as leader that only one man had been lost, drowned when his canoe tipped in a rapid.  Joseph-Pierre de Bonnecamps, the Jesuit chaplain and cartographer with the expedition, praised Céloron highly, declaring him “a man born to command.” The disturbing intelligence Céloron had obtained revealed that the French would have to take determined action or lose the Ohio valley by default.  He recommended that a fortified military route be constructed from Lake Erie to the upper Ohio.  He also pointed out that the cost would be great.

          Céloron barely had time to submit his report before he was sent back to the west as town-major of Detroit.  In 1751 Governor General La Jonquière [Taffanel] ordered him to muster a force of Canadians and allied Indians and destroy the recalcitrant Miamis, but he demurred, claiming that should the campaign fail, the consequences would be disastrous and that 1,800 troops and militia would be needed to ensure success.  La Jonquière was incensed at this refusal to carry out his orders and he made an adverse report to the minister of Marine.  There had been other complaints of Céloron's conduct as commandant; although manifestly brave and intelligent, he was considered haughty and injudicious.  Apparently he was better fitted for strictly military duties than for civil administration.  In 1753, after Ange Duquesne had become governor general, Céloron was recalled and given the less taxing post of town-major of Montreal.  Duquesne stated that he was a very good officer but he was not suited for routine administration at Detroit.

          Of Céloron's subsequent activities nothing is known.  It seems unlikely that he succumbed to wounds received during the 1759 campaign, as has been claimed, since military operations did not begin until May that year and he is known to have died at Montreal on 12 April.  He had not grown rich in the king's service.  His son Pierre-Joseph, several times wounded, returned to France a captain in 1760, with nothing to his name but his 600 livres half pay.  His widow joined the Grey Nuns and remained in Canada, thereby sacrificing the 300 livres pension the king had awarded her.

—  William John Eccles
Professor of history, University of Toronto, Ontario

Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville (the original article)
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