Centuries of settlement of the Gaspé Coast
by David J. McDougall, Concordia University
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The written story of Gaspé began in 1534 when Jacques Cartier reported having claimed the land for the French King Francis I when he landed at Gaspé Bay to take shelter from a storm at sea. It is possible that Spanish Basque fishermen and whalers may have visited the Gaspé coast somewhat earlier but no written records of such visits have been found. It has also been speculated that Norsemen had landed on the Gaspé coast some five hundred years before Cartier but there are neither written nor archaeological records that they ever ventured that far into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
For about a century and a half after Jacques Cartier's brief stay, sailing ships from France made Gaspé Bay their point of arrival and departure for trans-Atlantic crossings. Some of these brought fishermen from France who fished for cod along the Gaspé coast, dried and salted their fish on the beaches during the summer months and returned to France with their catch in the fall. In the very early years of the 1700's the French :fishermen were joined by French-Canadians who also returned to their homes along the St. Lawrence river above Kamouraska when the fishing season was over. The fishermen lived for the summer in temporary shacks on the beaches and only ventured far enough inland to cut trees to construct the flakes (low platforms) on which they dried their fish. A very small number settled for at least a few years and from 1672 until about 1758 five small fishing hamlets were established. The first of these was at Percé, begun by Nicolas Denys in 1672, but there were never more than five families living there at one time. This settlement lasted until 1690 when it was destroyed during one of the many wars between Great Britain and France and a permanent settlement was not re-established for about another eighty years. The next four settlements had a more continuous record of occupancy. Mont Louis on the north coast was begun by Denis Rivirin in 1699 and by 1758 had about 40 to 50 people living there including some children. In that year the buildings were burnt and the inhabitants sent back to France by British soldiers who had come overland from Gaspé Bay. About 1730 the twin communities of Grande River and Pabos were established by Jean-François Lefebvre de Bellefeuille, and when they too were raided by British soldiers who had arrived by sea in British naval vessels in 1758 the population was estimated to be about 200, all of'whom escaped into the woods. A small settlement at the head of Gaspé Bay was begun about 1742,-but it's population of about 300 in 1755 had dwindled to about 60 at the time of the British raid In 1758. These combined British army and Navy raids on small French settlements around the Gulf of St. Lawrence were under the command of Admiral Hardy and General Wolfe and were only minor incidents in the Seven Years War between Great Britain and France which ended French rule in Canada. The major events were the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island :En 1758, the capture of Quebec City in 1759 and the capture of Montreal in 1760.
The Early English-speaking settlers: 1752-1783 In 1758, the total French and French-Canadian population of Gaspé was probably no more than about 500 plus an unknown number of Micmac Indians who lived near the head of the Baie des Chaleurs. The Treaty of Paris which formally ended the Seven Years War was signed in 1763, but by 1760 the British were in complete control of what had been New France and Acadia and the year 1762 can be taken as the starting point of the settlement of both English speaking people at Gasp6 Bay and Percé and French-speaking Acadians at Bonaventure and Carleton (then called Tracdiac). The first English-speaking people to arrive were merchants, fishermen and somewhat surprisingly, a small number of men called bailiffs who today would be called policemen. French-Canadian fishermen continued to come for the summer from settlements between Quebec City and Kamouraska but the French fishermen had been replaced by English, Scots and Americans. Many of the French-Canadian fishermen owned small sailing vessels called shallops (chaloupe in French) which they used during their summer fishing and then sailed home in them in the fall while the majority of the British and some of the Americans came from the vicinity of Quebec City by schooner (which were larger than the shallops) to work as fishermen for Quebec City based fish merchants. Some Americans also came by sea from New England in schooners and sloops to fish for both cod and whales. Probably all of the British fishermen and some of the Americans were exsoldiers who had taken their discharge from the army in Canada..
The mixture of languages and the rough, quarrelsome nature and disregard for any laws by many of the fishermen resulted in a general state of disorder. In 1763, the fishermen were described as a "mixed and tumultuous multitude" and the British government was advised that there was an urgent need for some means of administering justice in later fishing seasons. The first steps were taken in 1765 with the appointment of a merchant named Hugh Montgomerie as "Esquire of the Peace" (this title was later changed to Justice of the Peace) and another merchant named William Van Felson as "Captain of Militia and Police" for the north coast of the Baie des Chaleurs. Both of these men had established their businesses at Bonaventure and lived there for at least the summers. Between 1768 and 1771, bailiffs were appointed to act as policemen at Tracadiac (Carleton), Bonaventure, Paspebiac, Port Daniel, Pabos, Grande Rivière, Gaspé Bay, Rivière de la Magdalene, Mont Louis and Cap Chat. From Tracadiac to Port Daniel, the bailiffs were French-speaking and from Pabos to Capt Chat. the bailiffs were English-speaking. All of the English-speaking bailiffs appear to have been ex-sergeants or officers, some of whom are known to have settled permanently on the Gaspé coast. Among them Richard Ascah, John Patterson and George Thompson became settlers and many of their descedants are still living in Gasp6. Another bailiff named Caleb Stilson lived on the Gaspé coast until the American Revolution. However, his widow remarried a man named Stanley in Quebec City during the war with the Americans and a young man named Stanley who was at Gaspé in the early 1800's may have been her son. Several merchants acquired land at Gaspé Bay, Paspebiac and Bonaventure in the 1760's, but only a few of them actually became settlers. The best known was the Jerseyman, Charles Robin, who arrived at Paspebiac in 1788 and over the years developed the most successful fishing business on the Gaspé coast. Another was Felix O'Hara from Ireland who settled at Gaspé Bay about 1762 and lived there until he died in 1805. British soldiers who had taken their discharge in Canada were entitled to grants of land (50 acres for a private and 200 acres for a sergeant) and in 1765 and 1766, at least 70 English, Scottish and American men asked for land on the Bays of Gaspé and Chaleur. Almost exactly half of them had been In the 78th Regiment of Foot (Fraser's Highlanders), which had been Raised in Argyleshire, Scotland in 1755, and the remainder were from several other British regiments. Some of them are known to have made their homes in Gaspé including Joseph Bootman, John Chartray, John Chisholm and Duncan McCrae, and there may have been others for which no record has been found. A few of the applicants for land in Gaspé are known to have settled elsewhere in Quebec, but what became of the others remains uncertain.
By the 1770's the nucleus of the English speaking population between Gaspé Bay and Percé 'was living in a small number of tiny hamlets scattered along a coast covered with forest. There were no roads except trails through the forest and along the beaches. There were no doctors or nurses and anyone who was sick was probably treated with remedies made from herbs which could be gathered in the forest. Broken arms or legs were set without anesthetic but there was little that could be done for more serious injuries. There were no stores except for the buildings where the fishing merchants kept their supplies, and anything that a family could not manufacture, grow or catch had to come by sailing ship during the summer months. There was one Catholic church at Bonaventure and no schools anywhere. Merchants like Felix O'Hara, could send their children to school at Quebec City during the winter but the children of most families could only learn what their parents could teach them which in most cases was little more than how to fish, hunt, cut wood, cook or sew,
About the middle of the 1770's, another war began, this time between the British and their American colonies. The immediate effect of this in Gaspé was attacks on the settlements by armed American sailing vessels called privateers carrying a "letter of marque" which all ' owed them to capture British ships and raid British settlements. As a result many of the small number of English speaking settlers left Gasp! for the supposed safety of Quebec City. There the fathers and older sons joined either the British Militia or the Royal Highland Emigrants regiment (the 84th Regiment of Foot) to help defend Canada when two American expeditionary forces came north to capture Montreal and besiege Quebec City in 1775-76. However, some families continued to live in Gasps despite the raiding American privateers (in some cases they took everything a settler had including the shirt off his back).- In 1777, which was about the middle of the war, there were at least 150 English speaking people including about 40 children, living at Gasps Bay, Mal Bay and Percé and a few more at Bonaventure. Along the Baie des Chaleurs at Bonaventure, Tracadiac and Restigouche which had first been settled about 1762 there were about 450 men, women and children almost all of whom were French speaking Acadians and French-Canadians. There may also have been some French-speaking people at Grande Rivière and Pabos but no count seems to have been made of these people in 1777.
In 1775, just before the start of the American Revolution, Sir Guy Carleton, the Governor-General of Quebec had appointed five Army officers to be Lieutenant-Governors in remote parts of what has been called the "old province of Quebec", including Detroit and the Ohio river to the west and Gaspé in the east. The first-of the Lieutenant Governors of Gaspé was Major Nicolas Cox of the 47th Regiment of Foot. He had been with his regiment In Nova Scotia before 1758 and at the capture of both Louisbourg and Québec. Because of the invasion of Canada by the Americans in the fall of 1775 he was not immediately able to take up his appointment in Gaspé and instead trained Army recruits and helped in the defence of Québec City. He finally reached Gaspé in 1777 and much of what is known of the living conditions on the Gaspé coast during the American Revolution and for some years afterwards is in his letters and reports to Governor Haldimand who had succeeded Governor Carleton, as well as correspondence between him and Felix O'Hara at Gaspé Bay and O'Hara's correspondence with Governor Haldimand.
Lieutenant Governor Cox took a census of the populated places on the south shore of the Gaspé peninsula in 1777 which showed that there were 631 Europeans settled on the coast and 575 fishermen who were there only for the summer fishing-season. He organized a militia as a defence against American privateers and obtained cannon to help defend the fishing establishment at Percé. At least some of the militia men at Percé had been in the British Militia which helped to defend Quebec City against the Americans and many of these had been in the British regiments which nearly two decades earlier had captured Louisbourg, Quebec City and Montreal from the French. In 1782, despite the military effort, the crew of an American privateer captured and carried off the smaller cannon and pushed a large one over a cliff after toopiking" It to make it unusable. - The British Navy had too few vessels to be much help against the 'privateers and the threat of -capture kept many merchant ships from coming to Gaspé with supplies. The Acadians along the Baie des Chaleurs, who both fished and farmed, were not seriously inconvenienced by the lack of supplies but many of the families between Gaspé Bay and Percé who did little farming were threatened by starvation. Lieutenant Governor Cox was able to arrange for food to be shipped and distributed to them although some of the supplies were damaged by sea water when a vessel was wrecked.
Loyalist Settlement: 1784-1800 The war with the Americans ended in 1783 and in the summer of that year a Loyalist named Justus Sherwood was appointed by Governor Haldimand to survey the potential for settling refugee Loyalist on the Gaspé coast. Sherwood estimated that about 1500 families could be settled between Nouvelle and Pabos and another 200 families between Percé and Gaspé Bay. If that number had come it might have increased the population by about 8000 people but it is probable that not more than about 500 to 600 ever came to Gaspé. The first contingent of 315 men, women and children sailed from Quebec City on June 9th, 1784, most of them in four small sailing vessels and some (probably the younger, unmarried men) in still smaller, open whale boats. By about the end of August their numbers had increased to 435 of which 172 were children and the total was increased by 24 more people before the sailing season ended. A small number of settlers also came over the next few years and at least some of them were American Loyalists. However, not all of these new settlers were refugee Loyalists who had left the American colonies because they disapproved of the revolt against the British Crown.
Some of the people who came from Quebec had left Gaspé a few years earlier when American privateers were raiding the coastal settlements and were now returning home. Still others were already on the Gaspé coast when the Loyalist ships arrived. There seems to have been at least seven categories of settlers who came to New Carlisle. These were: i) refugees from the revolting American Colonies, some of whom had served in either Provincial (American Loyalist) or British regiments; ii) discharged soldiers of the Royal Highland Emigrants (Which included some of the pre-Loyalist settlers of the Gaspé coast) discharged soldiers of the British Militia (which also included some of the pre-Loyalist settlers); iv) men who had been in the Percé Militia (mostly fishermen but including some who had also been in the British Militia); v) discharged sailors of the Provincial Marine who had served on armed British vessels on the St. Lawrence river, Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes during the American Revolution; vi) discharged soldiers from British regular regiments; and vii) discharged soldiers from German regiments (who had come from German principalities which were allied with the British Royal family and were sometimes called Hessians).
These settlers first landed at Paspebiac and then moved to a new townsite which had been laid out for them at New Carlisle. They had arrived during the summer so that it was not possible to raise crops for the following winter and food and other supplies were provided for them by the government at Quebec City. Shortly after they reached New Carlisle they had drawings for lots of land with a single man getting a 100 acre lot and a family getting 100 acres plus 50 acres for each child. Sergeants got 200 acres and commissioned officers still larger amounts depending on their rank. One group of settlers moved almost immediately to New Richmond and others moved to a third location at Douglastown which had been laid out as a townsite on the south side of Gaspé Bay late in the summer of 1784. There was a group of fishermen at Percé, a substantial number of whom had been there when a census was taken in 1777. Among the Scottish, English, Channel Island, Acadian and French Canadian names reported at Perc6 in 1784 there were several Irish almost all of whom appear to have been recent arrivals. It is possible that many of them had come directly from southern Ireland on sailing vessels bringing food stuffs for the fisheries in the same way that many Irish had come to Newfoundland. This kind of emigration from southern Ireland to the Gaspé fisheries appears to have continued for several decades and many families whose homes are between Gaspé Bay -and Percé are descended from them.
In 1786, Lieutenant-Governor Cox reported that 130 Loyalists had settled between New Carlisle and Port Daniel. others had established themselves near the mouth of the Restigouche river, notably the Mann family who had been granted a large block of land near Cross Point (Ponte ii la Croix). Another large property which bordered the headwaters of the Bale des Chaleurs a little to the west of the Manns was the last seigneury granted in Canada which had been given to the Schoolbred family of London, England as compensation for losses to their fisheries on either side of the Baie des Chaleurs during the American Revolution. Practically the only :inhabitants of the seigneury in the 1780's were some Acadians and the Scottish merchant named Mathew Stewart.
The Loyalists who settled along the Baie des Chaleurs between the Restigouche river and Hopetown were mainly farmers who had first to build their homes and barns and clear the land of the forest before they could begin to raise crops. A school teacher named Benjamin Hobson opened the first English school on the Gaspé coast in the 1780's and held classes in his house. There were no more English schools opened until after 1800 and apparently no schools for French-speaking children until about the 1820's.
Part of the settlers who had come to New Carlisle in the 1780's made their homes at various places along the Gaspé coast but a substantial number left almost immediately or after a few years. There seem to have been many reasons why these people left. Some were unhappy with trying to make a living as fishermen or farmers; others moved to where they had friends or relatives in Nova Scotia, Upper Canada and the United States and some to newly surveyed townships in the Eastern Townships and along the Ottawa river in Lower Canada. Another probable contributing factor was that when the French Revolution began in 1792, Britain was again at war with France. This reduced the fishing activities on the Gasp6 coast because of the danger of sailing vessels being captured by French-men-of war. There is no direct information on the size of the population of' the Gaspé peninsula in the 1790's but censuses and estimates made before and after that decade show a slow, steady population growth over a little more than half century before 1819. Based on that information, the population about the middle of the 1790's was probably 2300 people. A rough count of the number of families in the hamlets between the Restigouche and Gaspé Bay, which was made by a local judge indicated that they were possibly as many as 500 families along the south coast of the Gaspé peninsula In 1794 of which two thirds or more were French speaking. The most reasonable guess that can be made from his not very precise data is that the English speaking population at that time was probably between 800 to 1000 men, women and children, most of whom lived in the stretch of coast from Percé to Gaspé Bay. The number of families that lived at and near New Carlisle (most of whom were English speaking) appears to have shrunk to a little more than half of what it had been in 1786.
In 1794, along the section of the coast from Restigouche to New Carlisle the occupation of most of the population was farming supplemented by salmon fishing at Restigouche and New Richmond. Cod fishing was the principle occupation of almost all of the men and boys as young as 10 to 12 from Paspebiac to Point St. Peter and Grand Greve at the entrance to Gaspé Bay. Within the Bay at Douglastown and the village of Gaspé the main occupations were farming and salmon fishing. Rivière aux Renards (Fox River) on the north coast of the peninsula, a few miles north of Gaspé-Bay, was also mainly agricultural with some cod fishing. In addition, during the winter months some men manufactured barrels and tubs for shipping salted fish and some others built shallops for the fisheries. A few clerks worked for the fishing companies but most of these were probably not local men. However in 1791 a new industry had begun when the Charles Robin Company of Paspebiac laid the keel of what was to be the first of a large number of large "square-rigged" sailing vessels. Small "fore-and-aft" rigged sloops and schooners had been built at scattered locations along the Gaspé coast from at least as early as 1762 but probably there were never more than a total of two or three built per year and none at all during most of the American Revolution. At least two ship carpenters from Scotland,John Black and William King, were working on the Gasp6 coast in 1787, but by 1789 they had moved to Quebec City to build larger vessels. The Robin master ship builder, James Day who had been brought from the Isle of Wight had ship carpenters working under him, some of whom were apparently local men. In addition there were sawyers whose job it was to cut planks, lumbermen cutting timber in the forest, blacksmiths and probably sailmakers. No evidence has been found that there were other trades associated with ship building such as rope makers and block makers so that it can be assumed that some of the items needed to complete the rigging of the vessels were brought In from either Englands Quebec City or Halifax. Within a comparatively few years other ship yards where square rigged vessels were built were established along the Baie des Chaleurs coast at New Richmond, Bonaventure, New Carlisle, Corner of the Beach (Coin du Banc) on the shore of Mal Bay, and on the southwest Arm of Gaspé Bay. Shortly after the beginning of construction of these large vessels, the number of schooners built along the Gaspé coast also began to increase, some of which were built at the ship yards and others at many temporary building sites. The peak period for building schooners was during the first quarter century of the 1800's after which it gradually declined. The more important schooner building centers along the Baie des Chaleurs were at Carleton, New Richmond, Maria, Bonaventure, New Carlisle and Paspebiac and farther to the east- at Mal Bay and Gaspé Bay.
The square rigged vessels, some of which were sold in Great Britain and others used by the fish merchants to ship their dried and salted fish to Portugal, Spain, Italy, the West Indies, and South America, were mainly used for trans-Atlantic voyages, while the schooners were usually used for more local voyages carrying dried fish and supplies between the various fishing communities or for "coasting" voyages to Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Quebec City and Halifax. These vessels needed crews and for the first two or three decades of the 1800's both English-speaking and French-speaking men and boys became mariners. However, by the 1830's the numbers of Frenchspeaking mariners had noticeably decreased, apparently because they either preferred or were persuaded to fish or farm rather than go to sea,
It is inevitable that where there are ships there will be shipwrecks.
This was particularly true in the days when there were none of the elaborate aids to navigation that there are today such as radio, radar and sonar. Fogs and storms along Gaspé's rugged, rocky coast were the usual cause of many wrecks of every kind of both sailing vessel and steamers. Sometimes all on board were saved but in other cases many people drowned. There are many accounts of shipwrecks along the Gaspé coast and one of the earlier ones was the snow (a type of brig) "Dolphin" which went aground on the uninhabited coast hear Magdalene River in the late fall of 1769. None of the crew was hurt or killed but when two of the men reached Quebec City two months later they reported that all the men who stayed had only two pounds of bread per week to share between them. A three master called the "Colbourne" was wrecked at Anse au Gascons near Port Daniel in 1838 and out of 47 people on board (including several children) only 12 survived. This vessel was many miles off course when it was wrecked on the shore of the Baie des Chaleurs because it should have been in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Another sailing vessel named the "Wellington" was wrecked at Cap des Rosiers about 1837 with 150 passengers on board, only one of whom was drowned. When they came ashore the only shelter available were four miserable hovels, one of which did not have a roof. They had little food and it took a month until all of the passengers could be removed. A little boy, 3 or 4 years old, who was one of the passengers who lived there for a month, wrote the story of the wreck about 20 years later. In 1847, the sailing ship "Carrick" with 167 immigrants from Sligo, Ireland was also wrecked at Cap des Rosiers and 67 of the passengers were drowned. Most of the survivers eventually continued on to Montreal, but a few stayed in Gaspé, one of whom was a 12 year old girl who lost her parents and six brothers and sisters in the wreck.
The war between Great Britain and France, which had begun in 1792 continued with some short periods of peace until 1814. Most of the latter part of this war was called the Napoleonic Wars and it finally came to an end when Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated and exiled to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Near the end of the war, the United States declared war on Great Britain and, in what is called the War of 1812-1814, American troops again invaded Canada, this time mainly in the southern part of Ontario. In Gaspé and elsewhere on Canada's east coast, this war had very little effect -except for the activities of American privateers which captured some sailing vessels and in turn caused a reduction in the amount of business normally done by the Gasp! fishing merchants. At least one American privateer lost a battle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when it tried to capture the sailing ship "Gaspee". which had been built in Gaspé and belonged to the Robin fishing company at Paspebiac.
In the early years of the 1800's, life in Gaspé was still very much of a frontier existence. For six months of the year, ships from many parts of the world came into the Gaspesian harbours, but for the other six months the Gaspé coast was almost completely isolated by the winter ice in the Gulf and St. Lawrence river. The only schools were at New Carlisle and Gaspé Bay where the students were taught in English and the only churches were at Carleton and Bonaventure where there was a large settlement of Catholic French-speaking Acadians. A few English-speaking Protestant missionaries had come to New Carlisle, but their stay was brief and among the English speaking merchants it was felt that the civilizing effects of a resident Protestant missionary was badly needed. one result of the lack of a minister was that Protestant couples were either married by a local Justice of the Peace (which at that time was technically illegal) or travelled hundreds of miles to find a minister to marry them or to have a child baptized. Most of the population was French-speaking and Catholic but there were only two Catholic priests, one at Carleton and the other at Bonaventure.
Among these settlers, one group was from the Channel Islands which belonged to Great Britain but were near the coast of France. Many of the Channel Islanders spoke both French and English although their French was a dialect which could not always be understood by other French-speaking people.
Over the years the Channel Islanders tended to become English-speaking because they attended Protestant schools and churches where English was the usual language. There had been a few men and boys from the Channel Island of Guernesy working as fishermen at Grand Greve on Gaspé Bay as early as the 1760's, and Charles Robin, who had come from the island in Jersey in 1766 to establish a fishing company at Paspebiac, had Jersey-men working for him as clerks, fishermen and ship carpenters. However, although at first Channel Islanders came only to fish for the summer or on two-year contracts as clerks (most of whom were young boys of 12 to 14 years of age)', by the 1820's there were several, permanent settlements of Channel Island men, women and children, mainly at Grand Greve, Percé, and Paspebiac. Settlers from other parts of Great Britain also settled along the coast in the 1820's and '30's and on the Baie des Chaleurs near New Richmond there were a number of families from northern parts of Scotland who had left because of the "Highland Clearances". These people had been tennant farmers on large Highland estates and had been displaced so that the owners of the estates could raise sheep. Other Scots had also come from the southern parts of Scotland, probably because work was hard to find.
The only school on the Gaspé coast in 1800 was at New Carlisle. It had been founded in 1784 and before that there is no evidence of any kind of formal schooling. Some of the Acadians, French-Canadian and Indians knew how to read and write and had probably been taught by the Catholic priests at the mission at Restigouche but there appear to have been no other schools for French-speaking children until probably after 1824. When the Loyalists arrived there were two men whose occupation was school teacher and one of them, Benjamin Robson, a half-pay army officer, opened Gaspésie's first school for English children at New Carlisle. For the first six years he received no pay for teaching and for the first fourteen years he had to use his own house for a school house. When he was given a salary by the government it was half what teachers were paid in Montreal and one quarter what teachers were paid in Quebec City. He taught school at New Carlisle. for thirty-six years and for most of that time had between 40 and 60 students each year. In 1801, the provincial government passed a law which had the objective of establishing a school in every parish and county through an organization called the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning. Many Protestant communities set up "Royal schools" but the Catholic clergy objected to the way they were to be run. and there were never more than a dozen such schools in Catholic parishes throughout Quebec, none of which were in Gaspé. The Royal school system came to an end in the 1830's when the provincial legislature decided to reduce the amounts of money allocated to the Royal Institution because it only served the English-speaking Protestant part of the population. However, in Gaspé in 1806, two groups had petitioned the government to establish schools and by 1813 there were Royal schools at New Carlisle and Douglastown on Gaspé Bay. By 1828, in addition to the schools at New Carlisle and Douglastown, Royal schools had been opened or were about to open at both the North West and South West Arms of Gaspé Bay, at Mal Bay, at Hopetown and a few years later at New Richmond. However, even before these English schools opened, an English family or group of families sometimes hired a teacher for their children and there were at least two of them at Gaspé Bay, one who arrived about 1808 and another about 1819.
In the early years of the 19th century and continuing until about the beginning of the 20th, the "truck system" affected many of the cod-fishing families of the Gaspé coast. "Truck" is derived from the French verb "troquerlt (to trade), and this system was widely used in many industries including fishing, lumbering and mining in North America and parts of Europe during the 1800's. Vestiges of the truck system including the company store could still be found in Canada as late as the middle of this century. In practice it meant that the large fishing companies gave the fishermen credit to buy fishing lines, hooks, salt and other materials they needed to equip themselves for the fishing season, as well as clothes and food for themselves and their families and the fisherman was expected to repay the loan with the fish he had caught, dried and salted. In this way the fishing companies and the fishermen were trading one kind of goods for another and money almost never changed hands. The Gaspé fishing companies collected the fish from the fishermen, took it to their central plan t, packed it, stowed it in sailing ships (which often belonged to the fishing companies), and shipped it to Portugal, Spain, the Mediterranian countries, the West Indies and South America where it was sold. The advantages to the system to the fish merchants was that they had a known source of supply, while the fishermen had a known market, with the added advantage of being able to obtain goods on credit if they had a poor fishing season or had not been able to work because of illness. However, there were also disadvantages because if a man was not a good fisherman or carelessly bought more than he could reasonably hope to pay for with his labour, he was continuously in debt to the company and "owed his soul to the company store". Some also fell into the error of buying goods from itinerant traders with fish which should have been used to repay their loan to the fishing company. Among other reasons why some of the fishermen went deeply into debt was that they could neither, read, write nor understand the arithmetic of their accounts with the merchants. The-result was that many fishermen and their families had to work very hard to make a very poor living. In extreme cases the fishing companies sometimes found it necessary either to seize a fisherman's property or require him to work without pay on their sailing vessels on trans-Atlantic voyages. However, other fishermen prospered and were able to stay out of debt and the farmers, salmon: fishermen, whalers and the men who built sailing vessels and smaller boats rarely seem to have been dependent on credit from the Gaspé fishing companies. However, because the farmers along the Baie des Chaleurs were not dependent on the fishing companies, but raised most of what they needed for food and clothing, an unusual event took place in the early years of the 1800's. This was the "year of no summer" in 1816 when crops were killed by frosts in June and July and many people were faced with the possibility that they would not have enough food for the winter. The very cold summer was the result of the explosion of a volcano called Tambora in the East Indies in 1815 which threw so much fine dust into the upper atmosphere that it travelled around the world for months. During the following summer this dust cloud so reduced the amount of sunshine that in northern climates like Gaspé's plants could not mature.
During the 1820's and '30's, a lumbering industry developed along the Baie des Chaleurs. Large trees were felled near the rivers and floated to the seacoast where they were shipped in sailing vessels to markets, most of which were in Great Britain. In one way this was an extension of the lumbering which had begun with the growth of ship building in Gaspé but in a much larger sense it was part of the trade in Canadian timber from New Brunswick and rivers tributary to the St. Lawrence in Quebec and Ontario notably the Ottawa river.
The Canadian timber trade to Great Britain had gotten its start during the Napoleonic wars when Great Britain was cut off from its traditional source of wood from ports around the Baltic sea. Most of the Canadian timber was shipped from either Quebec City or from several ports in New Brunswick and at least part of the lumbering in Gaspé was really part of the industry in northern New Brunswick. The lumbering was at first along the Restigouche and Cascapedia rivers and later from rivers flowing into Mal Bay and Gaspé Bay at the eastern end of the peninsula. By the 1840's a hundred sailing ships a year were being loaded with timber at Restigouche, most of which was "squared" pine. This meant that after a large tree had been felled, it was cut square with an adze, which made it easier to stack in the hold of a ship. Other wood was shipped as "deals" which were pine or spruce which had been cut in a saw pit into planks about three inches thick, I'staves" which were used in the manufacture of wooden barrels, and "treenails" (sometimes written and pronounced "trunnels") which were small, round lengths of wood which were used instead of iron spikes to attach the planks of the hull of a sailing vessel to the ribs of its frame.
In the early years of settlement of the Gaspé coast, travel by land during the winter and spring months of November to May was difficult and men who needed to communicate with other parts of the country, such as Quebec City or St. John, New Brunswick, either had to hire a man to carry their letters or go themselves. However, beginning about 1796, mail was delivered once a week to Carleton, coming via the military road between Halifax and the St. Lawrence River near Rivière du Loup, to Fredericton on the St. John River in New Brunswick. Mail from Halifax, St. John or Quebec City was carried from Fredericton by a courier on snowshoes along the Nashwak and Miramichi river -valleys and the New Brunswick coast to Dalhousie and then across the upper part of the Baie des Chaleurs to the Baie des Chaleurs Post Office at Carleton. By about 1829, mail was being delivered two or three times during the winter by this route. However, from Carleton to other parts of the Gasp6 peninsula the only land routes were trails through the forests and along the beaches. By the 1820's a road had been built from Bonaventure to Hopetown, but it was a poor one even by the standards at the time. In 1819 a second Post office was opened at Douglastown on Gaspé Bay with the mail carried in the winter by a courier on snowshoes along trails and the beaches of the north coast of the peninsula, probably as far as Notre Dame du Portage where this route joined the military road. However, during the summer and fall, mail to Douglastown came by sea.
An improvement in communications began in the 1830'swith the opening of the Kempt Road through the Matapedia Portage to the head of the Bale des Chaleurs. Prior to that there were two land routes from the head of the Bale des Chaleurs to the St. Lawrence river, both of them difficult. The "Bier, but longer one was via the Restigouche river and one of its tributaries to a portage over the height of land and down another river to the St. John river valley on the west side of New Brunswick near Grand Falls. There the route joined the military road which followed the St. John river, Madawaska river, Lake Temiscoata and along portage to Notre Dame du Portage on the St. Lawrence river a few miles west of Rivière du Loup. This was frequently used by residents of the Bale des Chaleurs to reach the Acadian settlements near what is now Edmunston and a census of the people along the upper part of the St. John river in the 1830's showed that a number of the settlers had come from the Bale des Chaleurs. The shorter, but more difficult route was along the Matapedia river from where it joined the Restigouche to the St. Lawrence river at Metis. Anyone following this route in winter had to use snowshoes and a guide was essential because it was not marked and took several days to cross. Once the St. Lawrence was reached, horse and sleigh could be hired for the remainder of the trip to Quebec City. Charles Robin used this route In the winter of 1786 to go to Quebec City and return and later it was frequently used by a number of people including Isaac Mann of Restigouche as a winter route to and from Quebec.
The Kempt Road was begun in 1831 as a military and post route for mail and was named in honour of Sir James Kempt who had been the Governor of Lower Canada from 1828 to 1830. It was an improvement over what bad been before but for many years it could only be used on foot or with a dog team in the winter. Eventually it was improved enough that it could be traveled with a horse and cart in the summer, but at one stage it was described by the then Postmaster General as the most difficult mailroute in Lower Canada and nearly as difficult as a route to Hudson Bay posts in Upper Canada. The Kempt road began at Broadlands on the Quebec side of the Restigouche river a few miles west of Cross Point (Pointe à la Croix), climbed a mountain and continued across mountainous country for 40 miles until it joined the Matapedia river at a place called the Forks. From there it went along the east side of the river and Lake Matapedia and then down the Metis river to Metis for a total distance of about 95 miles. The Kempt Road was replaced by the Matapedia Road, which was built in 1857 to avoid the steep and difficult mountainous cross-country section and it in turn was replaced as a mail route by the Intercolonial Railway in 1873. When the Kempt Road was first used for mail, a courier carried it on his back from Metis to the north end of Lake Matapedia where he gave it to another courier who took it from Lake Matapedia to Campbellton with a total of three days allowed for that part of the route. A succession of other couriers carried the mail on their backs along the north side of the Baie des Chaleurs. In 1831, mail was being delivered to Paspebiac via Cambellton and Dalhousie and mail deliveries were gradually extended eastward. By the 1830's there was a road from Cross Point as far as Percé on which a horse and cart could be used in summer but from there to the settlements at the head of Gaspé Bay the mail had to go by boat in the summer or over a very poor trail in the winter. In 1839, Benjamin Patterson of Gaspé Bay had begun carrying the mail between Gaspé Bay and Port Daniel and some indication of the difficulty of the route is that a round trip took eight days. By the early 1850's the courier service was operating in three sections: Metis to Campbellton; Cross Point (across the Restigouche from Campbellton) to Percé and Percé to head of Gaspé Bay. There was a mail contractor for each section who hired several men to carry the mail over different parts of his route. One of these contractors was Archibald Kerr who had come to Gaspé from Ayreshire, Scotland. Initially, he and his sons carried the mail from Cross Point to Port Daniel and later from Cross Point to Percé. The Kerr family were mail couriers for three generations and some of Archibald Kerr's sons had began when they were young boys. One of them, Robert was a courier when he was 12 years old and was once trapped by a blizzard on the ice of a bay and nearly froze when he had to spend night on the ice. Another time he narrowly missed going off the ice into open water during a snow storm and was only warned of his danger by the sound of the waves. Another son, William,was the mail carrier over the 50 mile route from Black Cape to Port Daniel when he was 14. In the winter he used snowshoes and because there was no bridge over the large Bonaventure river he had to go many miles upstream where there were two logs across a narrow part of the river. A third son, David, who later became the contractor for the mail route, carried the mail across the upper end of the Baie des Chaleurs between Dalhousie, New Brunswick and Miguasha Point, Quebec, when he was a boy. He walked the distance over the ice in the winter and saved the money he was supposed to use to hire a horse and sleigh.
Golden Age - 1840's - 1860's
By about 1860 the population of Gaspé had increased to 24,000 about 55% of whom were French-speaking. Immigration from Great Britain, which had been a feature of the 1820!s and 130's.had nearly ceased and most of the new settlers were French-Canadians. These new settlers came to the older settled districts on the southshore and had begun to populate the northshore of the peninsula which before 1840 had only two or three hamlets over a distance of nearly 200 miles. A regular government steamship service was begun in the 1850's which, during the summer and fall brought freight, passengers and mail to the principal towns on the Gaspé coast. One effect of this service was that there was less use for the large schooners which had previously carried freight and passengers to and from Quebec City and Halifax and fewer of them were built. At about the same time the building of large square rigged vessels also decreased because there was no longer a good market for them in Great Britain and by the end of the 1860's there were only two shipyards still building sailing vessels. Both of these were owned by fishing companies the Charles Robin Company at Paspebiac and the J. and E. Collas Company at Point St. Peter - who continued to build both schooners and square rigged vessels for use in their business until the 1880's. In 1858 Gaspé's first lighthouse was built at Cap des Rosiers because so many vessels had been wrecked near there. The next was a light in Gasp6 Bay in 1867 which was replaced by a small lightship in 1871.
Whaling out of Gaspé Bay reached its peak in the early 1860's, but petroleum products from oil wells was rapidly replacing whale oil for lighting and lubricants and by the middle of the 1870's there were only three whaling vessels left and that number had decreased to one by the 1880's. Kerosene (sometimes called coal oil) had been invented in the 1850's by Dr. Abraham Gesner in Nova Scotia and although it was first manufactured from coal it was being made from petroleum by the 1860's. The first oil wells in North America had been drilled in Pennsylvania and southern Ontario in 1858 and by the early 1860's the search had spread to Gaspé Bay where the Indians had known of "oil springs" for many years. Three shallow wells were drilled without success and the search was abandoned for about a quarter of a century.
What is now the Canadian Coast Guard had its beginnings in the 1850's. For many years there had been problems with American fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence who, knowing that there was no effective law enforcement, sometimes broke the law. Commander Pierre Fortin was appointed Fisheries Preventive Officer in 1852 and cruised the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Gaspé coast in the armed government schooner "La Canadienne" where he acted as a magistrate and arrested and fined vessels and crews for infringement of the laws. Later steam-powered Fisheries vessels were used and some English-speaking boys from Gaspé Bay served on them as crew members when they were as young as 16.
From 1855 to 1866 there was a treaty of reciprocity between the United States and Canada which allowed certain kinds of unprocessed goods from either country to cross the border without any duty being charged. As an expansion of this, between 1861 and 1866 two places in Canada were made "Free Ports" where manufactured goods could be brought in free of duty. One of these was at Sault Sie. Marie in Ontario and the other included part of the Gaspé coast, the Magdalene Islands, Anticosti island and part of the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Foreign ships had to report to the Customs officer at Gaspé and then could go to subports of the Free Port area to unload their goods. Canadian vessels could also bring in goods in bond and deliver them to Gaspé Bay or to the subports. The government expected that the Free Port would Improve the economy of Gaspé and the Gulf of St. Lawrence by making manufactured goods less expensive for both the local people and for visiting ships. However, shortly after the Free port was started the American Civil War broke out and the demand for manufactured goods increased so much that there was little improvement in cost to the buyer in Gaspé. Part of the reason for this was that cash was a very rare commodity on the Gaspé coasts because of the truck system, and goods bought at the fishing company stores on credit were always more expensive than the same goods purchased with money. On the other hand, some merchants did a great deal of business, particularly at the town of Gaspé where incoming vessels had to report and new docks and warehouses were built to handle the volume. An indication of the local prosperity was that the Quebec Bank (now part of the Royal Bank of Canada) had one of its three branches at the town of Gaspé when there were very few banks anywhere else in the province except in Quebec City and Montreal. Several things combined to bring the Free Port to an end. Smuggling of duty. free goods to places along the St. Lawrence river and to northern New Brunswick was a-frequent occurrence because there were too few customs officers. The United States terminated the reciprocity treaty in 1866, and the Canadian government decided to end the Free Port experiment because of the smuggling and the failure to make cheaper manufactured goods available in the Free Port area. One of the high points of the end of the decade of the 1860's was the creation of the Dominion of Canada from the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the province of Canada (Quebec and Ontario). The effects of this on the Gaspé peninsula are difficult to judge because the political merger was overshadowed by economic events over the next thirty odd years but it did bring changes in navigation and communication. It was still an occasion for celebration and for many years English-speaking families marked the event with grand picnics on July lst.
Depression: 1870's to 1890's
During the prolonged depression a few people were able to benefit from new government jobs. New lighthouses were built at Cap Chat, Fame Point (Pointe Renomm6e), Ship Head at the northern side and Ile Platte on the southern side of the entrance to Gaspé Bay, Pointe Macquereau, and at the mouth of the Restigouche river. Communications with the outside world were improved by the construction of a telegraph line along the south coast from Matapedia to Gaspé Bay in the early 1870's and by a second line built in 1880 along the north coast which linked the lighthouses with their headquarters in Quebec City. The lighthouse at Fame Point was in a very isolated location and during the winter practically the only communication with the outside world that the English-speaking lighthouse keeper and his family had was the telegraph. The boys and girls of that family learned to use the telegraph key and to send and receive messages in Morse Code when they were still in their teens. When one of the girls was older she worked as a telegraph operator at other places along the coast and one part of her job was to teach new lighthouse keepers how to use the telegraph.
During the later years of the 1800's, two projects were begun which looked as though they might accomplish a great deal for the economy of the Gaspé coast but never lived up to their expectations. The first of these was the construction of a railway from Matapedia to Gaspé Bay, with one of the objectives being to make the great natural harbour of Gaspé Bay into a major Canadian seaport. A government railway which was then called the Intercolonial Railway and is now part of the Canadian National Railway system was completed from Halifax to the south shore of the St. Lawrence river opposite Quebec City in the early 1870's. The tracks went from Halifax to Truro in Nova Scotia, along the eastern shore of New Brunswick to Campbellton, through the Matapedia valley to the St. Lawrence river and then southeast towards Quebec. The last gap in this railway was the Matapedia valley section and after it was completed a branch line to Gaspé Bay was proposed in 1872, but no work was done until 1885 and only the first 100 miles from Matapedia to Caplan had been completed by 1890. Work continued Intermittently, and almost exactly 40 years from its conception it was completed to Gaspé Bay in 19-12. Although Gaspé Bay never did become a great seaport, the railway provided a means to bring in food and other supplies during the winter and to ship out lumber and fish. but despite this most of such shipments continued to arrive and leave by sea during the ice-free months of the year until the 1940's. The railway also provided a means for Gaspesians to leave in relative comfort during the winter and for tourists of moderate means to visit during the summer, Before the railway had been built, tourists were almost entirely wealthy individuals who came by steamer for salmon fishing on rivers flowing into the Baie des Chaleurs such as the Restigouche, Matapedia and Cascapedia, as well as the Dartmouth, York and St. John rivers which flow into Gaspé Bay. A few equally wealthy people had their yachts and summer homes at Gaspé Bay. Thus the railway was the starting point for the tourist industry which has become an important part of the Gaspesian economy. The second development was a renewal of oil well drilling near both Gaspé Bay and Mal Bay. A large number of wells were drilled and a small amount of oil was found. The Petroleum Oil Trust, which did the drilling, went as far as to build a small oil refinery on the Southwest Arm of Gasp6 Bay but the amount of oil they had found was far from sufficient and the company became bankrupt and its properties were sold at auction in 1905.
Depression and Out-Migration 1900 - 1960
The two major wars in the first half of the 20th century took their toll of the English-speaking population, in some cases because service men died and in others because ex-service men decided to live somewhere else. The first World War began in August 1914 and one of the early events was the first contingent of Canadian troops to England which left Gaspé Bay in early October of that year in a huge convoy of 32 troopships, four battle cruisers and a Coast Guard vessel. The second World War began twenty-five years later in September 1939 and a naval base was established at Gasp6 Bay, with a submarine net and coastal guns. As in the previous war, many English-speaking Gaspé men volunteered for service in the Navy, Army and Airforce while others served in the merchant navy. Men from Gaspé were in the disastrous attempt to defend Hong Kong against the Japanese, many others fought in Europe and the men in the merchant navy lived in constant danger of having their vessel torpedoed by German submarines. In Gasp6 the people were observers of the Battle of the St. Lawrence against German submarines, but despite that, as in the previous war, the greater proportion of the volunteers continued to come from the English-speaking part of the population.
By about 1920, the English-speaking population had declined to about 25% of the total, with those along the Baie des Chaleur engaged mainly in farming and some towards. the eastern end of the peninsula continuing to fish. However, in addition to the men who cut pulpwood or worked in the paper mills, part of the English-speaking population had a tradition of working on sailing vessels and many of these found work on steam powered vessels when the use of sailing vessels had almost ended. They went where jobs were available, some on deep sea vessels but probably most of them on vessels on the Great Lakes. The "lakers" were laid-up during the winter so that the fathers and elder sons were away from home from spring until about Christmas and in order to see their families more frequently, the sailors began to move their homes to Montreal and such Great Lake ports as St. Catherines, Ontario. This outmigration from Gaspé was accelerated during the depression of the 1930is when other families moved to cities in Quebec and Ontario to find work. The first telephone companies had been established in Gaspé in the early 1900's but telephones were not generally available throughout the peninsula until the end of the 1930's. Automobiles were in use in the early 1920's but there were few roads on which they could be used until a gravel highway around the peninsula was completed in 1930. English radio was also slow in coming but by the 1930's some people had radios with a long outdoor aerial operated by rechargeable car batteries with which they could listen to programmes from the Maritime provinces and the northeastern United States.
Although radio for the average English-speaking listener was slow in developing, Gasp6 had one of the first wireless telegraphy (the forerunner of radio) stations in Canada. The inventor of wireless telegraphy, Guglielmo Marconi, received the first trans-Atlantic transmission at Signal Hill, St. John's, Newfoundland in 1901 (the letter S in Morse code) and the following year sent a full message from Cape Breton to Cornwall, England. In 1904, the Canadian government contracted with theMarconiCompany to establish four wireless telegraphy stations around the Gulf of St. Lawrence to contact incoming and outgoing ships, one of which was at the Fame Point lighthouse on the north shore of the Gaspé peninsula.
One of the important events in the 1950's was the opening in 1955 of a large copper deposit by Noranda Mines at Murdochville in the middle of the peninsula. There had been other attempts to develop mining projects from as early as the 1600's but none succeeded because not enough ore had been found. At Murdochville, in addition to the mine, a copper smelter and a modern town were built for the employees and their families. The original discovery had been made by Alfred Miller of the Southwest Arm of Gaspé Bay and although it took about half a century from discovery to production, he lived to enjoy the fruits of his discovery and died at the age of 104 in 1983.
The almost continuous out-migration of Gaspesians over the previous five decades had reduced the English-speaking part of the population to about 12% by 1960. The majority of those who remained were still living in the same areas which had been first settled by English-speaking people Gasp6 Bay and along the Baie des Chaleurs at New Carlisle, New Richmond and near the mouth of the Restigouche river.