Thursday, October 18, 2012

Explorer of the Pacific Northwest: The Amazing Voyage of François-Benjamin Pillet

My third great-grandmother was a woman of mystery called Cécile Pillet. She was somehow attached to the family of the prosperous fur trader François-Benjamin Pillet. This man was a pioneer and an adventurer who participated in what must be among the greatest journeys in the annals of North America.

François-Benjamin Pillet, also known as Benjamin Pillet (Pilet, Pilette) the son of Ignace Pillet and Marie-Josepthe Lamy dit Desfond, was born on August 12, 1791 at a mission near Montréal. The place was called Lac des Deux Montagnes in French but is better known as Oka.

Oka was the First Nations settlement that in Pillet’s day included separate villages for the Algonquins and Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”), with a small group of Canadiens many of whom were active in the fur trade.

Pillet was from a line of fur traders familiar with both the interior of the continent and the languages and ways of the native peoples. His father and his uncle, Jean-Baptiste Paschal Pillet, left a paper trail relating to their activities in the fur trade in the 18th c. They hired voyageurs and traded in the Great Lakes region as early as the 1770s.

In 1810, the wealthy American businessman John Jacob Astor hired the not quite 19-year-old François-Benjamin as a clerk for his Pacific Fur Company. Astor was well aware of the recent voyage of Lewis and Clark and smelled a business opportunity. He inquired at Montréal and enlisted a number of Canadians mainly of Scottish and French descent to establish a trading post on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

Astor sent two parties westward, one over land and one by sea. The former was to start from the Great Lakes, descend to St. Louis, and then retrace the route of Lewis and Clark to the Western sea. 

The Panama Canal still a century hence, the sea route was to sail the Atlantic to the southern tip of South America, around Cape Horn, and then northward in the Pacific to the mouth of the Columbia. Pillet was with the group that traveled by sea. His companion Gabriel Franchère preserved their adventures for posterity in a detailed journal.

The Canadians set sail from New York City in September 1810 on the Tonquin under the American flag. A skilled seaman with the dickensian name of Jonathan Thorn captained the vessel. Thorn, a veteran of the storied engagement on the shores of Tripoli, had more than a trace of Bligh in him. He took an instant dislike to the land-lubbing traders.

His animus became dangerous when the Tonquin reached the Falkland Islands in search of fresh water. Pillet, Franchère and some others took to exploring the strange island of penguins and missed the signal to return to the ship. Thorn weighed anchor and shipped off marooning the party on the islands.

Perceiving their predicament, Pillet and company rowed hard for three and a half hours so as not to lose sight of the ship. At last Thorn relented and they were taken back on board. Thorn’s mood may have been altered by one of the Scotsmen, a relative of one of the men he had attempted to maroon, who drew his pistol and threatened to blow the captain’s brains out.

Rounding the Horn, the Tonquin's next port of call was the Hawaiian Islands. Pillet and Franchère spent a night on land exploring and observing Hawaiian customs. At Hawaii, a couple of the crew members remained, while the Tonquin engaged a number of islanders, famously skilled boatmen.

This mixed party of Scots, French-Canadians, Americans, and Hawaiians finally reached the Columbia in March of 1811. They quickly established a trading post they called Astoria. The party traveling over land having been divided and with some loss of life reached Astoria in January and February of 1812.

From Franchère’s account, Pillet emerges as singularly curious and intrepid. When one of the Hawaiians is killed in an accident it is Pillet and Franchère who accompany his countrymen to the burial of their comrade and observe their rites. Pillet makes several side trips to the interior, to the region near Spokane and another in the Willamette River area.

He is a skilled hunter and fisherman and appears to know French and English as well as more than one Native language. In one encounter with the natives, when several attempts at communication in other tongues fail, Pillet comes forward to try the Cree language which his interlocutors understand in part.

One of the Astorians named Ross Cox who also wrote an account of these travels relates that during his Spokane adventure Pillet fought a duel with Nicolas Montour of the rival Northwest Company, “with pocket pistols, at six paces; both hits; one in the collar of the coat, and the other in the leg of the trousers. Two of their men acted as seconds and the tailor speedily healed their wounds.”

In January 1813 news reached Astoria that Great Britain and the United States were at war. This placed the Canadians, British subjects trading under the American flag, in an awkward position.

In September the Astorians learned that a British warship had been sent to seize the American post at Astoria. Representatives of the Northwest Company, Canadians under the British flag, made an offer to buy out the Pacific Fur Company. The offer was accepted in October 1813. The British Union Jack was hoisted and Astoria was renamed Fort George.

A number of the former Astorians signed on with the Northwesters. Pillet and Franchère were two among a party of ninety that chose to return to Montréal. The Tonquin having been destroyed, and its captain and crew massacred in a battle with the natives provoked by Thorn’s arrogance, the party had little choice but to set out by land. A flotilla of 10 canoes, with men, goods, and provisions headed eastward on April 4, 1814.

They traveled mostly along the waterways beginning with an ascent of the Columbia. With great difficulty they survived the mountains and, by the first of June, found their way to the mouth of the Pembina River, west of present-day Edmonton, Alberta.

By the tenth they had reached Fort Vermillion near the modern day border of Alberta and Saskatchewan. They arrived at Lake Winnipeg by the end of the month, achieving Fort William at Lake Superior (now part of Thunder Bay, Ontario) on July 14th.

Here the party appears to have divided, with Franchère traveling sans Pillet with an advance guard. The route from the Great Lakes, to the Ottawa River, to the St. Lawrence was well known to the Canadiens. Franchère’s journey ended at Montréal on September 1, 1814. 

We know that Pillet was home no later than April 1815 since he is a witness at a marriage in Les Cedres, not far from Oka, in that month. When he returned home he must have learned of the death of his father in 1811. 

Pillet married his first cousin Julie Pillet, the daughter of Paschal Pillet and Marguerite LaCroix, on January 16, 1817 at Oka. His eldest son François d'Assise-Benjamin, also known as Antoine, was born there on September 21st of that same year. Around 1820, Pillet and family relocated to the parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Pierrefonds on the island of Montréal. 

Pillet appears to have been a prosperous merchant. The notary records reveal his many business dealings and transactions. The will of his mother, who died in 1826, was litigated leaving a detailed account of the impressive Pillet holdings. His son Antoine received an education at Montréal. He studied medicine and practiced this profession among the people of Oka.
1879 Map of Ste-Geneviève
The Pillet ("Pilette") property is
along the river northeast of the church
Source: BAnQ

François-Benjamin supported the Patriotes in the Québec Rebellion of 1837. Not long after, he was deposed by a court of law regarding an incident in this war. Pillet’s nephew, Rodolphe Des Rivières, was among the leaders of the rebellion and fought at the Battle of St-Charles-sur-Richelieu.

François-Benjamin Pillet, astorian, died on January 31, 1858. He was buried the following day at Ste-Geneviève. 

In the 1911 Canadian Census I find his descendants still living at this parish a century after Pillet’s Pacific adventures. They may be there still.

[See this post for more about French-Canadians in the Pacific Northwest.] 


  1. Good story! My favorite part is what happened on the sea voyage to Astoria - the marooning, the rescue at pistolpoint, and the crew exchange in Hawaii.

    1. Thanks Bert. I like those parts too. I omitted the part on the return voyage where Pillet almost drowns and many other incidents as well. I'd have to rewrite Franchère’s book to tell it all. These people had unbelievable endurance. They had a quite unvaried diet for long stretches, slept little, and worked like mules. It's a wonder any of them survived and a number of them didn’t.

  2. Very nice site.
    François-Benjamin Pillet, also known as Benjamin Pillet (Pilet, Pilette) the son of Ignace Pillet and Marie-Josepthe Lamy dit Desfond, was born on


    source :

    1. Thank you for your comments. My source for the baptism of François-Benjamin Pillet is the photographed manuscript records from l'Annonciation, Oka in the Drouin collection. I only believe records or photographs of records I've seen with my own eyes. Compiled sources have many errors.

      The child born and baptized on 18 August 1790 was baptized Michel-Benjamin. Somehow I formed the view that this child died in infancy. The François Pillet in question here I believe to be the son of Ignace Pillet born and baptized on 12 August 1791. This child was baptized François d'Assise Pillet. François-Benjamin Pillet and his wife Julie later had a child baptized at Oka named François d'Assise Benjamin (22 September 1817). This leads me to believe that this child was named after his father and that the François-Benjamin who went to the Pacific Northwest was the person baptized "François d'Assise" in 1791. I need to verify again that Michel-Benjamin (b. 1790) died in infancy. You have made me double-check and that is good. Thanks again for your interest.