Everyday life on the coast of Acadia

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Everyday life on the coast of Acadia


This article by Marguerite Syvret was first published in the 1976 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Charles Robin, pioneer Jerseyman

Charles Robin of the Gaspé (1743-1824) was the youngest of the three sons of Philippe Robin and Anne Dauvergne. His two elder brothers married Pipons and with them he joined the family firm of Robin, Pipon and Co.

Between 1767 and 1773, as a young man in his twenties, he kept diaries recording his work for the firm. In 1767, while his brother acted as agent for the company at Arichat on Ile Madame off Cape Breton Island, Charles explored the possibilities of expanding the business northwards where the firm had already established a tentative post at Paspebiac,

His diaries are therefore among the earliest records of the founding of a Jersey firm with its Canadian headquarters on the Gaspé Coast, where it played a dominating role for more than a century. Charles was the driving force in this enterprise and in 1783 a new firm of Charles Robin and Co was founded.

In the latter part of the 19th century the name was changed to Charles Robin Collas and Co and, by a further series of amalgamations with other firms less closely connected with fishing, a new company was established before the first World War to trade as Robin, Jones and Whitman,with the head office transferred from Jersey to Halifax in Nova Scotia.

It is not surprising that the name of Robin lives on, for Charles Robin was a remarkable man. He appears in all the history books on Eastern Canada and is given full biographical treatment by Balleine. An article in the 1929 Bulletin of the Societe Jersiaise, written by the late Mr A C Saunders, gives a graphic account of this pioneer based on the diaries.

Valuable as they are as source material for the story of Charles Robin, the diaries are equally interesting for the light they shed on the lives and characters of the men who worked with him and shared his rugged life. Scattered throughout the pages, which deal in detail with the fishing industry, often pursued in adverse weather, are glimpses of Jerseymen meeting Acadians, Scots and Indians thrown together on this eastern seaboard by the wars which bedevilled Acadia throughout the 18th century.

The Gaspe and Acadian region of Canada

We learn of their everyday ploys, of the food they ate, the ships they lived on, the houses they built. With the aid of a map we can trace their route from Arichat to Paspebiac, up and down the Northumberland Strait past rivers and islands with Indian names in treacherous waters only then being surveyed by his Majesty's armed ships.

They refer to Moggeridge's ‘’Observations on the whereabouts of shoals’’, but rely more often on their hard won experience: "I would advise nobody to land vessels in Bonaventure, for if exactly at high water you have not a fair wind to go out, it is not one vessel in ten that can go out by the violence on the tide."

Later, as the enterprise succeeds, they move north along the Gaspé coast and we find descriptions of Bonaventure Island and the Rocher Perce as seen by these early adventurers before the Jersey settlements are finally established.

The men who worked for Robin

Philip Fainton

In a letter to Captain Philip Fainton about recruiting men from Jersey, Charles Robin writes that he does not want men who serve "de regle" but men of enterprise. From them he exacted the same high standard he demanded of himself, but rewarded them with promotion and considerable responsibility.

Captain Fainton, of the Recovery, to whom Robin invariably writes in French, is entrusted with the engaging of crews and collecting of supplies from Jersey, with acquainting the planters in Canada of Robin's arrival, arranging for the rebuilding of a store at Paspebiac and generally supervising Robin's affairs should the Recovery be the first of the ships to arrive from Jersey in the spring.

He is guided always by detailed, practical instructions, and in the more difficult moments Robin is at his side "clearing salt amidships" or helping to receive fish from "the worst paymasters here ... if Captain Fainton were by himself he'd have a hard matter to fight it out". That Fainton was satisfied with the life is suggested by a census entry of 1777 naming Philip Fainton as an inhabitant of Percéowning no cows, three boats and twelve servants.

Philip Hamon

Another Captain, Philip Hamon, who brings Charles Robin as a passenger from Jersey in the Seaflower and Hope, is sent on one occasion to Quebec to discuss the difficulties encountered in landing Acadians and their luggage from one of Captain Fainton's ships and to arrive if possible ahead of messages from obstructive Justices of the Peace.

Thomas Filleul

Thomas Filleul, a carpenter, in an interval between his usual ploys of stopping leaks, making rudders and getting sticks for a 'bomb' (sic) for the harbour, is sent in a Salem ship to Boston to see a vessel being built before beginning work on a keel and stem for a boat for the Hope. John Ie Couteur, a boatmaster, shares an uncomfortable night with Robin: "We were obliged to row all night to keep ourselves in agitation for the 'muskeetoes' (sic) who are very troublesome. "

John Le Caux

An attractive character is young John le Caux, who spent the winter of 1768-69 at Arichat sharing the hardships and excitements with Robin and George Bichard; snaring rabbits, spinning oakum, collecting firewood and falling through the ice on his way to IIe aux Poules. Later he wins high praise from Robin for bravery when the strap of the forehalliards breaks:

"One of my people, John le Caux, went at the masthead and with the greatest difficulty, fixed it again. He behaved with great courage. I heard him groan of the pain he suffered. He had nothing to hold or support himself with but the bare mast and with one hand was obliged to fix the block. The great rolling of the boat was enough to disencourage anybody to undertake it."

John met an untimely death.

"At six o'clock arrived at our stage the shalloup Occasion with the disagreeable news of the death of her skipper, our faithful servant John le Caux. In the morning as they were turning for mackrell close to Point Maisonnette at the entrance to Caraquet, he stood upon the after cuddey steering with one foot and sending his mackrell line, he went overboard and cried out, but before the shallop could be put about he sunk and was unfortunately drowned."
John le Couteur was also drowned between Tracadigache and Bonaventure while helping to reef sails:
"Upon a lee lurch he went head foremost overboard crying out. John Vautier the boat's master immediately stretched out his arm over to him and was within a foot of his head which was still out of water. They put about immediately but saw him no more."

Other Jerseymen make a fleeting appearance:

"Cleared this day Philip Ahier whom I have spared to Captain Guilbert of the New Dolphin of Guernsey who has lost two men in the course of his voyage; John Poingdestre ashore six days with sore hands; John le Boutillier, a joiner working for Captaine Ballaine, who brings Charles Robin a hat-box.

All these men worked full out from the moment they arrived from Jersey on innumerable ploys: collecting rhynes; cutting dunnidge; digging potatoes; stowing sails in the lofts of houses; rendering tar into pitch; caulking ships; brewing pipes of beer; stowing flour and Indian com on the Hope; ‘smoaking’ the Hope for rats; and "packing pelletries into a puncheon." There were no trade union demarcations. We find Captain Fainton cutting a windlass, and the carpenter, sail-maker and cooper mixing tobacco. Sometimes they were collecting wood up to their knees in snow and it was so cold that moisture froze on their eyelids.

Acadians, Indians and government officials

When not helping his men with these ploys, Charles Robin was concerned with establishing good relations with other elements of the scattered population: the French who wintered near him at lIe Madame offered Christmas hospitality; when George Bichard developed a sore thigh Robin took him to Madame Terriau in the French settlements to have it dressed; in return Bichard helped Rhine Terriau with his mainsail; while Simon Forrest was building a chimney for Robin at Arichat, Bichard was making rabbit snares with one of Forrest's sons.

There were other Frenchmen settled along the coast between Arichat and Paspebiac with whom Robin had formed friendly links. Charles Dugat, junior, of Trakidaguesse (sic) who gave advice on a rudder when landing proved difficult and of whom Robin wrote: "He has served as much as a good brother would another having done this job in a very cold day wet all over as there was a great surph (sic)."

High praise from one whose warm affection and respect for his elder brother John is evident: "Hear to my great joy that brother John has safely arrived." Incidentally it is on brother John's advice that the firm of Robin, Pipon and Co. reduce their commitments at lIe Madame and explore the possibilities of La Baie des Chaleurs.

From the outset Jean-Baptiste Giraux of Caraquet does business with Robin, who describes their meeting in a room where seaweed is being burnt to ward off mosquitoes. "It is hard to be imprisoned in a smoky room by so little an insect ", wrote Robin, who, unable to stand it any longer, had removed to his shallop in the night.

Relations are not always easy. When Robin failed to provide a man for Jean-Baptiste, he assured him that he had much trouble "to find boatmasters for ourselves ", but they parted "not very good friends." There were difficulties too when he failed to deliver goods to other traders: "The people here have resolved to go to Mr Smith of Bonaventure as I have not brought them the Russian sheeting according to my promise ... last year they complain of my shrouds saying they are narrower than usual."

King of Restigouche

Mr Saunders has recorded Robin's visit to the Indian King of the Restigouche. Robin also describes a visit with an Acadian interpreter to a wigwam where he meets an Indian family who show " the first mark of gratefulness" he has seen in an Indian.

He borrows from them a kettle, bark platter and three spoons holding half a pint each "as we have none of these utensils in our small boat." In exchange he gives the wife a few beads and one and a half yards of coarse sheeting to make shifts for the baby, "whom I observed had none. She did not know how to express her thankfulness. I gave her husband a knife." Next day Robin visited his new friends. The husband had gone fishing:

"The wife entertained me as well as she could in her own language and I answered her with so many ays that at last I fell asleep. During my nap her husband returned and put aside six eels which he gave me when I awoke." There were further visits while the weather remained bad and Robin took further naps: "They are kind enough not to interrupt me." From them he learnt how to smoke eels: "Now that I am used to them I could eat them three times a day though a little bread with them is not amiss."

He also learnt how, in 1759, " when the eels failed most entirely at Ristigouche the Acadians and Creoles of the Bay who were all sheltered there suffered greatly through want and many perished." They were reduced to eating the tanned leather of shoes worn earlier by the French officers.

Pioneer he might be, but Robin had to work in a legal framework. He met J.P.s intent on enforcing Customs' regulations, officers of his Majesty's ships engaged in surveying or checking that the provisions of the Navigation Act were respected, members of merchant houses in Boston and Gaspé. He corresponded with firms in London, Jersey and Quebec.

When the survey ships arrive at Arichat he spends ten days on board with the officers, shoots with them after breakfast and is generally entertained while George Bichard keeps a watch for the Seaflower due from Jersey. Anxious to keep in with Hugh Montgomerie, J.P. for the Province of Quebec, he is " obliged to take last year's fish from him tho' he promised to pay us in good new fish." He gives a passage to a Mr Vicker, master of a New England fishing schooner, who has been left ashore by his crew. He complies with the request of Captain Allen of H.M.S. Glasgow to tow his pinnace with his lieutenant, a midshipman and ten men to Caraquet. His tactics and tact reap their reward. When he and his brother are accused by the Boston commissioners of smuggling, he allows Captain Allen to search his ship and examine his accounts: "Seeing ourselves under their lash the only way was to comply ... the Captain promised me to be as favourable as he could as he was convinced I was a fairer dealer than my enemies."

Shelter, food and clothing

While maintaining all these contacts and striving for good relations, Robin had to ensure that his men were sheltered and fed, especially in the harsh Canadian winter. Small wonder that he is quick to show anger and disappointment when men let him down. A temporary gloom descends when at Cheticamp in May, 1770, he walks to the winter settlement to find the shallop gone " and not a soul of them there. I am shocked at my disappointment and at a loss what to do. All the comfort I have is to think that what I have done is for the best."

Fortunately he soon finds his man, John Herault, who has set out to meet him and is safe at Juste au Corps. One sympathises with his wrath at the cooper sent to fill the barrel with fresh water. They sailed: "When we came to the Great Goulet the baril our cooper filled up this morning proves to be salt water. He was too lazy to go up to the proper place, but filled in the landwash."

What did these pioneers eat, where did they live? Salt essential for their survival and their fisheries is brought from Europe, jealously guarded from rivals and occasionally used as a trump card in barter. Dry and salted food is brought from Jersey and replenished by traders from New England and Quebec. Little gardens are dug near their houses, root crops and potatoes are dried and stored. There is fishing for the ' kettle' and shooting; squirrel, partridge, wild geese and rabbits.

Plentiful supplies of rum and butter are sometimes used as barter and they brew a kind of beer for their own use. Salt pork and dried biscuit, taken from the Bee before breakfast to air, is relieved by oysters collected from Miramichy and clams dug at low water. In August, 1768, Robin agrees with a schooner from New England for: 44 gallons of molasses; 2 barils of pork; 35 gallons of New England rum; 6lbs of coffee; and 107 gallons of West Indian rum in exchange for feathers and beaver. In the same year he reports the loss of an English vessel in the St Lawrence causing a grave shortage of dried goods in the Bay. There are other hazards: "I can no longer have the patience," writes Robin." to see rats destroying everything. We found five drowned in the pickle of our pork baril."

The men lived and moved from place to place in their snows, brigs, schooners, shallops and sometimes in whaleboats and canoes, seldom going far overland except to look for ice in the Gut of Canso or to register their arrival from Jersey.

Wooden houses

They wintered in wooden houses which they themselves built. In the winter of 1767-68 we find them "taking up turfs to fix against our house to oppose our antagonist the North Wind." George Bichard is instructed to take down a house with the help of Ballaine's men and to save the nails and studs. They collect firewood and clay in canoes to build safe ovens and chimneys.

When, in a strong gale of wind, the roof of the cook room is going to flyaway, they have to stop it with ropes. They repair bridges tumbled down by ice; in bad weather they square timber for beams and masts. They make a fence for the garden from a boatload of sticks. Mr Saunders has recorded the burning of the house at Paspebiac mourned by Robin with a dozen "H6las ... my chest is entirely burnt ... all what is escaped is a pair of breeks and a few things at my laundress ... The next day we had to buy bisquits as what little we had was burnt."

What did they wear? One hopes knitted' jerseys' and mittens in a world of wild weather. In June, 1768, Robin writes: "We have not yet any sign of the Spring, always hard gales of wind and cold weather such as the inhabitants here had never seen in this time of year." He himself ordered clothes to be brought out on the Sea flower.

The list gives a delightful picture of a young man intent on looking well when he dines with his Majesty's officers:

"One short double brest coat gray sarge or forest cloth lined with green and bound with tape gray, a low cape lined with green velvet, sarge is preferable if you have any being lighter on shore, and basket bottons gray. Green basket bottons fixed on my green waistcoat - one short coat, blue kersey ... lined with warm stuff especially the sleeves, bound with tape and basket bottons. Duffal waistcoat red, bound as I have one lined with warm stuff. Do. scarlet ratine bound as I have one: all basket bottons. Cotton shirts, coarse and strong, stockings, good shoes two pairs with nails and sparrow bills for the ensuing summer and winter if so happens. Soap, thread, spare bottons. Two pairs good substantial warm breeces of any stuff and two pairs cotton trousers, narrow stripes, four inches longer and two inches wider than myoid ones in my brother's chest, sleeves to be made out of the waistcoat of my light coat, something larger than the old ones, lined with dy'd pillow, my best coat overhawled about the sleeves my waist¬coat the least thing shorter in the waist than the old one. Des chosons de laine, a pair of good London boots, one pair studs, my silver cups and fine silver spoons, three pairs buckles, hinge in my brother's chest to be mended and returned by the Seaflower, one black velvet cap deep crown a front piece to cock up with a silver botton hole and a botton on the top no collar as I get a fur one here. Front piece to be laced in silver with a small flower in the middle from London, fifty pounds best sole leather for the winter on the owner's account for sale, nails and sparrow bills do."

An overland journey to Quebec in 1787

This exciting world almost crashed about Robin during the War of American Independence, but after a spell in Jersey he returned to rebuild it. The account of his journey by land to Quebec to obtain concessions for the Bay reveals the same ability to reconcile a Fennimore Cooper existence with the relatively civilised world of Quebec. In January 1787 he travels to Carlisle where he leaves his brother Philip, dines at the last house in Bonaventure and enters the' bush '.

At Nouvelle he agrees with two men to accompany him and, after several days of preparation, sets off with four besides his party who have begged to join him, six dog slays (sic) and the following provisions: "sixty biscuits in three bags, flour in another. Buttered biscuits for me in another ... pork, butter, sugar, chocolate. In another half a gallon of rum in a keg."

They travel the portage route up the Matapedia valley, an ancient Indian trail from the Baie des Chaleurs to the St Lawrence. The going is hard. They travel through snow storms, fall through the ice as they drag their sleighs over the river bed, use poles from deserted wigwams as firewood, camp out in tents and blankets and, finally, as they near the Saint Lawrence, leave three sleighs with provisions against their return.

They then make their way up river, staging with an old Norman fisherman, with the River Pilots, at the Post House where they take a cariole, though travelling is bad for the horses, finally reaching Pointe Levy whence the ferry carries them to Quebec. After three weeks' travelling it is not surprising that Robin expects some comfort: "I can find no private lodgings nor none at the Coffee House. Had to put up at Black Horse or Prince Ryan where I could not get even a bedroom to myself." He sent a note to a merchant acquaintance, Mr Allsopp, who supped with him and took him home.

Once in Quebec Robin waits three weeks to get an answer to his petition. Meanwhile he makes good use of his time. He attends Lord Dorchester's levees, calls on Governor Cox and Captain Ie Maitre (a Jerseyman later to become Governor of Gaspé), and in temperatures of " twenty degrees below nought" he makes business calls and transcribes his journal " from my pocket book on paper."

Wining and dining

He dines at the Baron's Club on the invitation of Mr Collins, the Deputy Surveyor General, visits a merchant he has known in Boston, and an old priest friend of his brother John. He writes to Mr Fiott to catch the packet, walks in the Lower Town as far as Fraser's Cove where the Scots are building a three hundred ton ship, rides with Mr Allsopp in a cariole over the Plains of Abram (sic) and accompanies him " to the play."

He is enter¬tained up river from Quebec and inspects Mr Allsopp's mill and bakehouse. All this time he is pressing for a reply. He cannot feel pleased that after several attempts he is asked by Lord Dorchester if he comes from Guernsey or Jersey. He writes impatiently: "the precaution of making it go through the channel of government for fear of affronting him has delayed us much." (I think it likely that the document printed as an appendix to Mr Saunders' article is the Memorial Robin drew up on this occasion). Finally, his mission accomplished, Robin drinks tea with and takes leave of Capt. le Maitre, his lady and Billy and departs in early March.

The return journey is equally hazardous. They use the post where possible, but the snow is often too deep for a cariole. One of the men falls sick. They reach a hut in the ' bush' which they clear of snow and repair. They find their supplies: "three slays hanging on trees and on one an Indian scrawl wrote with charcoal which I could not make out."

Their clothes and a bag of provisions are on top of a tree so that no animal can touch them. An empty rum keg is missing. They are held up by snow, mist and thaw. They meet a friend of Damboise, Robin's guide, who treats them to moose: "some young ones out of the womb roasted."

Next day Robin falls through the ice" with both feet but did not go to the bottom. Travellers have the custom the instant their feet give way to throw themselves on their belly which they have time to do their snow shoes preventing them from going down quickly." At last they reach the River Restigouche, where Robin: "lighted a fire, shifted my stockings, dried my leggings and dined."

On Saturday, 17 March, at half three they arrive at Nouvelle, and the journal ends on the pious note that characterizes even the shortest reference to one of Robin's voyages: "Arrived at Urbain Jean at Nouvelle from whence I had departed 'Praised be the Lord for his Favor and Protection', supped at Mr Matthew Stewart and slept at Urbain's."

It has been a fascinating and absorbing task to read these diaries two hundred years after they were written. Their author, so often depicted as a cold, unsympathetic autocrat, comes alive in a richly human setting where Jerseymen mingle with Acadians of melodious name,

Josue Picot and Anselme Bellefontaine, Andrew Janvrin and Bois Vallon Ie Page. One travels up and down the coast with men in small vessels who brave the" rigid" cold, the storms and hidden shoals to sail past places whose names defy even the uncertainties of eighteenth century spelling: Nipisiguit and Nigawake, Pokemouche and Poukchat, Cape Tormentine and Cape Cocagne, torment indeed and excitement in a colourful eighteenth century world as different from the Coast described by our nineteenth century forebears as their world is from the Gaspé now visited nostalgically by 20th century pilgrims.

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