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

Gaspé, 1760-1867

by David Lee

Part I: Gaspé and the Government

Government Presence in Gaspé

Effective the first day of May 1775, Major Nicholas Cox was created "Lieutenant-Governor or Superintendant of Gaspée," immediately responsible to Governor General Sir Guy Carleton at Quebec. Cox was born in England in 1724 and had served in the 47th Regiment at the sieges of Louisbourg (1758) and Quebec (1759). He arrived at Quebec to take up his new duties in August 1775, just in time to become involved in another siege. In the summer and autumn of 1775, an American army supporting the independence of the thirteen colonies attacked the Province of Quebec and Cox returned to military service for the emergency. He served as an army instructor and later was appointed état-major to Carleton.1 The Americans were not driven out of Quebec until the summer of 1776 and Cox was not able to visit Gaspé until the following summer.

In the summer of 1777 Carleton sent Cox to Gaspé to report on the economy of the area, the Indians and the attitude of the inhabitants toward the American Revolution.2 In 1780 a house was begun at Percé to serve as his official residence; however, with the arrival of the Loyalists in 1784, it was decided that the lieutenant governor should reside among the Loyalists at New Carlisle, so the house at Percé was abandoned.3 The Government House at New Carlisle was never built and it appears that Cox never permanently lived in Gaspé. He visited Gaspé in 1777, 1778 and 1780, and accompanied the Loyalists in 1784. In 1786 he arranged a land agreement with the Indians and took oaths of allegiance from the Loyalists and Acadians of Chaleur Bay. He appears to have resided in Gaspé on a year-round basis only in 1784 and 1790-91. It seems that he did not visit again after 1791.4 Because of Cox's absence, the governor general was deprived of first-hand information concerning the needs and problems of Gaspé.

For the first few years of his term as lieutenant governor, Cox was responsible for an area whose extent was vague and undefined; more specific limits were not officially proclaimed until 1788. Then, in 1793, this political division became known as the "inferior district of Gaspé."5

Cox died on 8 January 1794 at Quebec. Later that month Francis LeMaistre, another veteran army officer, was named as Cox's replacement. LeMaistre was a Jerseyman who had served with the 98th Regiment in the West Indies and later with the Royal Fusiliers in Canada where he had been aide-de-camp and military secretary to Carleton (now Lord Dorchester). His last post had been as deputy adjutant general of the army in Canada.

Although he was himself a lieutenant governor, LeMaistre's commission put him under the authority of the lieutenant governor of Quebec as well as the governor. The post carried an annual stipend of £400, but LeMaistre received only £300, the remainder being used to provide a pension for Cox's widow. In 1796 he petitioned the governor, claiming that his salary was much too small to enable him to fulfill all his duties (which also included the superintendency of trade and fisheries in Labrador). LeMaistre visited Gaspé in 1795, perhaps the only occasion. When he died on 13 February 1805, R.S. Milnes, administrator of the province, said that it had been ill health which had prevented LeMaistre

for some years past... from going to Gaspé, where it was intended he should reside during a part, at least, of every year; and I am sorry to find that the Public Concerns in that distant District have suffered very essentially through the want of an acknowledged Agent on the part of Government residing there.

LeMaistre's widow received a £50 annual pension until her death and his brother, William, for years afterward held the position of grand voyer of Gaspé roads.6

To succeed LeMaistre, Milnes recommended an old friend, Alexander Forbes, retired captain of the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards. Forbes was born about 1752. His commission as lieutenant governor is dated 18 February 1805, but it was probably retroactive for his appointment was not approved until August 1807. Forbes visited Gaspé in 1809 but probably never again; for many years he was not even resident in North America. By 1821 Louis-Joseph Papineau and his party in the assembly were beginning to complain about this "unnecessary charge upon the Public of this Province." In transmitting the assembly's resolution that the post be abolished, Governor General Dalhousie wrote to Britain that he needed "a Superior Officer residing there [Gaspé], as I have no means of reaching it." Eventually Dalhousie felt obliged to visit Gaspé personally in order to determine the needs and interests of the district. Meanwhile, Forbes remained in Britain, claiming that his health prevented him from visiting Gaspé. By 1826 the assembly was refusing to vote his annual salary of £300. The governor general managed to continue payment "from the private Funds of the Crown," apparently until Forbes's death, sometime in the 1830s.7

When the Province of Lower Canada was formed in 1791, a legislative assembly and a legislative council were created at Quebec. No resident of Gaspé ever appears to have sat on the legislative council of the province,8 where the real power lay, until the 1840s. The District of Gaspé (now also called a county) was given one seat in the assembly. Difficult communications with the district caused problems from the very beginning and at the turn of the century two concessions had to be made to meet the particular situation of Gaspé. On account of the vast expanse of the county, two polling sites were allowed instead of the normal one (but even then the great distances and poor communications disfranchised a large number of the electorate) and, because the district was so remote from Quebec, the period allowed for returning the election writs was extended from 50 to 100 days.9

Some of the men who were elected to represent the interests of Gaspé were not residents of the district, but merely people who had travelled there at one time or another (for example, William Vondenvelden, 1800 to 1804, and J.-T. Taschereau, 1819 to 1827). Over the years there were many complaints about corruption and illegal polling procedures10 and for the years 1827 to 1832 Gaspé had no voice at all in the assembly. Five times Robert Christie was elected to represent the county and five times he was refused his seat because he had previously gained the enmity of Papineau and his party when he had worked as a government official.

Knowing that the interests of Gaspé were not being represented to the government, two governors general made personal tours of the district. Lord Dalhousie visited Gaspé in 1826 and sent several recommendations to the secretary for the colonies in Britain. He suggested a road be built from Gaspé and New Brunswick to Quebec through the Matapedia valley. This suggestion was eventually implemented but his other ideas were less successful. He had also recommended more protection and aid for the fisheries and assisted immigration to Gaspé which he believed had vast expanses of rich, virgin soil.11 Lord Aylmer visited Gaspé in 1831, but little resulted from his tour.

By this time, however, some of the problems were easing. In 1832 Christie gave up (Aylmer may have encouraged him) his battle for reelection so Gaspé County regained representation in the assembly. Furthermore, a redistribution of seats had occurred and in 1832 Gaspé County sent two members to Quebec. In addition, in 1830 the county had been split and Bonaventure County created; it also sent two members to Quebec. Thus, from 1832 to 1838 the Inferior District of Gaspé had four seats in the provincial assembly (from 1838 to 1841 the assembly was suspended). In the assembly of the United Province of Canada (1841-67) the two counties had one seat each.12

Given the poor representation of Gaspé in government councils, the governor occasionally solicited information on the district from an assortment of people. He got information, for example, from the only physician in the district, local judges and customs officials, general sessions of the peace and surveyors working in Gaspé.13 In addition, he received a great deal of unsolicited correspondence from private individuals complaining about conditions in the district and offering suggestions and information. One of the matters most complained about was the judicial system.

Gaspé long suffered a law-and-order problem which was said to be the reason for its slow development. The lawlessness can be attributed to the remoteness of the district, but an additional reason was the large numbers of itinerant fishermen who came there in the summer: Channel Islanders, British and other Europeans as well as Québécois and Americans often clashed with each other as well as with the residents. The disorders, characteristic of Gaspé during the French régime, resumed almost immediately after the Conquest. As early as 1764 the problem of "such mixed & tumultuous Multitudes . . . gathered together . . . at Gaspey" was recognized by the government, but little was done to solve it.14

The arrival of the Loyalists in 1784 in an area where the judicial apparatus was minimal only worsened the situation. Many of the newcomers were unmarried, discharged soldiers who remained only a year or two. They were a particularly disorderly group; as Cox said, "some of the disbanded Soldiers are very bad men."15 There was little means of controlling them and, as the land commissioners noted in 1820, the magistrates were "compelled to wink at the crime, rather than incur the risk of being insulted and probably maltreated in turn by the criminal." In 1843 it was reported that public confidence in the system of justice was so low that the amount of litigation had actually declined while the population had increased greatly. The Acadians were not seen as disturbers of the peace. The Indians were described as a "harmless race," but that was only with respect to the Europeans: there existed a very serious crime problem among the Indians due mainly to whisky traders. The large-scale importation and sale of liquor caused distress among both Indians and Europeans. Liquor licences were very difficult to obtain and therefore ignored, and unlicensed distributors were uncontrollable. Smuggling was rampant among itinerant traders and fishing ships returning from Spain, Portugal and the West Indies. Many petitions and complaints were sent to Quebec over the years, but government controls were slow to come.16

The first justice of the peace for Gaspé, Felix O'Hara, was appointed in 1765, but he was given authority to handle only minor cases. By 1788 there were 17 such officers in Gaspé; however, numbers like these were meaningless for many did not reside in the district.17

The first Court of Common Pleas was established in Gaspé in 1779, with O'Hara as judge.18 Later Charles Robin and Isaac Mann were added to the court as judges. This court could only hear minor cases, but even then it was not effective because of poor communications. Charles Robin resigned in 1792 because O'Hara would only hold sessions at Percé and Robin could not afford to travel there once a year for three weeks, let alone four times a year. Under these conditions it was difficult to find men to serve as judges19 and litigants as well found it difficult to get to the sessions. When the government created three judicial districts in Lower Canada in 1793, the county of Gaspé was set aside as an inferior district whose court was not given competence equal to the others. The government granted Gaspé a Provincial Court, but it could not hear cases concerning Admiralty law, matters over £20, or actions concerning real property.20 O'Hara was made first judge of this court. In 1807 the provincial judge in Gaspé was paid £200 a year while his counterpart at Trois-Rivières received £500.21 Sessions were supposed to be held annually at Bonaventure, Carleton, Percé and Douglastown, but over the years they were held less and less frequently.

In 1822 the government expanded the competence of the court to include cases involving matters up to £100. Yearly sessions at New Carlisle, Carleton, Percé and Douglastown were made obligatory, as were general sessions of the peace. A session of the peace held in 1824 was the first in 23 years. In the absence of municipal corporations, these sessions allowed the local inhabitants to advise the government of the conditions and needs of their communities, something long lacking in Gaspé; however, while there had formerly been complaints about the courts not sitting, now there were complaints about jurors being selected to serve for long periods of time at inconvenient seasons and at long distances from home. Because it was still a hardship to have to take all criminal and Admiralty cases, all appeals and the more serious civil actions to Quebec, few were referred there. In 1849 the Provincial Court of Gaspé was finally given a competence equal to courts in the rest of the province and the district thereby lost its "inferiority."22

When the Loyalists arrived Gaspé got its first sheriff. In 1784 Lieutenant Governor Cox appointed Thomas Mann to this office at an annual salary of £20. By 1808 Mann was receiving £50 annually, half the salary paid the sheriffs of the other districts of the province.23 In that year also, the assembly first voted money for the construction at New Carlisle and Percé of jails with courthouses attached, but it was many years before they were completed: the jail at New Carlisle was finished about 1820. A few years later the government gave up plans for building one at Percé and instead purchased a large stone building there from John LeBoutillier to serve as a jail and courthouse.24

The people of Gaspé were not punitive by nature and the first execution, performed there in 1866, generated widespread protest. Gaspésians were always interested in the welfare of the prisoners kept in local jails. At Percé, for example, an Indian was charged with arson and held without trial. The sheriff neglected to provide heat and food for him and he died of exposure after 20 months despite the efforts of the townspeople to keep him and other prisoners alive. In another case, the local people forced the government to release a sick, old bootlegger despite the protests of the justice of the peace who felt it would make "punishment a mockery."25 In 1851 the residents of Bonaventure County petitioned the government for a railway to Quebec, suggesting that criminals be used on the construction. They felt that their "principal crimes are ignorance, poverty and misfortune," and that they should be better kept "under the blue vault of Heaven in a healthy climate."26

There were few other government officials in Gaspé and none was well paid. There was a customs collector at Douglastown and at New Carlisle, and a grand voyer of roads (he did not have many roads to inspect). The government also paid stipends for a missionary to the Restigouche Indians and for a few schoolteachers. With this small number of officials, not all of them resident, the presence of the government was not widely felt in the Inferior District of Gaspé.

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