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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

The Needs of Gaspé

The governmental apparatus designed to administer the District of Gaspé was obviously weak. The result of this shortcoming was that the peculiar needs and problems of Gaspé were badly neglected.

Security of Land Title

Land ownership problems plagued Gaspé for more than a century and many people claimed that the insecurity of title severely retarded the economic development of the district. Several attempts were made to resolve the problem but none was fully successful.

Most of the English immigrants of the 1760s settled around Gaspé Bay while the Acadians quietly occupied land along Chaleur Bay, particularly at the barachois of Tracadigash (later called Carleton) and at the mouth of the Bonaventure River. Governor Murray apparently granted them permission to settle on these lands.1 Government surveyors like John Collins passed through Gaspé making quick sketches of the region and subsequently he and other high government officials were given grants to some of the land occupied by the Acadians;2 however, the grantees made no attempt to develop the land so the Acadians remained there undisturbed. Land ownership was further complicated by the arrival of the Loyalists in 1784 for some of them were given lands already granted to others. In one case, three groups — Loyalists, Acadians and Indians — claimed possession of some marshland at the mouth of the Restigouche River.3

Gaspé was no longer a vast empty district where a man could settle anywhere he liked. Furthermore, the Loyalists were more insistent than the Acadians in having secure and precise title to their lands; however, to their dismay they were given only location tickets, some of them for lands long occupied or claimed by the Acadians. In an attempt to resolve the confusion, Governor Dorchester sent John Collins, now deputy surveyor general, to Chaleur Bay to gather evidence on land claims from all the residents. Collins toured the bay with Cox in the summer of 1786, taking oaths of allegiance and noting claims, but no "exact survey of all their different settlements" was made as Dorchester had directed,4 perhaps because this was a much more ambitious task than Dorchester realized. In 1787 the governor-in-council ordered "certificates prepared and signed by Mr. Collins . . . pledging the faith of Government for the Lots they possess,"5 but this, again, was not outright title to the land.

There were also troubles with seigneurial land tenure in Gaspé. For example, three British merchants, Dutens, Anderson and Smith, had obtained a mandamus in 1770 for 10,000 acres on Chaleur Bay where they operated a small fishery for a few years. Dutens had died in 1774 and another British merchant, John Shoolbred, had purchased the mandamus for £3,000 and carried on the business until American privateers drove him out in 1779. One cannot buy or transfer a mandamus, but still, after the war, the government agreed to give him land on the bay at Pointe Miguasha, granting it as a seigneury, with the understanding that he allow fishermen to use the beaches and adjacent woodlots to cure their fish. A few Loyalists who had already settled on the land were obliged to leave. After all this trouble, Shoolbred did not develop the land and, as late as 1815, Joseph Bouchette reported that not one newcomer had settled there.6

Maurice Séguin maintains that the District of Gaspé was distinct from the rest of Lower Canada because it was settled on the township system of land division. Séguin claims that because Gaspé was not operated on the seigneurial system, it was like a foreign country to French Canadians and they were not attracted to settle there.7 In the Shoolbred case, however, the seigneurial system was obviously an obstacle to settlement. To complicate matters, several seigneuries in Gaspé which had been granted by the French king continued to exist after the Conquest. The seigneury of Grand Pabos, for example, was slow to develop and was abandoned when the seigneurial dues collected there caused most of its few inhabitants to leave and establish a new settlement at nearby Newport.6 On the St. Lawrence shore, such seigneuries as Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, Rivière-la-Madeleine, and Grande-Vallée were mainly settled by French Canadians from farther up the river, but grew slowly because fishing was not as good there and agricultural land was scarce. Thus the Inferior District of Gaspé was, like the rest of Lower Canada, a mixture of the seigneural and township systems.

In 1787 two British merchants purchased the old French seigneuries of Deneau (Port-Daniel) and Restigouche, but were unable to secure ratification of the transfer of seigneurial proprietorship. The government found that it had placed a large number of Loyalists on this seigneurial land so Dorchester decided that the fiefs must be expropriated. Ten years later the government succeeded in closing a deal with the absentee owners. The land, redeemed from the seigneurial system, could now be held in freehold.9 For the period between 1784 and 1797, though, many Loyalists had been occupying land owned by a second party. In 1797 the location tickets which they had held on this land since 1784 became valid, but again this did not imply true title.

In 1789 the governor created the Gaspé Land Board in an attempt to settle local land questions. The board consisted of Cox, Felix O'Hara and Charles Robin, as well as a Loyalist and two French Canadians, but not one Acadian.10 The Acadians had little success with the board, but found that by continuing to petition the governor and council at Quebec, their chances were enhanced. In 1796 Lieutenant Governor LeMaistre arranged for John Collins and several other men to relinquish the Acadian-occupied lands granted them in the 1760s.11 Few people lost possession of any land they occupied, but everyone had to live with the uncertainty of not having true title. The government discussed the problem in 1805, but then put it aside hoping that the new lieutenant governor, Alexander Forbes, would be able to resolve it.12 He did nothing and the question lay dormant for a decade.

In 1818, William Cockburn, member of the legislative assembly for Gaspé, introduced a Bill to create a commission to investigate the land question in Gaspé and to secure land titles for the inhabitants. The Bill received royal assent in 1819.13 Appointed to head the commission were Jean-Thomas Taschereau and L.-J. Duchesnay; also included were a secretary, Robert Christie, and surveyors and notaries. (Shortly after their appointment, Cockburn died and Taschereau took his place as the representative of Gaspé in the legislative assembly; he served until 1827 when Christie was elected.)

The governor requested that while the commission was in Gaspé, it should also report on the present state of the district and suggest how it could be developed. Thus the commission's first report, dated 27 December 1820, included a census and detailed the geography of Gaspé, its fisheries, agriculture, lumbering, judicial system, roads, schools, health standards and mail service. Subsequent reports submitted to the provincial legislature were dated 22 December 1821, 28 February 1823, 18 December 1823 and 23 April 1825.14 The task took nearly six years to complete because of the remoteness of Gaspé and its poor communications, its lack of resident surveyors and notaries, and because some claims were contested and some decisions appealed.

In the summer of 1819 the commissioners visited Douglastown, Percé, New Carlisle and Bonaventure. During 1820 their itinerary included Grande-Grève, New Carlisle, Restigouche, Cascapédia (New Richmond), Paspébiac and Percé. They returned again in the summer of 1823 to complete their work at Grande-Grève, Gaspé Bay, Percé, Paspébiac, New Carlisle, Bonaventure, New Richmond, Carleton and Restigouche.15

Over 600 claims were ruled on and by 1825 only a few had not been decided "because the claimants have not prosecuted their claims." The adjudications were published in the Quebec Gazette and deposited in a central registry accompanied by all the evidence, contestations and appeals. Generally, the adjudications were decided on the basis of possession of the land for at least ten years with some kind of "written instrument," or 20 years without.

Although the commissioners were evidently conscientious and thorough in their work, shortly after their departure there were complaints about abuses and shortcomings. Some people had difficulty in recovering documents, but a more serious complaint was that many were charged by the commission staff for notarial and surveying services. The commission apparently had no power either to authorize or prohibit such charges, but the commissioners claimed no one was refused service because of inability to pay.16 Another problem was that there was some doubt locally as to whether the adjudications were legally sound with regard to land title because one was ruled unacceptable in a Gaspé court. For this reason, the assembly passed an Act in 1831 declaring the adjudications should "have the effect of Grants from His Majesty" and proprietors were asked to deposit a copy of their adjudications in the office of the Provincial Court in Gaspé.17 Because few people deposited their adjudications within the required three years, in 1836 the assembly passed an Act stating that a copy of the entire register was to be deposited in the Provincial Court in Gaspé and anyone who needed copies would have to pay a fee. At the same time an Act was passed to remedy the lack of notaries in Gaspé; it allowed documents to be notarized by a justice of the peace or clergyman, plus two witnesses.18

After the land commissioners left, the government appointed James Crawford as agent for the crown in Gaspé to allot unimproved land to new settlers; by the 1830s newcomers were required to buy their land. Many hoped by squatting to gain title to their land sometime in the future, as the land commission had permitted for many residents; however, the government confirmed its policy of selling crown land by holding a large sale in July 1834 at which many of the squatters purchased their land. In the end, those who continued squatting hoping to get title to any lands they improved were not disappointed; the assembly passed further legislation in 1847 allowing them title upon payment of only a small fee.19 Many people took up the government's offer,20 but for others the uncertainties continued.

As late as 1891 a government official observed that in Gaspé "more than half the people have no title, not even a location ticket for the property they occupy."21

Protecting the Fisheries

The defence of Gaspé and its fisheries was not a subject of high priority in government circles. Great Britain recognised the value of the fisheries to the empire and claimed to be committed to their preservation. The fisheries operating on the open sea were, of course, vulnerable to intrusions by outsiders and difficult to protect; however, Great Britain did not seem to try very hard and, indeed, when it came to diplomatic bargaining, was ready to sacrifice the fisheries for other benefits.

Between 1763 and 1775 there was no real trouble on the Gaspé fisheries, but difficulties began with the American Revolution and for a few years the fisheries were rendered inoperative by ravaging American privateers.

In June 1778 two privateers arrived at Paspébiac and immediately seized and sent off one of Charles Robin's ships loaded with dried codfish. While the Americans were loading a second vessel, two British warships arrived and succeeded in recovering it. Because there were so many American privateers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, one of the warships remained in Chaleur Bay for the summer.22 Four ships belonging to Charles Robin and William Smith (John Shoolbred's agent at Bonaventure) were seized on the way to their autumn markets in Europe by the privateers shortly after they had ventured into the bay. As a result, Charles Robin left the Gaspé fisheries in 1778 and did not return until peace came in 1783.

By the time John Shoolbred sent his fish off to market in October 1778, the British patrol vessel had left and the Americans easily captured his three ships. Shoolbred tried to carry on in 1779, but in June of that year four American privateers raided his establishment at Bonaventure and seized his money and stores.23 Shoolbred abandoned the fisheries too and, although he acquired a seigneury on Chaleur Bay after the war, he did not resume fishing.

After Shoolbred departed there was not much left in Gaspé to attract privateers. The Royal Navy provided a warship to patrol the gulf, but that was too great an area for one ship to cover although by chance the warship was at Percé in June 1780 when four American privateers appeared. Aided by two 12-pounder cannons operated from shore by the local militia, the warship managed to chase the Americans away. Two years later, when two more American privateers visited Percé, the patrol vessel was busy elsewhere. The Americans burned all the sailing craft at Percé, terrorized the inhabitants and threw the cannons over the cliff. Then they moved on to Gaspé Bay where they took Judge O'Hara prisoner for a time.24

Several times over the years Gaspésians petitioned unsuccessfully for a small detachment of regular troops. After the American Revolution Gaspé was never again threatened with attack from the outside (not even during the War of 1812), but troops were often requested to bolster the civil authority. The 1780 engagement was one of the few occasions the militia was mustered in Gaspé. Although there were frequent reports on the moribund state of the militia and repeated requests that it should be revived, nothing was ever done.25

In the entire District of Gaspé there was only one defensive work, the so-called "Fort Ramsay" at Pointe McConnell on Gaspé Bay. Although the origin of this fortification is unclear, it has a long history. In 1757-58 Pierre Revol, hoping to discourage the British from landing, tried to contrive something which would look like a substantial fortification when seen from the water; this may have been the beginning of Fort Ramsay. In 1765 John Collins set aside a military reserve on Pointe McConnell, noting that a fortification on this elevated site could command the entire harbour. In 1834 John D. McConnell, grandson-in-law of Felix O'Hara, reported that "the remains, Glacis etc. of old . . . Fort Ramsay" could still be seen.26 McConnell did not mention the existence of any cannon, but by 1866 there were three on the site of what was by then the residence of John LeBoutillier, prominent local merchant and member of the legislative assembly for the county of Gaspé. The name Ramsay may have been given to the fortification after the visit of Governor General Lord Dalhousie (George Ramsay) in 1826. The cannon may have been placed on the remains of the work as a decoration by LeBoutillier.27

The Treaty of Paris (1783) gave the Americans the right to fish along all "the coasts, Bays and Creeks" of British North America and to land to cure fish on "any of the unsettled Bays, Harbours and Creeks of Nova Scotia, Magdalen Islands and Labrador." Should these areas become settled, the Americans could remain only with the settlers' permission.28 Quebec obviously was not one of the colonies where American ships could land to cure their fish and complaints arose almost immediately after 1783 that the Americans were violating the treaty in Gaspé, but neither the Royal Navy station at Halifax nor the one at Quebec was well enough equipped to patrol the whole eastern coast.29

The Treaty of 1818 with the United States specified that only ships operating under British navigation laws and manned by British subjects could fish within three miles of the coast of British North America or land there to cure fish; foreigners could land only for shelter, fuel, water and repairs. This condition gave the Gaspé fisheries a little more protection from American fishermen at a time when the latter were becoming even more aggressive, but the problem of enforcement remained. The Royal Navy did not have enough ships to control the hundreds of American ships that came to the Gaspé fisheries every year.

In the 1820s John LeBoutillier, at this time the Charles Robin and Company agent at Percé, took matters into his own hands when one American ship came to fish just off shore. Waiting until the ship was nearly loaded, he led a group of men aboard and threw all the fish overboard. He claimed that the ship left immediately and no Americans came to Percé for years afterward.

The problem with the treaties was one of interpretation: was the three-mile limit to be measured from headland to headland or was it to follow the convolutions of the shoreline? If the former, the Americans could be excluded from Chaleur Bay and perhaps even the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The matter of interpretation was very important for as early as 1824, hundreds of American ships were reported on the Orphan Banks and in Chaleur Bay, and their aggressive fishing for cod and mackerel reduced the catch of local fishermen to almost nothing. Mackerel were especially important as cod bait and when the government finally succeeded in keeping the American fishermen out of the bay, the local catch was much more abundant. The British government eventually decided to measure the three miles from the headlands and, although this ruling did not exclude the Americans from the Orphan Banks, it did keep them out of Chaleur Bay. Nevertheless, it was many years before the Royal Navy was able to enforce the decision; not until 1852 was a regular patrol sent to the Gaspé area.30

The presence of these British naval patrols nearly resulted in armed clashes with American fishermen and, among other reasons, it was to avoid this that the United States and Great Britain were anxious to sign the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854. This treaty allowed Americans to fish in Gaspé coastal waters and to land to cure their fish. Gaspésians were allowed access to American fisheries, but no Gaspé fisherman is known to have ever taken advantage of this privilege. The treaty ended in 1866, but by the Treaty of Washington (1871), rights to Canadian fisheries were once more sold to the United States.31 Thus, Gaspé fishermen gained only two years' relief (1852-54) from American competition.

Nevertheless, Canadian surveillance of the fisheries continued after 1854. Dr. Pierre Fortin was sent as a stipendiary magistrate to patrol the waters of the gulf in 1852. In addition to dispensing justice from his armed schooner La Canadienne, he checked on smuggling and offences to the Fisheries Act, issued fishing licences, collected statistics and gathered information on settlement and the fisheries for the use of the assembly. In 1867 he was succeeded by his assistant, Théophile Têtu.32

The United States also took steps to reduce the possibility of friction between American fishermen and the people of Gaspé. William W. Merriam of New York was appointed first American consul at Gaspé Bay in 1856 to represent United States interests there. A few years later the United States erupted in civil war and relations between Britain and the northern states became so strained that British troops were shipped to Canada in 1861. To find out as much as possible about British shipping and troop movements in Canada, the United States sent Thomas Fitnam to Gaspé Bay in the middle of the winter of 1861-62. Officially known as a consul, his mission was to carry out "confidential agencies"; however, the British were completely aware of Fitnam's objectives and Governor General Monck felt that "a spy in an official position is much more easily watched than one in a private capacity."33 In 1866 the United States chose a Canadian, Horatio LeBoutillier, son of the Honourable John LeBoutillier, to be their consul at Gaspé Bay. A later consul, George Holt, gathered information in 1877 for the Halifax Commission regarding the impact of the earlier Reciprocity Treaty.34 Besides treaty violations, another complaint against the United States was that its fishermen would not obey Canadian regulations against throwing fish offal into the water. The people of Gaspé polluted the fisheries too, but since they fished just off shore it was easier for the local fish companies to control this abuse. The Americans, however, fished on the banks out in the bay or gulf where it was impossible for the Royal Navy or Fortin's fishery patrol to supervise them. The only effective way to control the Americans would have been to keep them out of the fisheries, but to the British, peace and other favours from the United States were more important than preserving the Gaspé fisheries.

Social Assistance

Gaspé was a chronically poverty-stricken region unable to provide such social services as welfare, health assistance and education on its own. At the same time Gaspésians could never rely on government assistance. Habitually the government either ignored requests for aid or pleaded communication difficulties or lack of funds.

When the Gaspé economy was devastated by American privateers in the revolutionary war, the only aid that Governor Haldimand sent was four guineas and some flour to be distributed among the poor,35 but when the Loyalists came to settle in Gaspé a few years later, Haldimand provided lavish assistance. Crop failures in the 19th century brought varying responses. A shipment of flour was sent in 1816,36 but in 1848 when Robert Christie, member of the assembly for Gaspé, reported a crop failure and a poor fishing season, the government stalled by insisting on petitions direct from the inhabitants. By the time such requests arrived, it was too late in the season to send any aid. The following spring the government agreed to send seed grain, but the cost had to be repaid over two years.37 Similar petitions in 1852, 1855 and 1866, when people were reported dying of starvation, brought no help at all, the government claiming lack of funds.38

Ships in trouble, especially those on transatlantic voyages, were accustomed to heading for Gaspé Bay. Often their trouble was infectious diseases among the immigrants they were bringing to Canada. Canadian quarantine regulations respecting disease-stricken ships for some reason did not extend to Gaspé, which made the area even more attractive for these ships and naturally endangered the health of the people of Gaspé. As the land commissioners noted in 1820, this resulted in the "loss of some respectable and valuable inhabitants." One official, Hugh O'Hara, died after contracting a disease while tending the sick left by a ship in 1818. In 1821 the government conducted a brief smallpox vaccination programme in Gaspé.39 Nevertheless, the district was not equipped to handle general outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhoid fever or diphtheria. As late as 1833 there was only one doctor resident in the district and he lived on Chaleur Bay. Occasionally, when a Royal Navy ship visited Gaspé Bay, a naval surgeon helped out. A special session of the peace in 1847 reported that the situation had become very serious and pleaded for a government-established board of health to enable local quarantine of the sick. Two years later the assembly passed such legislation, but the Act gave the board little authority to control the landing of passengers and crews from visiting ships. Furthermore, the Act did not provide any funds to cover the board's expenses and for this reason no board of health appears to have been created in Gaspé.40

In 1859 there was fear of a smallpox epidemic and although the people petitioned for free vaccination, the request was not acted on. Even after 1860, when Gaspé Bay was made a free port and maritime traffic consequently increased, the government refused to appoint a health officer or to provide for any resultant outbreak of disease. A diphtheria epidemic in 1862 caused the population to panic, but when the local member of the legislative assembly asked for a doctor to be sent, the request was simply shelved.41

No school is known to have operated in Gaspé prior to the arrival of the Loyalists. In 1785 the government voted £25 for a schoolmaster, Benjamin Hobson, at the Loyalist settlement of New Carlisle. Hobson taught at New Carlisle until 1822, for the first 15 years in his own home because he was not provided with a schoolhouse until 1801.42

Improvement in the educational facilities at New Carlisle may have been due to the founding of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning in 1801, the first true school system to operate in Canada. Through this institution the government financed and supervised teachers, buildings and curricula. Education expanded in the District of Gaspé, Douglastown acquiring a school sometime before 1818, and by 1830 schools had also been established at L'Anse-aux-Cousins, Cape Cove, Gaspé Bay, Hopetown, Mal Bay and Paspébiac. An attractive curriculum, often offered in both English and French, was provided at the Royal Institution schools. The one at Douglastown, for example, gave courses in such practical subjects as bookkeeping and navigation. New legislation in 1829 and 1832 continued government financial support, but put more organisational responsibility on the local people. In Gaspé this was disastrous and most of the schools closed. Political stalemate in the legislature prevented any further school legislation after the Act of 1832 expired in 1836.43

Few people in Gaspé were enthusiastic about education for they needed their children to work on the beaches curing fish from April to November. Hence, giving local residents more control of their schools only served to retard literacy in Gaspé. In 1811 Monseigneur Plessis had written a Paspébiac missionary that he should "leur enseigner à lire autant qu'il sera nécessaire pour les mettre en étât de chanter le plein-chant." In 1836 Abbé Ferland claimed that at Paspébiac,

les écoles sont proscrites. 'Il n'y a pas besoin d'instruction pour eux', écrivait M. Philippe Robin à ses commis; s'ils étaient instruits, en seraient-ils plus habiles à la pêche?

It must be noted, however, that the source of Robin's alleged statement is unknown. In any case, Paspébiac had a Royal Institution school for a number of years. In 1824 J.F. Winter, senior clerk of Charles Robin and Company, was the "visitor" (local superintendent) of that school; he petitioned the institution for a bilingual teacher because of the large number of francophones in the area. The Royal Institution school was still functioning when Ferland visited Paspébiac in 1836.44

Only a few schools survived into the 1840s. One was at New Carlisle, which had a long tradition of education and indeed, in 1847, the town petitioned for a secondary school, though unsuccessfully. New legislation in 1845 authorised the creation of municipal school boards with taxation powers. In Gaspé this law was initially met with hostility, but by 1855 nearly half the school-age children in the two counties were attending school for at least part of the year. The school inspector's report for 1855 shows primary schools established — though not necessarily functioning — in most areas. In Fox Township the residents continued to refuse taxation, but in Mann Township the inspector succeeded in persuading the people to organise a school board.45

Economic Development

In the hope that through economic development Gaspé would be able to afford better social services, it was often suggested that the government help the district develop a diversified economy based on the use of cash rather than on a barter system. Attempts were made to encourage the development of the mineral, timber and agricultural resources of the area so the fishing industry would not be the sole basis of the Gaspé economy, but the changeover was very slow.

Meanwhile the fishing industry throve under the leadership of innovative and energetic merchants who felt that the Canadian government could assist the industry to become even stronger. The British government often sacrificed the interests of the fisheries to gain political and economic benefits in other spheres, as, for example, with the Reciprocity Treaty (1854) and the Treaty of Washington (1871). Nevertheless, the government tried to bring some order to the Gaspé fisheries, its first ordinance being promulgated as early as 1764 and followed by revisions and improvements in 1788, 1804, 1807, 1819, 1824, 1826, 1831, 1836, 1841, etc.; however, little was done to inform the local fishermen of the application of these ordinances, and for a long time many of the provisions were unenforceable. As early as 1788 there were authorisations for the appointment of cullers and fish inspectors to standardise the quality of fish exported, but it was not until the next century that they were able to act. Since the Restigouche River and Chaleur Bay fisheries were shared with New Brunswick, many regulations could not be enforced without the cooperation of that colony. The Acts of 1824 and 1826 provided for commissioners from Canada to meet with representatives from New Brunswick to coordinate fisheries policy, but this was never done.46

The fishing companies of Gaspé, although very influential within the district, were surprisingly lacking in influence in government circles. They asked for several concessions to help their industry and, although these were not major requests, they had to wait many years before any were granted, if at all. For example, as early as 1785 the companies requested that a customs house be established at Percé, the centre of the fisheries, so ships bringing men and supplies from Europe would not have to go to Douglastown or New Carlisle to have their cargoes cleared. This would save much valuable time, especially during spring, the important fishing season, but not until 1835 was a customs house established at Percé47

Duties on the importation of fishing equipment were also a sore point. All imports into Canada were subject to a two and one-half per cent advalorem duty until 1859 when the duty was increased, but in view of the fishing industry's traditional importance as a nursery for seamen in case of war, exemptions were asked for in certain cases. The capacity of the Gaspé fishermen to compete in the world market had been seriously curtailed because fishermen in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island had been granted exemptions and Gaspésians had not. The only important exemption gained was the removal, in 1814, of the duty on salt imported to cure fish. The duty on imported molasses was removed in 1835, which must have helped a little for it stimulated the market for a commodity that Gaspé fishing vessels could carry when returning from the West Indies.48 In 1860 several Gaspé ports were declared free ports and the desires of the large fishing concerns were largely satisfied.

Gaspé fishermen were accustomed to operating at a disadvantage because most of their competitors were provided with bounties on fish exports. Newfoundland and Labrador had long enjoyed a bounty on the fish they produced for the British market and in the 19th century New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island also provided bounties for their fishermen on exported fish. New Brunswick, for example, paid 50 cents per quintal of cod that sold for around five to six dollars in the United States. Thus, fish caught in Chaleur Bay brought more profit to a New Brunswick fisherman than to his Gaspé neighbours. The government never relieved Gaspésians of this disadvantage.49

The assistance requested for the fishing industry of Gaspé principally benefitted the large merchants. As Pierre Fortin noted in 1865, the creation of free ports in Gaspé in 1860 did not much help the fishermen themselves because control of the economy remained in the hands of the big companies. The "Jersey Houses," he said, did not pass on the savings to the local people who supplied them with fish and they worked together to exclude new competition.50

Attempts were made to encourage the development of the mineral, timber and agricultural resources of the area to offset dependence solely on fishing. For many years there had been rumours of deposits of coal, oil and other minerals in Gaspé. The first person with any knowledge of geology whom we know to have investigated these rumours was Sir Richard Bonnycastle, who confirmed the existence of petroleum when he accompanied Lord Aylmer to the district in 1831. William Logan, chief geologist for the government of Canada, who was sent to Gaspé in 1844, felt that petroleum deposits on the York and Saint-Jean rivers might be commercially exploitable, and that same year the Gaspé Fishery and Mining Company was incorporated with the hope of exploiting these resources. In 1860 another company drilled several wells on the York River and at Sandy Beach, actually producing a few barrels of oil. The oil companies remained interested, but the capital for further exploration in this rugged and remote area was hard to find.51

Although mineral development was too expensive for the area, a lumber industry could have provided winter employment for the fishing communities. Unfortunately, this industry was very slow to develop in the Gaspé although it boomed in the rest of the province during the 19th century. This was mainly because the government had a commitment to protect the river fisheries of Gaspé, especially the rich salmon fisheries, from being disturbed by sawdust and the movement of logs. For the same reason Father Painchaud, missionary to the Acadians and Indians, campaigned against lumbering.52

Nevertheless, lumbering was done on a small scale. Charles Robin witnessed two ships loading masts at the Bonaventure River in 1767 and occasionally his company sent lumber to Jersey and the West Indies.53 The government apparently did not enforce Admiralty laws reserving all white pines for ships' masts after it was recognised that Gaspé did not produce trees suitable for this purpose.54 Because government regulations with regard to lumbering were not extended to Gaspé, trespassers from as far as the United States pirated Gaspé timber and as early as 1820 there was concern that this uncontrolled lumbering might result in over-cutting.55

Gradually local people got into the timber trade. Bouchette reported that they began in 1815, that in 1818 four shiploads were exported, and that by 1825 as many as 60 shiploads of lumber, mainly pine, were exported.56 By 1843 there were sawmills on the Bonaventure, Restigouche, Matapédia and Matane rivers,57 yet much timber cut along the Bonaventure and most of that cut along the Restigouche was milled in the New Brunsick towns of Dalhousie and Campbellton.58 Not enough wood was cut in Gaspé to generate employment sufficient to improve the local economic situation significantly.

Gaspé timber was very important for the local shipbuilding industry. Small sailing sloops and schooners had long been constructed by the French of Acadia and Gaspé, but Charles Robin initiated a Gaspé tradition of building his own ocean-going vessels. In 1792 he launched his first ship, the Fiott, a brig of about 250 tons which, on its first voyage, carried fish oil, salmon and cod to Santander in Spain. Robin was very fortunate in selecting an expert shipwright, James Day, to supervise his shipyards and doubly fortunate that Day was willing to remain in the relative isolation of Gaspé for many years. For a long time Robin's company was able to turn out an average of one ship every two years using the local timber supplies. Some fittings, naturally, had to be imported, but nevertheless the company became somewhat independent of the outside world for its fleet of ships to carry fish to distant markets.

Gaspé became well-known for its shipbuilding capabilities, one observer claiming they ranked "higher than any other colonial built vessels." Although not numerous, the ships were famous for their reliability and durability and within a few years they were being built with a capacity of 4,000 to 5,000 quintals of cod. They were also famous for speed; some were known to have taken two cargoes of dried cod to Brazil in one season.59 In 1825 the customs collector at Gaspé Bay wrote,

At New Richmond, Bonaventure and Paspibiac there is considerable ship building carried on and with great success, contracts are generally made for from 5 & 6 pounds per ton exclusive of Rigging; the materials are Bottom plank and timbers black Birch, the upper timbers Cedar and Juniper, the knees either spruced or junipered (the latter is preferred) the trunnels are of Juniper and found to answer much better than Oak, vessels of 3 to 400 tons are built here [Gaspé Bay] and at the Bay of Chaleurs of those materials without iron or copper fastenings and are found to answer a good purpose, they generally run 10 and 12 years without repairs, in one instance the Messrs. Robin built a Brig of these materials which has now seen 19 years and nothing has been yet wanted to her woodwork, the trunnels are all driven aslant which precludes the possibility of the plank starting, those vessels are the handsome models and are in good repute; the forests afford a convenient and ample supply for building, as also white and red pine but at Gaspé [Bay] rather small dimensions, the builders lay down their vessels a good way from the water and when they launch (even large ships) they lower them on their bilge and start them broadside foremost a most simple safe and easy method especially in scarce water; there is no oak grows in this district.60

A third means of diversifying the Gaspé economy was to develop its agricultural potential. The government often discussed encouraging the people of Gaspé to become full-time agriculturalists, but it could not force people onto the farms. One suggestion was to discourage fishing by shortening the legal fishing season; another was to remove the uncertainty of property title which had been a deterrent to farming for so long. Occasionally the government sent seeds and seed grains to Gaspé, and the district was included in a government programme during the 1840s and 1850s to promote the organisation of local agricultural societies.61

The soil and climate, however, posed problems for the potential farmer. Along the entire rocky coast from Cap-Chat to Percé, farming consisted of little more than small gardens bordering the coves. South of Percé on Chaleur Bay the terrain was less steep, the climate milder and the soil richer. Travelling along the bay in 1836 Father Ferland noted that the land around Tracadigash (Carleton), at the head of Chaleur Bay where cod were fewer and the fishing season shorter than elsewhere in the district, was very much like that near Quebec. La pêche est d'une importance secondaire; l'agriculture forme leur principale occupation. Des chemins bien entretenus permettent de voyager en voiture . . .; aussi chaque cultivateur possède cheval et charettes, tant pour les voyages et les promenades, que pour les travaux de la terre.62

For many Gaspésians farming was out of the question because they were indebted to the fishing companies and thus had to continue working for them. Although Governor Haldimand had been aware of the pernicious effect of fishing monopolies and the barter system, no effective action was taken to break up the power of the big companies; however, as the 19th century progressed more people began to raise their own food, especially as the second ranges of townships, away from the sea, were settled. In Bonaventure County the number of families living entirely by farming increased from 362 in 1819 to 459 in 1831. In the whole District of Gaspé in 1819 there were four gristmills; by 1831, there were six. More striking is the increase in horses, cows, sheep and hogs in the district: 11,294 in 1819; 21,477 in 1831.63 In 1830 a visitor was impressed with the quality of the livestock and reported that much of it was sold to lumber contractors.64


In the 18th century Gaspé probably had as much contact with Europe as with Quebec; nevertheless, Gaspé depended on the rest of the province for economic and social assistance, its judicial system, and trade and defence. Within the district, communication was difficult because many people were too poor to afford to travel from one settlement to another except by boat and for a long time there were only a few short stretches of road along Chaleur Bay. In the winter travellers crossed rivers and bays on the ice, but every year someone broke through the ice and drowned. Poor local communications caused great difficulties with respect to holding court sessions, elections and religious services, conducting trade and organising school boards.65

Around 1820 the government sent men to explore a route for a road to connect the St. Lawrence River with Chaleur Bay. Work was begun in the late 1820s on the "Kempt Road' (initiated by Sir James Kempt, administrator of Lower Canada), which cut through nearly 100 miles of forest along the valley of the Matapédia River; it ran from the settlement of Métis (now Grand-Métis) to the mouth of the Restigouche River. It was called a finished road, but only at its two ends were there stretches where carriages could pass. Travellers could easily cross into New Brunswick and continue on to Halifax for roads in the maritime provinces were better than in Gaspé. The connection between Quebec and Halifax was naturally considered very valuable by the British authorities because mail and, in the event of war, soldiers could be more reliably moved from one province to another;66 however, in 1837 and 1861, troops travelling from New Brunswick to Canada took the traditional route over the Témiscouata portage.

In the early 1840s the Kempt Road was improved and made "thoroughly passable for wheel Carriages, and all the Rivers bridged in the most substantial manner." Still, when the work was completed there were 78 miles in the interior where there were only two settlers and it was many years before they came in any number.67 The Kempt Road only connected one corner of the District of Gaspé to the rest of the province and actually most of the road was not even in Gaspé but in Cornwallis County (today Matapédia County). Most of the road went around Gaspé and thus did nothing to stimulate settlement there.

But the people of Gaspé wanted roads that would link their communities together, allow internal communication by land, and facilitate settlement and commerce. Some local attempts had been made to construct roads along the shore of Chaleur Bay, notably one 21 miles in length between Percé and Grand-Rivière; but when the terrain was rough and rivers had to be bridged, the cost and technology were beyond the capacity of the local people. In the 1840s the government improved the existing roads and cut new ones through the gaps between the existing roads. One of the longest gaps was through the empty Shoolbred seigneury. Sixty miles of new roads were constructed as well as several bridges over 200 feet long including a 400-foot bridge over the Petit Pabos River. A short road was also constructed to connect with a ferry from Dalhousie, New Brunswick. By 1844 one could travel by carriage from Quebec to Percé or Halifax.68

The new settlements of Cap-Chat, Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and Grande-Vallée petitioned for an overland connection with the outside world, their most cogent argument being that such a road would provide for the more efficient rescue of passengers and crews of vessels shipwrecked along the shore. In the following decades sporadic work was done on a road along the north shore of Gaspé, but many years elapsed before it was completed so communication by water continued to be favoured. Thus, supplies brought from the outside were very expensive. Goods were brought down from Quebec to Gaspé Bay before being sent back up the St. Lawrence to the isolated, upriver communities. William Logan observed in 1844 that supplies became more expensive as he went up the river from Cap-des-Rosiers to Cap-Chat.69

Gradual improvement in overland communications permitted better postal service. Normally mail was sent by boat from Quebec during the navigation season, but the service to Gaspé was intermittent between December and May. Charles Robin mentioned in 1798 that a mail courier made only one or two trips every winter from Quebec. Robin paid the courier as much as £1 for carrying his letters along a route similar to that later used for the Kempt Road. In 1830 the courier was still making only one or two trips per winter, carrying mail at the rate of two or three shillings per letter; however, by 1839 the Post Office Department reported that it "with difficulty maintains by a weekly foot post a communication between the District of Gaspé and the rest of Lower Canada via the Métis [Kempt Road] route."70

Marine communications were also uncertain due to the absence of good navigational charts. The old North American Pilot, first published in 1775 for the Lords of the Admiralty, included sailing directions for the coasts of Gaspé based on the hasty surveys done by James Cook, who was with Wolfe at Gaspé Bay in 1758, and by HMS Norwich, which participated in the battle of the Restigouche in 1760.71 The first truly accurate nautical charts of the coasts of Gaspé were made available in the 1830s when Captain (later Admiral) Bayfield was sent by the government to chart these waters. Even after Bayfield's charts became generally available, shipwrecks were common occurrences, especially along the St. Lawrence shore. In 1847 there was, for example, the tragic wreck of the Carricks in which about 175 people drowned off Cap des Rosiers. Not until 1858 did the government erect a lighthouse at this strategic point (the first lighthouse built in Gaspé) and no further ones were constructed until the 1870s.72

Further improvements to communications in Gaspé were long to appear. Although first requested in 1857, it was not until 1870 that the government subsidized a steamship company to establish service between Pointe au Père, Quebec, and the maritime provinces, which included stops at Gaspé Bay, Percé and Chaleur Bay.73 In 1880 telegraph service, both land and submarine, connected several points in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including Gaspé.74 Although rail service had first been requested in 1851, the Chaleur Bay Railway, running from Matapédia to Gaspé Bay, was not begun until the 1890s and not completed until 1912; it merged with the Canadian National Railway in 1929.75

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