Jean Talon (1626-1694), a French intendant of New France, was responsible for implementing his country's policy of colonial development in Canada.
Born at Châlons-sur-Marne in Champagne and baptized on Jan. 8, 1626, Jean Talon entered the royal service in his late 20s, serving as army commissary in Flanders and as intendant of Turenne's army. In 1655 he was appointed intendant of Hainaut.
When, in 1663, Louis XIV placed his American colonies under royal government, the minister in charge of colonial affairs, Jean Baptiste Colbert, persuaded Talon to accept the intendancy of New France for a 2-year term. He arrived in September 1665 at Quebec, where he was responsible for civil administration, finance, and justice.
Colbert had grandiose plans for the development of Canada. He established a new administrative system, sent a regiment of regular troops which quelled the lroquois, and then invested vast sums in economic development, establishing new industries such as lumbering and shipbuilding and subsidizing the immigration of skilled and unskilled labor, and marriageable girls for the superfluity of bachelors.
Talon's task was to superintend this economic expansion, and he set about it with considerable energy. Under his supervision several ships were constructed, a brewery was built, much virgin land was brought into production, crops were diversified, and surplus foodstuffs and timber were exported to the West Indies. In fact, he was perhaps too active, for some of the colony's leading merchants complained that he was concentrating all these activities under his own control for his private profit and putting them out of business.
To make the best use of the available manpower, Colbert demanded that the Canadian proclivity to voyage to the distant Indian villages to obtain furs at firsthand had to be curbed. He wanted the colonists concentrated in the central colony, working on the land or in industry. Talon, however, favored expansion into the west, and he sent out fur-trading expeditions under the guise of exploration parties. In this fashion the entire basin of the Great Lakes was claimed for France, although only a handful of itinerant French traders were in the area. The merchants in the colony, seeing Talon's exploration parties return with canoes laden with furs, were quick to follow suit. Within a very few years several hundred coureurs de bois were operating out of the colony. In 1672 Talon sent Louis Jolliet to discover the outlet of a river called the Mississippi, in the hope that it would provide an easy route to the Pacific.
In 1668 Talon returned to France but was persuaded by Colbert and Louis XIV to go back to the colony for a second term. While in France, he acquired the posts of first valet of the king's wardrobe and secretary in his privy chamber. En route to Quebec in 1669, he was shipwrecked and did not reach the colony until 1670.
During his first term Talon's relations with the governor general, Rémy de Courcelle, had not been good. Courcelle resented what he regarded as Talon's usurping of the governor's powers. Unfortunately, only Talon's correspondence has survived. He contrived always to exalt his own activities and to belittle his critics. He over-stepped the bounds, however, when he proposed that he should combine in his own person the powers of both intendant and governor-general. He also requested blank letters de cachet to send malcontents back to France.
In 1672 Talon was recalled. He subsequently sought to return to Canada as the director of an almshouse which he proposed to establish. He certainly accumulated a fortune while in Canada and likely wished to add to it. Two years before his death he sold for 253, 000 livres the posts acquired in 1670. He died on Nov. 24, 1694, in Paris.
There can be no doubt that Talon was an efficient administrator, but his contribution to the colony's development has been exaggerated by historians who have accepted his accounts at face value.
There is no good biography of Talon in English. The general background for the period is given in W. J. Eccles, Canada under Louis XIV, 1663-1701 (1964). □