Moïse Hillaret, the first shipwright on the Great Lakes
Joe Calnan 2002
In 1676, the Great Lakes were considered to be the farthest reaches of the colony of New France. To an adventurous young explorer named Robert Cavelier de La Salle, however, the Lakes were merely a stepping-stone in his vision of a continuous French territory stretching from Quebec clear through to the Mississippi Delta. In order to pursue his dream, La Salle needed sailing ships to transport his men and supplies across the open waters of the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River. His search for a ship builder led to the most capable master of the trade in New France, a 35-year-old former royal carpenter to Louis XIV named Moïse Hillaret. Over the next three years, Hillaret built the first five ships ever to sail on the Lakes, including the most famous of all, Le Griffon.
Hillaret’s beginnings in France
The future builder of La Salle’s Griffon had his origins on the wind-whipped and rainy Atlantic coast of France. He had been born in 1640 in the parish of Saint-Étienne d’Arvert, halfway between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. Hillaret’s birthplace is in the former province of Saintonge. Wealthy in both resources and history, Saintonge had been the site of three noted villas during the time of the Roman Empire and its prosperity had attracted Viking raids in the 800’s. The Dutch cartographer Johan Blaeu wrote in 1663 that “if France is the most gleaming crown of Europe, then Saintonge is the pearl.” And he continued, “the fertility of Saintonge’s soil produces all sorts of fruits in abundance; it harvests six times more grain and grapes than it can consume.”
Saint-Étienne was a Huguenot, or Calvinist Protestant parish. The reformation had come to the Atlantic Coast of France in the 1550’s and religious strife had ensued almost immediately. Eight religious wars had been fought and several massacres occurred in the region before the Edict of Nantes was enacted in 1598 to protect the rights of the Huguenots to practice their faith. The peace provided by the Edict of Nantes was an uneasy one however, and in the 1640’s when Hillaret was born, Saintonge was the scene of violent agrarian conflicts.
Despite the upheaval, trade in the wealth of the region continued. Most commonly this trade was carried on in boats and ships. The many coastal ports on the Arvert peninsula each had their shipyards, building and repairing the vessels necessary for the coastal trade. Small open square-rigged boats called chaloupes, larger decked or partially-decked vessels called barques, and still larger three-masted ships called pinasses were the most common working and trading vessels produced by the shipyards of the Arvert Peninsula. It was in these merchant shipyards or in the naval shipyard in nearby Brouage, that Hillaret would have began his apprenticeship as a teenager in the 1650’s. He was already a master ship carpenter at the age of twenty-three, when Monseigneur Colbert de Terron, the Intendant de la Marine in Brouage, recruited him to be a charpentier du roy, or carpenter to the king, in the New World....