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FORETIER, PIERRE, businessman, landowner, seigneur, office holder, and militia officer; b. 12 Jan. 1738 in Montreal (Que.), son of Jacques Foretier and Marie-Anne Caron; d. there 3 Dec. 1815.

Pierre Foretier came from a family of tradesmen. His grandfather Étienne Foretier was a baker in Montreal; his father, a shoemaker, had obtained master’s papers in 1721 in Paris, where he apparently worked at his trade for some years before returning to New France. After 1735 Jacques Foretier lived in Montreal, where he extended his activity to the operation of a small tannery in the faubourg Saint-Laurent. In 1743 he went into partnership with a merchant-tanner, Jean-François Barsalou, for the joint use of their tanning mills. Jacques Foretier died in 1747, and his wife kept the tannery going for some years; she died in 1754.

Orphaned at 16, Pierre Foretier was placed in the care of the children of his mother’s first and second marriages, with whom he lived until he himself married. He seems to have resided at first with his half-brother, Jacques Paré, probably in the seigneury of Châteauguay, and then with his half-sister, who was married to Bazile Desfonds, a shoemaker in the faubourg Saint-Laurent who had once been apprenticed to his father. On 16 Jan. 1764, in Montreal, Foretier married Thérèse, daughter of the merchant Jean-Baptiste Legrand. Their five daughters were to marry men prominent in Lower Canada, among them Denis-Benjamin Viger*, Louis-Charles Foucher*, and notary Thomas Barron. Four years after his wife died in 1784, Foretier married Catherine Hubert, widow of the merchant Thomas Baron; she too predeceased him, and there were no children from this marriage.

Pierre Foretier’s business career began in 1761, the date of the earliest references to his trading and land transactions. From 1762 he appears as a trader or merchant, probably dealing in dry goods and various articles for the fur trade. Around the same time he set up one or several stores. In 1775–76 he was running his father-in-law’s store on Rue Saint-Paul, and he owned another on Rue Notre-Dame. Ten years later he was selling fine cloth, crockery, cutlery, clothing, shoes, combs, books, and a variety of small articles in a store connected to his house on Rue Notre-Dame, which apparently was the only one then belonging to him; his business was worth 14,324 livres. Subsequently he abandoned this sort of trade, which he had carried on by himself, but there is no indication as to when he closed his store.

His partnerships with other merchants had a very different purpose. Late in 1764 or early in 1765 Foretier had joined with Joseph Périnault to enter the fur trade. The two formed a partnership in April 1765 with Henry Boone, a Montreal merchant, and a Mr Price, Boone’s partner at Quebec, to engage in the fur trade and to run a canoe loaded with merchandise to Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.). The total capital invested amounted to at least 11,657 livres, 5,285 being put up by Foretier and Périnault; they were to receive a third of the profits. Price and Boone attended to selling the furs, Périnault stayed at Michilimackinac, and Foretier served as supplier for the expedition. This agreement was not renewed. Foretier and Périnault probably maintained an interest in the fur trade in 1766 and 1767, but there is no record of their activity. Their partnership seems to have come to an end around 1767. In 1769 Foretier on his own sent a canoe with merchandise worth £150 to Lake Ontario, and four years later he invested more than £800 to send two canoes and seventeen engagés to Michilimackinac. He accompanied this final expedition and stayed in the pays den haut in 1773.

The following year Foretier took a new partner, Jean Orillat*. The company was active in the fur business, particularly in 1777 and 1778, when it invested £9,930, and then an additional £2,625, in the trade. Foretier and Orillat fitted out their own canoes, but they also advanced merchandise and funds to other traders. In addition the company sought to diversify its activities; from 1776 and apparently until 1782, it furnished the government of the colony with powder. In 1776 Foretier and Orillat obtained a contract for supplying the British government with articles for presents to the Indians. The contract amounted to £14,000, and they received a five per cent commission. Because Orillat had been taken prisoner by the Americans during the invasion of 1775–76, the authorities made James Stanley Goddard responsible for looking after Indian presents. Although the partnership between Foretier and Orillat was disrupted by the war, it continued until Orillat’s death in 1779; the company’s accounts were not officially settled until 1783. Foretier, who had been the largest Canadian investor in the fur trade in 1774 and 1777 and had placed substantial sums in it in 1778, got out of it after Orillat’s death, although in 1782 he went security for Joseph Sanguinet’s expedition to Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.). Foretier’s career took a different direction, and the transformation is probably attributable in part to changes occurring in the fur trade and to the increasing difficulties faced by Canadian merchants [see Étienne-Charles Campion*]. But another factor influenced the thrust of Foretier’s commercial activity: from 1780 his real estate holdings were becoming more and more profitable.

Foretier’s earliest property investments dated from 1761, when he began to purchase land in the faubourg Saint-Laurent, at the level of what is now Sherbrooke Street. He first bought two small parcels in the sub-fief of La Gauchetière, and then in 1762 acquired 30 acres at Côte du Baron, to which he added 6 more in 1764. Foretier embarked on his first development project in the faubourg Saint-Pierre, subdividing his land and selling the lots. But this initial venture failed; the faubourg Saint-Pierre was too isolated and too far from the town to attract many buyers.

Foretier made his principal purchases in 1765. With his partner at that time, Joseph Périnault, he bought two parcels of land from Marie-Anne-Noële Denys de Vitré – her three-quarters of the sub-fief of Closse (a property located partly in the faubourg Saint-Laurent) and her three-quarters of the seigneury of Île-Bizard – as well as 54 secured annuities (23 on Closse). Périnault made his share over to Foretier in 1767, and two years later Foretier purchased the remaining quarters of the two properties, which belonged to Mathieu-Théodore Denys de Vitré. In 1769, then, Foretier owned all the sub-fief of Closse, an immense area 2 arpents wide and over 45 arpents in depth. Later, particularly after 1780, he purchased a number of adjacent lots, either in the sub-fief of La Gauchetière or at the northern tip of Closse.

Foretier’s purchase of the Closse sub-fief was part of a long-term strategy, since it offered little prospect of quick subdivision; its development would extend over nearly half a century. Foretier’s main concern at the time of purchase seems to have been to reduce the cost of his investment to the bare minimum. Thus he reached an agreement with the Sulpicians, who were the seigneurs of Montreal Island, that his sub-fief would be added to their domain and then granted back to him in simple roture (for an annual rent); in this way he avoided paying the heavy cost of the quint, a tax amounting to a fifth of the price. A first deed of merger concerning three-quarters of the sub-fief was concluded in 1765, and a second one concerning the last quarter in 1778. Around 1790, however, the Closse sub-fief was being developed. Foretier realized how much income he had forgone in making over the cens et rentes and lods et ventes to the Sulpicians. Pleading that the Sulpicians had “taken” his sub-fief from him, he launched a suit to regain possession of his seigneurial rights, which he won in 1796. He was able consequently to add revenues as seigneur to the profits from subdividing and the secured annuities.

Particularly in the years 1797–1806, Foretier also developed a large number of lots he had acquired between 1781 and 1784 in the southwest of the faubourg Saint-Laurent. Once again, as with his other properties, he bought, subdivided, and sold lots, usually by means of secured annuities. This last block of land, which was close to the old town, may have been his most lucrative property investment.

Foretier owned about a quarter of the faubourg Saint-Laurent, the equivalent of the area within the town’s fortifications. To make these purchases he had invested 83,000 livres over a period of 50 years; the land that he subdivided brought him 186,000 livres, which made his total profit 103,000 livres. To this sum was added the income from the secured annuities and his seigneurial rights, as well as from the sale of produce and the rental of meadows and wood and pasture lands.

Foretier’s real estate operations were not limited to the urban setting; his strategy for developing Île-Bizard was, however, very different from the one he used in the faubourg Saint-Laurent. He sought first to consolidate his hold on the seigneury by buying back the five sub-fiefs already granted on it; he could not control the pace of development unless he had sole authority to grant land. The process took several years, for the last sub-fief was not rejoined to the domain until 1788. It is interesting to note that the grants he made reflected the timing of his acquisition of urban properties, the periods of greatest activity being 1765–74, 1785–89, and 1795–1805. The number of land grants rose from 83 in 1781–82 to 107 in 1813; the population of Île-Bizard grew to 508 in the same period and included not only farmers but a number of tradesmen. Foretier took a close interest in the running of his seigneury. He erected a communal mill in 1772–73 and rebuilt it after a fire in 1790. He paid close attention to the situation of his censitaires and kept meticulous accounts. At the end of his life his grandson, Hugues Heney*, was running the seigneury and accounted to him for the smallest details of his management. The seigneury of Île-Bizard certainly contributed heavily to Foretier’s fortune. In 1781–82, for example, the communal mill brought him 1,800 livres, the cens et rentes 1,087 livres.

From his youth Foretier had been interested in commerce, the fur trade, and landed property, all activities requiring considerable initial capital. Astonishingly enough, he apparently lacked both the capital and the contacts that would explain his rise in the business world. No signs of a large family fortune can be found: his parents’ estates were modest indeed. Some attribute his success to money from his first wife, but Thérèse Legrand brought him no dowry. Jean-Baptiste Legrand, a fairly well-to-do merchant, probably gave Foretier the benefit of his experience and his financial help, but there is no record of a substantial loan or gift to his son-in-law to enable him to launch his career. Certain elements of Foretier’s success consequently remain obscure. On the other hand, his real estate ventures demonstrate his ability to make good deals and to purchase sites on terms that did not necessitate the initial outlay of large sums. Thus Foretier’s earliest acquisitions were all made through secured annuities, with the capital not being paid off until much later. Even his biggest purchases, Closse and Île-Bizard, were not acquired with cash but rather by a life annuity of 3,000 livres, which Foretier had to carry with Périnault from 1765 to 1767 and then by himself until 1789. The other large disbursements at the start of his career were in 1769 (1,100 livres) and 1770 (3,000 livres). It was not until the period 1780–92 that Foretier made other purchases with cash or repaid secured annuities. He also frequently transferred both bonds and secured annuities to minimize the transactions that had to be settled in ready money. It is highly probable that in commerce and the fur trade Foretier had had recourse to similar methods to turn a profit on his initial capital, which may have been relatively modest.

Foretier also played an important role in the public life of Lower Canada. Along with other Canadian and British merchants he took part in the reform movement before 1791, and he was one of the members of a committee of Canadians from the Montreal district working for this cause [see Jean De Lisle]. He was also among those asked to stand as candidates in the first elections for the House of Assembly of Lower Canada in 1792. He ran for Montreal West, where he was defeated. In 1796 he was again a candidate but decided to withdraw before the elections. Appointed a justice of the peace in 1779, he retained that office until his death; as one of the most prestigious jps of the District of Montreal he was responsible for swearing in provincial officials. He sat on many committees and commissions: he was a member of the commission appointed to investigate aliens arriving in the province (1776), of a committee appointed by the Montreal merchants to study the problem of damaged goods (1779) [see Alexander Ellice], and of the commission to superintend the House of Correction at Montreal (1803–7); he was also “commissioner with authority to carry out church repairs” (1794–1814).

During the occupation of Montreal by American troops in 1775–76 Foretier showed himself an active loyalist. He had letters delivered to Guy Carleton in Quebec and lent support to a small force of Canadians and Indians being formed at Vaudreuil, providing them with munitions and supplies. He made this contribution to the British cause despite the presence in his home of an American colonel with his aides-de-camp and servants, and despite the close watch kept on him. When hostilities ceased, Foretier continued to show support for the government. He was an active member of the Canadian militia of Montreal, serving in succession as major of the 2nd Battalion (1789–1800) and then as its lieutenant colonel (1801–3), and as colonel of the 3rd Battalion (1804–15).

Foretier also took a close interest in matters of religion. In 1783 he went to London to seek permission from the government to recruit Catholic priests as teachers for the Collège Saint-Raphaël in Montreal. Two years later he was elected churchwarden in the parish of Notre-Dame, an office he held until at least 1787. He may also have been interested in various charities, since he bequeathed large sums to the parish of Notre-Dame, the Hôtel-Dieu, and the Hôpital Général. These legacies amounted to 36,000 livres, about a quarter of a fortune estimated at 140,000 livres in addition to the value of his lots and buildings.

Foretier’s way of life and the considerable fortune he had accumulated bear witness to his success in the business world and public life. He occupied an imposing residence on Rue Notre-Dame that had belonged to his father-in-law, Jean-Baptiste Legrand. In addition to the furniture and numerous and sometimes luxurious fixtures, he had a huge library and a collection of silverware. He also owned a seigneurial manor at Île-Bizard. The inventories made after his first wife’s death in 1785 and his own death in 1816 make it possible to examine the evolution of his fortune. In 1785 Foretier was still engaged in both commercial and real estate activities; his links with the fur trade had just been broken. The situation is clearly revealed by the assets of the joint estate, which were estimated at 344,493 livres: these included, among other items, the inventory of the store (14,394 livres), secured annuities (116,548 livres), debts in connection with the landed and seigneurial property (20,901 livres), debts of a commercial type due in the form of notes, bonds, and accounts receivable (126,970 livres), and even debts owing to the firm of Foretier and Orillat (34,179 livres). The last two categories, however, included a large number of doubtful debts that swelled the assets. The liabilities of the joint estate amounted to only 109,915 livres, making its net worth 234,578 livres, plus 31 lots and buildings. Thirty years later Foretier’s wealth was based essentially on his real estate. Of assets valued at 140,142 livres, the secured annuities (119,327 livres) represented the most important element, followed by the property and seigneurial debts (11,139 livres). His liabilities were only a fraction of what they were in 1785 and arose primarily from small current expenses; his properties were free of debt. Foretier had therefore accumulated a fortune estimated at 140,011 livres, as well as 34 lots and buildings of unknown value.

When Foretier died, he left a will and numerous codicils designed to prevent his huge fortune and numerous properties from being split up. He stipulated that his estate not be subdivided and tried to exclude certain members of his family, in particular his son-in-law Denis-Benjamin Viger, from any part in managing it and from the income it brought in. Foretier’s heirs refused to accept the restrictions imposed on them by the will; they contested the deceased’s right to dispose of the assets which their mother, Thérèse Legrand (who had died in 1784), had bequeathed to them and of which he had enjoyed only the usufruct. They agreed, therefore, to disregard the terms of the will and to share the estate equally. Foretier, however, had named his neighbour and friend, Jean-Baptiste-Toussaint Pothier*, as his executor, and Pothier saw to it that Foretier’s wishes were respected. Pothier launched a suit which, after extensive legal proceedings, gave rise on 20 Feb. 1827 to a decision by the Court of King’s Bench for the District of Montreal in his favour. On appeal, the provincial Court of Appeals at Quebec on 30 April 1830 set aside the judgement, ruling that the terms of Foretier’s will were invalid in the case of Thérèse Legrand’s estate and applied solely to the assets in Foretier’s estate. The decision made it necessary to evaluate and divide the assets of the two estates and led to another series of lawsuits which dragged on until 29 March 1841, when Foretier’s own assets and those bequeathed by Thérèse Legrand were finally separated. It was not until 23 July 1842, however, that the assets from the Legrand estate were divided among the various heirs. Thus for more than 25 years the improvement of the sub-fief of Closse and the other properties in the faubourg Saint-Laurent was halted, and in his own way Foretier continued to influence property development in Montreal.

Pierre Foretier was a notable figure in the early years of the British régime. His career spanned more than half a century and encompassed a crucial period in the economic and social development of Lower Canada. His participation in business was not confined to one sector: he was both a retailer and a wholesale merchant, a supplier and financial backer in the fur trade, a lender and speculator, a seigneur and the largest Montreal property owner of his generation. Through the breadth and diversity of his activities he defies simplistic definition. His role in the political and social life of his era also illustrates the complexity of the Lower Canadian merchants’ reactions to the transformation their society experienced in the decades after the conquest.

Joanne Burgess

[I wish to thank Alan Stewart of the Groupe de recherche sur les bâtiments en pierre grise de Montréal who shared with me his research notes and knowledge of Pierre Foretier.  j.b.]

Pierre Foretier is the author of “Notes et souvenirs d’un habitant de Montréal durant l’occupation de cette ville par les Bostonois de 1775 à 1776,” PAC Rapport, 1945: xxv-xxviii.

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Joanne Burgess, “FORETIER, PIERRE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 20, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/foretier_pierre_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/foretier_pierre_5E.html
Author of Article: Joanne Burgess
Title of Article: FORETIER, PIERRE
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: August 20, 2014