Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
AUBERT DE LA CHESNAYE, CHARLES, merchant, fur-trader, seigneur, financier, member of the Conseil Souverain of New France, ennobled by Louis XIV on 24 March 1693, New France’s leading businessman of the 17th century; b. in Amiens, 12 Feb. 1632; died in Quebec, 20 Sept. 1702.
He was the son of Jacques Aubert and Marie Goupy (or Goupil). In La Chesnaye’s marriage contracts and his letters of nobility, the occupation of his father is given either as “comptroller” or “intendant of the fortifications of the town and citadel of Amiens”; but in the birth certificate of his sister Anne in 1629, the father is referred to simply as Jacques Aubert “painter holding shop in Paris.” Possibly the latter became intendant at a subsequent date, for the family does appear to have been well-connected socially. Acting as Anne’s godparents were a son and daughter of the Duc de Chaulnes, the military governor of Picardy. Charles’ godfather was Charles Parmentier, the Duc’s maitre d’hôtel. Mention is also made, in a notarial deed of 1695, of a second son, Louis, who was residing in Antwerp and acting as the business agent of the princes of Uzel and Brussels.
How and when La Chesnaye acquired his fortune is not known, but the possibility of a family inheritance would appear to be ruled out. In his last will written in August 1702, he described his parents simply as “worthy people” and himself as “quite poor” when he arrived in Canada in 1655 as the agent of a group of Rouen merchants. This position must have been an important factor in his early career. In 1660, these Rouen merchants and Toussaint Guénet, a French financier, concluded an important treaty with René Robinau* de Bécancour, who represented the colony. It gave the Guénet syndicate exclusive control of the Canadian import trade for an annual fee of 10,000 livres and the right to collect the 25 per cent and 10 per cent taxes on beaver pelts and moosehides for an additional amount of 50,000 livres. The habitants considered these terms excessively generous and they managed to have the treaty rescinded by the royal council in March 1662. For two years, however, La Chesnaye had helped to manage an important enterprise and it may well have been during this period that he launched his own business career.
Shortly after the cancellation of the treaty, La Chesnaye negotiated his first major business transaction. In October 1663 the Conseil Souverain held a public auction to find a leaseholder for the Tadoussac fur trade monopoly and the taxes on beaver pelts and moosehides. Several bidders appeared on the first day, but the field was soon narrowed down to two men: La Chesnaye and Claude Charron*. Competition now became keen. Each man outbid the other in turn and the price offered for the lease rose gradually from 38,000 to 46,000 livres which Charron offered on the morning of the fourth day. That afternoon the customary three candles were lit to signify that the auction was about to close; but before the third flame had flickered out La Chesnaye had managed to snatch victory from his rival with a final bid of 46,500 livres The lease was to run for three years and 15,000 livres were payable in advance at the start of each year.
La Chesnaye had other important business interests besides the beaver trade. He owned a large store in Quebec in which he kept a stock of merchandise valued at approximately 50,000 livres. In November 1664, he and several other merchants were accused by the syndics representing the habitants of having sold their merchandise at prices higher than those set by the council the preceding June. In reply to this charge, La Chesnaye admitted that the price he had demanded for shoes had exceeded the prescribed rates, but he claimed that he had thought that the tariff applied only to itinerant merchants and not to those who had their residence in the colony. He also pointed out that the habitants paid for their purchases in beaver pelts, whose value had remained constant in Canada but had declined sharply in France. To have followed the tariff under those circumstances would have resulted in heavy financial losses. The council was not impressed by these arguments and imposed fines on the guilty merchants. Only in 1670 did it set a new price scale for the pelts, following renewed complaints by La Chesnaye and his colleagues about the harmful effect the high value of beaver was having on their affairs.
Soon after his arrival in the colony La Chesnaye began to acquire land. In 1659 he purchased for 1,000 livres 70 acres on Coteau Sainte-Geneviève, one of the colony’s most favoured sites for agriculture by virtue of its proximity to Quebec, and a lot on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot in Lower Town where he built a spacious home in the 1660s. He became co-seigneur of Beaupré in 1662 when he bought the share of Olivier Letardif* in the company founded in 1638 to develop the large domain extending from the Montmorency River to Cap Tourmente. Bishop Laval, who had arrived in Canada in 1659, was also interested in obtaining this attractive seigneury, which was almost fully settled, and La Chesnaye was instrumental in helping him achieve his goal. Between 1662 and 1664, acting as the procurator of the seigneury, La Chesnaye sold his own share and those of several other members of the company to the bishop. He did not, however, sever all his connections with Beaupré. In 1668 he obtained from the new seigneur a subfief with a frontage of approximately 10 arpents on the St Lawrence River in the parish of Ange-Gardien and purchased another, somewhat larger, from Jean-Baptiste Legardeur de Repentigny in Château-Richer.
The fur trade, the sale of merchandise, and agriculture were thus the three basic ventures on which La Chesnaye built his career. Except for the fur trade, however, economic conditions in the colony limited rather than favoured business opportunities. Agricultural expansion was severely hindered by the small population, the Iroquois wars, the absence of external markets, and the fur trade’s superior economic appeal. Until the 1690s, when card money became well established, the colony lacked a currency. This factor, joined to the impoverished condition of the habitants, obliged the colonial merchants to sell on credit and they frequently experienced great difficulty in the recovery of debts. La Chesnaye, in brief, enjoyed none of the opportunities of the business class after 1713, which was favoured by a long period of peace, a population that was relatively large, a market at Louisbourg for agricultural products, and the creation by means of state assistance of fairly important industries such as the shipyards and the Saint-Maurice ironworks.
In May 1664, as part of the crown’s vast programme of colonial reorganization, Canada became the property of the newly established Compagnie des Indes Occidentales The company was granted a 40-year monopoly of the commerce of Canada including the Tadoussac fur trade and the taxes on beaver pelts and moosehides. Shortly afterwards, Jean Talon* began his famous campaign to restrict these company rights. He claimed that the monopoly discouraged the spirit of enterprise among the settlers, hindered the growth of trade, and, generally speaking, was an obstacle to the progress of the colony. His solution was to make the trade free or place it in the hands of a new company composed of himself and the principal Canadian settlers.
La Chesnaye had been named agent of the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales in 1666 and he sharply criticized Talon’s proposition. In a memoir submitted to the court in 1667 he argued that no company could replace the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales unless it had at its disposal an initial capital fund of 1,300,000 livres. He calculated that this amount, which could not possibly be raised in the colony, would be required to buy up the company’s unsold pelts and its stock of merchandise, and to attend to the colony’s immediate needs. As for freedom of trade, La Chesnaye did not consider it a practical solution for he did not believe that a sufficient number of merchants would be interested in trading with Canada to satisfy its needs. La Chesnaye may have communicated his views orally to Colbert during a trip to France in 1665, for the minister used arguments very similar to his to turn down Talon’s recommendations in 1666. The will of the intendant, however, finally prevailed. During a visit to France in 1669 he obtained the abolition of the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales’s monopoly.
In taking his stand La Chesnaye had no doubt been thinking of the interests of his employer, but other considerations also appear to have been involved. As a strongly established and well connected businessman, he obviously did not believe that the colony could flourish without the protection of powerful financial interests. Having witnessed the sorry performance of the Compagnie des Habitants in the 1650s, it is not surprising that he should have found Talon’s recommendations distasteful for they would once again deliver the colony into the hands of petty, dishonest businessmen. In this affair, furthermore, La Chesnaye believed that the intendant had been trying to serve his own interests rather than those of the colony. In a memoir written many years later, he stated that Talon had campaigned against the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales’s monopoly because he expected that its cancellation would enable him to increase his private trade in articles he imported into the colony free of freight and insurance charges.
This friction between La Chesnaye and Talon fortunately did not prevent them from cooperating on some important projects. In 1670, La Chesnaye went into lumbering, a sector of the Canadian economy which the intendant was hoping to develop. Two years later, Talon granted to him, Charles Bazire*, and Pierre Denys de La Ronde the seigneury of Percé, to be used as a base for a fishing industry. La Chesnaye and La Ronde formed a company in which the former invested 13,874 livres and the latter 8,324 livres. Thus around La Chesnaye’s main interests, which consisted of the fur trade, the Quebec store, and agriculture, there emerged a network of secondary activities such as lumbering, fishing, a brickyard after 1679, and for a short time mining.
In 1672, La Chesnaye sizably enlarged the scope of his operations when he leased from the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales, for 47,000 livres annually, the financial rights which it still exercised in Canada. These consisted basically of the proceeds from the taxes on beaver pelts and moosehides which had yielded a profit of 70,000 livres in 1670. The acquisition of these important revenues probably explains his decision to take up residence in La Rochelle, whose seaport was the nerve centre of commerce between Canada and France. There, he would be able to look after the marketing of his pelts and would also be close to the high circles of French finance. To collect the taxes in Canada and to manage his other affairs, he appointed his associate Charles Bazire.
From 1672 until his return to Canada in 1678, La Chesnaye figured prominently in La Rochelle’s bustling commercial life. He soon won the confidence of the city’s other merchants who twice elected him to the cour consulaire, which rendered judgments in mercantile cases. Alone or with his partners Jean Grignon, Jean Gitton, and Étienne Joulin, he owned several vessels ranging in size from 60 to 300 tons which plied the sea between La Rochelle, Quebec, Percé, the West Indies, Amsterdam, and Hamburg with cargoes of fur, fish, and assorted merchandise. Thus La Chesnaye used his years in France to expand his business and to make commercial contacts in several countries of Europe.
In 1674, Louis XIV abolished the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales. The next year he ceded to a syndicate of French financiers, acting under the name of Jean Oudiette and known as the Compagnie de la Ferme, several important commercial privileges in Canada and some of the other French colonies for 350,000 livres annually. The Compagnie de la Ferme’s Canadian rights consisted of the Tadoussac fur trade, the proceeds of the tax on beaver pelts and moosehides, and on the wines and spirits entering the colony, and the exclusive right to market Canadian beaver in France. It was obliged, however, to purchase all the beaver pelts brought to its stores at four livres ten sols per pound weight. Three days after the conclusion of this treaty, Oudiette leased his Canadian rights to La Chesnaye for 119,000 livres annually, with 20,000 livres payable in advance. By means of this transaction, La Chesnaye gained complete control of the Canadian beaver trade, but he soon found that he lacked the resources to support such an enormous enterprise. As a result of the expansionist policy pursued by Governor Louis de Buade* de Frontenac, far more pelts were being produced in Canada than the French market could absorb; but La Chesnaye could make no adjustment to meet these conditions for he was obliged by the terms of the Oudiette treaty to purchase all the beaver brought to him. By 1677 he was practically crushed by an enormous debt of 1,000,000 livres. Fortunately he was rescued by a group of powerful financiers, including Louis Carrel and Hugues Mathé, receivers general of finance for the generalities of Paris and Champagne, who brought fresh capital to the venture. The transactions that followed are far from clear, but it would appear that the new group gained control of over 80 per cent of the Canadian farm. La Chesnaye retained the balance but sold most of it for 43,000 livres in 1680.
The death of Charles Bazire on 15 Dec. 1677 obliged La Chesnaye to return to Canada to settle the claims made by the heirs of the deceased on some of the assets of the partnership. The matter was complicated, for the association between the two men had not been formalized by any deed, and several transactions of concern to the partnership had been entered into by Bazire in his own name. Finally, in settlement of their claims, La Chesnaye offered the heirs either one-third of all the assets he had held in common with Bazire – in the form of seigneuries, merchandise, rentes, and loans – or 130,000 livres, payable in cash, merchandise, and title deeds to some of the accounts receivable. The heirs preferred the second, perhaps as the less complicated of the two alternatives, and relinquished all claims on the remaining assets of the partnership.
This was not the end of the affair, however. Following the death of Bazire the French shareholders in the Compagnie de la Ferme had also sent an agent, Josias Boisseau*, to Canada to examine the state of their affairs. Shortly after his arrival in the colony, he and La Chesnaye became involved in a violent quarrel. According to the agent, discord had broken out because he had tried to prevent La Chesnaye from defrauding his associates of large sums of money. The intendant, Jacques Duchesneau*, and the author of an anonymous memoir of 1681, however, presented a vastly different picture of the affair. They claimed that Boisseau, who had allied himself with Frontenac, had defied with impunity both the intendant’s and La Chesnaye’s efforts to regulate his conduct and had built a fortune of 50,000 livres at the expense of the company. This version gains considerable support from a dispatch addressed to Bishop Laval by the Abbé Jean Dudouyt*, the bishop’s representative in Paris, in which the latter wrote that Boisseau would be hard put to account for his actions, which had caused the company heavy losses, if Frontenac were not there to protect him. Boisseau was dismissed from office in 1681 by order of the court.
These problems were not the only ones to occupy La Chesnaye’s attention in the late 1670s. When he returned to the colony he found it split into two rival groups by Frontenac and Cavelier* de La Salle’s attempt to monopolize the western fur trade. La Chesnaye allied himself with the merchants who were opposed to this design, which would ruin them beyond repair if it should succeed, and became one of their leaders. It was he who was primarily responsible for grouping them in 1682 into a company – the Compagnie du Nord – which turned their attention towards Hudson Bay. Because of the prominent position he occupied in their ranks, La Chesnaye was soon bitterly attacked by members of the rival camp. In an anonymous memoir of 1680, he and his principal allies, Jacques Le Ber, Charles Le Moyne*, and Philippe Gaultier* de Comporté, were accused of trading openly with the Indians within the colonial boundaries, of smuggling furs to the English, and of sending numerous canoes into the west in defiance of the royal ordinances. These accusations probably contained considerable truth but the court appears never to have paid much attention to them. This may have been the work of Duchesneau who energetically defended La Chesnaye in his dispatches; but perhaps the government simply realized that it would be both unwise and unjust to antagonize a man who was playing a role of vital importance in the colony’s economic life.
In 1680, the syndicate of financiers which had relieved La Chesnaye of the Canadian farm judged that the operation had become unprofitable and surrendered the lease to Jean Oudiette. It next had to decide how to dispose of its remaining assets in Canada, consisting of merchandise, furs, and sums of money owed to it by a large number of French and Indians. The syndicate could have pressed for the recovery of these debts, but this would have taken time and probably necessitated numerous lawsuits. Rather than follow such a course of action, it preferred to transfer the title to all its debts and assets to La Chesnaye for the sum of 410,000 livres, payable in four equal annual instalments. This transaction – worth nearly $1,000,000 in present-day currency – is a turning-point in his career. Although the value of the debts is not given, it must have been considerably higher than the purchase price because of the risks involved in their recovery. La Chesnaye thus appears to have staked the better part of his fortune on a speculative venture which could result either in a sizable profit or a ruinous loss.
As security for payment, he mortgaged all his own assets and properties. The notarial inventory in which these are listed is an important document, for it provides a comprehensive picture of the state of his fortune in 1681. Its total value was then 476,000 livres made up of five principal categories: accounts receivable, 175,000 livres; contrats de rente, 100,000 livres; merchandise, 50,000 livres; his house on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot, 60,000 livres; farms and seigneuries, 66,000 livres. Several hundred notarial deeds in which a broad range of business transactions are recorded shed a great deal of light on the manner and spirit in which La Chesnaye administered this fortune. The image that emerges from these documents is not that of a selfish merchant uniquely interested in increasing his wealth, but that of a man who was intensely concerned with the development of the colony. Unlike the itinerant merchant, who took the profits from his Canadian trade back to France with him, La Chesnaye invested his gains in the colony and loaned them to the settlers. Unfortunately, these practices were largely responsible for his eventual ruin, which probably explains why so few people followed his example.
La Chesnaye dealt with people from all classes of society. He sold merchandise on credit for amounts ranging from a few livres to several thousand. Because of the disappearance of his account books, the profits he realized on these transactions are not known, but the price he charged for shoes in the 1660s suggests that he drove a hard bargain. He also made many cash loans to seigneurs and habitants, usually to enable them to improve their properties. On 1 Oct 1666, he loaned 10,600 livres to Bishop Laval to permit him to meet a payment on the seigneury of Beaupré. On 25 Feb. 1679, he loaned 3,000 livres to Charles Cadieu de Courville, a habitant of Beauport, and 4,135 livres to Joseph Giffard, the seigneur, to enable them to repair existing buildings and put up new ones. These loans were made in return for contrats de rente, which were much like modern savings bonds. They yielded an annual interest rate of 5 to 5½ per cent, but bore no maturity date. As long as interest payments were made there was apparently no way to compel the debtor to repay the principal. At first sight this type of investment would appear ill suited to the needs of a businessman since it froze large amounts of capital. But in the context of the depressed long-term economic cycle that prevailed in the French world from 1630 to 1730 approximately, an investment that yielded 5 per cent interest was probably considered good.
La Chesnaye also had a large amount of money invested in land. He acquired his first acres in 1659 and continued to increase his holdings thereafter until he became the most important landowner of his day. His purpose in acquiring farms and seigneuries was not speculation nor merely the social prestige connected with the ownership of land. He was essentially an agricultural entrepreneur who wanted to base part of his business on the sale of wheat, peas, and other staple crops. By 1685, he had apparently achieved a measure of success, for he then settled part of a debt with a shipment of wheat worth 23,000 livres. That same year he and two other merchants undertook to supply the colony with an emergency stock of flour to be used in case of famine.
His seigneuries can be divided into two categories. There were those like Repentigny, Rivière-du-Loup, and Kamouraska that he acquired when they were little more than wilderness tracts, and whose development proved to be costly indeed. He spent 35,000 and 33,000 livres on Rivière-du-Loup and Repentigny respectively, but their commercial value was only 18,000 and 16,000 livres in 1680. Uncleared seigneuries were apparently worthless, for Kamouraska, which remained undeveloped until the 1690s, is not listed in the inventory of 1681. Then, there were the holdings in the vicinity of Quebec that were highly productive and very valuable. The arriere-fief of Charlesville in the seigneury of Beaupré, granted to La Chesnaye and Charles Bazire by Bishop Laval in 1677, had 16 tenants and was worth 6,000 livres. A fully equipped 70-acre farm in the Coteau Sainte-Geneviève was valued at 20,000 livres in 1680, and another in the same area was sold for 9,000 livres in 1679. Most of these estates, it should be pointed out, were not under La Chesnaye’s direct management but, like Repentigny, were leased for cash, or, like Charlesville, were farmed out on a sharecropping agreement.
While he was negotiating his great transaction with the Compagnie de la Ferme, La Chesnaye was also laying the foundations of the Canadian-based Hudson Bay company that became known as the Compagnie du Nord. The French government approved of the formation of this trading organization which might succeed in diverting large quantities of prime beaver pelts from the British Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1679 the French director of trade, Francesco Bellinzani, arranged a meeting between La Chesnaye and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who were both in Paris at the time. The two men consulted together on the means of forming the company and it was finally agreed that Radisson would lead the first commercial expedition to the bay in return for 25 per cent of the profits. In Canada the new governor, Le Febvre* de La Barre, who had replaced Frontenac in 1682, encouraged other merchants to join the enterprise and some 193,000 livres were eventually invested in it. La Chesnaye was by far the most important shareholder with an investment of 90,000 livres.
The arrival of La Barre as governor had enabled La Chesnaye to expand his operations in yet another direction. As long as Frontenac had been in office the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley regions had been controlled by La Salle and closed to the other merchants of the colony. La Barre, however, who was hostile to La Salle, deprived him of his posts and placed La Chesnaye and his group in possession of Fort Frontenac. A party of malcontents, led by the intendant, Jacques de Meulles, construed this gesture as proof of the existence of a partnership between the governor and La Chesnaye, and painted a dark picture of its effects on the colony. They claimed that the governor and his partner had over 30 canoes in the west under the command of Daniel Greysolon Dulhut and that a large portion of their fur was being diverted to the English. De Meulles even stated that it was to defend these commercial interests that La Barre, acting on the advice of La Chesnaye, had decided to wage war on the Iroquois. This contention was taken up 30 years later by Gédéon de Catalogne. In his Recueil he claimed that La Barre, in order to eliminate all competition from the west, had authorized the Iroquois to plunder the traders who could not produce his personal permit. The governor had opted for war after the Indians had overstepped these limits and attacked canoes belonging to La Chesnaye.
How true were these accusations? Independent evidence shows that those relating to La Chesnaye’s western trading operations were well founded. In 1685, the furs and merchandise which he had in the west were valued at 100,000 livres. His implication in the contraband trade with the English seems established beyond question by the trading permit issued to him by the New York government in 1684. Some of his letters of the mid-1680s establish his connection with the Greysolon brothers, Dulhut and La Tourette. The statements of de Meulles and Catalogne about the origins of the war, however, are not acceptable. For it appears incredible that La Chesnaye would have wantonly exposed to destruction at the hands of the Iroquois a colony which he had worked so hard to develop and in which he had enormous sums invested. If he did advise La Barre to make war on the Five Nations it must have been because he was convinced that a display of force was necessary to overawe these Indians who had recently invaded the territory of the Illinois and seemed on the verge of waging a general war on Canada.
The year 1682 seems to be the watershed in La Chesnaye’s career. The years preceding that date had been marked by several major business transactions and the expansion of his affairs. Afterwards, although the downward trend cannot be graphed with precision, decline gradually set in. Two factors – the Iroquois war and the fire which ravaged the Lower Town of Quebec in August 1682 – appear to have been principally responsible for this turn in his fortunes. The heavy material losses suffered by the colony during its war with the Five Nations no doubt made it difficult for La Chesnaye to recover from the habitants the debts which he had purchased from the Compagnie de la Ferme. As for the fire, it destroyed 55 buildings including several warehouses. La Chesnaye’s properties were spared, but he loaned large sums of money to his stricken fellow-citizens to enable them to rebuild their homes. He thus depleted his cash reserves at a time when he still owed 213,000 livres to the Compagnie de la Ferme, which was pressing him relentlessly for a settlement. He finally discharged his debt in 1685 by transferring to his creditors the 100,000 livres of fur and merchandise which he had in the west, a shipment of wheat worth 23,000 livres, and his share of 90,000 livres in the Compagnie du Nord. Up to that time La Chesnaye’s connection with the Hudson Bay trade had not been a profitable one. The Compagnie du Nord, plagued by misfortune and Radisson’s treachery, had suffered losses of 273,426 livres.
For the balance of the 1680s, however, there was no noticeable change in the tempo of La Chesnaye’s activities. He rejoined the Compagnie du Nord in which he had a share of 22,268 livres in 1691. He continued to sell large quantities of merchandise on credit or the instalment plan and to make cash loans to finance serious projects. On 8 Oct. 1683, he sold 12,000 livres of merchandise to René Gaultier* de Varennes, payable in furs, field crops, and cash over a 12-year period. Some three months later, in return for a rente of 650 livres, he loaned 13,000 livres to Étienne Landron and Jean Joly to enable them to build a bakery. He also continued to increase his seigneurial holdings. Some of his important acquisitions between 1683 and 1688 were Madawaska, on the Saint John River, granted by La Barre and de Meulles; Yamaska, on the south shore of the St Lawrence near Trois-Rivières, donated by Michel Leneuf de La Vallière (the elder); Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, below Quebec, acquired from Noël Langlois in settlement of a debt of 1,160 livres; Le Bic, also below Quebec, from Charles Denys de Vitré in settlement of another debt of 2,050 livres. In 1689, La Chesnaye and a few other merchants were granted the concession of Blanc-Sablon including a part of the coast of Labrador and of Newfoundland by Brisay de Denonville and Bochart de Champigny for the cod and whale fisheries.
Denis Riverin, who had sublet the Tadoussac trade from 1682 to 1685, complained that his affairs were gravely prejudiced by La Chesnaye’s extensive lower St Lawrence holdings. He stated that Indians who usually dealt at Tadoussac were now trading across the St Lawrence at Rivière-du-Loup and Le Bic where La Chesnaye had posted his agents. These furs were then sent down the Saint John River, which passed through Madawaska, to Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.), where La Chesnaye owned a trading counter. From there they could be shipped to France duty-free since the taxes of 25 per cent and 10 per cent levied on Canadian furs did not extend to Acadia. In 1684 the court issued an ordinance forbidding the settlers of the lower St Lawrence to trade with the Indians, but it modified its decision the following year. The settlers were then authorized to engage in the Indian trade but ordered not to trespass on the Tadoussac domain.
The documentation available on La Chesnaye for the 1690s suggests rather than tells of increasing financial difficulties. His relationship with his partner, Jean Gobin, is most revealing in this respect. In 1690, La Chesnaye, his son François, and Gobin formed a private company. Nothing is known of the nature of this operation but it obviously did not flourish. In 1699, the two Auberts withdrew, leaving two vessels and merchandise worth 102,000 livres in the possession of Gobin, on condition that he pay off the firm’s debts within two years. Notarial documents also record the existence of large personal debts. La Chesnaye owed Gobin 83,264 livres as a result of three transactions made in 1692 and 1694 He also owed 51,681 livres to European correspondents and Canadian creditors, for which he signed eight separate obligations before the notary Louis Chambalon on 18 April 1695. It may have been to settle some of these debts that he began to dispose of his seigneuries. Île Dupas and Chicot were sold for 1,500 livres, in 1690; Charlesville and Yamaska for 6,250 and 3,333 livres respectively, in 1694; Repentigny for 15,000 livres, in 1700.
In spite of these financial difficulties, La Chesnaye remained active throughout the 1690s. In 1691, he became a member of a fishing company formed by Champigny and ten years later undertook to supply the government with 60 masts annually for a period of ten years. He also devoted much attention to the development of his seigneuries below Quebec. Twenty-seven settlers and their families took up residence in Kamouraska between 1694 and 1700 and the value of the seigneury rose to 12,000 livres by the latter date. It was also during those final years of his life that his prestige in the colony reached its peak. In 1693, Louis XIV granted him letters of nobility as a reward for the many years he had devoted to the development of the Canadian economy. Two years later, he succeeded the deceased Charles Legardeur* de Tilly as councillor in the Sovereign Council of New France. The office should in fact have reverted to one of Tilly’s sons, Pierre-Noël Legardeur de Tilly, but the latter ceded it to La Chesnaye in settlement of a debt of 6,500 livres which he was incapable of paying. With this office in the colonial magistrature and his letters of nobility, La Chesnaye’s social metamorphosis was complete. The bourgeois had become a gentil-homme.
Ennoblement, however, was not followed by a loss of interest in mercantile pursuits. Until the end of his life, La Chesnaye remained the undisputed leader of the Canadian business community. In 1700, he became the leading shareholder of the Compagnie de la Colonie, which leased the beaver trade from the Compagnie de la Ferme. His investment in this corporation amounted to 25,000 livres divided into 500 shares, of which 120 had been transferred from the books of the Compagnie du Nord, which the Compagnie de la Colonie had absorbed, and 380 purchased on credit. In 1700, he went to France with Mathieu-François Martin de Lino to negotiate better terms with the Paris bankers, Pasquier, Bourlet, and Goy, who acted as the company’s correspondents. Their mission was successful, for the bankers increased the amount of their loan and reduced the interest rate from 10 to 8 per cent. La Chesnaye was back in Canada in 1701 and he died the following year on 20 September.
On 26 August he had prepared his last will. This document is illuminating, for it shows what thoughts preoccupied him as death drew near. In it he stated that he had never felt much attachment for worldly goods but had simply worked for the progress of the colony “courageously and earnestly.” He asked forgiveness for the many wrongs and injustices, both great and small, which he had probably committed during a long career devoted to business, but added that he could recall no specific offensive action “against any of his fellow men.” He requested the celebration of a daily mass in perpetuity for the repose of his soul and those of his Canadian friends with whom he had possibly entered into business intrigues, a simple funeral service, and burial in the paupers’ cemetery of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec. It is almost as if, by means of this final gesture, La Chesnaye hoped to appear before the Almighty in the same destitute condition as the poor of the colony next to whom he would be buried.
La Chesnaye had been married three times to daughters of prominent Canadian families. On 6 Feb 1664, he married Catherine-Gertrude, 15-year-old daughter of Guillaume Couillard* and Guillemette Hébert*, a daughter of Louis Hébert*. She died that same year, shortly after giving birth to a son. His second wife, Marie-Louise Juchereau de La Ferté, was the daughter of Jean Juchereau* de La Ferté and Marie Giffard. Their marriage was celebrated on 10 Jan. 1668, and she died in La Rochelle on 7 March 1678, at the age of 26. On 11 Aug. 1680, La Chesnaye took his third wife, Marie-Angélique, 19-year-old daughter of Pierre Denys de La Ronde and Catherine Leneuf. She died in Quebec on 8 Nov. 1713. Eleven of the 18 children born of these marriages lived to adulthood. Two of the six daughters became nuns at the Quebec Hôtel-Dieu and the four others married officers of the sword and the robe in Canada and Île Royale. Of the five sons only one, François, the seigneur of Maur and of Mille-Vaches, appears to have shown any great aptitude for business. Two of his brothers, Charles and Louis*, entered the army: the former in France, where he was killed between 1690 and 1693; the latter in Canada, where he joined the colonial regular troops. Pierre, known as the Sieur de Gaspé, appears to have spent his life on his seigneuries and to have devoted himself to agriculture. He was the great-grandfather of Philippe Aubert* de Gaspé, the author of Les Anciens Canadiens. Few details are known of the career of Louis, Sieur Duforillon, seigneur and merchant, who died in France probably in 1720.
Settling the estate proved to be a matter of extreme complexity and the question finally had to be referred to the Conseil Supérieur in 1708. La Chesnaye’s fortune, according to Claude de Ramezay, his brother-in-law, had once amounted to 800,000 livres. His assets at his death consisted of his Quebec house, his seigneuries, 43,000 livres of merchandise, and approximately 282,000 livres of rentes and accounts receivable, of which 200,000 livres had to be written off as bad debt. Liabilities totalled 420,000 livres. In 1700, to simplify the settlement of the estate, La Chesnaye had donated 24,500 livres in rentes and landed property to each of his three sons from his second marriage. This amount was increased to 30,000 livres in 1708 and it then became the turn of the creditors to salvage what they could from the balance of the estate. The sale of La Chesnaye’s last seigneuries in 1709 helped to settle some of the debts, but most of the claims made against the estate appear never to have been paid.
In its essentials, the career of Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye closely resembles that of the pious and austere bourgeois of 17th-century France. Some historians have pointed out that the deeply Catholic society of the ancien régime never fully approved of the bourgeois way of life that was based on profit and illegitimate gain. The bourgeois, in an effort to dissipate these misgivings and win acceptance, used part of their money to make bequests and donations to churches and religious communities. The case of La Chesnaye seems to corroborate this thesis.He was a member of the Congregation of the Virgin Mary and a generous benefactor of religious communities and charitable institutions. He was opposed to the sale of brandy to the Indians. Following the great fire which ravaged Quebec in 1682 he made generous loans to help fellow-Canadians rebuild their homes.
In his private life La Chesnaye seems to have practised the austerity that was encouraged by the church in New France. The most useful document on this aspect of his personality is the inventory of his belongings that was made following his death. It shows that his house, despite its impressive proportions, was functionally furnished – in one room hung curtains made from old tablecloths – and that his wardrobe was simple. He usually seems to have dressed in a pair of red or grey flannel trousers, a jacket and jerkin made of serge, and an old beaver hat. His only concessions to luxury were a wig and five shirts trimmed with lace. The inventory also tells us something of his taste in reading. All but three of the 35 books he owned dealt with religious themes. Among the latter were the works of Saint François de Sales, an important figure of the French religious revival of the early 17th century.
La Chesnaye, however, was not satisfied with his bourgeois status. From an early date, like many wealthy and ambitious members of the French third estate, he was strongly attracted to the nobility. Born plain Charles Aubert, he soon added de La Chesnaye to his name. This quest for noble status might also help to explain his eagerness to acquire seigneuries. It is doubtful that he was thinking only of economic return when he spent large sums to develop land, for the same amount invested in the fur trade and the fisheries would have enabled him to net a higher profit. He may also have been thinking of the social prestige which the ownership of fine estates alone could confer.
The religious side of La Chesnaye’s personality and his efforts to enter the ranks of the nobility should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the driving force in his career had been the spirit of gain. Systematically, he reinvested his capital in productive ventures in order to realize still greater profits. His house on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot became the seat of an economic empire that extended in all directions and controlled the material resources of New France as well as the lives of a great number of habitants who had mortgaged their properties in return for cash loans. With money, in other words, came power, the quest for which cannot be discounted as a factor in La Chesnaye’s career.
[The information on the Aubert family is based on Série E of the Archives de la Somme (Amiens). This series contains La Chesnaye’s birth certificate. The passage dealing with La Chesnaye’s years in La Rochelle is based on material in the Archives de la Charente-Maritime (La Rochelle). La Chesnaye’s relationship with the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales and the Compagnie de la Ferme from 1672 to 1681 is based essentially on AN, G7, 1312; Archives de la Charente-Maritime, greffe Teuleron; AN, Paris, greffe Beaudry. La Chesnaye’s great transaction of 1681 was passed in Beaudry’s greffe.
The Archives des Colonies series, particularly C11A, record many of the important events of La Chesnaye’s career, such as his relationship with Talon, Frontenac, La Barre, and his connection with the Compagnie du Nord. The Archives judiciaires de Québec, which contain several hundred notarial deeds covering a broad range of business transactions, are indispensable for understanding the manner and spirit in which La Chesnaye administered his affairs. The registres de la prévôté in the Quebec provincial archives record a great number of lawsuits in which La Chesnaye was usually suing for the recovery of debts. y.f.z ]
AAQ, Registres d’insinuation A. Archives de la Charente-Maritime (La Rochelle), B 4192, 5672–5680; E, Minutes Teuleron, Drouyneau, Pénigaud. Archives de La Somme (Amiens), E, Registre des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures de la paroisse St Michel. AJM, Greffe d’Antoine Adhémar AJQ, Greffes de Guillaume Audouart, Romain Becquet, Louis Chambalon, Pierre Duquet, Michel Fillion, François Genaple, Florent de La Cetière, Gilles Rageot. AN, G7, pièce 1312; Col., B, 16; C11A, 2–22, 125; F2A, 13; F3, 2. ASQ, C4; C17; Lettres, N; mss, 20. AQ, NF, Registres de la Prévôté de Québec; Registres divers et pièces détachées du Conseil Supérieur.
Coll. de manuscrits relatifs à la N.-F. Juchereau, Annales (Jamet) Jug. et délib. Le Blant, Histoire de la N.-F. Lettres de noblesse (P.-G. Roy) Papier terrier de la Cie des I.O. (P.-G. Roy), 131–36. P.-G. Roy, Inv. concessions. Eccles, Canada under Louis XIV. Bernard Groethuysen, L’Église et la bourgeoisie (Origines de l’esprit bourgeois en France, I, 5e éd., Paris, 1956). Lanctot, History of Canada, I, II. Robert Mandrou, La France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris, 1967). P.-G. Roy, La famille Aubert de Gaspé (Lévis, 1907). Guy Frégault, “La Compagnie de la colonie,” Revue de l’université d’Ottawa, XXX (1960), 5–29, 127–49.