The Capital's Curious History - What's in a Name - Part 2
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
How a House became a Maison
Right across from the National Gallery of Canada and just east of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau sits a beautiful, little, white-stucco house overlooking the river in the peaceful isolation of Jacques-Cartier Park. The little-known secret about the house is that it is quite likely the oldest building in the National Capital Region, dating perhaps from even earlier than 1810.
One would never guess that this house has been the subject of a significant tug-of-war among local historians for a number of years but it has.
If you read the signage around the house you will be told that it is la Maison Charron whose history was published by NCC historian, Michael Newton in 1988. It tells the story of two young Canadiens, François Charron and his wife Sophie Miville, who came to live in the house in April 1827 and then lost their home less than 2 years later.
The name that you won't read on those signs, however, is Chrissie's House (aka Christiana's House), which is the name that most people would recognize if they grew up in Hull before the 1980s. Chrissie's House has a story that's never been told before, until now. It's quite a sad little story of a young girl named Chrissie who, while growing up in a pioneer settlement, lost both her parents, leaving her orphaned at 9 years old. Somehow, over the years, that story got lost.
The thing is, although Chrissie's story is quite compelling, between you, me and the lamppost, I think the story of HOW it got replaced is perhaps equally fascinating, complicated and horrifying all at once, so here is the whole story ... just one more chapter of the Capital's Curious History.
The story of François Charron and Sophie Miville
François Charron and his wife Sophie Barbe Miville were married on May 25, 1822 and arrived in Wright's Town with their two children in April 1827, when he was 26. They had begun their life together in the midst of poverty in la seigneurie de La-Petite-Nation but were drawn here by the prospects of a brighter future, what with the timber industry booming in Wright's Town and the construction of the Rideau Canal, just begun.
The couple signed a contract with P. Wright & Sons, for a property at the edge of the river, near the steamboat landing (now the Museum of History). Just like all of the workers who would populate both Bytown and the Lower-Village of Wright's Town, the Charrons had no choice but to 'buy' their properties under the terms of what was the Constitut regime or Tenure System Act. They had to pay a fee up front for the privilege of renting a smallish town lot, on which they could only "own" whatever improvements they made. If they built a house, they would own the home but could never own the lot. Because the Act withheld the right to own the land, the rights that accompany land ownership were also withheld. One could say it was a natural extension of the Crown's feudal system or better yet, one could say that it was pretty much the same as the seigneurial regime that had been in force throughout the rest of Lower Canada for almost 200 years. Remember that fact, it's important for later.
The constitut agreement that François Charron signed with P. Wright and Sons in April 1827, called for a payment of £50 up front and £6 in quarterly payments. However, less than two years later, when unable to make his payments, François Charron was forced to surrender his property and all his rights on January 30, 1829 and he received a payment of £62 pounds and 6 shillings, which amounts to the original 50 £ he paid the year before, and 12 £ for improvements.
After this, the couple can be traced to the 12th range in Templeton Township (McGregor Lake area), where in 1851, François Charron's name appears in the books of petty trader William Dunning, buying chewing tobacco.
Philemon Wright's story may have been a true success story of a real Canadian pioneer, and although very little is ever said about the hardships of that life, much can be learned from the lives of his children.
Philemon's eldest son, Philemon Jr. died at just 38 years of age when he was thrown from his carriage on a treacherous road, breaking his neck. His eldest daughter Abigail, called Nabby, died at the tender age of 7. His youngest son Christopher died when only 43, and although his son Ruggles outlived them all, his long life was tragically marred by the deaths of six infant children.
However, it's probably the story of Philemon's second oldest daughter, Mary, that stands as the saddest of all. Hers is central to this whole story, as Mary - known to everyone as Polly - was Chrissie's mother.
In the winter of 1800, Polly was just 9 years old when her father Philemon brought her from her home in Woburn, Massachusetts, to the Ottawa Valley, traveling by sleigh over frozen rivers. The family slept under the stars snuggled together - mother Abigail and Polly's five siblings - for more than a month. When they arrived, the men quickly built the shanty that the family christened The Wigwam, and her life began in Wright's village.
In 1806, at the age of 16, Polly married 27-year-old Ephraim Chamberlin, who was hired four years earlier, along with his brother Edmund, to operate the first mill built in Wright's village. Polly and Ephraim's first child arrived the same year they were married, and they named her Abigail after her Mother and deceased older sister.
In letters patent signed on November 11, 1809, Polly was listed as owner of 200 acres in Templeton Township, Lower Canada; unusual at that time period for a woman to be listed as landowner and not her husband, but the same was done in Philemon's Will for another of his daughters.
Two more daughters arrived in 1812 and in 1816. They were Christiana - Chrissie, for short - and Mary. Baby Mary would grow up never knowing her father because just months before she was born, Ephraim died at just 36 years of age. Polly was a widow at 25, with three very young daughters to raise.
As usual, in a pioneer settlement, it was not long before she would find - or be found - a new husband. He was 23-year-old James Finlayson Taylor, the man who would end up being the lifelong loyal bookkeeper of the Wright family firm. They married on March 27, 1819 and had a son, Robert Patinson Taylor the next year.
Their new blended family, though, would have very little time to bond because Polly was soon stricken with consumption, what they called tuberculosis back then. She was deathly ill for a year and succumbed to its ravages on March 11, 1821, leaving young James with his baby boy and three daughters - 15, 9 and 5- years-old - that were not his own.
Within two years, James, at 27, then married 20-year-old Nancy Anne Olmstead, the sister of Sally Olmstead Wright, widow of Philemon Wright Jr. who himself had died only 8 months after his sister Polly.
The 1825 census shows that James and Nancy are living in a home with one child, whereas the home of sister-in-law Sally has 12 people living there, yet Sally has only eight children of her own. The three extra children are likely Abigail, Chrissie and Mary Chamberlin.
These three young heirs of Ephraim & Polly Chamberlin inherited all of the land their parents had held, and much of it was held in trust for them by P. Wright & Sons until they were old enough to manage it on their own, which is how the Charrons end up renting it from P. Wright & Sons just two years later, in 1827.
In an 1845 Queens Bench Court ruling on the division of property between Ruggles Wright and the heirs of Tiberius Wright, the property limits are defined and the lot this house occupies is clearly defined as Christiana Chamberlin's property. So, the Chamberlin House ended up owned by Chrissie, and that's how it came to be called Christiana's House.
So how did that end up so wrong?
When Michael Newton erased the history of Chrissie's House in an article commissioned for the NCC in 1987, it wasn't done maliciously. Newton simply missed some facts, which led him to make some wrong assumptions, and caused him to take a dim view of Philemon Wright as well.
In discovering the sad story of the Charrons, Newton put a lot of the focus on Philemon Wright - and Newton's verdict was harsh. The title of his article was (as translated) The Maison Charron: Symbol of a Thwarted Vision ... meaning Philemon's vision. For the past thirty years, as a result of that, others - for reasons of their own - have gleefully added to the image Newton painted and made Wright out to be a true Yankee villain.
So, what mistakes, exactly, did Newton make? Two very big ones, and the result not only erased the house's history, but it would change the way many other historians would write about the whole settlement. Here's what he got wrong:
Newton must have assumed that the house had always been situated on Lot 1 of Range 3 in the Township of Hull but the fact is that, although it is there today, it wasn't originally. If you look at the eastern edge of this 1801 map, here, you can see that what is Jacques-Cartier Park in Hull today, was actually on a lot that is a part of the big blank section that is the Township of Templeton. The park today occupies what was Lot 28 in the Long Point Range of Templeton, and it is clearly identified as owned by the heirs of E. Chamberlin. Historian, Dr. Bruce S. Elliott, confirms this with this map from his article The Famous Township of Hull, below.
2. Researching the written history of the house, Newton had certainly come across what was written by Patrick M.O. Evans in his Wright genealogy commissioned by the NCC. Evans wrote that Christiana's House had belonged to Philemon's daughter Christiana but that was not correct. (In Evans defense, he had clearly written that it was second-hand knowledge).
To be clear, Philemon's youngest daughter was indeed named Christiana but she never owned the property. Newton must not have gone any further to find out that the house was named for Chrissie, who was actually Philemon's granddaughter, Christiana Wright Chamberlin.
Once Newton assumed that no one named Christiana ever owned the property, his research turned up the history of the Charrons, which he transformed into a tale about how Philemon's "business failures" caused misery for a poor French-Canadian couple.
It was a story too delicious for some to resist: The poor Canadien family being thrown out of their home by a rich, avaricious, archetypical Englishman - a Yankee, no less! That story was told again and again, repeated as if it was Philemon Wright who had invented the constitut regime, when exactly the same thing was happening in Col. By's town … and happening throughout Lower Canada through the seigneurial regime! (were you paying attention?)
As well, for some the story created a narrative that firmly established a French-Canadian presence in the early settlement of Hull; a toehold, as they would have it, that the Wrights tried in vain to squash.
It must have never occurred to either Newton or the others who ran with the story, that naming a house after the occupants who didn't pay the rent might not be a lasting legacy.
In his article, although Michael Newton admits that it is unclear when the stone house was built on the property and for whom, he did establish that the Charrons occupied it. He writes (as translated):
"Construction of the house probably began in May 1827. On the first of May, François Charron bought 472 feet of planks from Wright's sawmill and on May 3, he paid the Wrights cash for the use of a wagon to transport slabs to the site and perhaps the stones for the walls. The remainder of the account was transferred to a register which is not yet available, so we know of the progress of construction only by these dates and entries." (underlines added)
But there are quite a few problems here as well. The use of "probably" and "perhaps" tells you that he has few facts about Charron building a house. Also, Newton apparently didn't calculate just how many boards there are in 472 feet, which is the equivalent of 59 pieces of 2 x 6. If he had, he may have realized that was nowhere near enough to build a house. So, it was likely a house was already on the lot, and that what Charron built was just what every home in that era needed: an outhouse!
And it's true, we don't know for certain that there was a house on the lot before Charron rents it, but Occam's Razor (if there exist two explanations for an occurrence, the one that requires the least speculation is usually better) tells us:
That the 12 £ Charron was paid for improvements when he left it in arrears would never have been enough to compensate for a stone house. It was always very doubtful that this poor couple would have the means to build it and even more doubtful that if they did, they would have left it after living there for less than two years.
That the only reasonable assumption which can be made about "Chrissie’s House", the name that this house had carried for generations, is that it was the Chamberlin family home.
So, can we say for certain that the Chamberlins built the house in 1810? No we cannot. That is because before they owned it, the property was owned for six years by another man whom we know nothing about, Asa Townsend, and indeed, it could equally have been he who built it.
How this story ends
The first thing to report is that all of this information has been put into the hands of the present-day owners of the property, the NCC. When that was accomplished, it was clearly stated that both stories, the Charron story and the story of Chrissie, should remain attached to the house.
Both are compelling stories that illustrate the struggle, the tragedies, the sickness and the failures that pioneer families often had to endure. Hopefully, attaching both stories to the house might finally put an end to a tale that only served to exaggerate and perpetuate myths about the cultural divide and the myth about Philemon Wright's so-called "thwarted vision".
Oh, and one last word on the subject of the early toehold that French-Canadians had in this region: there's a much better story to be told.
The first Canadiens in the settlement actually arrived much earlier, in 1806. That young couple was led by another François, François Lozeau. He and his wife Marie-Louise arrived with their six children - François, Anne, Joseph, Louis-Baptiste, Linette and Henriette - purchasing outright a 100-acre lot in the Township of Templeton from Philemon Wright. They settled in an area that was at first called Waterloo Village by the Wrights but later became Pointe-à-Gatineau (Pointe-Gatineau, today) as many more settled there. Like most of the other first settlers, Lozeau was a farmer and as he prospered, François bought many more hundreds of acres as time went by.
That is a history that has rarely been told, but one to be celebrated as well.