GAUVREAU, LOUIS, merchant, landowner, and politician; b. 11 May 1761 at Petite-Rivière-Saint-Charles, in the parish of Notre-Dame de Quebec, son of Alexis Gauvreau and Marie-Anne Hamel; m. first 23 Feb. 1783 Marie-Louise Beleau at Quebec, and they had three children; m. there secondly 13 Sept. 1806 Josette Vanfelson, and they also had three children; d. there 16 Aug. 1822.
Louis Gauvreau was apparently not much drawn to the idea of becoming a farmer like his father, since he was quite young when he left the family farm at Petite-Rivière-Saint-Charles to go and live at Quebec. It is not known how much schooling he had received. However, from his signature, with its well-formed, legible letters, it can be assumed that he had had more than a primary education.
In his family life, Gauvreau was sorely tried by a painful series of deaths. Married at 21, he lost his wife in April 1805; she left three grieving children. In 1808, two years after he had remarried, his wife gave birth to a stillborn child. On 9 June 1813, at the age of 35, she died, as did the infant she had borne two days earlier. Then, in 1818 his only son, Édouard, who had been a lieutenant in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, died.
Gauvreau was actively involved in the social concerns of the community. By the 1790s he was a member of the Quebec Fire Society, and in the period 1807–14 he is listed as a churchwarden of Notre-Dame at Quebec. At the turn of the century, having become a man of comfortable means, he was making regular financial contributions to charitable organizations. He gave money in 1817 for the construction of a road to link the Plains of Abraham with Cap-Rouge. He was now an important figure, and such generosity enabled him to cultivate his image as a politician eager to participate in community life. He was one of the town’s social élite. His daughter Adélaïde married Claude Dénéchau*, and Marie-Josephte-Reine, the only living child of his second marriage, married Sir Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau*.
In business Gauvreau was unquestionably a success. He was active in three sectors of the economy: wholesale and retail trade, real estate (both land and buildings), and banking. The evidence suggests that his trading activities had begun to expand at the outset of the 19th century. As late as 1799 he had to borrow £250 from two compatriots to finance his operations, one of the rare times that he incurred a debt. By 11 March 1800 he had paid off part of the loan, and on 19 March 1801 his creditors gave him a receipt in full.
Between the time of this borrowing and 1806 Gauvreau was remarkably successful with his general store in the faubourg Saint-Jean, which was a large one for the period, the inventory of his stock that year totalling more than £1,000. He had a large quantity of lumber warehoused and thus, on the eve of the boom in lumber and shipbuilding that began around 1807, he was already established in this promising sector. Lumber apparently made up a substantial part of his sales, for he occasionally obtained supplies of it from the United States. The large quantity he had on hand in storage suggests further that buyers could purchase it wholesale as well as retail.
In his general store Gauvreau sold local and imported goods of all kinds, such as stoves and shovels from the Saint-Maurice ironworks, and fabrics, hats, and gloves from England. Because of the size and variety of his stock, his customers came from all over the region, from Cap-Santé, Saint-Nicolas, Sainte-Marie-de-la-Nouvelle-Beauce (Sainte-Marie), Berthier (Berthier-sur-Mer), Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (La Pocatière), and Baie-Saint-Paul, for example, as well as from the town of Quebec and its suburbs. They included people from nearly all classes of society – farmers, blacksmiths, members of the professions such as notary Joseph-Bernard Plant, and, of course, several minor merchants.
Gauvreau may have either dealt directly with the trading houses in London, or used middlemen such as the major merchants and wholesalers at Quebec, who got their supplies from the large firms in England. It is difficult to make a categorical statement on this matter, but Gauvreau did owe sums on account with some British firms and merchants at Quebec, including Blackwood, Paterson and Company and one Joshua Wharton. These accounts seem to indicate that he obtained his dry goods through the big local importers.
Probably to avoid putting all his capital into a single sector – a sign of a certain prudence – Gauvreau advanced fairly substantial sums to numerous individuals at Quebec. Their size shows that he was engaged in banking on a rather high level. His debtors came from among the leading citizens and big merchants as much as from the general population. For example, he lent John Caldwell* the large sum of £1,860 in 1812, and £3,250 in 1815; in the latter year he provided £350 to merchant Michel Borne. Between April and October 1817 he advanced £2,622 in all to various people from Quebec and the surrounding region. Since between 1804 and 1806 he had lent only £666, Gauvreau evidently had become a rich man, as well as a recognized and sought-after financier. Indeed, to put out so much money that was repaid over the relatively long periods of between one and two years, he had to have a great deal of capital at his disposal, especially to be able to go on investing in his business and real estate and continue living in a manner befitting his social station.
Although his real estate activities were on a smaller scale than his banking ones, nevertheless Gauvreau was actively involved in this sector. He received some income from renting two houses in Lower Town and a baker’s shop in the faubourg Saint-Jean, for instance. He occasionally sold one of his properties, particularly in the early years of the century, probably in order to re-invest in his business or to make loans. This strategy enabled him to consolidate his position. When his fortune was firmly established, about the second decade of the century, he chose mainly to accumulate real estate and landed property, which was a way to hedge himself against the unforeseen. With this in mind, in 1815 he purchased the entire fief of Grosse-Île for £600 in cash; around 1800 he had owned a quarter of it, but he had made over his holding to his daughter Adélaïde in 1808. In 1817 he bought a small house in the faubourg Saint-Roch, probably for rental purposes. That year he acquired a major claim on the seigneury of Rivière-du-Sud by buying, through a deed of transfer, the debts of one of its owners, Jacques Couillard-Després, for £550.
Gauvreau resided in a magnificent two-storey stone house on Rue de la Montagne in Lower Town. In 1808 this family home was valued at £1,200, quite a large sum for a house at the period. Gauvreau lived, then, in a building symbolizing his extraordinary success in business. The course of his career was leading him logically towards the upper echelons of the mercantile community and, had he lived another ten years or so, he would probably have made the transition.
Having accumulated a fortune in business, Gauvreau decided to go into politics. He was 48 when in March 1810 he used the Quebec Gazette to campaign in the elections for the Lower Canadian House of Assembly to be held the following month. Successful in the riding of Quebec, and mindful of his image, he took time to express through this newspaper his thanks to the voters who had placed their confidence in him. He followed the same procedure in 1816 and 1820. Gauvreau sat continuously in the house from 1810 to 1822, the year of his death. At no time did his new office prevent him from carrying on commercial and financial activities.
Gauvreau’s work in the assembly was marked by moderation and assiduity. He seems to have been on excellent terms with Louis-Joseph Papineau*. When the first session of the eighth parliament opened on 21 Jan. 1815 he seconded Thomas Lee’s motion nominating Papineau for speaker of the house. In February, Lee brought a motion to grant a salary to the speaker, and Gauvreau again seconded it. He did, however, oppose a bill to pay the speaker of the Legislative Council.
Gauvreau did not vote consistently with his Canadian colleagues. Instead, he acted and voted according to his conscience and his concerns. In 1815 he came out in favour of applying English private law in the province as it was practised in England, but the proposal was rejected by a majority of the house. Again, in 1816 when Augustin Cuvillier* presented a petition from the Montreal merchants for a bank to be established, Gauvreau unreservedly supported Cuvillier’s motion that it be sent to a house committee for study. The following year the Bank of Montreal was founded; and by 1818 it had set up a branch at Quebec. As a merchant cognizant of the current economic situation, in which there were forces moving towards the establishing of a banking system in Lower Canada, Gauvreau was in favour of founding a bank. But as a Quebec merchant he might have opposed setting up an establishment emanating from the Montreal business world. That he was not governed by regional considerations demonstrates his broadmindedness.
As a member of parliament Gauvreau sat on several committees set up to study various problems of a socio-economic nature. He was, for example, on the committee responsible for examining the “Accounts and Statements which accompanied the Message of His Excellency the Governor in Chief, respecting the distress of the Country Parishes,” and on one set up to study a statute concerning police regulations. In addition, he frequently was involved in all the various stages dealing with bills put before the members of parliament. The constant presence in the house of a man who was engaged in numerous profitable activities outside its walls was a good thing. Even when he was very ill in 1822, the year he died, Gauvreau still found the energy to participate in the diverse endeavours of the assembly. It is thus easy to understand why his electors put their trust in him for 12 years.
In the final analysis, Louis Gauvreau must be seen as the epitome of that part of the Canadian bourgeoisie which showed it could attain material success through commercial activity.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 12 mai 1761; 13 sept. 1806; 26 janv. 1808; 9 févr. 1812; 7, 9 juin 1813; 19 août 1822; CN1-16, 30 mars, 10 nov. 1805; 10, 21 févr., 23 juin, 25 juill., 25 août, ler, 20 sept., 29 oct., 19–20 nov. 1806; 8 mars, ler avril 1808; 24 oct., 20 nov. 1815; CN1-49, 15 juin 1815; CN1-99, 23 nov. 1802; CN1-178, 15 mars 1799; 11 mars 1800; 19 mars, 11 avril 1801; CN1-205, 23 févr. 1783; CN1-212, 2 août 1822; CN1-230, 10 avril 1804, 12 sept. 1806; CN1-262, 24 mai 1807; ler avril 1808; 18 juin 1812; 29 mai, 6 sept. 1815; 31 mars, 11, 21, 23 avril, 30 mai, 2, 4, 6, 9, 13–14, 20 juin, 2, 4, 7 juill., 6 sept., 9, 20 oct. 1817. L.C., House of Assembly, Journaux, 1815: 26–27, 57, 331, 492; 1816: 173; 1817: 169, 203, 217; 1818: 12; 1822, February. Quebec Gazette, 11 June 1795; 21 March 1799; 15 March, 5 April 1810; 14 March, 4 April 1816; 13 March 1817; 9 April 1818; 2, 16 March 1820; 19 April, 19 Aug. 1822. Desjardins, Guide parl. George Bervin, “Aperçu sur le commerce et le crédit à Québec, 1820–1830,” RHAF, 36 (1982–83): 527–51. Henri Têtu, “L’abbé André Doucet, curé de Québec, 1807–1814,” BRH, 13 (1907): 18.