Charlotte-Françoise Juchereau de Saint-Denis was born in Quebec in 1660, a daughter of a powerful colonial family. She had eleven brothers and sisters, but her parents were wealthy enough to give all their children a good education. Charlotte learned reading, writing, and arithmetic in addition to all of the domestic skills a wealthy French woman would need to run a household. Charlotte also learned how to achieve wealth and prosperity in the colony of New France by observing her father. He was a seigneur, which meant he oversaw a large piece of territory in New France. He rented out sections of his territory, and collected rents from his tenants. He was also a successful fur trader who frequently traveled into the wilderness to make alliances with Native communities, and served on the New France council for the fur trade. By the time of his death, Charlotte’s father had established his family as one of the wealthiest in New France and been granted an aristocratic title by the king of France for his service to the colony. Charlotte learned a great deal from his example.
In 1680, when Charlotte was about 20 years old, she married François Viennay-Pachot, a Frenchman who had moved to the colony in 1679. Like Charlotte’s father, Viennay-Pachot pursued a variety of business interests. He became a seigneur and also made a fortune in trade, although his specialty was fish, not furs. Over the course of their eighteen-year marriage, Charlotte gave birth to sixteen children, which means that she spent basically their entire marriage pregnant. When Viennay-Pachot died in September of 1698, Charlotte inherited half of his estate, and was given the responsibility of managing the other half until their children came of age. It was at this time that she started to put the lessons she had learned from her father to use.
Charlotte emerged on the scene as an energetic businesswoman. She appears in colonial records attached to sales, purchases, loans, ship charters, and building contracts. Together with her brothers Louis and Charles, she made large investments in expanding the family’s fur trade, building networks that reached all the way to Detroit in the west and modern-day Texas in the south. She often sent out trading expeditions without the approval of the royal government, which infuriated colony officials and earned her a reputation as a dangerous woman. These ventures were so successful that, in 1702, Charlotte was able to purchase the Île d’Orléans (pictured) from the king’s secretary.
The Île d’Orléans was an island in the St. Lawrence River, just a few miles east of the city of Quebec. It was a prestigious territory, because it was the site of one of the original settlements in New France. When she purchased the land, Charlotte was granted the title Countess of Saint-Laurent, making her an official member of the French aristocracy. By this act, Charlotte achieved the same goal her father had—elevating her family to the highest social circles in New France.
Charlotte emerged on the scene as an energetic businesswoman. She often sent out trading expeditions without the approval of the royal government, which infuriated colony officials and earned her a reputation as a dangerous woman.
On November 11, 1702, shortly after she completed the purchase of the Île d’Orléans, Charlotte married Captain François Dauphin de la Forest. De la Forest was a rising star in the colony. He had arrived in New France as a clerk in service to one of the colony’s seigneurs, but quickly moved through the ranks due to his intelligence, business savvy, and loyalty to the crown. Charlotte met him through her trade network—he was one of the most well-connected men in western New France, and would eventually be named commander of the settlement of Detroit.
Charlotte’s second marriage reveals a great deal about her status in the colony. It was common practice in New France for married couples to sign a marriage contract called a communauté de biens. This contract combined the wealth of both marriage partners, and made them legally responsible for the financial well-being of their spouse. It also set aside a dowry for the wife, so that she would be financially secure in the event that the communal wealth was lost.
Charlotte did not sign a communauté de biens with de la Forest, signaling that she was both wealthy enough to care for her own wellbeing and interested in continuing to pursue her own business interests separate from her husband. In all business contracts after her second marriage, Charlotte included a clause declaring her status as a financially independent person—those who did business with her had to acknowledge that they could not sue her husband if the deal went sour. The fact that Charlotte was able to negotiate this kind of marriage and then continue to operate her businesses independently speaks to both the privilege of her birth and her reputation as a businesswoman in New France.
Charlotte’s economic risks started to catch up with her in 1704. That year, she was not able to make her payments for the Île d’Orléans, and the king’s secretary tried to take the land back. Charlotte took him to court, and when the court decided against her, she travelled to France to appeal the decision. For the next nine years Charlotte was locked in a legal battle for the Île d’Orléans, and she used every one of her aristocratic privileges to win her case. She even appealed directly to the king on multiple occasions. Her determination alarmed the officials she had to deal with, and her reputation as a dangerous woman spread throughout France.
In 1713, King Louis XIV grew tired of Charlotte’s scheming, and ordered her to give up her lawsuits and return to Quebec. She obeyed, and, after her second husband’s death in 1714, lived out the rest of her life in the colony. She continued to operate her businesses and promote the interests of her children. She died on December 29, 1732, at the remarkable age of 72. Her life is a testament to the possibilities that were available to a tenacious women in New France.
aristocracy: Highest class in certain societies, especially those who hold inherited titles like lords, dukes, and countesses.
charter: Hiring a ship to move trade goods from one port to another.
communauté de biens: French marriage contract that combines the wealth and debts of husband and wife.
domestic: Relating to the home.
Île d’Orléans: An island in the St. Lawrence River just a few miles east of the city of Quebec. It was the site of one of the original settlements in New France.
inherited: Receive things from someone who has passed away.
savvy: Ability to make good judgements.
seigneur: A person granted rights to a large tract of land that they can rent and manage.
Charlotte Françoise Juchereau de Saint-Denis: Charlotte Fran-SWOZ ZHU-shuh-row de san Den-EES
What does Charlotte’s life story reveal about the society and economy of New France?
Did all women in New France have the same opportunities as Charlotte? Why or why not?
How was Charlotte viewed by French men? What accounts for this reputation?
Many women throughout history have been called “dangerous” by their male contemporaries (i.e. Rosa Parks, Emmeline Pankhurst, etc.). Ask students to deconstruct why Charlotte was called dangerous, and then compare and contrast her actions with other “dangerous” women from history. What do these women have in common? What do their stories reveal about attitudes toward women throughout history and around the world?
Compare and contrast Charlotte’s life as a business woman with that ofJohanna de Laetof New Netherland.