ROUSSEAU, DOMINIQUE, silversmith, fur trader, businessman, and militia officer; b. 9 Nov. 1755 at Quebec, son of Louis-Alexandre, Rousseau, dit Beausoleil, a merchant, and his second wife, Marie-Joseph Chabot; d. 27 Feb. 1825 following a stroke, in Montreal.
Although Dominique Rousseau had a complex and diversified life, documentary sources make it possible to sketch the stages of his career. From 1776 to 1790 he was mainly called silversmith. The subsequent importance of his commercial activities is reflected in the designations négociant (1784–1815), bourgeois (1799–1806), marchand (1806–15), marchand voyageur (1816–21), and commerçant (1821–25). But he was equally an agricultural producer, potash manufacturer, militia captain (1802), and then major (1812), as well as a landowner with large holdings. He was called écuyer (esquire) from 1801.
Rousseau started out at Quebec, where he learned the silversmith’s craft, probably in a group around Joseph Schindler* in which he met his friend Louis Huguet, dit Latour. He went to Montreal, as did Huguet, and may have worked there for fur merchant François Cazeau*; Cazeau was present at his marriage with Charlotte Foureur on 30 Jan. 1776. Rousseau lived at Grondines (Saint-Charles-des-Grondines), where his family made its home by 1779, but returned to Montreal in June 1780, several months after his father’s death. The next year he moved into a house on Rue Saint-Jacques bought from his father-in-law Louis Foureur*, dit Champagne. His business prospered rapidly. In 1781 he rented a pew in the church of Notre-Dame and lent 1,175 livres, without interest, “in gold of Spanish currency,” to his brother-in-law silversmith Pierre Foureur, dit Champagne, who may have apprenticed with Rousseau. But in 1783 he stopped practising his craft when he rented his house to silversmith Charles Duval. The rent was to be paid in articles of trade silver which Rousseau was to market.
In the spring of 1784 Rousseau was in business as a merchant at Saint-Philippe-de-Laprairie. He bought at least six properties there, and lived in an apartment that he kept for himself in one of the houses he leased out. He worked his lands through several farmers, to whom he supplied farm implements and animals, and he marketed their meat, dairy products, vegetables, hay, and wheat. He was so successful that in 1789 he sold three of his farms for £900, more than triple what he had paid for them. He had moved back to Montreal in May 1787, but only for a year. From 1788 to 1791 he lived at Longueuil, where he called himself a merchant and silversmith. In 1792 he took up permanent residence on Rue Notre-Dame, across from the Recollets, in a house once owned by the Foureur, dit Champagne, family that his mother-in-law had made over to him the previous year. He immediately became keeper of the keys for the fire pumps in his ward.
From 1793 to 1795 Rousseau worked on Rue Saint-François-Xavier. To turn out in short order 12,000 pairs of drop ear-rings commissioned by François Bouthillier, he had the help of silversmiths Henry Polonceaux, Sigmund Hiltne, John Oakes, Nathan Starns, and Christian Grothé. Grothé indeed supplied Rousseau until 1801, even going into partnership with Charles-David Bohle for a year. Rousseau carried out this undertaking with great ingenuity. One of his properties at Saint-Philippe-de-Laprairie was used as a guarantee and changed hands several times, while Starns’s salary was paid in kind, in the form of a draw-bench. A number of documents provide copious information about the price of items and salaries. A further detail illustrates the stiff competition in the field: a model “wrapped in a sealed paper” was not handed over to Grothé until the contract had been signed in the presence of a notary.
In 1796 Rousseau again became a merchant, moved into a house on Rue Saint-Paul, and sublet one of the two stores in it; the common passageway was also put at the disposal of sellers of “small items.” Rousseau himself carried a variety of retail merchandise. In addition he went into partnership with his brother François and Jean-Baptiste-Toussaint Pothier* in March 1797 to set up a potashery at Deschambault. Pothier soon withdrew, but Rousseau had the necessary buildings put up and began production in the summer. In May 1798 he hired a “master potash-maker” for “as long as there is work.”
The summer of 1798 marked a turning-point in Rousseau’s career. He sold “merchandise, silver articles, and clothing” worth 16,223 livres 15 sols to Pierre-Gabriel Cotté, which he contracted to deliver at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) and consign to Pothier. Rousseau became a bourgeois and hired voyageurs. He enjoyed the favour of Joseph Lamothe, a captain in the Indian Department who made him long-term loans, interest-free, totalling 24,200 livres (£1,008 6s. 8d.). In the period from 1799 to 1809 Rousseau employed up to about 60 engagés, including some 50 winterers, and fitted out as many as seven canoes a year. Among the engagés the trades of baker, tailor, cooper, miller, and carpenter were represented. Rousseau had two clerks at Michilimackinac from 1802 to 1805, and three from 1805 till 1808, and he himself went there every summer. His winterers generally located in the south, in the regions then called the Illinois country, the Upper and Lower Mississippi, the Grand River (Mich.), and Detroit. But in 1802 in association with Joseph Bailly he tried to establish himself at Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.). The 10-man crew under clerk Paul Hervieux included a guide, François Rastoulle, six voyageurs, a baker, and a winterer. But the powerful North West Company, jealous of territory it considered its exclusive property, attacked the expedition.
The dispute, which went on for some time, started in July 1802, mainly between Duncan McGillivray* and Hervieux. Simon McTavish*, Archibald Norman McLeod, and Rastoulle also had a part in it. The NWC sought to prevent the expedition from putting up its tents and trading on sites cleared by the company. Hervieux produced the licence issued to his bourgeois by the American government and disputed the NWC’s claims to a monopoly on trade. In a fit of anger and with a torrent of insults, McGillivray slashed one of the tents and mocked the expedition by setting fire to another. Then the NWC forbad its engagés, under pain of punishment, to trade with Hervieux. As a result Hervieux could only sell a quarter of his goods (half of which were dry goods and the rest wet); from the cargo, valued at £840, he had been expecting a profit of £2,500 to £3,000.
In October Rousseau and Bailly sued McGillivray in the Court of King’s Bench. The examination of 16 witnesses was postponed until March 1803. A number of voyageurs testified for the plaintiffs, but so did merchants such as Thomas Forsyth, Maurice-Regis Blondeau*, Jean-Baptiste Tabeau, and Daniel Sutherland. Hervieux admitted that in selling his merchandise more cheaply than his competitors he had been conducting a price war. Other testimony disclosed that he had been aiming in particular at Joseph Lecuyer, a merchant associated with the NWC who mainly sold liquor. Rousseau had himself stated, in the presence of Henry McKenzie at Michilimackinac, that he had sent a canoe to Grand Portage in an attempt to force down the NWC prices and that he would persist until he reached his objective. McKenzie, who had arrived at Grand Portage before Hervieux, had warned his employers, and they had decided to thwart Hervieux.
The court ordered McGillivray to pay damages of £500 plus court costs. Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] remarked that the sum “could not possibly indemnify [Rousseau] for the profit which he had reason to expect, and was a mere trifle to the North-West Company, in comparison with the benefit of maintaining their monopoly, and of deterring others from attempting a similar interference.” It was a great moral victory, however, since by the case the NWC had lost legal recognition of its monopoly rights. Historian Grace Lee Nute concluded that it was this case that prompted the NWC to establish itself on British territory at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.).
In 1806 Rousseau tried a new tactic against the NWC. In addition to the 47 winterers established south of Michilimackinac, he sent an expedition north-westwards led by François Hénault, dit Delorme, one of his voyageurs. However, the NWC got wind of the venture and detailed a few men under orders of Alexander MacKay* to “keep an eye” on them. Delorme prudently went from Grand Portage to Rainy Lake over American territory, taking a route that had been abandoned by the NWC since the events of 1802. But MacKay’s party blocked their passage by cutting down trees, forcing Delorme to abandon his goods on the spot. This time the dispute would be settled out of court.
On 10 Dec. 1806 an agreement was reached between Rousseau and the agents of the Michilimackinac Company [see John Ogilvy*], that is to say Jean-Baptiste-Toussaint Pothier, Josiah Bleakley, Jacques Giasson, George Gillespie*, and David Mitchell Jr. Rousseau promised to respect the limits of trading areas agreed to by that company and the NWC, not to engage in business dealings with the Indians but only with whites, and not to have any other separate interests. In return Rousseau was granted a retail store at Michilimackinac, enjoying a monopoly except for one other store which belonged to the Michilimackinac Company. The value of goods supplied annually by the company was not to exceed £2,000 unless by mutual agreement. In the event of failure to respect the agreement the offender would have to pay a fine of £1,000 to the injured party. The accord was ratified for a 10-year period, as was the one concluded that month by the NWC and the Michilimackinac Company.
On 12 Jan. 1807 Rousseau signed another agreement, this time with William and Duncan McGillivray, William Hallowell, Roderick McKenzie*, John Ogilvy, and Thomas Thain, to “put an amicable end to all contentious issues” arising from the confrontation between MacKay and Delorme. Rousseau was to receive £600, and in return the NWC would be allowed to recover the merchandise left behind by Delorme “at the place called Portage de l’Orignal.” In the spring Rousseau fitted out only one very small expedition. On 6 July at Michilimackinac he signed a private agreement terminating his contract with the Michilimackinac Company. But there is every reason to believe that he continued none the less to work for it until it was taken over in 1811 by John Jacob Astor’s South West Fur Company. Indeed, in the inventory of Rousseau’s estate done after his death the notary recorded 68 documents concerning the Michilimackinac Company, which suggests that commercial operations had continued on a large scale.
In October 1807 Rousseau owed £3,208 to David David and £1,500 to William and Andrew* Porteous for various goods that he had bought for trading. His creditors recognized Rousseau’s honesty and integrity: his failure to repay them did not stem from negligence and had to be attributed “to the present state of commerce in this province.” Rousseau actually owned furs worth £850, which were later sold in England. Several people also owed him sums totalling 76,284 livres (£3,178 10s.). Robert Dickson and his company owed the largest amounts, 31,624 livres and 5,800 livres. In 1804 Rousseau had in fact entrusted to Dickson the management of all his belongings and business affairs in Upper Canada and the United States, “whether in his trading with the Indians or otherwise.” Before leaving for Michilimackinac in the spring of 1808 Rousseau delegated his attorney, David David, to attend a meeting of the creditors of Dickson, who was represented in Montreal by James McGill*. That summer he had a three-storey warehouse with a deep cellar and a kitchen built on Rue Notre-Dame at a cost of £400. Rousseau set up his headquarters in it, but did not give up his trips to the pays d’en haut.
He returned to the fur business in 1811, as soon as the Michilimackinac Company was liquidated. Unfortunately the pelts stored in one of his warehouses on the Place des Commissaires were stolen. In March 1813 he supplied furs to dealer Joseph Lemoine, Gabriel Franchère*’s relative. He went back into business with Jean-Baptiste-Toussaint Pothier, who furnished him with goods worth £707. Despite the uncertainty engendered by the war with the Americans he sent four canoes to Michilimackinac in the spring. Seeing that the route was open, he went into partnership with Michel Lacroix to send a second, last-minute expedition at the end of August; it consisted of two winterers, one hired for two years. In December he signed a partnership agreement with Paul-Joseph Lacroix. The collaboration was profitable and lasted until after Rousseau’s death since Lacroix, his loyal partner, was his principal executor.
In making the final inventory the notary recorded a number of documents relating to Rousseau’s dealings with the two Lacroixs: 54 concerned Michel and 121 Paul-Joseph. From 1814 to 1819 Michel traded for Rousseau at “Haokia or Saint Louis” (the vicinity of St Louis, Mo.) and York (Toronto) with, among others, John Baptiste Jacobs, Joseph Cadotte, and Duncan Cameron*. In 1823 Rousseau delegated his attorney Pierre Cabané to go to St Louis and settle all debts owing him with the executors or administrators of Michel Lacroix and John Hays. During the same period Rousseau hired some voyageurs in partnership with Paul-Joseph and others for the firm of Berthelotte et Rollette. He also employed merchant-voyageurs from Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes (Oka) such as Bernard and Louis Lyons and François-Benjamin Pillet, whose pelts he alone stored and marketed. The contract that he signed with Pillet on 31 July 1823 gives copious, detailed information about Rousseau’s business and the market prices then prevalent.
In the course of his career Rousseau invested in numerous pieces of landed property. He rarely mortgaged them, preferring to pay for them quickly. Only occasionally did he sell any, choosing instead to rent and improve them. In addition to those already mentioned he bought an impressive store on Rue Saint-Paul in 1803, as well as several lots and properties in the faubourg Sainte-Marie; he had at least one house built there, as well as a splendid store in 1820. In 1811 he was granted four pieces of land at Hemmingford which he gave to Marie-Anne Rousseau, the wife of his friend John (Jean-Baptiste) Delisle, in 1823. In 1814 he paid £2,250 for a fine property on Rue Notre-Dame that he rented to several merchants for £200 a year. In 1820 he bought some land in the seigneury of Léry, at Blairfindie (L’Acadie), which he immediately gave to one of his wife’s adopted daughters. Throughout his life he regularly lent large sums to various people, and he frequently used his administrative talents as an attorney.
A biographical account of Rousseau would be incomplete without mention of his unusual marital situation. His relations with Charlotte Foureur remain unclear. He did not live with her over a long period because he had a regular female companion, Jean Cook, with whom in the years 1796–1811 he had five children, all unacknowledged publicly for a while. From 1803 Rousseau recognized them, gave them his name, and made them his heirs and their mother his usufructuary. Thereafter they lived in the faubourg Sainte-Marie, near Rousseau’s other properties. Rousseau was alleged to have fathered two other children baptized at Michilimackinac in 1821, who were born of different mothers. In fact, it was his son, also called Dominique, who was the father of one mixed-blood girl and later the godfather of another. Charlotte Foureur for her part adopted two girls whom she had raised from childhood.
Rousseau’s desire to bequeath his property to his illegitimate children became a veritable obsession. He drew up some ten wills, at least four of them in the last two years of his life. But the bequest made in 1812 was very unusual. Rousseau and his wife conjointly gave two properties to the five children, and to their mother as usufructuary. Nevertheless, after her husband’s death Charlotte Foureur frustrated his wishes in part, by exercising the rights and covenants consented to in her marriage contract. The saga furnishes some interesting information on those to whom Rousseau was close. For example, the choice of executors he made reveals that he had special ties with the following: Charles Dézéry Latour in 1788; Thomas Forsyth in 1803; Étienne Nivard Saint-Dizier from 1808 to 1812; Joseph-Maurice Lamothe, François Toupin, and John Delisle from 1816 to 1823; Henry Bellefeuille in 1824; then, in the last wills, Joseph Masson* and Paul-Joseph Lacroix.
The inventory of Rousseau’s goods after his death and the sale that followed show beyond any doubt that he had an opulent style of life; he had several domestic servants. He owned a dinner service for 60, and had enough food and drink to get him through a siege. The silverware was valued at £46 2s., and he left a credit balance of £880. Only part of the library was inventoried. Rousseau’s main interests can, however, be determined from it: nature, law, finance, and the fur trade. The sale of his belongings brought in £286; his partner Paul-Joseph Lacroix bought 2,227 drop ear-rings.
Rousseau had begun his career as a master silversmith, but had soon turned his natural talents as a merchant to selling first silver-work and then all sorts of goods, and he wound up trading in furs. Because of the nature of his double career he had a privileged position in the marketing of trade silver, which reached a peak of production coinciding exactly with Rousseau’s career and the extraordinary epic of the NWC. His career as a silversmith was, indeed, devoted exclusively to this specialty. But sooner than make the articles himself, he called upon the services of various professional colleagues. Of these Salomon Marion seems to have had a privileged position. No example of this proto-industrial production has been preserved, and no mark has yet been attributed to Rousseau. It should be noted, however, that one contemporary silversmith at Detroit, Dominique Réopelle, had the same initials.
Dominique Rousseau’s main activity, in truth, was trading in furs. His career gives insight into an economic situation pitting French-speaking merchants, on unequal terms, against monopolies held by English-speaking merchants marshalled in powerful companies. At the time of Rousseau’s assaults on the NWC some hint of nationalism could be sensed in his claims to part of that lucrative market. The support he received in his lawsuit in 1802–3 and the agreements binding him to a number of French-speaking traders indicate there was a certain cohesion in this milieu, which has a history thus far neglected.
[I wish to thank three students, José Ménard, Joanne Chagnon, and the late Mary Henshaw, who worked closely with me in researching Dominique Rousseau and in amassing the abundant material available on him. This biography is based on computerized analysis of a vast number of notarized instruments and of other archival material. A useful source is Grace Lee Nute’s “A British legal case and old Grand Portage,” Minn. Hist. (St Paul), 21 (1940): 117–48; it provides a number of leads and a well-documented analysis, as well as a full transcript of the evidence heard in court on 21–23 March 1803 in the action launched by Rousseau and Bailly against McGillivray. The present account gives only a brief summary of the wealth of data in this material which, among other things, discloses a great many details about market practices in the fur trade. The short biography by Édouard-Zotique Massicotte*, “Dominique Rousseau, maître orfèvre et négociant en pelleteries,” BRH, 49 (1943): 342–48, offers only a pale reflection of Rousseau’s career; it is marred by several inaccuracies, but it does provide information not repeated in this biography. The interpretations in Lord Selkirk’s A sketch of the British fur trade in North America, with observations relative to the North-west company of Montreal (London, 1816) must be used with caution, because they were part of his campaign to discredit the North West Company. Further study of the Michilimackinac Company might shed more light on the role Rousseau played in it. r.d.]
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