PROULX (Proust, Prou), LOUIS, farmer, businessman, seigneur, and politician; b. 29 Oct. 1751 in Nicolet (Que.), son of Jean-Baptiste Proulx, a farmer, and Marie-Magdeleine Pinard; d. there 3 March 1838.
Louis Proulx belonged to a farming family that had established itself in the Trois-Rivières district during the early days of French settlement. Since 1725 his father had lived at Nicolet, where, having bought more than 480 arpents of land, he engaged in activities related to agriculture. In all likelihood Louis settled down early in life on one of the family properties to farm.
In 1779 Proulx hired a skipper to carry wheat to Quebec on the Saint-Pierre, which he owned, and he called himself a merchant, a designation implying a social rank above that of his family. At the time he was speculating principally in grain, his most important concern, and cattle. He would buy wheat from farmers in Nicolet and through a well-organized transportation network sell it to various Quebec merchants, who dealt with him direct. He traded cattle for the most part locally, leasing much of his livestock to farmers in his parish. Proulx was also interested in buying land, albeit on a modest scale. In addition, he made loans in grain and small sums of money to the farmers around Nicolet. By exploiting the forests on his farm he was able to market firewood in Trois-Rivières. In the 1780s he became an important merchant in his community and by developing various local initiatives to the full he established a base for the accumulation of capital.
On 18 Jan. 1784, at the age of 32, Proulx married Marie-Anne Brassard, the daughter of a wealthy farmer from Nicolet. This advantageous match assisted him in maintaining his social status and enhancing his popularity with local farmers. From that time his activities became regional in scope and he concentrated avidly on acquiring more land through clever and persistent scheming. Sometimes he took direct steps, buying a lot and then renting or selling it at a profit. But he also seems to have proceeded indirectly. He would engage in such transactions as lending money or grain and setting up rentes constituées, a type of annuity which was a loan under the legal guise of a contract, and then wait until the farmers were so heavily in debt that selling their land for a pittance was their only option. There was seldom a year that he did not manage to take possession of a property in his own parish or neighbouring ones through a type of sale known as à réméré, which allowed for repurchase by the vendor within a set period and which was, in fact, a disguise for borrowing. Between 1784 and 1798 he indeed obtained from vendors unable to buy back their land nearly 50 lots which he later sold at top price. Proulx adopted, then, a capitalistic approach to property, which to him was not only a sure and stable element, but also a source of financial gain. His constant concern was to keep his holdings in line with currency fluctuations and potential profits.
A shrewd merchant, Proulx made an effort to diversify his investments, as he had done at the beginning of his career. Even though he had put a good part of his liquid assets into landed property, he continued to speculate in commodities such as wheat and cattle. He handled the building and repairing of local churches as a contractor. By the late 18th century Proulx was a powerful and indeed pre-eminent merchant who became increasingly active on the regional level.
In 1798 the curé of Nicolet, Louis-Marie Brassard*, conscious of his parishioner’s influence and prestige, named him head churchwarden. Six years later Proulx was elected to the House of Assembly for Buckingham, which he represented until 1808. His importance can, moreover, be gauged by the fact that on 23 Jan. 1810 his only daughter, Marie-Anne, married François Legendre of Gentilly (Bécancour), a surveyor who also represented Buckingham in the assembly and whose late father had been a major landowner – altogether an ideal marriage for both families.
After 1800 Proulx concentrated on acquiring seigneuries. An excellent occasion had arisen in 1796 when seigneur Dominique Debartzch’s widow, Marie-Josephte, had taken the initiative in selling him a large part of La Lussodière, a rich seigneury upstream from Nicolet. In 1812 Proulx set out to purchase as much of the adjoining seigneury of Saint-François as he could. He bought the share of co-seigneur François-Xavier Crevier on 23 July, and that of Crevier’s brother Joseph-Antoine a week later. In February 1817 he persuaded his own brother Joseph to cede him the seigneurial rights he had acquired from his wife, Geneviève Crevier Descheneaux. Finally, that year he bought the shares and portions belonging to Joseph Mercure.
Proulx, however, was not satisfied merely to have the title of seigneur. His properties were enterprises to be made as profitable as possible. Precise and meticulous, he first put the registers of seigneurial dues into order. In 1818 he had his territory mapped by his son-in-law. Then he listed the full names of the tenants in a large register, and recorded the details about each parcel of land, including area, location relative to neighbouring parcels, dues, and the principal changes in ownership since the original leases had been granted. In this way he acquired a thorough knowledge not only of his domains and what they produced, but also of the income from them and the attached seigneurial rights.
In January 1828 Proulx, who was 76, resigned himself to handing all his property over to Legendre by a deed of gift. He seemed to feel that not being able to leave his estate to a son bearing his name was a shameful misfortune. In his final years he was content to live quite simply. Nicolet was truly an ideal retreat, allowing him to observe the work on the land and cultivate his garden at leisure. He passed away quietly on 3 March 1838, and he was buried two days later in the parish church, a mark of his distinction.
Doubtless the earliest of his farming family to liberate himself from working the land, Louis Proulx is an excellent example of those who managed to rise in society and build up an impressive fortune. His achievement needs to be seen especially within the framework of a colony which after the conquest experienced an unprecedented growth in population and new access to British markets. His exemplary success confirms the dynamic and extensive commercial activity of rural Lower Canada in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
ANQ-M, CN3-78, 12 févr. 1817; CN3-88, 23 sept. 1796. ANQ-MBF, CE1-13, 30 oct. 1751, 18 janv. 1784, 23 janv. 1810, 4 mars 1838; CN1-4, 15 mars 1792; 8 janv., 19 févr., 4, 15 mars 1796; 1er févr., 24 mai, 28 juill., 8 sept., 18 nov. 1797; 23 mars, 23 avril 1798; 8 févr. 1799; CN1-5, 31 juill. 1779; 17 juin 1780; 23 juill. 1781; 16 févr., 6 août 1782; 17 janv., 16 juill. 1783; 16 mars 1784; 27 mars, 25 juill., 2 août 1786; 13 janv. 1787; 21 mars 1788; 15 févr., 16 août 1790; 31 mai 1791; 29 mai 1792; 11 juin 1793; 27 févr., 23 mai 1794; 1er avril, 27 mai, 24 nov. 1795; 7–9, 11 janv. 1796; 27 janv. 1797; CN1-6, 31 juill. 1812; CN1-31, 25 févr. 1803; 23 mars, 20 août 1812; 7 janv. 1828; CN1-35, 8 févr. 1817; CN1-79, 23 mars 1807. AP, La Nativité-de-Notre-Dame (Bécancour), Cahiers des recettes et dépenses de la fabrique, 1764–85, 1786–1832; Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue (Baieville), Cahiers des recettes et dépenses de la fabrique, 1735–1818; Saint-Édouard (Bécancour), Cahiers des recettes et dépenses de la fabrique, 1784–1930; Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Nicolet), Cahiers des recettes et dépenses de la fabrique, 1734–1822. ASN, AP-G, J-B. Lozeau, 1–3; M-G. Proulx, reg. des généalogies, 300–6; succession, 2, no.6. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” F.-J. Audet et Fabre Surveyer, Les députés de Saint-Maurice et de Buckinghamshire, 69–74. Desjardins, Guide parl., 125. P.-G. Roy, Inv. concessions, 3: 72, 75–76; 5: 114, 119–20. Bellemare, Hist. de Nicolet, 86. T.-M. Charland, Histoire de Saint-François-du-Lac (Ottawa, 1942), 94–96, 220, 264. J.-P. Wallot, “La querelle des prisons (Bas-Canada, 1805–1807),” RHAF, 14 (1960–61): 262, 265.