Jacques Largillier (1644?-1714) was the scribe of the Miami-Illinois/French dictionary. We know that he was involved in gathering Miami-Illinois language data as several vocabulary notes in Pierre François Pinet’s French/Miami-Illinois dictionary are in Largillier’s hand. However, a dictionary of such extraordinary size and depth as the Miami-Illinois/French dictionary reflects the cumulative effort of a team of Jesuit missionaries in the Illinois Country in the very late 1600s and very early 1700s.
The first Europeans to learn Miami-Illinois were all Jesuits, in chronological order: Jacques Marquette, Claude Jean Allouez, Jacques Largillier, Jacques Gravier, Pierre François Pinet, Gabriel Marest, and Jean Mermet. All but Largillier were missionary priests; Largillier was a Jesuit yeoman and religious “brother”. It was the combined work of these men, all thoroughly immersed in the language, that went into the production of the Miami-Illinois/French dictionary, termed the “Largillier dictionary” for Largillier’s having written it out, and formerly known as the “Gravier dictionary” for Jacques Gravier’s having acquired fame in working out the grammar of the language and for his presumed consequential connection to the dictionary.
Nothing is known of Largillier’s early life. However, because of his family name, he is thought to have been born in Picardy in extreme northern France. He arrived in Québec as a twenty-year-old emigrant, first trying his hand at farming, then by 1667 working as a voyageur fur trader. In fact, trading contracts that he signed indicate his presence in the western Great Lakes in 1669, 1670, 1671, and 1672. Jacques Largillier was by any standard ancient or modern an impressive human being. He was certainly well known to the Jesuits, who refer to him in their documents simply as “Jacques”. While his name does not pop up often in the primary sources, when it does, the accompanying narratives underscore his woodsman’s skills, his fearlessness, his kindness, his positive attitude and his devotion to the missionaries that he served. In fact, one can see in Largillier’s very handwriting a distinct “joie de vivre,” a flair for life, as it is full of vitality from the very first letter of his dictionary to the very last. Like other Frenchmen and Québecois who went to the Upper Country, such as Jean-Baptiste Truteau, the author of a journal and descriptions of the fur trade on the Missouri River, Largillier was educated and fluent in Latin, which language is copiously represented in his dictionary.
Largillier also turns out to be what one might term a historical superstar. In 1671, we find him at Sault Ste. Marie for the historically famous ceremony presided over by the French military officer Simon François Daumont de St. Lusson and attended by important regional Native leaders at which French claim was established on the lands surrounding Lake Huron and Lake Superior. Largillier signed the document which certified that claim.
Even more impressively, while Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet are credited for being the first Europeans, in 1673, to paddle the upper and middle reaches of the Mississippi, they were only two men on a team of discovery comprised of seven, among them Jacques Largillier. Therefore, Largillier was not only in the aforementioned small group of Europeans to first learn Miami-Illinois, but he was also in the same small group of Europeans to paddle the Mississippi, to see land that is now the states of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana, to paddle up the entire length of the Illinois River, to see the Missouri and Ohio rivers at their mouths, and to see the future sites of St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee, among other locations. Not bad for a twenty-something.
Moreover, in the spring of 1675, Largillier was present at the historically famous Easter Sunday mass that Jacques Marquette said for the combined Illinois tribes at the Kaskaskia town located across the Illinois River from Starved Rock. Then, just a few days later, it was Largillier who held the dying Marquette in his arms on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan while attempting to transport the ailing missionary in a canoe to Michilimackinac and to the Jesuit house there for curing.
Largillier is also noted for his nickname, Le Castor, “The Beaver,” which may be the first nickname documented for a Frenchman in the New World and is the most recognized nickname in New France historiography. It is commonly assumed that Largillier was called Le Castor because of his success in the fur trade, but that is not necessarily true. Although he became a veteran voyageur in his six years as a fur trader, there is no evidence indicating that his work produced beaver pelts in such an inordinate number to merit a nickname based on them. There might have been another reason he was called “The Beaver”. Could he have had buck teeth? Did he have thick dark-brown hair? Was he particularly industrious? Was he good at felling trees? Was he good at building structures? One thing we do know is that as a Jesuit brother he was given a dispensation regarding what clothes he had to wear. In other words, he was never required to wear religious garments but was allowed to wear lay clothing so as to better serve the missionary priests as hunter, trader and general assistant.
Owing to the documented history of his association with the Jesuits who first learned Miami-Illinois, Largillier was from the very start on the cutting edge of the Jesuits’ learning the language. After serving Claude Jean Allouez until the priest’s death at the St. Joseph mission at present Niles, Michigan, in 1689 and until his own death from malaria in 1714 at Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River, Largillier was a personal assistant to every one of Marquette’s and Allouez’s successors among the Miami-Illinois-speaking peoples, including all of the other seminal Miami-Illinois linguists of the late 1600s and early 1700s mentioned above: Jacques Gravier, Pierre François Pinet, Jean Mermet, and Gabriel Marest. In sum, Largillier was at the heart of the Jesuits’ intensive push to learn Miami-Illinois. He had a long association with and a profound knowledge of the language—the fidelity of the dictionary’s transcriptions of the Miami-Illinois entries attests to his expert fluency. His nearly four decades in the Illinois Country and environs in the late 1600s and early 1700s gave him intimate knowledge of the Miami and the Illinois peoples. Finally, the fact that he was not a missionary priest, worked to exhaustion every moment of the day and night, but was educated and had beautiful handwriting made Largillier the ideal candidate to write out the Miami-Illinois/French dictionary that today bears his name.
For further information about Jacques Largillier, see Michael McCafferty, “Jacques Largillier: French trader, Jesuit brother, and Jesuit scribe par excellence.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Vol. 104, No. 3 (Fall, 2011), 188-198.