PROULX, JEAN-BAPTISTE, farmer, militia officer, landowner, and politician; b. 13 July 1793 in Nicolet, Lower Canada, son of Joseph Proulx, a farmer, and Geneviève Crevier Descheneaux; d. there 14 July 1856.
Jean-Baptiste Proulx belonged to an old farming family which had come to Nicolet at the time of French settlement. His personality, shaped in this milieu of farmers, was marked not only by rural values but also by social circumstances in which mutual help based on kin and marriage was of prime importance. Attached to rural society by his upbringing, revering the family values instilled in him, and eager to see his patrimony enlarged and improved, Proulx, like his close relations, became a farmer.
Before so doing, Proulx entered upon a classical education at the Séminaire de Nicolet in 1803. Little is known about the intellectual training he received there, or about the influence his teachers had upon him, since he made no comment on these matters. He finished his studies in 1811 and, unlike his classmates who chose the priesthood or the liberal professions, he decided to return to the family farm. During the War of 1812 he joined the militia and went to the border to fight the Americans.
When Proulx returned to Nicolet in 1814 his father granted him some 150 acres – a third of his land – along with livestock, seed grain, and a parcel of old clothes. Proulx settled in and soon proved a dynamic and efficient farmer. His strength and wealth depended less on the size of his property than on the area he brought under cultivation. From the beginning his land had one of the highest yields in the parish of Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Nicolet, and Proulx was one of the minority of farmers who had a surplus to sell in the adjoining region. Thus he became one of the leading citizens in Nicolet, playing a part in most areas of its collective life. The Saint-Jean-Baptiste registers show that he was often chosen as a godfather, and in the early 19th century such a position was still a sign of prestige within a community. He was prominent in the organizations of his village. Among other things, in 1817 he helped set up a market at Nicolet. He took an interest in the militia, and as a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of Buckingham militia exercised considerable influence in the Trois-Rivières region.
A fervent and well-known defender of French Canadian institutions, Proulx in 1820 got himself elected to the House of Assembly for Buckingham, along with his running mate Louis Bourdages*. He retained his seat until 1838. In the house he attracted no particular attention and was concerned mainly with the problems of his region and little interested in the great political debates or parliamentary struggles. This perspective did not prevent him from earning the respect of colleagues, who appreciated his industriousness and his unfailing attendance at committees to inquire into the development of agriculture and settlement. He had no difficulty in securing re-election in Buckingham in 1824 and was on his way to becoming the spokesman in the house for the farmers of the Trois-Rivières region. Returned again in 1827, he was dismissed from his post as a militia lieutenant because during the elections that year he had taken issue with the policy of the governor-in-chief, Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*], and had made disrespectful remarks concerning Lieutenant-Colonel Kenelm Conor Chandler*, the commander of the 2nd Battalion of Buckingham militia, who was the seigneur of Nicolet.
In 1828 Proulx’s father granted him a sub-fief of about 45 acres, exempt to all intents and purposes from seigneurial dues. His land holdings gave Proulx pre-eminence over the majority of the region’s farmers. He enjoyed a manifest superiority also in various other aspects of his agricultural activity, the most significant undoubtedly being the extent of his livestock. At the end of the 1820s Proulx owned 40 cattle, 7 horses, 60 sheep, and 14 pigs. He was one of the largest suppliers of butcher’s meat in Nicolet; he even sold hay at the market in Trois-Rivières. In such circumstances he was able to entertain the idea of taking a wife. On 5 July 1830 he married a young widow, Flore Lemire, of Baie-du-Febvre, who came from a milieu of well-to-do merchants and farmers. Through this fine marriage – “arranged,” as local tradition aptly puts it – he was able to consolidate his social and economic standing further, since his wife brought a dowry consisting of more than 500 livres and a rich stretch of grassland in the village of Baie-du-Febvre.
That year Proulx was elected to the assembly for the new riding of Nicolet. On his return to the house he was urged to take an increasingly firm stand against the British government; the Patriote party under Louis-Joseph Papineau*, being no longer content to demand administrative and legal reforms, was pressing for full control of the budget by the assembly and an elected legislative council. At the same time, the agricultural crisis, the scarcity of property on seigneurial territory, and land speculation in the townships by important British merchants heightened social tensions and made any reconciliation between the French Canadians and the English Canadians impossible. It was in this period that Proulx openly joined the Patriote party and adopted Papineau’s ideas. During the election campaign in 1834 he warmly defended the 92 Resolutions, and as positions hardened he reached the point of demanding that Lower Canada become independent. In the elections that year he won a resounding victory as a result of the high level of participation of local farmers and day-labourers. His brother-in-law Jean-Baptiste Hébert, a farmer, was also elected without difficulty, becoming the second member for Nicolet. Around these two men, linked through family ties, there increasingly developed a real framework of local power. In 1835 Proulx acquired a quarter of Île Bougainville, near Nicolet, in the hopes of extending his grassland and his cattle raising. Despite heavy duties as a farmer, he continued to wage a bitter struggle in his region against the government.
On the eve of the rebellion Proulx was one of the most active members of the revolutionary organization in his county. He set up local associations, arranged meetings on the steps of churches following Sunday mass, and openly asked his fellow-countrymen to support armed revolt. But he had little success. The repeated interventions of Jean Raimbault*, priest of the parish of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, against any form of rebellion proved persuasive and were much talked of throughout the county. Similarly, the rural populace, who were over-burdened by seigneurial dues, were in effect disarmed by the unconditional support given to the seigneurial class of the Trois-Rivières region by various members of the liberal professions and small merchants. Proulx was denounced by many of his friends, and was taken to jail in Montreal at the end of 1838. He was released the following year for want of evidence.
After the rebellion Proulx withdrew into private life as a result of the disappointments he had experienced, which left him with a deep sense of bitterness. He decided that he would devote himself solely to cultivating his land, and would endeavour to preserve the economic independence he had always cherished. He began by rounding out his lands, adding small parcels bit by bit. From 1844 to 1850 he bought at least 10 properties, acquiring in this way an estate of some 500 acres. His land holdings thus gave him control over a large part of the seigneury of Nicolet. Then, being aware of the developing urban market and of new prospects, he focused his efforts on cattle raising, as the conversion of several holdings into pasture indicates. The slaughterhouse and two dairies on the farm give further proof of the increasing importance of his livestock.
Towards the end of his life Proulx made plans to establish his six children. In 1854 he bought the eldest son a property in Durham Township, and made it over to him. In his last will he named his wife sole legatee, on condition that she bequeath the family inheritance to the children and that she make some kind of division between them. Until the day of his death Proulx acted like an all-powerful family head. He died on 14 July 1856 at Nicolet and was buried three days later in the village church, an obvious sign of his pre-eminence. A few years later his wife, who had always been submissive to him, complied with his wishes to a large extent; the last two sons inherited their father’s estate, while the three girls received generous dowries when they married.
No doubt Jean-Baptiste Proulx had led an ordinary life. It was none the less representative of the destinies of the minority of farmers who kept their eye on the market, strove to preserve their forebears’ patrimony, and exercised considerable power in their communities in the first half of the 19th century in Lower Canada.
ANQ-M, CE3-2, 5 juill. 1830; CN3-81, 1er juill. 1830. ANQ-MBF, CE1-13, 13 juill. 1793, 17 juill. 1856; CN1-23, 28 févr. 1860; CN1-35, 18 juill. 1814; CN1-47, 20 mars 1852, 28 déc. 1854; CN1-52, 30 mars 1835; CN1-56, 6 juill. 1828. ANQ-Q, E17/8, nos.232–51. ASN, AO, Polygraphie, IV, no.19; Séminaire, Cahier de cens et rentes de la seigneurie de Nicolet, 11: 15; 13: 15; Cahier de dîme du curé Jean Raimbault, 1809–40, paiement de la dîme de J.-B. Proulx écuyer, Censier de la seigneurie de Nicolet, 5, nos.28, 30–31, 35–38, 52; Lettres des directeurs et autres à l’évêque de Québec, 2, 23 juill. 1839; Terrier de la seigneurie de Nicolet, 2: 23. PAC, MG 30, D1, 25: 441–48; RG 31, A1, 1831, Nicolet. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1823–24, app.R; 1828–29, app.II. La Minerve, 14 juill. 1856. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” Desjardins, Guide parl. Fauteux, Patriotes, 358. J.-E. Bellemare, Histoire de Nicolet, 1669–1924 (Arthabaska, Qué., 1924). Douville, Hist. du collège-séminaire de Nicolet. Maurice Grenier, “La chambre d’Assemblée du Bas-Canada, 1815–1837” (thèse de ma, univ. de Montréal, 1966). Laurin, Girouard & les Patriotes, 101. L.-O. David, “Les hommes de 37–38: Jean-Baptiste Proulx,” L’Opinion publique, 13 sept. 1877: 433.