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Joseph Octave Lewis: Franco-American Trojan

November 30, 2018
MThomas

JLewis-1850s(?)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.

JOctaveLewis-baptismoriginal

Joseph Octave Lewis dit Claremont’s baptismal/birth record in St. Roch, Quebec City. 6 July 1854. 

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.

JLewis-backA 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.

JosephOLewis-Naturalization

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.

Cohoes-Eglise-St-Joseph-1868-1908None 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.

Fitting.

IMG-3078

Chaboillez Square, facing west. The statue of Copernicus was at the right until 1952. The Bonaventure Station was demolished in the same year; the current building houses Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

16 Comments

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  4. Came here by researching “Charles J Coté”, turned out a wrong one, but I want to help with some translation: in your comment of the baptism of Octave Lewis, you say that the document says that the baptism was the same day as the wedding…. which is impossible since the father had died. Actually, the phrase ” né le même jour du légitime mariage de Ferdinand Lewis dit Clairmont journalier, et de Sophie Patry de cette paroisse.” means… “born on the same day from the legitimate marriage of Ferdinand Lewis…”, meaning he was baptized on his birth day (often done because so many children did not survive long after birth). Further. it says the father could not sign, usually meaning he could not write… as if he were present…

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    • Yes, you’re right. Someone else pointed this out to me a short while ago, but I didn’t have time to make the correction. I wish the parish priests had thought to use commas or maybe a dash… “…né le même jour – du légitime…”

      At any rate, it doesn’t matter that Ferdinand was dead before this, because it turns out I was mistaken. This Joseph Octave Lewis is not the same as my ancestor Joseph Octave Lewis, who was born in St Hyacinth, near Montréal. I need to find time to write a new post about that…

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    • Btw, did your Charles J Côté move down to Troy, NY? He and his son Francis were funeral parlor owners in the 1880s-1920s. My Lewis ancestors were all buried by them (I have the funeral bills still!).

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  5. Well, now, it seems we are in a way related. I live in Montreal and was doing some genealogy to finish building my tree.
    Joseph Octave Lewis’s wife, Julia Mayott, was the sister of my grandfather’s grandmother, Mary Elodie Mayett, who lived in Troy NY. Your site has helped me determine who her parents were,
    As for the planetarium, it was in Square Chaboliez until about 5 years ago. The building houses a building belonging to the engineering school ETS, where I graduated about 15 years ago. The tran station was also removed by the end 90’s.
    I hope you enjoyed visiting Montreal!
    François

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    • Also, until 1960 “Canadien” referred to the decendants of the original colonists of New France. The British had appropriated “Canadian” after the founding of the country, and the term became less attractive to the french descendants. They eventually identified as Quebecois, and the seperatist “Parti Quebcois” helped solidify the move.

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      • Yes, I discovered that as I was doing research on Irish-French relations in the 19th century. I had to add footnotes into a recent paper to explain exactly this. Also, other French-speaking Canadians in other provinces don’t consider themselves quebecois bc of course they didn’t grow up in Quebec. But Americans continue to say “French-Canadians.”

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    • Hi, thanks for the comment. Yeah, it looks like we are cousins! I was in touch with two other relations, one in Washington State and the other in the Eastern Townships. There are many connections among the Demers, Legare, Turcotte, Guimond, and Mailhot/Mayotte families, going back to the early 19th century. I lost track of most of them before the Rebellions of 1837/38, but I think I can now identify at least two relatives who got deported briefly to Australia. I can give you more info on Marie Elodie via email if you like! I have a couple of photos of her as a young girl.

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  6. Also the train station was not exactly where the immigration building is located, which dates from the 1930’s. They two were standing near each other for a long time. Where you were standing when you took the picture used to be the edge of Peel street before it was moved a bit further to your left, and the train station was on the other side of the street from where you were standing. There currently sits an empty lot, and they are going to build condo buildings, like they did with the rest of the area.

    Just behind you and to the left is the terrasse of engineering school ETS, where some students like to have a beer after classes. I’ve been there many times. I also taught there for 2 years.

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    • Thanks for the information! I don’t know the history of the area that well, especially physically. I found some maps in the Concordia library and McCord Museum and tried to match them with Google Maps. It figures that the buildings were next to each other. It must have been quite the project to move the tracks when the new station was built. My kids and I went ice skating inside the new Bonaventure station building almost every weekend we were in Montréal two years ago.

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      • You’re welcome! The area is on the edge of a neighbourhood called Griffintown which, as the name suggests, was an irish working-class neighbourhood beginning in 1820. The area was near the Lachine canal and therefore highly industrialized, which explains the abudance of railroad tracks.

        The skating rink you mention is in the skyscraper named 1000 de la Gauchetière and which is next door to the train station. The current central train station, which was built 1927-1943, was built seperately and for a while, the two operated simultaneously. The tracks that went to the old station were removed once it was closed in 1952. The nearby metro station is named Bonaventure in memory of the train station, and westbound commuter trains now leave nearby Gare Lucien-Lallier on a newer set of tracks..

        I grew up in Halifax and did my masters at l’ÉTS in the years 2003-2005. Back then, the whole area was an industrial wasteland just at the foot of downtown and a short walk from the old port. Now, it’s one of the nicest parts of the city.

        I spoke to my mother, Danielle. She agrees that we now have to visit Troy once COVID is over. I’m not sure if you’re in Troy or Japan however. Likewise, if you go to Montreal, give me a shout. I work at Concordia U as an instructor.

        Cheers!
        François

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      • Wow, I may have walked past your lab…I was on sabbatical at the Concordia U School of Irish Studies from fall 2018 to spring 2019. My main field of study is SLA/TESOL, but I’ve been moving into intercultural communication and historical studies. I did some research on the history of Irish Quebec relations in the 17th to early 18th century, and happily discovered more about my family’s history as well. 2 for the price of one, as it were.

        This is great info about the physical landscape, thank you. I didn’t have a car in Montréal so I walked all over the place, including what used to be Griffintown. (There’s a book recently published that’s pretty good, called Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, but without the old maps it’s really hard to get a grasp on what the area originally looked like.)

        I rented a couple of times to drive down to Troy to visit relatives and the library…and got a tour from a French language professor at Union College (Schenectady) of historical Franco-American neighborhoods in Cohoes, where the mills used to be, and South Troy, where St Jean de Baptiste Church closed down in 1977 but the building still stands. I later found out from transcribed parish records that my great-grandparents got married there and my great-grandmother went to the church’s elementary school…she was the last Franco-American generation of la survivance in my family.

        I’m in Japan now, and I probably can’t leave (bc they wouldn’t let me back in) until all this is over. But I do plan to visit Montréal as soon as I can. My kids loved the Laurus Summer School program, ice skating, and the science museum. I’ll certainly let you know when I go! Lots of friends now in the area.

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  7. I forgot to mention, all the old maps, aerial pictures, sewer layout plans, and whatever you want of Montreal, are here:

    https://donnees.montreal.ca/

    One really cool part are the aeriel pictures of 1947-1949.

    https://donnees.montreal.ca/ville-de-montreal/vues-aeriennes-archives

    You’ll spend nights awake matching old aeriel photos with Google Maps and Street View.You’ve been warned.

    Cheers!
    François

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