Search
  • Rick Henderson

The Two Solitudes - Through a Lens Darkly

Updated: Aug 25

The Curious History of Violence in the Capital

Stony Monday Riot - Bytown Museum collection

"Grampa, tell me again about the Shiners [1]"...


..."Well, me by, twas not a happy toime in Bytoan when da Shoiners showed up. Twas a tirrible, tirrible toime, fer shur. Ottawa's very oon version of da Trubbles, it was. No one was safe at all. Tank da good lard dat da Govinor sent in da troops ta put an end to it!"


« Grand-papa, raconte-moi encore l'histoire du Grand Jos contre les chêneurs. »...


...« Ah oui, mon p’tit pit. Viens t’assouère icitte. Le Grand Jos était le héros de tous les canayens-français. Quand les chêneurs sont mis à boère, y'étaient toute une gagne de voyous. Mais nos raftsman n’avaient pas peur, parce qu'y savaient tous que le Grand Jos y'était là pour les protéger. »



Anyone who grew up in the Capital region can tell you stories about the epic battles between the French and English that they swear they witnessed, but how the story is told truly depends on what side of the street - or the town - you are on when you hear it.


One might say that the basis of the story is rooted in the two solitudes - that epic clash of two empires at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 - and perhaps it is, but at least here in the Capital area, it is also very much rooted in the local battle known as the Shiners War. For years the story of that conflict was told as a clash between the French and the Irish; a war started by Peter Aylen the Irish lumberman known as King of the Shiners [2].


It was said that the two communities hated each other. Even after historians brought to light that the Shiners War was mostly an economic struggle among lumbermen trying to wrest control of the timber harvest on the river, the story continued to be told very differently in the two communities of the Capital region. One, a story of a lumber town torn by hooligan violence, the other a tale of a giant hero who came to the defense of all his brethren: The Shiners and le Grand Jos., géant des rivières.


Jos. Montferrand - the man & the myth

The first thing that needs to be understood is that Joseph (Jos. or Joe) Montferrand dit Favre was a real man who was born at the very beginning of the 19th century in Montreal and grew up in le faubourg of Lower Canada - one of his nicknames was le coq de faubourg (the rooster of Faubourg).


Le faubourg is an area between Trois-Rivières and Québec City that, in the early 1800s, had several boxing halls and taverns in which sailors and voyageurs would fight in boxing matches. The Montferrand men were tall and powerful. They became champions of the working class of Montreal who cheered the physical skill and strength of their heroes. At 16, Joseph stood tall among them and his natural gifts won him respect "as a boulé (from the English 'bully')." [3]


His legend, however, is a mix of history and myth; the real and the imagined.


During his life, he won several dramatic boxing matches. The one that first contributed to his fame was at 16 yrs. old: a one-punch knockout of a self-declared "champion" boxer many years his elder.

Le Grand Jos, leaving his calling-card

In another documented incident in a Montreal by-election marred by violence, Montferrand chased away bullies who were threatening his friend Antoine Voyer, the latter killing one of the men that Montferrand had beaten.


He also became well-known for leaving his calling-card on the lintel of many a tavern up & down the Ottawa River - he was so strong & flexible that "using his leg as a whip", he would leave the heel print of his hobnail boot in the upper frame of the door.


The Battle on the Bridge 1829

The myth comes from several incidents where he was said to have come to the defense of French-Canadian raftsmen when they were attacked by the Shiners. The most dramatic story passed down was said to have happened in 1829 on the Union Bridge linking Bytown & Wright's Town, when Joe grabbed one Shiner by the feet and swinging him like a flail, he cleared 150 Shiners off the Union Bridge, flinging many into the foaming waters below the Chaudière Falls. Presumably some would have drowned but in this epic story of good vs bad, that is apparently neither here nor there.


From this and other such tales, Joe's status as the legendary defender of French-Canadians becomes carved in stone.


By trade, Joe was a carter but he spent most of his life working on the river, first as a voyageur for the Hudson Bay Company then in the timber industry, he started as a logger, graduated to foreman, crib guide, and agent. He began in the timber industry on the Rivière du Nord as an employee of Joseph Moore and then began working for Baxter Bowman on the Upper Ottawa. He soon became a master raftsman, meaning that he was a skilled conflict mediator in the rough & tumble (read: violent) world of the timber industry.


Le Grand Jos. - Colonial superhero

Jos. Montferrand - Canada Post stamp - LAC MIKAN 2266335

His mythical exploits were first disseminated by oral tradition but eventually became enshrined by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier and several authors, including Benjamin Sulte, who wrote his Histoire de Jos. Montferrand, l’athlète canadien in 1899. (Another of Sulte's epic historical myths was featured in a previous blog) Sulte's popular story made sure that Joseph's legend spread far & wide.


Sulte said that Joe was a fervent Catholic and a pious man. "He is not quite an altar boy but certainly resembles one. He has a gentle nature, he displays piety in his childhood, and when he makes his first communion a Sulpician points him out as an example. He has great trust in God and profound reverence for the Virgin Mary, and knows instinctively that he must only use his strength to redress wrongs and punish the wicked.* He protects the children of his neighbourhood, and later the widows. He collects alms for the destitute and for those in prison. He does not like brawls, 'but subordinates his temper to the dictates of the law and justice.' The miscreants he chastises are always enemies of religion or the country or the people."[4]

* NOTE: Although boxing matches were popularly seen then as a "noble sport", it is part of Joe's myth that this statement was never reconciled. His opponents could not all have been "wicked".


Clearly, Joe's boxing stories and his history of life on the rafts are all real but the less believable parts of Sulte's history must be held in doubt for several reasons:

  • While it may be that when first hired by Joseph Moore in Argenteuil, Montferrand encountered mostly French-Canadians on the rafts, when working for Baxter Bowman on the Lièvre and Upper Ottawa Rivers, Joe would have worked with a mix of American expats, Scots and French. [5]

  • Joe was promoted to master raftsman by Bowman because of his skill as a conflict mediator. In this, there's little doubt that his strength would have been his greatest asset and little doubt as well that he broke up many a fight started by a racist slur. However, it would likely have been impossible for him to keep his position if he was only defending the French-Canadians on the rafts.

  • Joe stood in opposition to the Rébellion des patriotes of 1838, supporting the position taken by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church against the rebels. The patriotes are seen by most French-Canadians as ... well ... patriots! If it was widely known that Joe was against them, would he still be perceived as the hero, as he was? (to read more, see this article)

  • The so-called battle of the Union Bridge between Joe and the Shiners is said to have happened in 1829 but the time frame of the Shiners War is said to be between 1835 and 1840. Now, it would be difficult to convince anyone that there was no fighting in Bytown before 1835, but it is not difficult to say that in 1829, most of the French, Irish and Scottish workers that were building the Canal ... were busy building the Canal! Peter Aylen's importance in the timber industry only really began in 1832 by the creation of the Gatineau Privilege (click here for more info), so Aylen's promotion of Irish hooliganism would not yet have begun in 1829.


Nonetheless, for most French-Canadians, le Grand Jos., géant des rivières remains the mighty defender of French-Canadians; a hero that embodies the ideals, ethics, and aspirations of French-Canadians and fits the narrative that many French-Canadians fared poorly at the hand of the English (or Irish, or Scot).


Joe's violence, though, is perceived no differently than the violence of say ... Superman ... because to his admirers, the violence was always used in a good cause. Le Grand Jos, colonial superhero.


The Shiners - Lords of the dark druidical groves [6]

When the Shiners began their war, there were no illusions that Peter Aylen was a champion of the poor working man - except perhaps in the booze-addled minds of the Irish ruffians who did his bidding.


After the creation of the Gatineau Privilege, Aylen began raiding the cutting limits of competitors, destroying rivals’ booms and rafts on the river, attacking and dispersing competitors’ crews. Then, his political ambitions to seek greater control brought the fight to the streets and meeting halls of Bytown by promising booze and women to the more susceptible - and violent - of his followers. At least one murder was plotted, attempted, but luckily not successful.


Bytown residents were horrified at the reign of violence that Aylen had brought and after a few years and a few bad moments, to say the least, the Governor-General was asked to intervene and restore law to the rowdy streets of Bytown.


After 1845, Peter Aylen moved across the river to Aylmer and eventually became a well-respected gentleman, the Darth Vader of the rafts had turned a new leaf in life.


A case in point

Andrew Leamy - from the family album

For a very short period of time, Andrew Leamy [7] was one of Aylen's master raftsmen. Born in 1816, Leamy was an Irish Catholic from County Tipperary. At 18 years of age Andrew married Philemon Wright's granddaughter Erexina Wright, and began to work in the family firm of P. Wright & Sons in 1834.

Full disclosure: Andrew Leamy is my great-great-grandfather.


By 1853, Leamy would have a steam powered mill built on Columbia Pond, hiring future lumber baron J.R. Booth to build and manage it. The lake would thereafter bear his name ... as would the Casino that's on the lake today. (As a fervent Catholic, he'd be horrified knowing that his name is now on a Casino!) Leamy had a huge lumbering operation on the Gatineau River and owned several supply farms.


So, how is Leamy's story told? One historian, who wrote glowingly about Jos. Montferrand's exploits, referred to Leamy as Aylen's "henchman". Another French-Canadian historian in a lecture I attended, called out Leamy as a "bully boy who had murdered five men" right after saying that Jos Montferrand was a national hero. Another tagged him as "the old warrior". However, it appears that, simply on the basis of an association with Peter Aylen, Leamy - and other good men, I suppose - was automatically labelled a Shiner.


Looking at the evidence, Andrew Leamy certainly deserved the old warrior label. He was involved in four significant, public incidents where there was some degree of violence:

  • In 1835, 19 yr.-old Andrew - backed up by his uncle-in-law Ruggles Wright and others - became upset that a new preacher in town, Adam Hood Burwell, was ardently advocating a controversial brand of religious fundamentalism. As historian J.L. Gourlay so eloquently put it: "... the mob in Hull undertook to dictate to those who took up the new opinions ... The late Andrew Leamy, a famous old warrior, took sometimes an active hand in these troubles. Often from sharp and angry words they went to blows, marking each others face's very picturesquely."

  • In 1837, a 21 yr.-old Andrew and others were charged with creating a disturbance at a lumbermen's meeting in Bytown. The meeting was disrupted by Catholics who were protesting the "disrespect offered by the Protestants to a statue of the Virgin Mary" in the procession of the day before. So, again a dispute of a religious nature. Andrew was acquitted of all charges.

  • An article in the May 3, 1845 Kingston Gazette and Chronicle tells of “the most shocking event that has ever occurred in this neighbourhood” on the banks of the Gatineau. The article goes on to describe how an argument over a paddle resulted in the death of a “fine stalwart Highlander named McCrae ... from Lancaster” at the hands of Andrew Leamy of Hull. A trial was eventually held and 29 yr.-old Andrew was again acquitted of all charges.

  • On Sept. 19, 1849, two days after the infamous Stony Monday Riot [8], Andrew Leamy, Ruggles Wright Sr. and Jr. and cousin, Joshua Wright, were stopped from entering Bytown on the Union Bridge by troops. They had intended to roll one of Wright's Town's 3-pound cannons to the Sappers Bridge to put an end to the (ahem) argument that had started on Monday. Loosely speaking, for there were many exceptions, Lower Town residents, mostly working class, Roman Catholic, Francophone and Irish settlers, supported Reform, while the wealthier, largely English, Protestant elite of Upper Town favoured the Tories. Even given that description, it is pretty hard to figure out which side Leamy & the Wrights were backing. Each of the four were a member of the community's elite, but Leamy was Irish Catholic and the Wrights were English Protestants.

But was he a Shiner? There is nothing in those events that either links him to Aylen's struggle for dominance, or to the oft-mentioned culture clash between Irish and French. To the contrary, Leamy's partnership with the French-Canadian Catholics in Wright's Town, speaks for itself. For instance, he worked tirelessly along with Père Reboul to achieve the emancipation of school governance for the county. The result was the creation of the county's first independent School Commission in 1866, of which he was elected as its first President.


As a pillar of Wright's Town’s Catholic community and a good family man, an old resident of Hull wrote this of Andrew Leamy: "Another kind hearted man was Andy Leamy. I’ve known him to be driving along the road with a load of supplies for his lumber camp, and passing the hovel of a family in need, throw off a barrel of flour and pass on as though he thought nothing of it. Andy didn’t make much pretense of being a saint, but he did a whole lot of good all the same. He had thousands of friends and stood up for many at their weddings."


Of Leamy's strength, historian Anson Gard wrote: "It is told of him, as showing his strength and endurance, that when repairs were needed for the mill, that he would mount a horse and carry the part – often of heavy iron – to Montreal, get it mended and without stopping to rest, would ride back to Hull, making a journey of 240 miles through a wild country, under the most tiring conditions."


And so we come to a tale of two cities ...

or is it one city, two tales?

Which brings us to this question: When two stories like those of Leamy and Montferrand are so similar, how is it that they can be seen through such different lenses? Both men were fervent Catholics - staunch defenders of the faith - both, were also manly men who never shrank from a fight, especially when there was injustice involved. Both were said to be good family men, loyal to a fault for friends and family alike. Yet one, seen through rose-coloured glasses, becomes the mythical hero of a nation, while the other, viewed through a lens darkly, is pilloried by historians.


Two solitudes, indeed.

The Raftsmen - Frances Anne Hopkins 1868 LAC

[1] The name Shiners was given to the Irish raftsmen employed by lumberman Peter Aylen in the years right after the completion of the Rideau Canal, in 1832. The name derives from the French word chêneurs, which translates to the hewers of oak.


[2] When Irishman Peter Aylen moved into the timber industry, he began to try to wrest control of the cutting and rafting on the Upper Ottawa and Gatineau rivers. Aylen only employed Irishmen, like himself, and attempted to drive other teams of timbermen off the rivers. His tactics became more and more violent and the river became a dangerous place. By 1835, the violence that was at first contained on the rafts, began spilling onto the streets of Bytown and soon became known as the Shiners War. Although much of that violence between 1835 and the early 1840s was tied to the timber industry, many of the violent incidents in Bytown were of a political and sometimes religious nature as well. So, to say that the Shiners War was a clash between the Irish and the French, is to ignore the significant scuffles between the Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants and those between the Irish and the Scots. (for more info, see this article on Peter Aylen in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography


[3] [4] MONTFERRAND (Montferan), dit Favre, JOSEPH (better known as Jos (Joe) Montferrand) Dictionary of Canadian Biography


[5] In the earliest years of the timber industry, the people felling the trees and building the rafts were the farmers themselves and their hired hands. In the Ottawa Valley, that meant predominantly American expats from New England states, and in the Townships of Lochaber and Grenville, mostly Scots. There were a few French-Canadian farmers at first but as the timber industry grew, mostly French-Canadian labourers arrived from Montreal, then later again, Irishmen from Bytown, once the Rideau Canal was built.


[6] The reference is to a book entitled The Dark Druidical Groves: The Lumber Community and the Commercial Frontier in British North America to 1854 written by Michael S. Cross in 1968.


[7] More can be read about Andrew Leamy by clicking here.


[8] The Stony Monday Riot took place in the Bytown Market on Monday September 17, 1849. The riot was between two factions: The Reformists and the Tories. The Tories were opposed to the controversial Rebellion Losses Bill, passed in Parliament months before because it compensated those who had participated in the rebellion unless they had been convicted of treason. In spite of all protests, Lord Elgin, then Governor-General had signed the bill, compensating Lower Canadians for losses suffered during the Rebellions of 1837-38. During the riot, least two dozen people were injured and one man, David Borthwick, was killed by gunshot. There were riots that ensued in Montreal as well, where Lord Elgin was assaulted and the Parliament Buildings, located at Montreal at the time, were burned down. (Click this link to read more)

822 views
1850-1859_Wright%E2%80%99s_Town_Illustra

Capital Chronicles

The History You Were Never Told
SIGN UP AND STAY UPDATED!
  • Grey Facebook Icon

© 2020 by RickHenderson.  Proudly created with Wix.com

  • Facebook Social Icon