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

Gaspé, 1760-1867

by David Lee

Part III: The People of Gaspé

The French

When James Wolfe left the Gaspé coast in September 1758 he took with him most of the population of the fishing posts at Gaspé Bay, Pabos and Grande-Rivière. Although these people were shipped to French ports in Normandy the same year, a few of them, like François Ayotte and Olivier Michel, were back in Gaspé by 1765.1 A number of the residents, especially from Pabos and Grande-Rivière, hid in the woods and were left behind by the British because they refused Wolfe's offer of safe passage to France. Of these, some, like the seigneur Lefebvre de Bellefeullle, made their way to Quebec. The others chose to remain on Chaleur Bay where they waited out the war.2

For several years after the British conquest of Gaspé, life must have been very hard for the original French settlers living there. For those who decided to remain at Gaspé Bay, Pabos and Grande-Rivière, some buildings and livestock no doubt survived the British attack and there would still have been land cleared for gardening. They probably did little fishing for cod for fear of being seen by British ships and, of course, there would have been no goods brought in from the outside world.

Life must have been much worse for the large number of Acadians who had fled northward to the bottom of Chaleur Bay. They were forced to live like the Indians on fish, game, berries and roots although the arrival of about 270 French soldiers and sailors in the spring of 1760 brought some relief. The small French force was defeated by the British in the summer of 1760 and the British allowed the refugees to keep some of the French military provisions from the captured supply ships; nevertheless, Charles Robin recorded in his journal of 1768 that there had been much starvation among the Acadians in 1759-60.3

The French force was repatriated to France in the autumn though a few of the soldiers may have stayed to settle on the bay. One of the senior French officers, M. Bazagier, reported to the king when he arrived in France in December 1760 that 160 Acadian families totalling 1,003 people were camped at the mouth of the Restigouche River.4 At about the same time two of the British officers, Major Elliott and Captain Macartney, reported to their superior officers at Quebec that the Acadians and Indians at the Restigouche could be trusted to keep the peace. Indeed, while the British had destroyed the French warships, weapons and ammunition in the summer of 1760, they had sold "a small schooner" to the Acadians and left them a quantity of provisions.5

Bazagier also noted that besides the Acadian refugees there were "17 families normandes et metifs," totalling 100 people, scattered along the coast of Gaspé. These were, of course, the original French inhabitants of Gaspé who had declined Wolfe's offer of repatriation. In the summer of 1761, a census by Pierre du Calvet of the population between Mal Bay and Paspébiac shows 17 families — such as the Grenier, David and Langlois families — all of whom appear to be the original French settlers living at Mal Bay, Grande-Rivière, Pabos, Port-Daniel and Paspébiac. At Bonaventure were another eight families, some of them original settlers and some of them Acadians. At Cascapédia (New Richmond) a further 13 families were all apparently Acadian. In all, du Calvet counted 150 Europeans on the north shore of Chaleur Bay. There were no Europeans at the Restigouche. Thus, by 1761 the Acadians had left their refugee camp near the Restigouche Indian village and begun to spread out along the bay.6

Those Acadians who had been camped along the Restigouche for two or three years were anxious to settle new land and in early 1761 they had asked Governor Murray of Quebec for permission to stay. Murray did not give them a clear-cut answer, but he did not forbid them settling in Gaspé.7 As a result the Acadians spread out along both shores of Chaleur Bay where du Calvet found them in the summer of 1761; however, few of the 1,000 refugees reported by Bazagier settled on the north (Gaspé) shore of the bay.

The Acadian population on both shores was severely reduced later in the year. Du Calvet says that after he completed his census, he took two shiploads of Acadians back to Quebec with him. He reported to Governor Murray that more Acadians wanted to leave for all they had to live on was fish and roots.8 The additional population trying to live at the head of Chaleur Bay taxed the local fish and game resources and this, in turn, strained relations between Acadians and Indians. In autumn 1761 Captain Mackenzie of Fort Cumberland, concerned about the possibility of the Acadians rearming and engaging in piracy, hurriedly led a force to Chaleur Bay. He had no time to visit the north shore, but he rounded up 250 Acadians from the south shore and transported them back to Nova Scotia.9

Mackenzie reported that he had left behind on the south shore a further 373 Acadians. New villages were quickly established there as most Acadians evidently found the Gaspé shore less attractive for settlement.10 A census of Gaspé taken in 1765 shows only about 160 French residents on the north shore of Chaleur Bay and another 80 around Gaspé Bay.11 There were no further deportations of Acadians from Chaleur Bay after 1761 and that year can be taken as the beginning of permanent Acadian settlement in Gaspé.

By 1777 there were reported to be 400-500 French residents in Gaspé,12 including 81 Acadians whom Charles Robin brought out on his ships from France (via Jersey) to Chaleur Bay in 1774.13 Even after the settlers had been established in Gaspé for many years, poverty was still prevalent. In 1786 the Loyalists were shocked by the "extreme poverty and wretchedness" of those French who were employed in the fishery and Charles Robin wrote of them living in "poor miserable Huts, which would make you shudder did you but see them." Yet according to Nicholas Cox, the Acadians were "a sober, industrious people."14

Dependence on the fishery was usually recognized as the principal cause of poverty among the French and the missionary Abbé Blais wanted legislation enacted to shorten the fishing season and thereby force the people to cultivate their lands.15 Felix O'Hara tried to encourage the French to attend more to agriculture, noting that the Loyalists would often ask for excessive tracts of land while an Acadian family of ten would typically ask for only 150 acres. Around Tracadigash (Carleton), at the bottom of Chaleur Bay where fishing was poor and the season short, Abbé Ferland noted in 1836 that the Acadians, who predominated there, were principally devoted to agriculture and were much better off. Later, Abbé Gingras at Percé constantly urged his parishioners to cultivate their lands, but he found them lazy, spendthrifty and drunken, and felt that they would always be poor.16

A few individuals did better than others, one being Léon Roussy. Du Calvet said Roussy had been

captain of a large merchant ship, and, after having been taken prisoner by the English, and put on board an English vessel, had risen, with the other French prisoners, upon the English crew, and, seizing the vessel, had carried it to the Bay of Gaspey, and there lived in a lawless manner among the Indians.17

In the census of 1765 he was listed as a resident at Paspébiac where he was apparently the wealthiest landholder. He owned at that time one ox — there were only five on the bay — two cows, three bulls and one horse. In August 1766 he was granted title to 200 acres at Paspébiac.18 Henry Mounier, a French Protestant who had been a merchant at Quebec during the French régime, was given a mandamus for 10,000 acres on Chaleur Bay in 1764. There he operated a fishery for a few years, but was forced out of business by American privateer attacks in 1779 and 1781.19 Various Quebec merchants, like François Buteau, traded in Gaspé and owned small fishing operations there. The seigneur of Sainte-Anne-des-Monts was Louis Lemieux and the seigneur of Grand Etang was Michel Lesperance of the parish of Saint-Thomas-de-Montmagny. Georges and Ferdinand Boissonault of Quebec operated a fishing establishment at Bonaventure where they had 120 boats in 1850.20

Acadians were regularly appointed judges in local Courts of Common Pleas, but not in numbers proportionate to their population. In 1829 they claimed that although they accounted for eight-ninths of the population on Chaleur Bay, only three of 24 justices of the peace were French.21 In the 1850s the government allowed municipalities to issue public documents in only one language as long as it was "without detriment to any of the Inhabitants." In 1856 the entire township of Carleton proclaimed the sole use of French.22

The French population of Gaspé increased with great rapidity, mostly through natural reproduction, but there were a few additions from outside the area. In the 1780s Charles Robin began the practise of importing men from Quebec for summer work on the fisheries. Early in the 19th century some of these French Canadians began to settle around the small coves of the north shore of the Gaspé coast — Cap Chat, Matane, Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and Rivière-au-Renard — places they passed every year travelling to their summer work. In 1860, 25 Acadian families moved from Rustico, Prince Edward Island, to the Restigouche and Matapedia rivers and more families may have followed in succeeding years.23

Intermarriage with other groups also added to the French population. Some of the French inhabitants married Roman Catholic Irish immigrants and others married French-speaking Protestant Jerseymen. There were few conversions to Protestantism and the children of these intergroup marriages were generally French-speaking and Roman Catholic; nevertheless, the priests tried to discourage mixed marriages.24 There were also marriages to European sailors who worked on the ships which plied between Gaspé and the fish markets of the world; for example, the large Joseph family of Gaspé is descended from a marriage in 1802 between a local girl and Benjamin Joseph Killer, a sailor from Portugal.25 There was also a substantial Basque-speaking population on Chaleur Bay: the Castilloux, Chapados, Aspirot, Roussy, Delarosbille, Otsenat and Duguay families were all of Basque origin and many had been in Gaspé prior to 1760. In 1792 Charles Robin wrote a merchant in the Basque district of Spain that "our fish ought to suit your market, it being cured partly by Basque People settled here when the Country was under the Dominion of France & retains to this day the Name of Morue Basque." The Basques readily intermarried with the Acadians and became French-speaking.26

Most intergroup marriages were between people who lived in the same village. Although these marriages resulted in the integration of a number of people of diverse national origins, many divisions remained. The mixture of Irish and French at Percé posed problems for the Roman Catholic missionaries there; the church tried both French and Irish priests in that settlement.27 There were divisions among the French as well. Abbé Ferland, writing in 1836, claimed that, "Quoique voisins, les Acadiens de Bonaventure et les Paspébiacs ont peu de rapports ensemble. De mémoire d'homme, l'on n'a point vu un garçon d'une de ces missions épouser une fille appartenant à l'autre."28 In 1811 Monseigneur Plessis noted that many of the pre-Conquest inhabitants of Gaspé had married Indian women. These were the people whom Bazagier had called "metifs" in 1760. Plessis said that the mixed blood of their descendants

met entr'eux et les autres habitants de la Baie des Chaleurs une différence capitale. Ceux du bas de la paroisse de Caraquet partagent cette ignominie; les étrangers, les Acadiens surtout, se croiraient déshonorés en s'alliant à ces descendants de sauvages, et ne les regardent qu'avec un certain mépris.29

Thus, the French population of Gaspé was not as well integrated as the degree of intermarriage might lead one to believe.

The French population was attentively served by the Roman Catholic Church. There was a missionary, Père Etienne, on Chaleur Bay as early as 1760; indeed, there scarcely seems to have been a year when there was no missionary in Gaspé. The famous Mathurin Bourg, the first Acadian priest, served on Chaleur Bay from 1773 to 1794; his family lived at Tracadigash (Carleton).30 He was followed by a long series of missionaries who ministered to the Roman Catholics of Gaspé — French, Irish and Micmac — despite many hardships. By 1833 there were three full-time priests on the Gaspé coast.31 Several bishops paid pastoral visits to Gaspé — Monseigneurs Hubert (1795), Plessis (1811, 1812, 1821), and Turgeon (1836, 1841, 1852).32

The difficulties experienced by the Gaspé missionaries demonstrate the lack of community feeling in the population. In their correspondence with the bishop at Quebec, the missionaries often commented on their parishioners' heavy drinking, lack of piety, and Sunday fishing, though there were also compliments on their personal generosity and hospitality.33 The priests also complained that the people were unable to organise the parish, to build a chapel or a presbytery, or to provide food, shelter and fuel for the priests on a full-time basis. Plessis noted that it took 15 years for the residents of Percé to build even "une misérable chapelle de bois, où il ne fait bon qu'autant qu'il ne pleut pas dehors." Fifteen years after Plessis's visit, the priest at Percé had to leave to avoid starvation.34 Parishioners were supposed to pay tithes of a half-quintal of cod for each fishing barge they owned, but they seldom did so.35

The missionaries seem to have had the least trouble in the more homogeneously Acadian parishes of Carleton and Bonaventure though there were problems of drunkenness there too.36 The priests found the least cooperation in the more heterogeneous parishes of Percé, Port-Daniel and Paspébiac. Even stern warnings from the bishop of Quebec failed to prompt the residents of these parishes to provide for their priests.

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