Canadian Besner Family of French Origins

The "Compagnies Franches de la Marine"

The "Compagnies Franches de la Marine" were already in existence between 1670 and 1680. They were composed of foot soldiers, hired and dismissed to their convenience and needs. But on the 16th of December 1690, they were officially created to insure a permanent service in the colonies. They were each assigned military ports in France, where each company would separate some soldiers to serve on war vessels. These men would take part in all naval battles and the unloading of the ships. It was the soldiers who served under Iberville, during his naval expeditions. The numbers were reduced to as few as 3000 men during times of peace and would increase to 10000 during war time.

One company, should be about fifty soldiers, but these companies would rarely count more than forty soldiers.

They were designated to the name of "Compagnies de la Marine". The same name was used both for the troops serving on vessels and those sent to colonies. Thus, the affairs of the colonies came under the Ministry of Naval Affairs: where the name attributed to the troops that the minister would lift depending on his needs over-seas on the ships and on land.

The term "Franches" added to these companies signified that they were independent and not regimented, that is, did not depend on the authority of regular troops of the Metropolis, which was the case for the soldiers of the Carignan Regiment who came to Canada in 1665 and of Montcalm's army in 1755-1760.

Soldier of the "Compagnies Franches de la Marine" around 1740

Soldier of the "Compagnies Franches de la Marine" around 1750
The two previous images are taken from the 1st album of "Le patrimoine militaire canadien" published by Art Global, in Montreal

The majority of the recruited youth were native to the vicinity around the large cities and the Atlantic sea ports, the recruiters would also go to more distant corners, like Gascogne, where few of French-Canadian genealogies have their roots. At the time of the ancestor of French Canadian Besner family's immigration, this region was experiencing an economic crisis; the history of France records that there was a great food shortage in 1752. It is quite possible that this circumstance, added to the others mentioned earlier, has encouraged him to enroll.

The recruiters were intermediates, either themselves military, either simply civilian, who, getting a commission, would cover France especially in the poorer areas. They could find with more ease young people whose futures were blocked who were more than happy at the chance to start a new adventure both interesting and paying. If the recruiter was military, he would not miss his opportunity to take advantage of the prestige that his uniform offered him.

The prospective candidates were explained their future military tasks as one of peace keeping, in the way that our modern day United Nations do. The recruits were guarantied a salary, no doubt modest, but with the possibility of fringe benefits. If they accepted, they were guarantied to travel which would hardly, if ever, be possible if they stayed in Europe. They would be lured by the prospect of the pleasures of life shared with the inhabitants, everywhere they would go, and also the beautiful freedom of the customs of the Native Americans. They were assured the possibility of receiving, free of charge, at the end of their engagement, land to establish themselves in the colony, if they showed interest. The volunteers first signed a contract of a duration of six years and immediately received an incentive bonus that they most cheerfully wasted before embarking on the ships.

According to the military archives, the average age of the recruits, at the time of departure, was in their early twenties. Their heights measured, in today's values, five feet four inches, (1 m 62,5), the extremes ranging from five feet two inches (1 m 57,5) and six feet two inches (1 m 88).

The officers of these "Compagnies" occupied important functions in the colony, for example they ran the outpost garrisons, took charge of diplomatic relations, war with the natives, explored the back country, on the other hand, the common soldier constituted, in fact, an urban lower class. They lived with city folk or on farms in the area where they were called to serve.

The soldiers were armed with guns. From 1680 on, the uniform was grey-white; lining, facing, vest, knickers and stockings were blue and the buttons were brass.

The presence of several hundreds of these young people in the villages, contributed to a fairly slack military discipline and was easily becoming cause for trouble: villagers held the soldiers responsible for a large part of the petty thefts and drunkenness that would manifest themselves once in a while in the cities; and, as the military population increased, so did the number of illegitimate births in the areas where the troops were confined.

In times of peace they could be hired as day laborer, and those who adapted well to the country could try to obtain their license to get married and establish themselves, that was the case for Jean Bazanaire. In either case, the new masters of the country dissolved the military units in 1761.

The technical and historical data mentioned above was taken from two pertinent works:-"Le patrimoine militaire canadien" (The Canadian Military Patrimony) published by "Art Global" in Montreal in 1993 and 1995; and -"Histoire générale du Canada" (General History of Canada) released under the direction of Craig Brown of Toronto, translated in French by Boréal Compact in Montreal in 1990.

For those who are interested, here are Internet links on "Compagnies franches de la Marine".

Compagnie Franche of Montreal


The Chambly militia


Compagnie Franche of Detroit


Compagnie Franche of Michilimackinac


Compagnie Franche: Bibliography

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