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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23

Gaspé, 1760-1867

by David Lee


The peculiar and remote situation of the County of Gaspé, as similate it in some respects to a separate Colony from Lower Canada, being divided from the other populous parts of the Province by a Wilderness of Four hundred miles, without roads, or any other than Water Communication.

William Fruing

William Fruing, general manager of the Charles Robin and Company operations at Paspebiac, attributed the "peculiar" situation of the District of Gaspé to its poor communications with the "populous parts of the Province."1 In 1828 an average voyage between Gaspé and the provincial capital, Quebec City, took a week. Marine communications naturally depended on the weather — the length of time for the trip varied from less than a week to more than two. From December to May all shipping ceased and the only contact Gaspé had with the outside world was by means of the occasional brave traveller going overland. It was a long time before communications improved and in the interim Gaspé remained "peculiar and remote," virtually a terra incognita.

Geography and Fisheries

Normally Gaspé was the first land encountered by Europeans travelling to Canada. Gaspé Bay offered a large, safe harbour which had attracted European ships as early as the 16th century. After long and stormy Atlantic voyages many ships headed for its refuge where they could anchor and rest, repair damage, get fresh water and fuel, and perhaps hide from enemies. With this amount of marine traffic, one would not think of Gaspé as separate and unknown in Canada, but few passengers ever disembarked at Gaspé Bay. After a few days' rest the ships continued on to the "populous parts of the Province," along the St. Lawrence River valley.

The cod fisheries of Gaspé were perhaps better known in Europe than in Canada. The fisheries attracted some European ships to the shores of Gaspé and eventually a few Europeans settled on these shores, but even these permanent residents really knew little more than the coastlines and their settlements were never beyond sight of the sea.

The reason for this ignorance of their own area was, of course, its topography. As Father Chrétien Le Clercq noted in 1691, Gaspé is a country full of mountains, woods and rock."2 Even the Indians seldom ventured far into the interior and no Europeans crossed the width of the peninsula until 1833. Minerals in the interior were unknown and unexploitable. The timber industry did not develop until the 19th century because the rivers were too wild and poor transportation also prevented the development of an extensive fur trade although occasionally the settlers travelled a few miles up the rivers to lay nets to catch the salmon which abounded there. Although some at the valleys contained fertile soil, agriculture always remained secondary to fishing.

1 The location of the Gaspé Peninsula. (Map by S. Epps.) (click on image for a PDF version)

The riches of the Gaspé cod fisheries had attracted Europeans since the 16th century. Cod are caught in areas of shallow water, known as "banks," extending from Labrador to Cape Cod; they range from five to ten pounds on the coastal or near coastal banks and up to 100 pounds on the offshore banks. Cod feed principally on herring and capelin and in spring they follow these fish as they migrate from deep water to the banks where they spawn in summer. Rich in protein, cod has been a dietary staple in Europe for centuries.

Although the people of Gaspé were largely ignorant of the land, they knew well the sea and all the nearby cod-fishing banks. There were major offshore banks near Anticosti Island and Miscou Island as well as the famous Orphan Bank out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. More important, though, were the coastal banks. The richest of these was along the shore between Cap des Rosiers and Cap d'Espoir; but cod could be found along the entire shoreline of Gaspé, from Cap Chat and Matane on the St. Lawrence River to the mouth of the Restigouche River in Chaleur Bay.

Cod dominated the lives of every Gaspé resident. Every summer day the fishermen, two or three men to a shallop, would go a mile or two offshore and fish until their shallops were full. They would then immediately return to land where the "shore-men would split and eviscerate the fish, wash them and place them in salt. In the "green" fishery the cod would remain in salt until it reached its market; in the "dry" fishery the cod remained in salt for only a few days before it was taken out to dry in the sun and wind. Some green cod was produced in Gaspé (especially late in autumn when the weather turned cold and wet), but Gaspé was more suited to the dry cod industry. Along the shores were many shingle beaches upon which the smaller Gaspé cod could be laid out to dry. At night and when it rained the fish were gathered together and sheltered from the wet. In later years it became more common to erect flakes of boughs on which the cod could be laid; air could circulate more freely and hasten the drying process. After a month or so of drying they were ready to be loaded on ships. If ships were not yet available, the fish were piled in large mounds and protected from the rain by branches.

The French exploited the Gaspé cod fisheries for over 150 years and their value was one of the attractions which drew the English to their conquest of New France. Cod from Gaspé was an important dietary staple in France and a valuable source of foreign exchange when exported to other countries. The Gaspé fisheries contributed perhaps one-fifth of the dried cod produced by New France.3 The fisheries employed thousands of men and stimulated the ship-building industry; the French navy esteemed the fisheries because the experienced seamen they produced were invaluable in the event of war.

Gaspé to 1758

For a long time the French came to Gaspé to fish only in the summer, but by the 18th century a few small permanent fishing posts had been established along the coasts of the peninsula. By the time General James Wolfe came to ravage the coasts of Gaspé in 1758, there were 500 to 600 permanent residents in these settlements. An equal number of fishermen came to Gaspé from France (as well as a few from Quebec) to fish in the summer and then return home in the autumn.

French fishing settlements were normally established at the mouths of streams where fresh water was available as well as wood for fuel and the construction of houses, boats and flakes. Other considerations included sheltered harbours, good beaches exposed to reliable breezes, proximity to fishing grounds and the length of the fishing season. The waters off Percé held the richest fisheries and there were good beaches on the nearby mainland, but Percé had no harbour. Gaspé Bay had excellent harbours, but fewer cod and a shorter fishing season. Chaleur Bay did not have fishing grounds as prolific as those of Percé, but its barachois (lagoons enclosed by triangular sandbars formed by tidal action) provided splendid harbours and beaches. Fishing shallops and small schooners could sail through the narrow tickle (or goulet) and anchor safely in protected water; at high tide ocean-going vessels could anchor in the roadstead outside the barachois, and all the shore operations of the fishery could be performed on the sandbar. During the summer months throughout the 19th century, the fishermen lived in shacks on the beach; in autumn, when the frantic pace of the fishing operations declined, they retired to more substantial houses on higher ground where they were closer to the forest and its wood and game.4

In the French regime the fishing settlements of Gaspé developed with virtually no encouragement from government authorities in Quebec or Versailles. Although Gaspé was nominally under the jurisdiction of the governor of Québec, he exercised no real authority in this remote area. Percé in the summer was a wild scene: fishermen from France fought over the best sites on the beaches, and after a hard day's work on the fisheries there was much drinking, gambling and fighting. It was also a convenient place for smugglers and fugitives to contact ships sailing for Europe.

Several seigneuries were granted in Gaspé, but only the seigneury of Grand Pabos was ever developed. When the Lefebvre de Bellefeuille family went to live there permanently, the French authorities were provided the opportunity to install a Gaspé resident with some local authority. Georges Lefebvre de Bellefeuille was created sub-délégué de l'intendant in 1737 though he had little effective power to enforce law and order in the area. In 1757 a ne'er-do-well, Pierre Revol, was appointed agent of the governor at Gaspé Bay, but he died the next year, three days before Wolfe and his men arrived at the bay. Many suggestions had been made to fortify Gaspé Bay, but defence was another matter the French government neglected in Gaspé. The settlements and economy of Gaspé developed on their own without any encouragement from — indeed in the ignorance of — the French government. The people developed a sense of independence and, in effect, Gaspé became virtually a colony in itself.

Gaspé after 1758

After Louisbourg fell in 1758, Wolfe visited Gaspé and devastated the French settlements at Mont-Louis, Gaspé Bay, Pabos and Grande-Riviere. His men destroyed over 15,000 quintals (hundredweight) of dried fish, more than 100 houses and over 150 boats. Some of the population had already fled to Quebec and most of the remainder was transported to France. A few families, especially from Pabos and Grande-Rivière, hid in the woods where, for the next few years, they lived off the land, hunting and fishing. In 1759 and 1760 a number of Acadians fled northward from the Miramichi and established a settlement at the mouth of the Restigouche River, near a Micmac village. Quebec fell to Wolfe in 1759, but the French king still hoped to save New France in 1760 by sending out a fleet of ships, men and provisions. The fleet went first to Chaleur Bay where they found the Acadian refugees. A British fleet followed them up the bay and defeated the French and their Acadian and Indian allies in July 1760. They also destroyed a large number of the temporary buildings the Acadians had erected at their settlement (called Nouvelle-Rochelle) as well as most of the Acadian sloops and schooners. The British fleet then returned to Louisbourg, leaving the French on the bay. In the fall the British sent a few ships back to the Restigouche, received the surrender of the French troops who had remained there, and sent them back to France.5

After the Conquest some of the original French residents of Gaspé returned to the sites of their former homes on Chaleur Bay. These people were skilled in catching and curing cod; it was probably from them that later arrivals learned the technique. Of the Acadian refugees, some moved to Quebec and some were subsequently transported to Nova Scotia, but many remained to settle permanently on Chaleur Bay. Soon after the Conquest the celebrated riches of the Gaspé fisheries began to attract English-speaking settlers to the area. A census of 1765, though not complete, reported a population of between 300 and 325 Europeans, about one-sixth of them English.6 In 1774 Charles Robin brought 81 Acadians to Gaspé from their exile in France.7 A census of 1777 reported more than 500 Europeans permanently residing in Gaspé.8 Over the years other groups, the Irish and the Channel Islanders, appeared and in 1784, 500 to 600 Loyalists arrived. By 1808 the population had risen to 3,200 people.9 After the Loyalists came there was little immigration but the population increased extraordinarily by natural growth. Table 1 shows the growth of the European population of Gaspé in the early 19th century.10 By 1852 the population had increased to 19,546 and by 1861, to 24,518 people.11

Table 1. "Comparative View of the Population of the District of Gaspé in the Years 1819, 1825, 1831, and 1842." (Public Archives Canada, MG11, CO42, Vol. 504, p. 23.) (click on image for a PDF version)

Gaspé had been bypassed, neglected and ignored by the French authorities in the 17th and 18th centuries and had become virtually a separate colony unto itself. A similar attitude of neglect was displayed by the British government after it obtained the sovereignty of Gaspé. As William Fruing observed, Gaspé came to resemble "in some respects ... a separate Colony from Lower Canada."12

Because of its rugged topography and remote location, Gaspé was never truly a part of Quebec or Canada in the period between the Conquest and Confederation. This study examines three aspects of this period in Gaspé history: (1) government neglect of Gaspé interests; (2) the predominance of the fishing industry in the area, and (3) the unintegrated and diverse population of Gaspé.

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