Up the Gatineau! Article

This article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 24.

A Tale About a Name, Two Persons, and the Fur Trade

Patrick M. O. Evans and Carol Martin

It was Patrick Evans’ idea that a story be wrilten about the fur trade and its connection with two people in the days of the French régime in Canada. The editor gladly researched material on the Gatineau family and Cardinal Richeliew. to flesh oul the proposal and provide information about these two players in the early days of the Canadian fur trade; eventually we decided to proceed Jointly with the topic.

The name and style of Nicolas Gatineau, sicur du Plessis, of France and Canada, was shared with two other well-known personages. One of these was twentiethcentury Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis; the other was France's seventeenth-century Cardinal Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal and Duke of Richelieu. This is a tale of the connection between two of the three, Nicolas and the Cardinal, with Canada’s fur trade during the seventeenth century.

Nicolas Gatineau was a member of the legal profession based at Three Rivers, with visits, interspersed, to Montreal. In Montreal Gatineau served briefly as greffier, or Clerk of the Court, and notary, returning to Three Rivers where he continued legal work, farmed, and operated a business that dealt in furs. Interestingly, the name of his family is commemorated in the name of the Gatineau River, in Western Quebec. Arthur Bourinot's short romantic poem “Nicolas Gatineau” infused the few details of Gatineau’s life and the river name with question and legend, and also hinted at the scarcity of recorded information about him.1

Gatineau, born in Paris in 1627 or 1628, was in Canada by 1648, where he signed a lease document in Quebec.2 In 1650 he was in Three Rivers, his profession given as soldier, but with an education that qualified him to serve variously as a clerk (in 1650-51) for the Company of One Hundred Associates, and as legal registrar and notary in Montreal from January 1652 until July 1653. Aller this date he returned to Three Rivers, and took up farm-land on the other side of the St. Maurice River, al Cap-de-la-Madeleine. In 1663 he married Marie Crevier, who was then 12 or 13 years old. Her sister married Pierre Boucher, three times governor of Three Rivers and founder of Boucherville, and at about the same time Nicolas Gatineau became a magistrate or judge at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Two legal documents in 1664 show that Gatineau had a store at the Cap that dealt in pelts, among other products. He also had a 26-foot boat built in that year, which would serve for travel between the two villages, Cap-de-la-Madeleine and Three Rivers, but was also suitable for travel to Montreal or Quebec City.

By the census of 1681 Nicolas Gatineau was 54 years old, his wife Marie 31. They had five children at home, including Nicolas junior, aged 17, and two servants or indentured workers. Although no record of his death has been located in any register, after 1681 Gatineau’s name no longer appears in connection with any further (ransactions, and his biographers therefore conclude that he probably died shortly after this date.

The Gatineau family, prominent in Three Rivers and important in the colony at the time, remained connected with that part of Quebec and with fur trading activities. In 1678, when Frontenac convoked a group of “principal citizens” in Quebec City to obtain their views about liquor sales to the native peoples. Gatineau was among the twenty selected persons.3 The records of their deliberation remain: 15 considered the sale of liquor to be necessary and good for the colony, two recommended that it be allowed only in French establishments, while Gatineau and two others were against trading in alcohol with the Amerindians.4 Interestingly, Gatineau and others had been fined in 1667 for selling brandy lo the natives, a year before it became legal for any Frenchman in the colony to sell it to them.5

Nicolas Gatineau’s fur trading area was concentrated around the St. Maurice and St. Michel Rivers, but members of the Gatineau family contracted as “voyageurs,” travelling by canoe along the rivers and lakes from Montreal to the west between 1670 and 1770.6 Members of later generations of Gatineaus remained connected with the fur trade; for example, Nicolas Galineau’s son Nicolas was invited in 1700 to an assembly of prominent citizens involved in the trade.7 Sons Jean-Baptiste and Louis went west on fur trade business, travelling to the Great Lakes. Certainly these younger Gatineaus, in voyaging to the west, would have passed by our river's confluence with the Ottawa River. A recent Quebec government publication on place names suggests that in the seventeenth century, sons Louis and Jean-Bapliste had a trading post or a stopping place near the junction of these rivers, site of the future town of Gatineau Point.8

Benjamin Sulte, a nincteenth-century historian, noted that the Gatineau River was unnamed in Champlain’s time, and only took its name two centuries later. However, the river's name clearly commemorates this Gatineau family, since they were the only bearers of that surname in the colony.9 Early maps simply indicate a nameless river, and an eighieenth-century cartographer showed it as the River Lettince.)10 By the early 1800s, however, the name “Gatteno” or “Gatineau” was applied and has been retained. A 1806 publication on Quebec geographical names makes a link between the last records of Nicolas in 1681 and a rationale for naming the river, saying — or asking whether — perhaps he drowned in it.11

Cardinal Richelieu. Reproduction: National Archives of Canada. Neg. C8071

Returning to France, whose administration controlled and directed its Canadian colony in the seventeenth century, we find Cardinal Richelieu gaining power that he used for ecclesiastical and secular ends. Born into the lower nobility in 15685, | S Armand-Jean du Plessis was from Richelieu, a province of Poitou. He joined the priesthood, was consecrated bishop in 1607, and then became an advisor to Marie de Médicis, mother of the man who became King Louis XIII. In 1624 he was appointed chiel of the royal council; in 1628 he became first minister to King Louis XIII.

Richelieu founded the Company of New France, also known as the Company of One Hundred Associates, in 1627. Before this, French settlement in North America had lacked impetus, slowed by religious quarrels and a lack of coordination. The new company combined settlement with religious restrictions (it had an obligation to establish settlers and allowed only Roman Catholics) and mercantile aims, and was given a trading monopoly and title to all lands claimed by France, from Newfoundland to Lake Huron. Over one hundred shareholders each subscribed 3,000 livres to capitalize the company.12

With the Jesuits leading missionary activily, the colony expanded and founded such oulposts as Ste. Marie Among the Hurons near Georgian Bay, and these new missions were soon fur {rade bases as well. The Company’s monopoly continued for fiftcen years after Richelieu’s death, until 1663, when it was dissolved, although subsequent French policy controlled and restricted fur trading through various companies and licensing arrangements. The British and Dutch became involved in the North American fur trade during the seventeenth century, but what is now the province of Quebec remained under French control until 1760.

And so the two du Plessis figured in Canada’s early fur trade. The Cardinal set the terms for the organization that controlled the early fur trade in Quebec, including what is now the Gatineau region. The other was briefly employed at a Canadian trading post of that organization, and had a long and continuing involvement in the fur trade. His name is also commemorated in this region by the Gatineau River, the Gatineau Hills (once huge mountains computed to be between 2 /2 and 34 billion years old), the City of Gatineau, and a fond general reference to the area “up the Gatineau.”


  1. Arthur S. Bourinot, “Nicolas Gatineau,” in Up the Gatineau! Volume 9, 1983 from a collection of his work, Under the Sun (Canada: MacMillan, 1939).
  2. Edgar le Noblet du Plessis, “Nicolas Gatineau, sieur du Plessis,” Mérnoires de la Société Généalogique Canadienne-Frangaise, 4 (janvier 1950), 23.
  3. du Plessis, 29.
  4. du Plessis, 30,
  5. Raymond Douville, Visages du Vieux Trois-Riviéres (Trois-Riviéres: Editions du bien public, 1955), 31.
  6. Douville, 25 and du Plessis, 25 (citing the Quebec provincial archivist, 1929-30).
  7. du Plessis, 34.
  8. Gouvernement du Québec, Noms et lieux du Québec (1994), 236. This publication names Raymond Douville as the source for this information.
  9. Benjamin Sulte, “La famille et la riviére Gatineau,” Mélanges Historiques, Vol 7 (Montréal: G. Ducharme, 1921), 71.
  10. Lt. David Jones, in 1783 (see Noms et lieux du Québec, 236)
  11. Pierre-Georges Roy, Les Noms Géographiques de la Province du Québec (Levis: Le Soleil, 1906), 170. The text reads in the sense of a question: “Peut-être se noya-t-il.”
  12. W. J. Eccles, The Canadian Frontier; 1534-1760 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), 32-33.

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