Hubert Prévost the entrepreneur: Intro

First of an eight-part series describing the real and imagined life of Hubert Prévost of Maisonneuve.

In the mid 19th century, Montreal was the largest city in British North America. As a prosperous financial and manufacturing centre, it witnessed dramatic socio-economic change, first with the waves of immigration and then with the shift from rural subsistence farming to wage-paying factory jobs.

This period saw the emergence of French-Canadian entrepreneurs and industrialists, many of whom set up businesses in Montreal’s eastern sector and then became civic leaders as these areas grew to become municipalities.

It’s in this era that Hubert Prévost, son of Hubert and Lucie Archambault of Pointe-aux-Trembles, came to become our first industrialist ancestor. His presence on earth is well-documented, yet each piece of discovered evidence generates many other questions about his motivations, successes or failures as a businessman. A life story worthy of additional research that we’ll save for a sequel.

A CHILD OF THE VICTORIAN ERA

Hubert’s life (1836-1902) spanned the same period as the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1902). He would have witnessed the emergence of Canada from colony to Dominion and the impact of the industrial revolution first-hand.

He was born on October 17, 1836 to Hubert (père), a woodworker (menuisier) living in Pointe-aux-Trembles, and Lucie Archambault, originally of St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, about 40km north of Pointe-aux-Trembles. At the time of his birth, he had an older sister, Luce, born in 1834.

A couple of years later, Marie Zoe Elvina Rive was born to Charles Reeves and Zoe Desautels dite Lapointe on March 4, 1839 in Longue Pointe, a municipality not far from Pointe-aux-Trembles. Zoe Elvina would become Hubert’s wife in 1862.

The origins of the Reeves (also Rive, Rives) family remain a bit of a mystery. Despite what one would assume, the Reeves family (at least this one) had no Irish roots. Instead, it’s believed that Joseph Reeves (Zoe Alvina’s great-grandfather) was born in Port au Basques (Newfoundland) in 1727 and was later baptised in the community of St-Marie in Maryland. Maryland was a haven for Catholics and could be reached by sea without encountering hostile (to the French) British ships patrolling the waterways around Quebec and Acadie.

When Alvina’s brother Charles was born in 1840, the Reeves family appear to be living in the Pointe-aux-Trembles area. Charles (fils) would die six months later. Another brother Louis Charles was born in 1842. At the Provost home, Hubert’s sister Anne Dorimene was born in 1840 followed by a brother Joseph in 1843. These family events occurred against a backdrop of political change that eventually led to nationhood. In the aftermath of the Mackenzie-Papineau rebellions, Upper and Lower Canada were united in 1841 to become the Province of Canada and were renamed to Canada East and Canada West. In 1842, in order to determine parliamentary representation after the Act of Union, a major census of Canada East and West was undertaken. Unfortunately, listings for the Prévost and Reeves families have not been found, possibly because not all the returns survived.

A wave of immigration flowed into Montreal as the effects of the Irish potato famine drove the Irish diaspora, and when the U.S. doubled passage fees to American ports many immigrants chose Canada as their destination. The influx strained the local resources. French Catholics were encouraged to adopt orphaned children and, over time, marriages between the French and Irish populations resulted in a mixed bag of Canadians who had Irish surnames but were raised in French and vice versa – a literal definition of mother tongue. Perhaps the family myth about the Reeves being Irish started around this time.

In 1846 and 1847, two more brothers, Zotique and Eugene, are born, completing Hubert’s (père) and Lucie’s family. As Hubert (fils) approached his mid-teens, Montreal was spreading out to the east. By 1850 Longue Pointe was becoming increasingly urban and industrialized due to the expansion of Montreal’s port and the creation of the Lachine Canal. With industrialization came innovation and new ways of working. As a carpenter (menuisier), Hubert’s father might have seen the replacement of pitsaws (or straight saws) for circular saws driven by steam or water power at sawmills. Perhaps his son Hubert was already learning the trade and dreamt of modernizing the family business with steam-powered equipment.

Illustration of a circular saw invention

Illustration of a circular saw invention published in Scientific American, 1855

Lumber was a big business. In 1851 there were 1,631 mills worked by steam and water power producing 7.7 million board feet of lumber and 4.6 million planks per year. Canada East craftsmen included 379 chairmakers, cabinetmakers and upholsterers; and 8923 shipwrights, carpenters and joiners.

In 1851 we learn a little more about the families of Hubert and Zoe Alvina through the Canada East census of that year – dubbed the first thorough Canadian census. The Provost family – Hubert, Lucie and their six children are still living in Pointe-aux-Trembles. Also in Pointe-aux-Trembles are Charles Reeves, cultivateur, his wife Zoe Lapointe (Desautels), and their children Alvina and Charles (fils). Living with Charles and his family was his father Louis who was 78 years old and retired.

According to the agricultural census of the same year, brothers Louis and Charles Reeves were farming over 200 arpents. Charles’ farm consisted of 102 arpents, with 88 arpents cultivated, of which 76 arpents produced a harvest. 12 of his arpents were en paturage, and 12 arpents were forested or woodlot. Together they produced about 260 minots (bushels) of wheat. When the seigneurial system was abolished in 1854, many tenant farmers bought or acquired the lands they worked. It’s not clear whether the Reeves were tenant farmers or owned their acreages.

In 1852, an event occurred that likely had an impact on Hubert’s (fils) future business career as a building contractor. 1,100 homes on the east side of Montreal went up in flames, leaving more than 10,000 people – about 20% of the population – homeless. As a result, new fireproofing standards were introduced for house construction.

At the end of 1852, Hubert’s mother Lucie Archambault passed away. Hubert was 16 years old. The youngest in the family, Eugene, was only five. Two years later, Hubert’s father married Emilie Chartier. Emilie was 36 at the time, the daughter of Antoine Chartier and Desanges Pepin. Their marriage was short-lived as Emilie died in 1855. By then, Hubert was 19.


Sources

  • 1842 Canada East census. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca
  • 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Library and Archives Canada
  • Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
  • Great Fire of 1852. Wikipedia. 2018-12-17. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_1852
  • Institut Généalogique Drouin; Montreal, Quebec, Canada. http://www.institutdrouin.com
  • Pound, Richard W.; Editorial Director; Canadian Facts and Dates; 3rd Edition. 2005.
  • Reeves, Chs-L. (fr. Damien O.F.M.). The Rives… and Reeves families in New France; translated by Gail Moreau. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Reeves-3207
  • Scientific American; Old Series (1845–1859); Volume 11 Issue No. 50 19 January 1855. Munn & Co.
  • Scott, Marian. The Montreal Gazette; August 12, 2017. “Montreal-refugees-and-the-irish-famine-of-1847”
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