A few weeks before my mother passed away, I finally had the chance to do what I had wanted to do for years: Visit the sites where my French-Canadian ancestor had been.
The problem was, I could only figure out one specific location, and that was only due to guessing based on an old photograph: a “cabinet card.”
My mother had insisted for decades that she had French-Canadian ancestry. Her grandmother Carrie Lewis Connally was French, she claimed. But I always wondered.
Lewis doesn’t sound terribly French.
So who was this person?
It’s taken me three or four years (and counting) but I think I have a fair idea of who Joseph was. He was Québécois. Or, rather, French-Canadian — the term used up to the 1960s, before French-Canadians of the Parti Québécois tried to claim they were all French with no other ethnicities mixed in. Joseph O (among many, many others throughout Quebec history) falsifies that particularly unhelpful nationalist belief. The Lewis family are British-French.
His mother was Sophie Patry, a farmer’s daughter from a long, long line of French ancestry (more on the Patry family later). His father was Ferdinand Lewis dit Claremont — who died a couple of months before his son was born. (Notwithstanding the official baptismal record, which states that he was born “on the same day as the legitimate marriage,” which is clearly an error.)
At one time, I thought that the Lewises might be Irish — there are plenty of Lewises in Ontario, all Irish Protestant. But this family seems to go way back to the Seven Years’ War. And the British Army. Still haven’t figured out exactly where in Britain the original Lewis soldier came from, but he was English, Scottish, or Welsh. Hence, British (as a general catch-all term). Wish I could be more specific than that.
One of the Lewis ancestors, a certain Lt. Thomas Lewis, was given land south of Quebec City at some point in the 1760s, and married a local French Canadian woman. Thereafter, the family integrated into what became first Lower Canada, then Canada East, and finally Québéc. I have no idea to what degree the family spoke English or French, but given that Joseph so easily integrated after immigrating in the 1880s, it’s a fair bet that they were largely bilingual for many generations.
It also turns out that Joseph had three older siblings, two of whom died at or just after their first birthdays. His only brother, who died the year he was born, was named Louis Ferdinand Lewis.
Yes, there is a Louie Louie in the family. Honestly, people and names.
So how do I know when he was in Montreal?
The back of the cabinet card had an embossed name: Carré Chaboillez, No. 11, Montréal.
A quick online search told me that this is the name of a “square” in downtown Montreal; in fact, a well-known square that used to be twice its current size. The original Montreal planetarium had been there before its removal to the Olympic Park in the 1950s. The entire area had experienced a horrendous flood in 1886 – which turned to be just a few years after Joseph O Lewis had left the area.
But at the time he was there, in Montreal, Chaboillez Square featured dozens of stores, including several photography studios, as well as the Bonaventure Station. In the 1870s, Bonaventure was the terminus for the Montreal and Lachine Railway and also connected to the central Montreal station that allowed for travel south to New York City on the Delaware & Hudson via Troy. He may even have been living in Montreal when the first official hockey game was held in 1875.
How do I know when Joseph O left the area?
He likely had left by 1878. We know this because he became a naturalized citizen in Troy, New York, in 1883. My mother had never told me that she had had his naturalization papers until just this past August. The only one from my family history so far found.
At the time, the US had a “2-step, 5-year rule” that allowed all immigrants (regardless of country of origin) to naturalize after only 5 years in the country. This policy later fell afoul of racism and discrimination, particularly against Asians but also against Irish, Polish, and Germans, starting in the decade after most of my ancestors immigrated.
Joseph quickly found work as a moulder in Troy or Cohoes, probably at one of the many iron works around the area.
This was the age of Iron in the Collar City. Burden Iron Works with nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) was a major powerhouse; George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., was an RPI student and based his famous Ferris Wheel on the great iron water wheel used by the ironworks for power generation. The Watervliet Arsenal nearby became famous in the 1880s (the time period Joseph moved to the area) for producing large cannon and other heavy artillery pieces.
Iron moulding would have been (and still is) a dangerous, dirty job. Perfect for immigrants. Then, as now, immigrant workers always wind up doing the dangerous, dirty, and difficult jobs that others won’t do. Joseph did it. It probably led to an early death, in 1905. He was buried by Charles J. Côte — son of a fellow French-Canadian immigrant and family friend.
“Come and see my daughter!”
Back to the 1880s. Joseph O got married to a fellow Franco-American, herself the daughter of a Quebec immigrant, likely just after his arrival. For all we know, he had been invited to come get married via family and migrant worker networks. We do know that the marriage was in the now-defunct St. Joseph’s Church of Cohoes/Waterford — the first church in the area that held mass in French.
None of Joseph’s own family joined him. He was alone.
Family legend says that after four years of childless marriage, he was despondent. After his first daughter was born in 1884 (in their home, as all childbirths were at the time), he ran out into the streets, calling out to all passersby that he had had a child. He even dragged a nearby (surprised) policeman into the house to celebrate the event.
As a lone immigrant with only his wife’s family for emotional support, the sense of joy must have been extreme. He could be a father.
He and his wife Julia Amadelia Mayotte went on to have six children, one of whom (Caroline) became my great-grandmother. Her tiny stature (all of 4’10”) and just as short, sharp temper was passed down to my grandmother, Beatrice R Connally, and then to my mother, Linda A Langworthy.
The need to be proper and that there is a place for everything. The insistence that anything within the family stays in the family. That each person must be as independent as possible. That we all have the right to our own opinions and should never hesitate to express them — these are French-Canadian traits in my family thanks to Joseph Octave Lewis dit Claremont.
September 2018, Chaboillez Carré, Montréal
Wandering around downtown Montreal, surrounded by endless streams of Chinese tourists and construction as far as the eye can see, I found it difficult to imagine the Montreal of 1878. I stepped into Chaboillez Square — what’s left of it, at any rate.
A few flowers, two semi-circles of hedges. Dusty brick center square where Copernicus used to stand in front of the Montreal Planetarium. But now the park is barren. Small trees lining the outside, dirt paths leading back to the road surrounding the park. No benches. Nothing.
A far cry from the bustling shopping area in the 19th century photographs. The train station, the lifeblood of the square, was removed for a four-lane expressway that cut through the middle of the city. Just as the “urban renewal” in Albany and Troy in the post-war 1950s.
In place of the station from where my great-great grandfather left to the US about 140 years ago, presently there stands a building for the Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices.