PLESSY (Plessis), dit Bélair, JEAN-LOUIS, merchant tanner of Montreal; b. 1678, son of Jean Plessy, dit Bélair, a master tanner, and Françoise Mathusson of Metz in Lorraine (France); m. 27 Feb. 1713 at Montreal to Marie-Anne Petit Boismorel; they had 20 children of whom 13 died young; buried 21 March 1743 at Montreal.
Jean-Louis Plessy’s nickname “Bélair” can only have described his appearance for tanneries were so malodorous that they were kept well outside the towns. The low repute of tanning was, however, sweetened by the smell of money. Though it took considerable capital to establish a tannery, many in New France tried their hand at it and the inferior leather produced by the inexperienced forced the intendant in the early 18th century to restrict the trade to a few proven tanners. In Montreal Charles Delaunay* and Gérard Barsalou enjoyed a near monopoly of the lucrative craft. To foster greater competition and productivity Intendant Jacques Raudot* gave Jean-Louis Plessy permission in 1710 to operate a tannery in the same town and warned the other two not “to trouble him [Plessy] in the exercise of his trade.”
Plessy had come to Canada as a recruit in the colonial regular troops and had been discharged in his twenties. The son and grandson of master tanners at Metz, he had worked in France before enlisting. The records and testimony given to the intendant in 1710 also bore witness that Plessy “had for two years managed Jean [L’Archevêque]’s tannery, one of the largest in this country, and that he had even worked in all the other tanneries.” Plessy, however, lacked the means to establish his own business. He went into partnership with a butcher, Joseph Guyon Després, who agreed to erect and equip a tannery and to finance its first year of operation. Plessy’s relations with his backer’s family were evidently good for in 1713 he married Després’s sister-in-law. His part of the marriage settlement was 1,000 livres earned as a tanner. Jacques Thibierge, the king’s gunsmith at Montreal and a friend, acted as his witness to the contract.
In 1714 Plessy felt that he could now run his own tannery. With savings and loans amounting to 2,200 livres, he bought land upon which he had a carpenter build a 37 by 21 ft tannery, a tanbark mill, a house, and outbuildings. Plessy enjoyed a modest prosperity; he erected other buildings, leased a house, and bought a Pawnee slave whom he apprenticed to a shoemaker. Contracts were made with butchers for raw skins, and Plessy’s leather found a ready market with shoemakers of the region.
After Jean-Louis Plessy, dit Bélair, died in 1743 his eldest son Charles carried on in his trade until 1749. Another son, Joseph-Amable, became a blacksmith and fathered Plessy’s most illustrious descendant: Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis*.
ANQ, Greffe de François Genaple de Bellefonds, 8 févr. 1707; NF, Documents de la juridiction de Montréal, VI, 193–95; XI, 67–68; XII, 40–43; NF, Ord. int., IV, 27–28. ANQ-M, Greffe de Jacques David, 31 oct. 1721, 13 sept. 1722, 4 avril 1723; Greffe de Michel Lepailleur, 24 févr. 1713, 21 mai 1716, passim; Greffe de J.-C. Raimbault, 19 oct. 1727; Greffe de Pierre Raimbault, 27 mars 1710; Documents judiciaires, 2 juill. 1728; Registres des audiences, VII, 793, 835. Édits ord., II, 265–66. L’île de Montréal en 1731 (A. Roy), 43. P.-G. Roy, Inv. jug. et délib., 1717–1760, I, 101, 126, 128, 235; II, 25; Inv. ord. int., I, 17, 48, 96. Tanguay, Dictionnaire, I, 478; VI, 390. J.-N. Fauteux, Essai sur l’industrie, 419–21, 426, 436, 443.