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QUETTON ST GEORGE, LAURENT (born Laurent Quet though the family also used Quetton, adopted the surname St George in England in 1796 and signed Quetton St George thereafter, until his return to France in 1816, when he began to sign Quetton de St Georges), merchant and landowner; b. 4 June 1771 in Vérargues, near Montpellier, France, son of Jean and Catherine Quet; m. May 1819 Adèle de Barbeyrac, and they had a son; with Marguerite Vallière, daughter of a blacksmith at the Windham settlement north of York (Toronto), he had a son and a daughter; d. 8 June 1821 in Orléans, France.

It was the French revolution that launched the odyssey which transformed Laurent Quet into Quetton de St Georges. By 1789 he had begun mercantile training, but his family was so strongly Roman Catholic and royalist that it was soon swept up by events. Counter-revolutionary currents were strong and varied in the Hérault region, but a relatively small number of people chose or were forced to emigrate. His father and a brother were imprisoned, and in October 1791 Laurent and another brother, Étienne, decided to go into exile. Making their way to the Rhineland, they joined the Légion de Mirabeau in December as volunteers and saw action in Breisgau and Alsace; Étienne was killed in December 1793. In 1794–95, Laurent was a volunteer with the Légion de Béon in Holland, and in March 1795 he joined the royalist army of Brittany as sub-lieutenant in a cavalry regiment. Like Joseph-Geneviève de Puisaye, he was a member of the invasion force that launched the disastrous and futile landing in June 1795 at the Baie de Quiberon in southwest Brittany. Fortunate to escape capture and almost certain execution, Laurent made his way back to England. Here, as the Comte de Chalus later attested, he and some fellow royalists adopted new surnames “to remove their families from the glory of the republic.” He chose St George, it is said, because he had first arrived in England on St George’s Day. On 1 April 1796 he was promoted major with the substantive rank of lieutenant-colonel in the royalist infantry. Probably in June 1796, but perhaps in 1798, he was inducted as a knight of Saint-Louis.

What to do with the royalist émigrés in England was a topic of increasing discussion. One scheme was put forward successfully by Puisaye, who arranged with British authorities a grant of land for a French military colony in Upper Canada. A group less suited to found a frontier agricultural community would be hard to imagine. St George, one of the 14 officers, was younger than most of them and from a less aristocratic background. He alone would succeed in the New World. The party arrived at Quebec in late 1798 and St George was among those who moved to the Windham settlement early in the spring of 1799. For the next two or three years, he engaged in the fur trade with nearby Indians. Evidence of his characteristically thorough preparation can be found in an extensive notebook that he kept of the Mississauga Ojibwas’ vocabulary. He apparently traded in the Lake Simcoe region and had, for a time, a base at Lake Couchiching. It was a mobile and arduous existence but from it he emerged with connections to some of the most important fur merchants in North America, including John Jacob Astor in New York, and McTavish, McGillivray and Company and James and Andrew McGill and Company in Montreal.

In 1802, when Puisaye made plans to return to England, St George and a fellow officer, Ambroise de Farcy, decided to open a store in Puisaye’s house near Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake). Puisaye would one day claim to have made possible St George’s first steps up the commercial ladder, but this assertion exaggerated greatly his role in St George’s specifically commercial career. By late July, St George and Farcy were advertising their wares. Almost immediately, St George moved to York to open a retail store. In 1803 he broke with Farcy, and until 1815 he was sole owner of Quetton St George and Company.

Like other Upper Canadian merchants of the time, St George was a generalist, handling every kind of imported goods and local produce as well as providing credit and other financial services. He dealt extensively with Montreal merchants and imported some items, notably tea, from New York. Soon he added branches to his operation, opening in 1806 at Kingston (with Augustin Boiton de Fougères, another royalist officer, in charge until 1810 and Hugh Christopher Thomson thereafter), at Niagara (with Charles Fortier in charge until 1808), at Amherstburg late in 1807 (under the firm name of Boucherville and McDonell), and at the head of Lake Ontario in 1808, first near and then at Dundas (soon under Hector S. MacKay). All but the last were not only commercially promising communities but also centres of the province’s small British garrison. Although the business operated mainly in English, it was possible for St George to correspond initially with all but the Dundas store in French. Within a few years furs had become at most a sideline; David David, one of his leading Montreal connections, advised him in 1808 “either abandon that traid, or take more care of your Furs.” He now handled as much flour and potash as fur and most of his payments were made in bills of exchange or cash. MacKay, at Dundas, also operated a distillery and a potashery. The firm’s 1810 imports, worth at least £10,000 (Halifax currency), indicate that it was one of the most substantial businesses in the province. To operate so far-flung a network, St George had to travel and correspond extensively, to choose his clerks well, and to delegate effectively. It was quite unusual for a merchant so remote from major centres to be able to deal on an independent basis with as wide a range of suppliers as St George did, and this fact amply demonstrates his ability and reputation.

The expansion of his enterprises was accomplished despite St George’s beginning on his own without partners and with little personal capital. By 1802, however, he had acquired the nearest substitute for capital, credit. His success at linking himself to the fur-trading network nicely illustrates how it was adjusting to the growth of settlement agriculture in Upper Canada. One key aspect of his rise was his decision to move from Niagara to York. There he and two other merchants, Alexander Wood* and William Allan*, became the dominant commercial figures for an entire generation.

St George quickly established ties with the provincial government and especially the British army. He was never fully accepted by York’s local élite, perhaps in part because so many of its members (William Jarvis*, for example) owed him money they could not afford to pay. One indication of this lack of acceptance was the Powell family’s rejection of his “presumption” in wishing to propose marriage to their daughter Anne in 1807. Though his prose style increasingly revealed only occasional gallicisms and spelling eccentricities, he spoke an imperfect English, if his own account is to be believed, and was thus marked as an outsider. His speech did not, however, affect his links to the garrison’s officers, with whom he found much in common, as his very amicable correspondence, conducted in French, with Major William Halton, Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore*’s private secretary, reveals. His closest friend was likewise a slight outsider by the local élite’s standards, Dr William Warren Baldwin*. St George was a good companion and had a widely acknowledged eye for a “petite fillette.” Mrs Baldwin described him cheerfully as “a Frenchman still, a flatterer,” and Dr Baldwin jestingly spoke of him as “almost entirely one of Epicureus’s herd – with eating, drinking and frivolity.” Since the army itself was a major spender and the provincial government also drew much of its money through the military chest at Quebec, St George’s friendships with men who ran the garrison gave him access to the largest source of extra-provincial exchange. In effect, he provided financial services to the commissariat and other local branches of the forces, which regularly drew funds through him. As Robert Hamilton* had earlier done at Niagara, St George could use this exchange to sustain his payments and thus keep his credit high.

Risk-taking was essential to success, as an 1808 episode illustrates. St George ordered a large shipment of tea and other goods from New York City, then barred by the American government from export. With the help of a local man in “the Smugling Business,” his clerk, Green Despard, tied up a Lewiston deputy sheriff and succeeded in bringing the goods across the Niagara River. St George had his share of unwise ventures, of bad debts, and of clerks who absconded, turned to drink, or otherwise proved unequal to the demands of business. Nevertheless, he was an effective manager of credit and of men. He was tested, for example, by his royalist officer colleagues, both as employees and customers, for they seem to have become somewhat jealous of his success and willing to presume upon old loyalties. While maintaining ties with them, he still controlled his losses from the actions of a Boiton or the credit given a Farcy or Chalus. He fiercely resisted what he saw as unwarranted claims by Puisaye. Though this seems not to have been an objective, he came to own a good deal of the land they had claimed as ex-officers. His relationship to employees had a military touch, as if they were junior officers and other ranks. His clerks were “young gentlemen” and his “sense of their fidelity” demanded his loyalty to them. In 1808–9 he defended one of his clerks, at considerable cost, in a legal case and refused to compromise. “You must permit me to withhold comployance with a proposition that should tend to impeach my honor and humanity and the entegrity of those in my employment.”

With the War of 1812, increased military expenditures and the liquidity given to the provincial economy by the government issue of army bills further enhanced St George’s ability to sell his goods profitably and to collect sums owing. Although he lost £2,000 by enemy action, he was undoubtedly able to compensate in other ways. His greatest problem was securing, at prices that were not prohibitively high, further goods to sell. He was financially able to order many goods direct from Great Britain, which he visited early in 1815. On his return to Upper Canada that spring he formed a partnership with John Spread Baldwin (William Warren’s brother) and Jules-Maurice Quesnel*, two of his most trusted clerks, to run the business until the end of 1819. Planning an extended visit to France, he left York in May with a testimonial to his “honor and integrity” by York’s society. Napoleon’s return from Elba delayed his plans and he took the occasion to pass some agreeable months mainly at Quebec, where he apparently became engaged to a Mlle Baby. Still single, however, he set sail for England and France in November 1815.

He anticipated an early return to Upper Canada and continued to speak of business in his correspondence with friends there, though he soon lost touch with details. At a time of sharp deflation that undercut the value of lands and inventory and squeezed debtors mercilessly, Quesnel, John Spread Baldwin, and Dr Baldwin did a remarkable job of releasing capital from St George’s assets in Upper Canada without crippling the ongoing business. Quetton St George and Company continued until December 1819, at which time St George’s capital in it was still valued at £4,000. Thereafter, the firm was known as Baldwin and Quesnel.

Apart from his house and his share of the firm, St George also had substantial land holdings, evidently accumulated with a view to long-term returns. Management of all these assets could have been very costly, and it is testimony to both Baldwins’ friendship, judgement, and honesty that St George did so well from them. How much money he extracted from Upper Canada is difficult to determine exactly, but it must have been no less than £20,000 (Halifax currency), quite enough to transform him into a landed French gentleman. He acquired the domain of Engaran, near Montpellier, and invested at least 120,000 francs in French national debt securities.

After his marriage in 1819 St George revised his will, eliminating bequests to those with whom he had been associated in the Canadas, but leaving 50,000 francs to his natural daughter, now in a convent school in France. His natural son, working in Montreal, was not mentioned. It was not St George’s French estate but rather his Upper Canadian lands (which still totalled 26,000 acres in 1831 when his title, in jeopardy because of his alien status, was finally confirmed by the Upper Canadian legislature) that became the basis for his legitimate son Henry’s landed estate, Glen Lonely. Henry kept in touch with the Baldwins, then moved to the province in 1847 and became a naturalized British subject in 1849.

Quetton St George’s career is unique, made so by his ability to function in France, in émigré society, and in frontier Upper Canada; by his rapid rise in rank in the army; by his success in trading alike with York gentlemen, frontier farmers, and Indians; by his courage in the face of physical danger and economic risk; and by his ultimate creation of himself as a royalist French country gentleman. Yet that career also illustrates the adaptability and resourcefulness needed by men who were caught up in the large events of his time and the elements involved in the business development of early Upper Canada. In his fashion, moreover, St George was a loyalist in Upper Canada himself. As he once wrote, “Revolution deprived me of my motherland, hence I will have the same devotion to the [land] that adopted me.”

Douglas McCalla

ANQ-Q, P-222. AO, ms 88. MTL, W. W. Baldwin papers, A90–91, B109–10; Laurent Quetton de St George papers; Quetton de St George papers, sect.ii. T.-[R.]-V. [Boucher] de Boucherville, A merchants clerk in Upper Canada; the journal of Thomas Verchères de Boucherville, 1804–1811, trans. with intro. by W. S. Wallace (Toronto, 1935). Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth); 1815–34 (Firth). Dionne, Les ecclésiastiques et les royalistes français, 127–65. Donald Greer, The incidence of the emigration during the French revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1951; repr. Gloucester, Mass., 1966). Scadding, Toronto of old (Armstrong; 1966), 129–31. L. E. Textor, A colony of émigrés in Canada, 1798–1816 ([Toronto, 1905]). T. W. Acheson, “John Baldwin: portrait of a colonial entrepreneur,” OH, 61 (1969): 153–66; “The nature and structure of York commerce in the 1820s,” CHR, 50 (1969): 406–28. R. J. Burns, “God’s chosen people: the origins of Toronto society, 1793–1818,” CHA Hist. papers, 1973: 213–28. Douglas McCalla, “The ‘Loyalist’ economy of Upper Canada, 1784–1806,” SH, 16 (1983): 279–304.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Douglas McCalla, “QUETTON ST GEORGE, LAURENT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/quetton_st_george_laurent_6E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/quetton_st_george_laurent_6E.html
Author of Article:   Douglas McCalla
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   June 17, 2024