Paul Comeau: Witness to change III

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Third of a four-part series of the real and imagined life of Paul Comeau (1826-1905)

In September 1840, when Paul was 14, his mother died. She left behind her husband, Joseph, 11 children and 11 grandchildren:
• Joseph (married to Marie Desanges Allaire, 4 grandchildren)
• Josephte (married to Eduard Girouard, 1 grandchild)
• François
• Sophie (married to François Moise Girouard, 3 grandchildren)
• Charlotte (married to Jean Baptiste Lamoureux, 1 grandchild)
• Eleonore (married to Antoine Mongeon)
• Honorée
• Pierre
• Paul
• Alexis
• Jean Baptiste

In Sorel, Marie Mathieu’s mother gave birth to two daughters, one in 1837 and another in 1840 . The latter was named Victoria – a name that became popular after the coronation of the young Queen of the British Empire. Sadly, both girls died very young. In 1841 a boy was born who also did not survive.

Map of Canada East 1855

Canada East (Library & Archives Canada; MIKAN 3694915)

In the mid-1800s, the business of building a country got underway. In 1841, Upper and Lower Canada united to become the Province of Canada and were renamed to Canada East and Canada West. The same year, a new system of Canadian currency was adopted. The new Canadian pound was equivalent to four US dollars (92.88 grains of gold) or 16 shillings and 5.3 pence sterling. In 1849, the government of the Province of Canada enacts all legislative bills in both English and French.

1844 looked like a good year for a young man of 18 to join the workforce. The Chambly canal and a system of locks were built to improve the flow of goods between Montreal and New York. The last of the locks (#10) to be built was in St-Ours, which opened in 1849. Family lore has it that Paul worked as a barge-puller and lock-keeper. Wages for a lockkeeper in 1843 were two shillings and sixpence and they were on duty from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. during May to September. By 1852 the wage was up to three shillings a day.

In 1845, Paul was invited by his sister, Eleonore, to be the godfather to her son Antoine Mongeon. 30 years later, Antoine will assist with the settlement of Paul’s wife’s (Marie Mathieu) estate.

1847 brought more epidemics (influenza, typhus, cholera), due mostly to ongoing waves of immigration during the mid-century. In St-Jude, Marie’s maternal grandfather, Charles Allaire, died at 80 years old – of old age or could the epidemic have been a factor? It’s not clear of the impact, if any, epidemics had on the growing community of St-Ours, which by this time had grown to 3,000 and could boast of having six schools with about 700 students (boys and girls). In that year, the village of St-Ours also becomes a separate municipality from the parish. Later it establishes a fire brigade with the purchase of a pumper.

Sorel, too, was a growing concern. The new parish of Ste-Victoire was established in 1842. In 1843, a new Anglican Church was built to support the growing anglophone community – many of whom were descendants of United Empire Loyalist immigrants. A public market was built of brick construction that was 100 x 35 feet in dimension. Around 1845, John Molson & David Vaughan established shipyards in Sorel.

Paul’s older brother Pierre was also a military man, following in his father’s footsteps as a member of the local militia. In 1847, he was promoted to captain of the 1st battalion of Richelieu county. Looking back to 10 years earlier, what was his role during the rebellion?

In March 1850, Paul’s father Capitaine Joseph Comeau passed away. He was 73. His burial was witnessed by Eugene and Hipolyte Laviolet.

The following year, the first thorough Canadian census got underway and included Canada West, Canada East, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. It was not completed until 1853. Unfortunately, the records for St. Ours, William-Henry (Sorel) and Ste-Victoire are missing so we don’t know very much about Paul’s family at that time. We do know that Paul was getting ready to settle down.

In 1852 he signed a marriage contract with Marie Mathieu, daughter of Capitaine Joseph Mathieu and Françoise Allaire of Ste-Victoire, a neighbouring parish. Because Marie was a minor, her parents also signed the contract on her behalf. The signing of the contract was a large event, with many family and friends present. Paul promised to endow Marie with 300 livres (old currency). The contract also notes that Marie brings with her some land in St-Jude with a house, barn, stable and furnishings which were donated to Marie by her parents in 1850. Neither Paul nor Marie knew how to sign (they placed their marks) and among the witnesses who did sign were: his brother Pierre Comeau, Elmire Proulx, Louise Duhamel, Eduard de St-Felix, Cyprien Mathieu, Ethiene Mathieu and Antoine Mongeon.

On the 18th of January 1852, at the church in Ste-Victoire, Paul and Marie were married. On the parish register, Paul’s given occupation is farmer. Witnesses to their wedding included Joseph Gregoire, Laurent St-Martin, his brother Pierre and Marie’s father Joseph.

Barely a month after the wedding, Paul and Marie sell a plot of land in Ste-Victoire to her brother, Etienne. The land is described as part standing timber and part burned and without buildings. The sale price was 900 pounds (old currency) and was to be paid as follows: 300 pounds on November 1, 1852 and the balance on November 1, 1854, without interest if paid on time. It also appears that Marie’s land in St-Jude was mortgaged for 1,800 pounds as a surety. These transactions occurred at about the same time that the seigneurial system was officially abolished. It’s not clear if this change impacted Paul and Marie’s holdings.

The couple established themselves in the newly-constituted municipality of St-Jude where Paul and Marie’s first child died at birth in 1854. Their son Joseph was born in 1856 followed by Paul Stephane in 1858. While It’s not likely that Paul and Marie were early adopters of the latest in domestic technology, word of some of these innovations may have reached them: safety pins, the Singer sewing machine, pasteurization, the rotary washing machine, tin cans with key openers – just to name a few.

Sorel Gazette, July 1, 1867

On the national front, yet another change to the currency occurred with the introduction of the Canadian dollar and new decimal coins in 1858. The British gold sovereign continued to remain legal tender — right up until the 1990s.

The 1858 election was so fraught with irregularities that another set of complicated electoral reforms were enacted. An election in 1861 resulted in an even number of Liberal and Conservative seats taken in both East and West Canada. In Quebec, the conservative vote was dominated by the Bleu movement of French Canadian Tories. As a property owner and British subject, Paul was likely eligible to vote, but it’s not known if he did. Literacy was not an impediment as votes could be cast orally.

In 1861, we finally see Paul and his family recorded on a census. They are living in a single-storey wooden house in Ste-Victoire. Also in the household is another Marie Mathieu (aged 15) – a cousin or niece, perhaps? In July of that year, a daughter, Adelaide is born. In 1864, Paul’s brother Pierre is named a justice of the peace and another daughter, Marie Louise is born in St-Jude, but she dies soon after at two months old. Their last child, Pierre, was born in 1866 and baptised in St-Aimé.

In 1867, on July 1, the Dominion of Canada is formed, uniting the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The proclamation appears in the June edition of the Sorel Gazette. There is speculation about who will form the first government and fill the new ministerial positions in advance of elections to be held in August.

Next: Migrations

by Janet Comeau, May 2018

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