Reweaving the Past: Revisiting the Social Nature of Textile Trade Networks Between France and New France

Detail of a seventeenth-century merchant's house in Villebourbon

Detail of a seventeenth-century maison-usine in Villebourbon

The year is 1754. A dyer’s apprentice attempts to make his way down la Grand Rue of Villebourbon, on the left side of the Tarn River, across from the rest of the city of Montauban, France. Encumbered by yards and yards of woolen textiles hanging by tenter hooks across the street and lost in a cloud of orange, lilac, peach, pistachio, apple green, and blue, the boy is surrounded by the ever present hum of activity emanating from the windows of the maison-usines. Within these towering structures, other fullers, dyers, and finishers are hard at work producing only the finest textiles for the mercantile masters of the city, the négociants. Meanwhile, 4,200 miles away on the banks of the St. Joseph River in modern-day Michigan, a Potawatomi woman carefully examines a length of lively red woolen cloth. Finally, she agrees to an exchange- a freshly made pair of moccasins and a few beaver pelts, the result of many hours of hard work. The blanket-wrapped voyageur gathers his profit and returns to his comrades around the fire to pass time and gamble until the spring thaw forces them back to Montréal and another year’s contract. As she walks back to her family, the woman handles the small metallic lead object at the edge of the cloth and smiles at the tiny stamped image of a canoe full of Frenchmen in jackets and hats. Back in Montauban, a wealthy merchant has finished woolen pieces inspected and marked with his family’s seal- five men in a rowboat, a familiar scene on the Tarn, surrounded by the phrase “Mariette frères négociants à Montauban” in bold lettering. With this, another shipment of cloth pieces is ready for transport to Bordeaux.

Bust of the Marquis de La Galissionére, Canadian administrator and French naval hero, Musée nationale de la Marine, Rochefort. Photo C. Davis

Bust of the Marquis de La Galissionére, Canadian administrator and French naval hero, Musée nationale de la Marine, Rochefort. Photo C. Davis

Many objects are at the center of stories, whether they are noticed or not. Excalibur the sword connects King Arthur to his fate, a ring sets Frodo Baggins on an epic quest, stone circles transport Claire Randall back in time. History is its own collection of stories, tied together by objects. Only by understanding the interactions between humans through objects are we able to better understand the past. My current research seeks to understand the glue that held trade networks in the French Atlantic together by studying not only the people in those networks, but the physical objects that link them together. The French Atlantic world is expansive and included so much more than the areas chosen to study, but for the purposes of my research I focus on textiles and lead seals in the southern France and New France. New France refers to former French colonial territories in North America, including Louisiana, Canada, and Acadia: a swath of land stretching from the Canadian Maritimes west to the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to New Orleans that effectively isolated the thirteen British colonies to the eastern seaboard until the end of the Seven Years’ War and the signature of the Treaty of Paris (1763).

18th century lead seal from Montauban. Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection. Photo C. Davis

18th century lead seal from Montauban. Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection. Photo C. Davis

The textiles being sent to New France are obviously at the center of the story of the French Atlantic textile trade, but so are the often overlooked artifacts known as lead seals. In fact, just in the way that the rediscovery of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings series sets a larger story in motion, lead seals are most certainly the motivating objects that push me into active research and diverse lines of questioning that eventually mend together to form a narrative. Lead seals are small tags made of lead with stamped motifs or lettering, measuring usually between 1 and 3 centimeters in diameter and around 1 to 5 millimeters thick depending on type and style. These tags have been in use since Roman times and some varieties are still used today by the military and cargo transportation companies, but in my period of interest (the mid 17th century through to the third quarter of the 18th century) lead seals were used to mark a variety of goods, including bags of tobacco, sacks of salt, and textiles of every type. Lead cloth seals, or those lead seals that marked textiles, are the most commonly found in North American lead seals, and so represent the focus of my research. Marks on lead cloth seals can indicate the origin of the seal and associated textiles, the names of merchants that commissioned or owned the textile, the quality and yardage of a textile, whether taxes have been paid on a textile, who created the textile, and what type of textile the seal used to mark. Lead seals are sometimes found at seventeenth and eighteenth-century sites, but are often partial or misshapen in ways that makes interpretation of stamped lettering and motifs difficult or impossible. Though lead was the ideal material for use in sealing goods because of its widespread availability and the ease with which it could be struck with dies to leave an impression, the malleability of “the useful metal” also made it easy to reuse or melt down. Therefore, the lead seals recovered from archaeological sites are only those which were not reused or otherwise destroyed in the past, and the rate of recovery for lead seals is varies widely between sites depending on preservation and commonality of historical reuse.

Reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg NHP, Louisbourg NS. Photo C. Davis

Reconstructed Fortress Louisbourg NHP, Louisbourg NS. Photo C. Davis

My past research has led me to examine lead seals from various French sites in North America but has primarily consisted of focused identification and analysis for the sites of Fort St. Joseph (Niles, MI), Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga, NY), and Fortress Louisbourg (Louisbourg, NS). In order to derive information from lead seals, they must first be closely examined and then identified. Identification can take hours, months, or even years and requires close attention to small details in the lettering, phrasing, and motifs present on lead seals. At times it is necessary to identify a whole or partial coat of arms in order to determine the origin of a seal, or to closely examine the geography of France in order to find a match to a place name, which is a challenge when some communities were much more notable in past centuries than they are today. Often there are symbols used in the past to represent a city or family that are no longer in fashion, or whose meanings are largely unknown by those who are not locals to a specific region. All of this is challenging to me as an American sigillographer (one who studies seals) because although I know and understand the French language very well, I do not have complete or local knowledge of geography, heraldry, and French history. In fact, until this summer I had not ever been to France or any other part of Europe. As if identification was not enough of a challenge, once a seal is identified and its origins better understood, the inquisitive researcher must pursue varying lines of research to answer the many questions that identification brings to light: What types of textiles are produced in a given location? What type of inspection office attached this seal and what does it indicate? Who produced this textile and what was their life like? How did this textile move from makers through the system to the consumers? What was the textile type represented by this seal used to create? How did consumer demand influence the lives of people involved in the creation and transportation of textiles? These are a few of the questions that usually fill my head after I finally identify a seal, because without knowing the context in and for which a seal was created, how can we hope to understand the lives of the people that interacted with it and the textiles it was once attached to?

1734 letter from Intendant Hocquart to Beauharnois commending the quality of the Mariette's merchandise. BAnQ-Québec. Fonds C11A.

1734 letter from Intendant Hocquart to Beauharnois commending the quality of the Mariette’s merchandise. BAnQ-Québec. Fonds C11A.

In my past research I sought to understand the differences in consumer demand between the three sites mentioned above, but after noticing several seals from the same merchant family (the Mariettes of Montauban) at all three of my sites, I began to ask new questions. I wanted to know more about the Mariettes and their world and how they were connected to all three of these sites through the textiles. The mark mentioned in my dramatization, that of five men in a rowboat, was the mark that the Mariette family chose to represent their business, possibly as an expression of their local ties to the Tarn (the location of their dyeing workshop), but what about its possible interpretation as a canoe of voyageurs in a context different from their own?* Were they aware that their goods were as far west as the Great Lakes, or did their interest dissipate after the safe arrival of goods in Louisbourg or Québec? How did they know what textiles to supply to very different consumer groups in a place thousands of miles away? What was the nature of their connections to other people in the network that was “la traite du Canada,” and how might lead seals have created or facilitated these connections on a daily basis?

Belltower of Église Saint-Jacques, Montauban. Used for a time as a protestant church, the tower bears scars from canonballs fired by Louis XIII during the siege of Montauban in 1621. Photo C.Davis

Belltower of Église Saint-Jacques, Montauban. Used for a time as a protestant church, the tower bears scars from canonballs fired by Louis XIII during the siege of Montauban in 1621. Photo C.Davis

I have most recently begun to consider the role identity may (or may not) have played in the formation of these business relationships. The Mariettes were Protestants in a Catholic kingdom. Did shared religious beliefs and experiences of persecution encourage them to form relationships with other protestant business partners? Are intermarriage and the establishment of family connections the primary tools with which connections are established, or are relationships instead based more on place and the community identity of merchants as Montalbanais (from Montauban) or former residents? With these questions and many others tossing around in my head, I spent two weeks in France this summer learning about the history of the various locations implicated in the Mariettes’ business as indicated by lead seals from the sites I examined in my MA thesis.** The goal of this summer was to assess the feasibility of further research into my questions and to familiarize myself with the resources available in each place so that I can do more in depth research in the future. In all, this somewhat whirlwind voyage to France took me to Toulouse, Carcassonne, Montauban, Bordeaux, Rochefort, and La Rochelle. I began in Toulouse and worked my way westward, following the probable flow of merchandise towards Canada.***

Fllatière, a flat bottomed boat used for loading and unloading cargo from ships into port. Musée du Vin et de Négoce, Bordeaux. Photo C. Davis.

Fllatière, a flat bottomed boat used for loading and unloading cargo from ships into port. Musée du Vin et de Négoce, Bordeaux. Photo C. Davis.

In each place I had a few things to explore in addition to locating archives centers and understanding the overall history of textile trade in each location. In Toulouse, I attempted to learn more about the production of textiles in the hospital system and also sought to gather some information on seventeenth and eighteenth-century panaceas (cure-alls), part of ongoing side research on lead seals for medicinal vials. In Carcassonne, I visited the seventeenth and eighteenth-century homes of prominent cloth merchants as well as the old Manufacture Royale for écarlatine, a type of woolen broadcloth once in very high demand among some Native American tribes and the focus of economic competition in textiles between France and Britain in the eighteenth century. In Montauban I educated myself on the role that the Wars of Religion played in the history of the town, visited many merchants homes, including that of the Mariette family, and connected with locals. Bordeaux allowed me to explore the custom’s process in the eighteenth century and to see the time depth of the textile trade in France. Though I only visited Rochefort and La Rochelle for one day each, they both helped me better understand the differences between the two ports and the activity that took place in each, and gave me leads for further investigation into shipping records. My next blog will present some of the highlights of my exploration and their incredible relevance to my ever developing research into textile trade networks in the French Atlantic.

 

-Cathrine

 

*This research trip was only possible with aid from the Charles Center in the form of a Summer Research Grant, Morton funds, the Department of Anthropology, Dr. Audrey Horning, and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Preparatory Research Fund for doctoral students.

**Indeed this is how the motif was identified by North American archaeologists in many past publications- only a particularly clear example in the museum at Pointe-à-Callières in Montréal has allowed me to verify the vessel as a rowboat and not a canoe.

***For yet more details on my time in each of these places, see the Charles Center Summer Research blog: http://ccsummerresearch.blogs.wm.edu/author/catdavis19/