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MASSON, JOSEPH, businessman, militia officer, seigneur, politician, and judge; b. 5 Jan. 1791 in Saint-Eustache, Que., son of Antoine Masson, a carpenter, and Suzanne Pfeiffer (Payfer); d. 15 May 1847 in Terrebonne, Lower Canada, was buried three days later in the old church of Terrebonne, and was reinterred on 20 March 1880 in the present one, in the Masson family vault.
Joseph Masson’s forebear Gilles Masson was born in Poitou, France, in the 1630s, according to historical accounts. Reportedly he came to New France some time after 1663 and married Marie-Jeanne Gauthier in 1668, by which time he was living on the fief of La Poterie as a censitaire. It is possible that he and some of his descendants took part seasonally in the fur trade, but the family was traditionally engaged in farming. After some unsettled and uncertain years, he finally took up residence in 1691 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade), near Trois-Rivières, where he died in either 1715 (according to Cyprien Tanguay*) or 1716 (according to Henri Masson). Joseph Masson the businessman was a descendant of Gilles Masson’s third son, Joseph.
Although Antoine Masson was illiterate, Joseph attended school. An only son, he had three sisters of whom Catherine alone outlived him. He was placed as an apprentice in the establishment of Duncan McGillis, a British businessman, at Saint-Benoît (Mirabel), where he began as a clerk in 1807. His contract stipulated that he was to serve his employer for two years in return for board, lodging, light, heat, and laundry; he was to be paid £36, one half at the end of a year and the other at the end of his contract. The terms store clerk and apprentice merchant were then almost synonymous. Consequently, during apprenticeship the clerk was initiated into all phases of commercial activity. Joseph probably had more than his turn at the counter, but he took the opportunity to learn how to keep the books, collect accounts, and speak English. He also familiarized himself with the manufacture and sale of potash, an activity he was to engage in for a great part of his life. The pot- and pearl ash business, which along with the lumber trade was expanding at the beginning of the 19th century, played a significant role in the economy of parishes and regions where the land was just beginning to be cleared. Once he had fulfilled his obligations to McGillis, Masson went to Montreal and found a job with a Mrs McNider, who was also in the retail trade.
Shortly after arriving in the town, Masson became acquainted with Scottish merchant Hugh Robertson, and their meeting marked the start of his career as a businessman. Indeed, in May 1812 Hugh Robertson told William, his brother and partner in Glasgow, about having just hired “a very canny lad who is going to work for me as a crier.” Having had some difficulties at the start of his career, Hugh Robertson had come to Lower Canada in 1810 at the age of 33 as representative of Hugh Robertson and Company, a Glasgow firm exporting mainly woollens and other textiles in exchange for potash, wheat, and lumber of various sorts. For several years the firm seemed beset by adversity. In 1814 it was put into bankruptcy. Masson’s fate hung on that of the firm – at one point he was dismissed, then he was rehired. What his ambitions were at the time is not known, but much later, when he had become successful, he remarked: “Mr Robertson has but one charge against me which is my ambition to do too much business and as he says [my] wishes to make too much money. but [I] always told him I would make all my Hay while the Sun was shining and why take twenty years to make a fortune if [one] can be made in five without any risks.” Masson’s career was to unfold principally within the Robertson brothers’ firm.
Once in operation again, the company reorganized. To safeguard itself from reverses of fortune, it founded two firms, W. Robertson and Company in Glasgow and Hugh Robertson and Company in Montreal. As Hugh Robertson had great difficulty adapting to the Canadian climate and hoped to return for good to Britain as soon as possible, he made attractive offers to Masson, to whom he was considering entrusting management of the Montreal firm. Masson refused to join as a salaried employee and insisted on the status of partner. He was allotted an eighth of the profits in what now became Robertson, Masson and Company; the Scottish house remained entirely under the Robertson brothers.
Even before his partnership agreement with the Robertsons went into effect on 1 May 1815, Masson was sent to Britain to do the spring purchasing with William Robertson. It was something he would do so often for the rest of his life, at times every year, that he never ceased learning about the Canadian and British markets. Hugh made a revealing remark to his brother about their young Canadian partner in 1814, when he was still unfamiliar with conditions in the British market: “I am quite confident that with his experience of local market needs his expenditures will be warranted by the good selection he will make there.” Choosing goods that would sell well in Lower and even Upper Canada and importing them in sufficient quantities would always be Masson’s chief concerns; he often differed with Hugh Robertson, who feared they might buy too much. In 1821, when Robertson was back in Scotland, Masson reassured him: “But let the shipments be ever so large, there is not a House here that has a better chance then we have if even so good, as we have the first call of the whole of most Respectable Marchants . . . and there is no House that can undersell us. . . . At all times I recommend you to send a proportion of every articles we order if possible.” As he observed to Robertson: “The care one brings to business is half the battle, and very often lack of information can work against our interests.”
When Robertson left for Scotland aboard the Montréal on 15 Aug. 1815, not long after the partnership came into effect, Masson was given charge of the Canadian firm in Montreal. His increased responsibilities and the efficient manner in which he carried them out made a reallocation of the company’s profits and losses necessary. On 31 March 1818 a new partnership agreement increased his share of profits in the Montreal firm to a third. Masson also had the use of Robertson’s house in Montreal for nothing. In June 1819, after William Robertson’s death, Masson was authorized to take 50 per cent of the profits.
Up till that time Masson’s successes had been uninterrupted and fairly rapid, although not startlingly so. Without investing any capital at the beginning, he had managed to amass substantial sums and to acquire a great deal of experience in business. On 6 April 1818, in La Prairie, he had married 19-year-old Marie-Geneviève-Sophie Raymond, the daughter of Jean-Baptiste Raymond*, who was a businessman in the village. The son of a fur trader, Raymond traded in grain and potash, as did Masson, and he had represented Huntingdon in the Lower Canadian House of Assembly from 1800 to 1808.
By the early 1820s Masson’s career was well launched, and from then on he would devote his energies to expanding his enterprises, regardless even of his partner’s exhortations to prudence and moderation. In 1843 Masson wrote to Robertson: “You ought to have known that all my ambition and fealings [were] for the interest and honor of my Firms, as I have all along determined to beat every house around me and bring them down which is all in the way of trade, and in which I have not failed yet.” These remarks reveal the unusually intense motives that swayed him. They also draw attention to the extraordinary effort put forth by a man utterly sure of being master of his fate, who confessed, “As I had a great deal of confidence in myself, and always knew what I could do for the business . . . the whole of my time & mind was with the business night & day and all the business was done by myself (as I was always at my post) therefore I was quite master of what could be done and this is now proven by the result of our success.”
The fortune Masson built up over the years was based first of all on his import-export business, which gradually grew and became diversified. In 1830 this firm consisted of three companies, W. and H. Robertson and Company in Glasgow, run by Hugh Robertson; Robertson, Masson, LaRocque and Company in Montreal, run by Masson, François-Antoine LaRocque*, and Struthers Strang; and Masson, LaRocque, Strang and Company at Quebec, managed by John Strang. Naturally, then and for a long time afterwards, Hugh Robertson and Masson held more than 80 per cent of the capital of all three. In 1833 the total investment amounted to £80,200 and the value of the goods imported rose to about £100,000. In 1827 the sales in Great Britain of potash alone were worth £31,678. Masson unquestionably had gone further than other Canadian businessmen in establishing contacts with the British market, but he was by no means the only one doing so. La Rocque and Charles Langevin, to mention just two of the people he worked with, were part of this small but visible group.
Masson’s involvement in the import-export business was to lead him to take an interest in the shipping trade that was not then common among Canadian businessmen. In 1825, having given serious thought to getting a ship built to carry Robertson, Masson and Company’s products; he decided to buy a brand-new 290-ton vessel which he named the Sophie, after his wife. He had originally envisaged providing 50 per cent of the capital for this venture, but decided to take in a larger number of shareholders and in the end held only 12 ½ per cent. In 1830 he purchased the Artemis in the name of Robertson, Masson, LaRocque and Company, and in 1832 he added the Robertson to the list of sailing ships. It was not until 1836 that he bought a share in a steamship, the Edmund Henry. These initiatives illustrate the process of diversification in his enterprises.
It is not surprising that Masson was interested in improving the means of inland communication in Lower Canada. In 1821 he joined a group of businessmen in asking the assembly to incorporate a company to build a canal from Lac des Deux Montagnes to Lachine and from there to the Courant Sainte-Marie at Montreal. Along with Horatio Gates*, Daniel Arnoldi, and a number of other entrepreneurs, he made a fresh attempt in 1831, still with the idea of incorporating a canal company. Plans for building railways also interested him up to a point. In 1831 he signed a petition to get a railway built from La Prairie to Lake Champlain using wooden rails – indeed he was one of the first to put his name to the document, along with John Molson* and Peter McGill*. The following year he was an incorporator of the Company of Proprietors of the Champlain and St Lawrence Railroad, and in 1846 he was offered an interest in it.
Masson seems to have paid attention to all the money-making prospects in Lower Canada. In 1836, for example, British businessman Robert Armstrong obtained a charter from the assembly for a company to provide Montreal with gas lighting for 21 years. This firm, the Montreal Gas Light Company, built a gasworks and appointed Albert Furniss manager. John Strang and Hugh Robertson bought about a hundred shares in it and soon were urging Masson to follow suit. By 1840 Furniss, Robertson, Strang, and Masson were its sole shareholders, Furniss holding half the shares; the following year, however, Masson acquired another 25. In 1842 he himself owned more than a third of the shares in the company, which the city of Montreal sought to buy in 1845 for £25,000. But he had a broader interest in this sort of undertaking. At Quebec he and John Strang in 1842 founded the Quebec Gas, Light and Water Company, capitalized at £15,000. He and Furniss had also undertaken in 1841 to set up the City of Toronto Gas Light and Water Company. By 1842 he had invested £24,250 of the £40,000 put into it. Three years later he sold his shares to Furniss.
A merchant of Masson’s calibre, bent on outclassing his competitors, was bound to move into banking, which already wielded considerable power and influence in the province through its stranglehold on credit. By 1824 he had bought a few shares in the Bank of Montreal, and he kept adding more until 1830, when he had 21. Naturally Hugh Robertson encouraged him while reiterating the need for prudence. In 1826 Masson was even elected a director of the bank. On being re-elected unanimously, he wrote to Robertson, probably to counteract his prejudices against risky ventures: “I send you this list [of shareholders with voting rights] to show some of your freinds how we stand here, in fact we are now considered to be the first House here.” In 1830 he acquired another 31 shares, paying £91 5s. apiece. He then told his partner that he had not embarked on this course with the idea of making money, that is to say, as a speculation, but “merely to show off and it had Just the effect that I expected, that is of rising our credit [at] the Bank as well as out of the Bank with out limits. . . . If our name is on it, it will pass.” Masson consequently put a lot of pressure on his Scottish partner to make systematic use of bank credit in order to increase their annual purchases from £40,000 to £80,000 at favourable rates. Clearly, for Masson a bank was not primarily a safe place for the savings of private individuals or firms, but rather a credit organization. In 1834 he was elected vice-president of the board of the Bank of Montreal. He is also believed to have done business with the City Bank in Montreal, the Gore Bank, and the Commercial Bank of the Midland District.
Although he had entered the business world without capital, Masson gradually succeeded in asserting his authority within an enterprise that operated in both Lower Canada and Scotland. It was only after Robertson, who had first been his patron and then for more than 30 years his partner, retired that he freed himself from him. Masson’s unfailing loyalty had been coupled with an apparently well-founded feeling that he was more creative and productive and had been to some degree exploited. This aspect of his personality fitted well with his need to dominate. In 1847 he finally attained the eminence in his enterprises that should long since have been his, given his talent and his passion for work. At that time the Montreal firm took the name Joseph Masson, Sons and Company, while the one in Quebec bore the name Masson, Langevin, Sons and Company and the one in Glasgow Masson, Sons and Company. Only then could Masson determine the volume of purchases made by his Canadian firms in Great Britain and make use at his own discretion of the facilities for credit accorded him by the local banks.
His success would not have been so complete if Masson had not added landed property to his fortune. He had, of course, bought numerous lots in Montreal, but these could not truly complement his social prominence. From the time his success was becoming manifest, Masson began to cast his eye on seigneuries for sale. In 1832 he offered £25,150 for Terrebonne, which was being sold at auction. It had been acquired by Simon McTavish* for £25,000, sold to Roderick Mackenzie for £3,000 more in 1814, and then recovered in 1824 by McTavish’s widow, Marie-Marguerite, and her second husband, William Smith Plenderleath, through a judicial decision. There is no doubt that the purchase gratified Masson’s aristocratic inclinations, which did not, however, keep him from getting all he could from an investment that some years brought him more than £3,000.
Around 1842 Masson may well have been worth about £200,000. It was only to be expected that, as a prominent entrepreneur with extensive property, he had been promoted militia captain in 1823, appointed to the Montreal Committee of Trade in 1824, elected first churchwarden of Notre-Dame parish in Montreal in 1828, raised to the Legislative Council in 1834, appointed justice of the special sessions of the peace held in Montreal in 1836, and then elected municipal alderman there in 1843. His career followed the pattern common at his level of society in Lower Canada as elsewhere. He was the major Canadian businessman of the period 1830–40. It was he who had the greatest success in gaining access to the suppliers in Great Britain, just as he was one of the few to have done business as far away as Toronto. His success proves that the obstacles ordinarily cited to account for the poor performance of Canadians in the economic field – favouritism, trouble obtaining credit, difficulty in establishing contacts in Britain and business connections in Upper Canada – were not as significant as is claimed, nor was any supposed incapacity due to ethnic origin. The essential obstacles lay in the social structures that determined certain choices.
Masson never tried to play the role of leader of a Canadian capitalist bourgeoisie engaging in economic activity within a francophone market. His colleagues and competitors came from both ethnic groups. His dealings with Charles Langevin, Charles Humberston, a commercial agent in Liverpool, the Strang brothers (John, Struthers, and Andrew), and his hired clerks, and above all his relations with Hugh and William Robertson, provide the proof. His relationship with François-Antoine La Rocque is further evidence: La Rocque had also been in the wholesale trade, but like the Langevin brothers, Charles and Jean, he encountered serious financial difficulties. When Masson wanted to open his firm at Quebec in 1828, he thought of bringing La Rocque into business with him. In 1830 La Rocque officially became his partner, in theory with a capital of £4,000 and with four shares. Not only did La Rocque not cover the amount of his investment, but he was soon negotiating with a group of Canadian businessmen, including Pierre-Louis Le Tourneux (Letourneux), Léonard Bouthillier, and Jean-Dominique Bernard, which proposed to set up a company with a capital of £100,000 and the goal of assuring the Canadians’ success over the foreigners who were growing rich at the expense of the French-speaking populace. Masson was invited to join, but evidently he had no intention of being part of this group, which in fact was directed against him. The firm of LaRocque, Bernard et Compagnie, also called the Great Concern, was founded in 1832, but it did not survive the economic crisis of 1837. In May 1838 it went into bankruptcy. Masson was not, however, insensible to feelings of ethnic solidarity: his affinities with the cultural milieu from which he came were genuine; they remained, however, subordinate to economic communities of interest. That is why Masson was never a Patriote: politically his support went to those defending the interests of the British mercantile group, although this stance did not preclude a certain prudence on his part at times.
Joseph Masson was no doubt one of the most important Canadian businessmen in Lower Canada in the 19th century. He and his wife Marie-Geneviève-Sophie had 12 children, 5 girls and 7 boys, but 4 died before the age of three. The others married into bourgeois and seigneurial families: the McKenzies, Globenskys, Bossanges, Dumas, Burroughses, Wilsons, and Desjardins.
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Cite This Article
Fernand Ouellet, “MASSON, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/masson_joseph_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Fernand Ouellet|
|Title of Article:||MASSON, JOSEPH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|