Female entrepreneurs in New France

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Women of all classes engaged in commercial enterprises in New France. Their activities were facilitated by the colony’s Custom of Paris, which gave them broader property rights than most other French legal codes.

As was traditionally the case in northern France and the Low Countries, a fairly large number of wives and single women were involved in business in New France. Widows (who ordinarily retained rights to half of the marital estate) also played a prominent role. Indeed, during the French regime in New France (1604-1760) women held fuller legal rights and conducted a broader range of economic activities than their granddaughters would later possess when French rule was replaced by British laws and practices. Conditions in the colonies, such as the long distances to negotiate, required teamwork, while the constant need for men to serve during the colony’s conflicts encouraged female enterprise. 
Historians have noted a certain number of high-profile traders. Some belonged to transatlantic mercantile families, where a husband might procure a ship to send textiles, manufactured goods and luxury items from Bordeaux or other western ports, which their wife (and their children once they came of age) could exchange for hides and furs in Canada. In La Rochelle, the Montrealer Marguerite Bouat managed the most prominent company in the Canada trade for a decade after the death of her husband in 1717 and also held an official position as a price regulator. Widows and other women of the D’Argenteuil, Catignon,Charly, Fornel and Soumande families also participated in transatlantic shipping.
Others focused on the export of premium quality items from Quebec, especially products from animals trapped and traded in the continental interior. The wives of the commanders at Detroit, Niagara, Crown Point and other outposts organized this trade while their husbands oversaw the fort’s defences. Two unmarried sisters from Montreal’s Desaulniers family managed to evade the authorities for a quarter-century as they cooperated with Indigenous co-conspirators to smuggle pelts between Albany and the Kahnawake mission near Montreal, avoiding the Crown tax on furs. Trade accounts in Albany mention numerous transactions between travelling Iroquois women, often involving textiles or alcohol which they resold in their camps or carried farther north to Canada. Historians have identified other Indigenous and métis women living west of the Great Lakes who made use of family and clan networks to exchange large quantities of furs and trade goods at French missions and posts. Sometimes, French wives and widows from those posts appeared in Montreal or Quebec to purchase sizeable loads of cloth, spirits, salt, guns and shot, kettles and axes for shipment westward. Mesdames Benoist, Baby, Saint-Anges Charly, and many others who resided in the east all procured funds and shipped supplies west. When hides began to surpass furs as the leading export item, more than one woman opened a tannery to process the product.
All this commerce was a great opportunity in a beleaguered and somewhat impoverished colony. Among the elite, men almost invariably aspired to military positions, which left large numbers of women at home to develop the seigneury or urban businesses. Indeed, Agathe St. Pere, wife of an illustrious officer, founded Montreal’s first textile factory after ransoming some American weavers captured by Indigenous allies. There were also significant female-led ventures involved in supplying wood for shipyards and export, including shipments of oak that could reach tens of thousands of livres in value. The Wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession in the first half of the eighteenth century, as well as the final conflict which led to the in the colony’s conquest by the British army in 1760, all called men off to war, pushing wives and widows into business in increasing numbers. Though on a small scale, women sewed uniforms and tents or provided foodstuffs and lodging for troops, while some seigneurial families supplied large quantities of timber, grain, produce or hay. The widow and daughter of the famously extravagant Montreal Governor Claude de Ramezay, focused on keeping their military family afloat. To meet the demands of creditors, they initially manufactured bricks and tiles in Montreal, later turning to sawing and exporting wood from the family seigneury.
Convents also had their female entrepreneurs. Montreal’s Grey Nuns managed a workshop that produced thousands of shirts for the fur trade. Nearby, the workshop at the Hotel Dieu made shoes for the local population (a 1734 fire destroyed 600 pairs, plus tools). Convent mills profited from grinding the grain of the local farmers who lived on their seigneuries, such as the one belonging to Quebec’s Augustinian nuns. Convents also made pharmaceuticals that were shipped throughout the colony and to western posts. In the 1750s, the Grey Nuns running Montreal’s hospice also employed twenty-two men on their two commercial farms. In a colony where officials often lamented the lack of manufactured goods, convents made and sold soap, candles, butter, baked goods, window panes, and birchbark boxes for the tourist trade, while nuns also carved, embroidered, painted and gilded all kinds of church statues, vestments and decor. In sum, it is clear that the Custom of Paris, wartime conditions and economic necessities converged to encourage widespread female enterprise in New France.


Published in may 2021

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