Agathe de Saint-Père de Repentigny (1657-1747)
Born in Montréal in 1657, Agathe de Saint-Père de Repentigny is representative of the significant economic role played by the women of New France. Agathe surpassed the usual family obligations. She obtained the King’s support and permission to establish her business and thereby offset a serious shortage of fabric and clothing in the colony during the early 18th century. She stands out for her initiative and innovation in creating fabrics and dyes using local raw materials and for recruiting qualified foreign weavers to train New France apprentices.
Agathe de Saint-Père de Repentigny was the daughter of French parents who were among Montréal’s first settlers in 1642. After her father’s death, her mother married Jacques Le Moyne de Sainte-Marie, a member of the colonial elite. Agathe later joined one of the oldest military families of nobility when she married Pierre Le Gardeur de Repentigny in 1685. Five of their children survived into adulthood. Her husband, then an ensign (equivalent to second lieutenant) in the marines, had an eventful military career that would earn him the knighthood of the Order of the Cross of St. Louis in 1733, the highest military decoration of the period. These military duties required frequent absences. On these occasions, Agathe managed his business affairs, running seigneuries, issuing contracts and licences for the fur trade, overseeing the purchase, sale and concession of land, and assuming responsibility for signing leases and settling accounts. Consequently, at the time of his death in 1736, she had more than 20 years of experience acting as procurator for her husband. This was not unusual for the time. Many women in the colony, in particular those in the upper class, managed the financial affairs of their families while their husbands were off at war or after their spouses died.
Agathe de Saint-Père de Repentigny was also an entrepreneur in her own right. In 1704, she established herself as a manufacturer of fabrics using materials known to Indigenous Peoples such as nettles, bark fibres and cottonweed, to offset a serious shortage of fabric and clothing, traditionally made with hemp and flax. At the time, the price of goods from France was rising rapidly, while the colonists had less money to spend largely due to the falling price of beaver pelts. Making matters worse, the capture of the vessel La Seine by the British deprived the colony of supplies from France for the next year. Although colonials were forbidden to engage directly in the manufacturing of textiles, the King temporarily lifted this ban. However, qualified artisans were unavailable in Montréal. Madame de Repentigny solved this challenge by paying for the release of weavers held prisoner in New France and securing the help of apprentices. She established a successful business in her home on what is now St. Sulpice Street. In addition to her weaving business, she was associated with a tannery that created dyes for caribou and deer hides used for clothing and produced food products with maple, including candy, which she sent to the King to his great delight.
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