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CUGNET, FRANÇOIS-ÉTIENNE, lawyer, merchant, entrepreneur, director of the Domaine d’Occident in New France, member of the Conseil Supérieur; b. in Paris in 1688, third and last child of Jean (Jean-Baptiste) Cugnet, and Madeleine Baudin; d. 19 Aug. 1751 in Quebec.

François-Étienne Cugnet’s father was dean of the faculty of law of the Université de Paris, an annual appointment, on four different occasions, and was particularly noted for his reform of the examination system. His older brother, Jean-Baptiste, like his father holding a doctorate-in-law, was dean of the faculty in 1734, 1740, and 1749. There was also an older sister. The two eldest children never married, and the French branch of the Cugnet family ended with their deaths. François-Étienne was married on or shortly after 23 Jan. 1717 to Louise-Madeleine Dusautoy (Dusaultoir), daughter of Charles Dusautoy, “a Paris bourgeois”; of this union five children would survive.

His marriage contract is the first positive evidence about François-Étienne as material pertaining to his childhood has disappeared. Documents concerning his father and mother and others dating after his arrival in New France nevertheless give some indication of the milieu in which he passed his childhood and reveal something of his education. He was born, raised, and educated within the shadows of the Sorbonne. His parents did not have great wealth or belong to the nobility but were among what have been called “the well-to-do Parisian families.” A reference to him in 1730 as “lawyer in the parlement of Paris” indicates that he held a license en droit with a special field in either civil or commercial law, the former being the more logical area of study. But he made his career chiefly in commerce, finance, and administration rather than law, as his activities in the colony and his choice of a spouse demonstrate, even though he was to have judicial functions in New France. His wife’s family belonged to the mercantile class; the provisions of their marriage contract illustrate a typical French bourgeois concern for the protection of a wife’s inheritance within the family.

Cugnet, accompanied by his wife, a clerk, and a valet, arrived in New France on 1 Oct. 1719. They had been granted free passage and were seated at the captain’s table on the ship. Cugnet’s official post in the colony was that of representative of the lessee of the Domaine d’Occident; however, he sometimes describes himself, or is described by others, as director.

The Domaine d’Occident, in New France, was part of the Fermes Unies of France. Since 1674 the Domaine had been leased out, usually by subcontract, by the holders of the bail of the Fermes Unies. Prices for this lease varied from 350,000 to 550,000 livres per year. The privileges attached to the lease included the right to collect a tax of 25 per cent in kind on beaver pelts delivered to the lessee’s counters, and a tax of 10 per cent on most other forms of pelts. The lessee could assess a tariff of 10 per cent on wines and liquors and on tobacco imported into the colony, and could collect a tax on goods exported from it. The Domaine d’Occident had the right to revenues derived from seigneurial dues owed to the crown in the colony and from the estates of persons dying intestate and without heirs, and had also the trading rights in the Domaine du Roi. The latter privilege was usually sub-leased by the holder of the lease of the Domaine to a merchant-trader of New France.

This standard arrangement was complicated with the establishment of the Compagnie des Indes, as it became known, by the spectacular Scottish speculator, John Law. In 1717 his “System” was granted the fur trade monopoly of New France and Louisiana. After the collapse of the “System” in 1720, the fur trade monopoly in the colony remained in the hands of the company he had established, until the end of the French régime. The structure of the Domaine, and its privileges, were further complicated in 1732 when the French state took over the administration of the Domaine on its own account, but allowed the Compagnie des Indes to retain the fur trade monopoly. Thus from the time of Cugnet’s arrival in 1719, the privileges and revenues of the Domaine d’Occident were divided into two: those derived from the trade in furs, the monopoly of which belonged to the Compagnie des Indes, and all other revenues, tariffs, seigneurial and succession rights, which belonged to the Domaine, under private lease till 1732 and controlled by the state after that date. But regardless who the lessee was, or to whom the revenues went, Cugnet was the effective administrator of the Domaine d’Occident from the time of his arrival till his death, with the exception of a trip to France in 1742–43.

Shortly after the Cugnets arrived in Quebec they rented a dwelling in the Rue Sault-au-Matelot at the fairly high annual rental of 400 livres, paid by the Domaine. A few years later Cugnet built a splendid house in the Rue Saint-Pierre, the élite merchant quarter of Quebec, at the high cost of 30,000 livres. Here he would reside until his death.

Cugnet’s talents, administrative and legal, were quickly put to use. A series of ordinances were issued by the intendant at his request concerning the rights of the monopolists of the Domaine. Throughout the 1720s he was engaged in law cases on behalf of the Domaine regarding the estates of person dying intestate. Legal costs being high, the estates of the deceased were plucked for what the traffic would bear. In 1729, Cugnet, supporting the Domaine’s right to collect duties on goods imported into the colony or exported from New France, associated himself with the representative of the Compagnie des Indes, Nicolas Lanoullier de Boisclerc; together they would ensure respect for each other’s monopolies. Cugnet’s most important task, with the greatest return to the monopolist, was the administration of the Domaine du Roi: the north shore of the St Lawrence from the Île aux Coudres and Malbaie to Labrador and including the trading posts at Sept-Îles, the Moisie River, Chicoutimi, the Lac Saint-Jean area, and the dependent but ill-defined lands in the environs. In a report prepared by Cugnet, he claimed the Domaine du Roi had been viciously stripped of its resources by earlier sub-lessees such as Denis Riverin*, Charles Guillimin*, Pierre Soumande, and members of the Hazeur family. Indians living there had grown to suspect subcontractors to the point that trade in the area was reduced to nothing. Under his able administration Cugnet realized an annual profit for the monopolist of 3,800 livres per year between 1719 and 1732.

His administrative efforts and his energy were not without reward. His salary as administrator of the Domaine d’Occident was 3,000 livres per year, and he leased part of his home to it, at 1,000 livres per year. Moreover, in 1721, little more than a year after his arrival the intendant, Michel Bégon, proposed him to the minister of Marine as worthy of consideration for a seat on the Conseil Supérieur. This proposal was refused on the ground of possible conflict of interest between Cugnet as administrator of the Domaine and Cugnet as a member of the superior court of New France. In 1727 Charles de Beauharnois, the governor, and the intendant Claude-Thomas Dupuy* proposed Cugnet as attorney general, again without result. Finally, in 1730, probably thanks to the influence of the new financial commissary, Hocquart*, Cugnet was appointed to the Conseil Supérieur in the place of Guillaume Gaillard* who had died the preceding year, but he still retained his administrative post in the Domaine. Within three years of his appointment to the council, he was named first councillor, an honour usually reserved for the senior member whereas Cugnet was a junior. The duties of New France’s highest court were varied, but not onerous. The council, as a civil court of appeal, met between 45 and 50 times a year. Between the years 1730 and 1751, when Cugnet was a member, it sat as a criminal court 66 times. Cugnet was assiduous in his attendance and, in the absence of the intendant, he presided over council meetings. His services as an investigator and arbitrator were often called upon, an indication of the respect with which he was held in the community. These not too strenuous tasks brought him an annual stipend of 900 livres per year from 1733 till his death.

An astonishing range of economic activities also occupied this quick mind. Among his minor commercial endeavours was the raising and exporting of Canadian tobacco, little appreciated, let it be said, in France. Frenchmen much preferred the leaf produced in their West Indian holdings. He attempted the domestication of “bœufs illinois” for their hides but was unsuccessful in getting the scheme operative [see Jean-Baptiste Gastineau Duplessis]. A third small business was the manufacturing of glue.

One of his most important entrepreneurial endeavours was the Saint-Maurice ironworks. In 1729, François Poulin* de Francheville, a Montreal-based fur-trader and entrepreneur, had been granted rights to establish and exploit an iron industry that he proposed developing on the lands he owned at Saint-Maurice and in the environs. He soon realized that his project was beyond his personal financial capacities, and decided to associate several colonial notables in his enterprise, specifically Cugnet, Ignace Gamelin* Jr, a fellow fur-trader and Montreal cohort, his brother Pierre Poulin, and the intendant’s secretary, Louis-Frédéric Bricault* de Valmur. This new association, with the active support of Intendant Hocquart, was granted a 10,000 livres loan by the French state. Francheville’s death in November 1733 temporarily halted the establishment of the ironworks [see Thérèse de Couagne].

Between 1733 and 1735 Cugnet was the dominant figure in what would become the Compagnie des Forges du Saint-Maurice. As a result of letters written by Hocquart to Maurepas, it was decided in 1735 to send an experienced French forge master to assess the establishment made by the old associates and evaluate its potential. In the fall of 1735, Pierre-François Olivier* de Vézin arrived in the colony, and within a few months submitted an elaborate report on construction and establishment costs. The buildings and equipment, according to the forge master, would cost 36,000 livres; annual production costs would be 61,250 livres; expected annual profits might be 60,000 livres, almost double the establishment costs and equal to annual production expenditures.

On the basis of these high hopes, Cugnet formed a new company on 16 Oct. 1736 whose members were himself, Ignace Gamelin once again, Olivier de Vézin, Jacques Simonet d’Abergemont, another forge master from France (each of these four having a 4.25 share), Thomas-Jacques Taschereau, the agent of the treasurer of the Marine in New France (two shares), and Hocquart (one share). All of them, as well as Maurepas (who, it should be noted, had requested expert opinion in France), placed a naïve faith in Vézin’s cost projections. However, lack of capital and of savings, a common feature of colonial and underdeveloped societies, led to repeated demands for assistance from the French state. In addition to the 10,000 livres advanced to Francheville and associates, Cugnet and his associates initially received an advance of 100,000 livres, to be repaid out of production. Moreover, a guaranteed market for the ironworks’ products was provided in the king’s shipyards in Quebec, as well as those of Rochefort, France. If Vézin’s estimates had been accurate, the associates would have found themselves in the enviable position of having capitalized their industry by state aid and without investing any of their own funds.

Vézin’s visions were chimerical. By 1740 the 100,000 livres had been expended and also a further advance of about 83,000 livres made by the intendant without waiting for the prior consent of the minister. Cugnet borrowed, as Hocquart rather gently put it, 40,000 livres for the ironworks from the strong box of the Domaine d’Occident of which he was the administrator; he also obtained goods from the king’s stores. Exhaustion of the state’s advances also led Cugnet to assist the endeavour himself; he issued letters of credit, or assumed personally the obligation of paying for supplies required by the industry. Creditors were no longer willing to wait. Between 1735 and 1741 establishment and production costs had totalled 505,356 livres; receipts from sales and produce were 114,473 livres, and the ironworks – buildings, hammers, bellows, etc. – were valued a few years later at 141,000 livres. There was, obviously, a large deficit.

In spite of the fact that the articles of association had specified that each of the partners in the ironworks was responsible in proportion to his share in the enterprise, Cugnet was the only one pursued by the creditors. He declared personal bankruptcy in 1741, but through the intervention of the intendant, and with the support of the minister of Marine, he was permitted in 1742 to use sequestered goods for continued commercial activities. Despite his bankruptcy, the total value of his estate increased between 1741 and his death in 1751. The Saint-Maurice ironworks continued in operation until 1883.

In April 1737 Cugnet obtained the seigneury of Saint-Étienne which he had long wanted, thanks to Hocquart who was trying to encourage settlement of the south shore of the St Lawrence. Cugnet’s most important, in the sense of most profitable, economic endeavour was the lease he held on the Tadoussac post from 1737 until 1749. He had administered this trade from his arrival in the colony as agent of the Domaine d’Occident and after 1732 as agent of the crown. Between 1732 and 1737 annual profits consistently went down. Nevertheless Cugnet leased the trade in 1737 for nine years at an annual lease price of 4,500 livres. In 1741, when the ironworks were in deep trouble, Beauharnois tried to have Cugnet’s rights to the Tadoussac post annulled in favour of Jacques de Lafontaine de Belcour, but was not successful. In 1745 Cugnet submitted a report according to which his annual profits in eight years were 3,541 livres 10 sols 7 deniers. Gilles Hocquart, the intendant, under pressure from the minister who wanted the lease ended, questioned his figures; Cugnet revised them to indicate an annual profit of 6,000 livres. Even this figure was inaccurate for he consistently neglected to carry as a credit his initial outlay for stock and buildings, which would be, and was, returned to him when the lease was withdrawn from him in 1749 by François Bigot* who had no liking for him. His minimum annual profits during the tenure of his lease must have been 10,000 livres per year. Marie-Anne Barbel*, widow of Louis Fornel, obtained the lease for the sum of 7,000 livres per year.

Cugnet’s four sons pursued varied careers. The eldest, François-Joseph*, something of a scalawag, wrote several books on the legal system of New France after the conquest, and served as official translator during Guy Carleton*’s régime. Another son Jean-Baptiste, about whom little is known, died in the West Indies around 1748 or 1749. Thomas-Marie became a member of the Conseil Supérieur in 1757 after the death of Jean-François Gaultier and an agent of the Compagnie des Indes. He retired to France after the conquest and died in Blois, France, in 1780. The last son, called, after the Intendant Hocquart, Gilles-Louis, became a priest and was a member of the chapter of Quebec; he returned to France after 1760 and died in Blois in 1767.

François-Étienne Cugnet, active citizen of New France, may, in spite of some failures, be considered to be “the very model” of a bourgeois-gentilhomme. In relatively restricted population areas, and in either colonies or countries in the process of development, exceptionally educated and active individuals assume many functions within their society. Lack of trained personnel, and, most important, of entrepreneurial skills, allows them great social and economic mobility. In France, François-Étienne would have been one among thousands; in New France he was one among few. His activities in its society were political, legal, and economic. The extent of his library, and the continuous flow to it of reading materials from France, indicates, at the least, a curiosity and intellect well above the ordinary.

Cameron Nish

[Because of his many activities, François-Étienne Cugnet is mentioned a number of times in various Canadian and European archives; a brief list would include: AJTR, Greffes de Joseph Caron, Pierre Petit, Louis Pillard, H.-O. Pressé, Joseph Rouillard. AN, Minutier central, Greffe de Savigny, 1690–1720; Greffe de Lemoyne, 1678–1728; MM, 1059–78, 1094–100; N, 88–101, 351–75; Y, 242–76, 14626; Col., B; C11A; C11G, 9; E, 101; F1A; F3, 11–13. ANQ, Greffes de R.-C. Barolet, Nicolas Boisseau, C.-H. Du Laurent, Henry Hiché, Jean de Latour, J.-C. Panet, J.-N. Pinguet de Vaucour, François Rageot; NF, Ins. Cons. sup.; NF, Registres de la Prévôté de Québec. ANQ-M, Greffes de C.-R. Gaudron de Chevremont, J.-C. Porlier. “La banqueroute de François Étienne Cugnet, 1742,” Cameron Nish, édit., L’Actualité économique (Montréal), 41 (1965–66), 146–202, 345–78, 762–810; 42 (1966–67), 161–208, 391–422, 704–27. Documents relating to Canadian currency during the French period (Shortt), I, 542. P.-G. Roy, Inv. jug. et délib., 1717–1760, passim; Inv. ord. int., passim. Raymond Du Bois Cahall, The sovereign council of New France: a study in Canadian constitutional history (Columbia University, Studies in history, economics and public law, LXV, no.1, New York, 1915). Adeline Daumard et François Furet, Structures et relations sociales à Paris au milieu du XVIIIe siècle (Cahiers des annales, 18, Paris, 1961). Dubé, Claude-Thomas Dupuy, passim. Frégault, François Bigot, I, 360–62. G. T. Matthews, The royal general farms in eighteenth-century France (New York, 1958). George Péries, La faculté de droit dans l’ancienne université de Paris (1160–1793) (Paris, 1890). Sulte, Mélanges historiques (Malchelosse), VI. Albert Tessier, Les forges Saint-Maurice, 1729–1883 (Trois-Rivières, Qué., 1952), 53–74. Marine Leland, “François-Joseph Cugnet, 1720–1789,” RUL, XVI (1961–62), 3–13, 129–39, 205–14. Cameron Nish, “François Étienne Cugnet et les forges de Saint-Maurice: un type d’entrepreneur et d’entreprise en Nouvelle-France,” L’Actualité économique, 42 (1966–67), 884–900.  c.n.]

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Cite This Article

Cameron Nish, “CUGNET, FRANÇOIS-ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cugnet_francois_etienne_3E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cugnet_francois_etienne_3E.html
Author of Article:   Cameron Nish
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   1974
Access Date:   June 25, 2024