Paul Comeau: Witness to change IV

Migration

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

Sometime around 1870, Paul left for New England with his family. “Between 1840 and 1930 roughly 900,000 French Canadians left Canada to emigrate to the United States…A majority of them were from rural parishes and agricultural problems are determined to be at the root of the economic factors that stimulated emigration.” In fact, the immigrant population of Southbridge Massachusetts, where Paul and his family located, was dominated by Quebec emigrés from St-Ours and Sorel.

We know Paul was in Massachusetts because he and his family appear (with anglicized names) in the 1870 census, living in Hardwick, Worcester, Mass.

Paul Como 46 Works in Woolen Mill
Mary 36 Keeping house
Joseph 14 Works in Woolen Mill
Paul 12 Works in Woolen Mill
Dillon[?] 10 Works in Woolen Mill; Attended school in previous 12 months.
Peter 4 At home

All but Dillon cannot read or write. Paul Sr. is listed as a US citizen without voting rights.

In 1871, the exodus of French Canadians to the U.S. prompted a two-day convention in Worcester MA, attended by delegates and members of the clergy. The agenda for the conference included:
• Press canadienne aux Etats-Unis
• Ecoles françaises
• Naturalisation et repatriement
• Moyens d’accroître notre bien-être matériel
• Etablissement de nouvelles sociétés de secours mutual
• Questions d’honneur national.

The conference concluded with a number of declarations and resolutions which were reported in La Gazette de Sorel to improve the well being of French Canadians in the U.S. (including Paul and his family).

The woolen mill referenced in the census listing for Paul and his family is quite likely George H. Gilbert’s new Ware wool factory in Hardwick Gore. It was not uncommon for children to be working in mills to help bring in income.

Ware wool factory in Hardwick (http://www.townofhardwick.com/History.html)

In 1871, his wife Marie died of consumption in Leicester, Massachusetts and was buried in St. Johns cemetery in Worcester. By 1875, Paul had brought his family back to St-Ours. He is recorded on a transaction involving his brother-in-law Etienne Mathieu and Capt. François Lamoureux. He’s also listed in the land registry for the seigneury of St-Ours from 1872 to 1901, so clearly, he still held property ties to the area.

In November 1875, now a widower with four children 5 to 15 years old, he married Florence Duhamel of Ste-Victoire in a ceremony witnessed by his brother Pierre, Marie Mongeon, Sophie Mathieu, Gelinas Lamothe, Narcisse Martin, Pierre Duhamel, Prisque Hebert and others.

What is known about Florence Duhamel? She was born on August 11, 1831 in Sorel to Pierre Duhamel, agriculteur, and Marguerite Proulx. Pierre and Marguerite had six children — five girls and one boy. Florence was the second oldest child. Being in Sorel around the same time as the Mathieu family, it’s possible that Florence may have known Marie or one of her older brothers. In 1846, the Sorel school commission was formed, and it is known from the 1861 census that Florence’s two youngest sisters attended school in 1860. In 1858, the population of Sorel (then called William-Henry) was 3,345.

Interestingly, despite the large influx of United Empire Loyalists after the revolutionary war in the U.S., there are only eight English inhabitants in the town (1 Scot, 7 Irish). In 1861, Florence is still living with her parents and siblings in Ste-Victoire. In 1865 catastrophic floods affected the area. Particularly hard-hit were the islands of Sorel where the population was decimated with over 30 deaths from drowning. Five years later, Florence is still unmarried and living with her brother’s family, siblings and elderly parents in Ste-Victoire. In 1874 Florence enters into a series of property transactions – first with her brother Pierre related to a donation to her made by her father. Then a purchase from Pierre Lacroix followed by a sale to Felix Duval. Were these in preparation for her coming nuptials with Paul? The details of these transactions are not fully known.

The first few years of Paul and Florence’s marriage seemed to be occupied with a series of land and loan transactions starting with the sale of a plot of land to Pierre Duhamel (Florence’s brother). In 1878, Paul & Florence borrow $1400 from her sister, Sophie Duhamel to purchase land and build a house.

In 1879, Paul witnesses the marriage contract and the wedding for his son, Joseph, and Marie Hermine Albina Gregoire. A year later, his first grandchild, Rosaline, is born. In the 1881 census, Paul’s household includes his sons Joseph, Paul and Pierre, his wife Florence and Aurelie Harpin. Their daughter, Adelaide is not listed and her whereabouts are not known. Joseph is also recorded elsewhere in the census with his wife, Albina, and their baby, Rose. All four men are recorded as farmers. Another granddaughter, Leontine, is born in the fall of 1881 to Joseph and Albina but she dies a couple of weeks later. Rose dies at three years old.

Childhood mortality was a common reality during this period. In Paul’s family alone, of 14 grandchildren born between 1880 and 1904, only 5 survived to adulthood. We don’t know what caused this high rate of mortality, but the leading causes of death for young children at that time were gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases.

A lot was happening in St-Ours – after years of disagreement on approaches, the church at St-Ours was demolished to make way for a new building. The new church was consecrated in 1882. A couple of years later Mme de St-Ours passed away. She was a large presence in the community as patron of many projects. Her funeral was attended by most of the population.

Wedding bells rang again in 1885 when son Paul Stephane married Marie Gouin in St-Robert. Paul was present at this occasion. Five years later, his third son, Pierre, married Elisabeth Brisebois from Sweetburg (near Cowansville). Perhaps the occasion of this last marriage prompted the family to arrange for a set of portrait photos to be taken in 1890.
In addition to commercial photography, other innovations to reach St-Ours were likely the telephone (the Bell Telephone Company was formed in 1880) and the installation of street lighting on the main street in 1887.

In 1891, Paul is still farming at the age of 64 with Florence by his side. His children have all left the nest and established their own households.

On the political front, the government changes prime ministers five times in as many years. They are: Sir John Abbott (Conservative), Sir John Thompson (Conservative), Sir MacKenzie Bowell (Conservative), Sir Wilfred Laurier (Liberal) and Sir Charles Tupper (Conservative).

Then as the century draws to a close, Paul’s wife, Florence dies in December 1898. Paul’s son Joseph attended and witnessed the burial. After Florence’s death (1899), it appears that Paul headed back to Massachusetts to join his sons, Pierre and Paul in Southbridge. What could have been the reason for their decision to go to the United States? Economic? Nostalgia? The boys did spend some of their early childhood there. Or political – Canada had just entered the Boer war and was sending troops overseas – a development that was opposed by Quebec. We’ll never really know the motive, but we do know that Paul was living with Paul Stephane in Southbridge. The 1900 U.S. Census tells us that Paul Stephane and his wife had been in the U.S. 13 years. Both worked as cotton weavers. Her son Ethier (with her previous husband) and his wife also lived in the house. Ethier was a grocery salesclerk. He could read, write and speak English. The city directory for Ware, MA shows Paul Stephane’s address as 23 Canal St. It’s not known when Pierre went to Southbridge, but it is known that he remained there. Back in St-Ours, Paul’s son Joseph passes away in 1901 at just 45 years old.

Paul Comeau would die in Southbridge on December 27, 1905. Three days later he was buried in his ancestral home of St-Ours. His son Paul Stephane attended the funeral and probably accompanied his father on his last journey home.

Southbridge, MA in 1905 (Wikimedia)

by Janet Comeau, May 2018

Paul Comeau: Witness to change III

Home and country

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

Paul Comeau: Witness to change II

Les Patriotes

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

It had been about 60 years of British rule after the conquest of Québec, and there began to be rumblings of political discontent. In both Upper and Lower Canada, electoral corruption, the ideals of republicanism vs. colonial rule and securing French rights led to open rebellion. For a 10-year old boy, the pivotal events that unfolded in the Richelieu region instigated by the Patriotes and Fils de la Liberté could only have been interpreted as heroic and exciting.

During the election of 1834, Louis Marcoux, an advocate for the rights of French Canadians, is assassinated in Sorel. The coroner’s jury declared 14 individuals guilty, all but one was tried, and he was acquitted by a Montreal jury. This development further radicalized Marcoux’s friend, Dr. Wolfred Nelson, one of the leaders of the Lower Canada rebellion of 1837-1838.

There is no indication of the political leanings of Paul Comeau or Marie Mathieu’s parents. Being illiterate, they likely formed their opinions by talking about the issues with their pastor, family and neighbours, and not from the newspapers and pamphlets of the day. It’s certain that there was wide-spread concern that the reformists would resort to violence, so Paul’s parents, Joseph and Marguerite, likely cautioned their youngest boys, Paul, Alexis and Jean-Baptiste from hanging around where they had no business.

Monument aux Patriotes de Saint-Ours

In May 1837 (a month before a young Victoria ascends to the throne of Britain) a rally in St-Ours, with Dr. Nelson as the principal speaker, was attended by 1,200 people. In the fall, more rallies took place in Montreal and nearby St-Charles-sur-Richelieu followed by arrests for treason and sedition. Three Chapdelaine men are among the Patriotes arrested – very likely relations of Paul’s mother Marguerite. Paul’s brother Pierre, who was in the militia, was likely involved on the government side of the issue. Troops are dispatched to the area on Nov 22, while the Patriotes look for the means to arm their followers.

In St-Denis poorly-armed rebels with reinforcements from St-Roch, Contrecoeur and St-Ours manage to force government troops to retreat to Sorel. Still, 12 rebels and 30 soldiers died. Jean Baptiste Dupré of St-Ours was one of them. Colonel Gore, intent on retaliation, returns with a plan to burn the village of St-Ours to the ground. Curé Belanger’s entreaties to Gore succeeded in sparing the village but the homes of the insurgents are pillaged.

Sentiment begins to turn against armed rebellion and 399 St-Ours residents sign a petition sent to the Governor disavowing the actions of the few insurgents. Joseph Comeau’s name is not on the petition. Many of the instigators flee to the United States and try to keep the flame of revolution alive from afar. By January 1838, the rebellion is over.

Still, the divisive nature of the recent rebellion may have been a factor in how locals shamefully responded to a steamship disaster on June 10, 1839. Passing Sorel in the night on its way to Montreal, John Labatt’s steamer, John Bull, caught fire near Lanoraie and several panicked passengers jumped into the river to escape the flames. A number of local residents came out with boats, not out of compassion but to extort money from passengers in return for rescue. 14 souls were lost in that tragedy.

Next: Home & country

© Janet Comeau, May 2018

Paul Comeau: Witness to change

Beginnings

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

What we know definitively about Paul Comeau is mostly from documented facts and a bit of family lore. Still, judging from the events that occurred during his lifetime from 1827 to 1905, it’s more interesting to consider his impressions of the political, social and technological changes that he likely would have witnessed. What issues of the day might have been discussed at the dinner table, or the local market as they unfolded? We can only imagine.

Let’s start at the beginning. Paul was born to Joseph Comeau and Marie Marguerite Chapdelaine on June 30, 1826 in St-Ours, a seigneurial community near the Richelieu River in what was then known as Lower Canada. After a career in the military where he rose to the rank of captain, Joseph likely became a tenant farmer as did many of his comrades, judging from census and parish records at the time. Paul was the 13th child of Joseph and Marguerite, and sadly the preceding three children born before him did not survive their first year. He had two younger brothers.

1831 map of Lower Canada
Lower Canada (Library & Archives Canada; MIKAN 4127087)

By 1831, Paul’s family was living near Ruisseau Laplante. His father Joseph owned property and leased 313 acres of farmland, 191 of which was cultivated. The farm produced wheat, peas, oats, barley, potatoes and buckwheat. They also raised livestock – 20 cattle, 6 horses, 26 sheep and 12 pigs.

The village of St-Ours was also growing. In 1827 it opened its own post office, and, in another decade, it will become the county seat for Richelieu, if only for a short time, later replaced by Sorel. Elsewhere in Lower Canada, immigration, primarily from England and Ireland was fueling expansion, and brought some new challenges.

In 1832 cholera arrived in Quebec by way of the Carrick, a ship that had come over from Ireland. Three days later, the first victim succumbed to the illness, beginning an epidemic that would last years. This prompted the opening of a quarantine station at Grosse-Ile near Québec, where many newcomers died. St-Ours was not spared, but the Comeau family seemed to escape harm. In 1834, between May and September, 46 burials took place in St-Ours as a result of the illness. Subsequent waves of the epidemic had a much smaller impact on the town. Nonetheless, public sentiment against immigrants grew along with the death toll in the province.

In nearby Sorel, Paul’s future first wife, Marie Françoise Mathieu, was born to Joseph Mathieu and Francoise Dallaire on March 29, 1835. Her baptism took place in the recently-built St-Pierre church in Sorel. She had four older brothers.

Next: Les Patriotes

by Janet Comeau, May 2018