Crossing the Atlantic

A SAIL BOAT TYPICAL OF THOSE BRINGING SETTLERS TO QUEBEC.

For days, weeks, sometimes a month or more, depending on the season and weather conditions, this small vessel would be home to hundreds of passengers, a mere spot in the great Atlantic with only sky and water to be seen. The Ancient Mariner describes the experience: 

Alone, alone, all, all, alone. Alone on a wide, wide, sea.

For many on board this was the first time they had seen the sea, or even a sailing ship. As they sailed out to the Atlantic Ocean they were unaware they would spend at least the next 4 weeks shipboard. Being sent out at the expense of the government or a landlord they were usually told little of where they were going except their destination was Quebec City where plenty work and land was available for all.

On board ship passengers were divided into two groups, cabin for private travellers, and steerage for those being funded. These last were crowded into small, hastily constructed bunks below deck. Here the atmosphere was never pleasant – even less so as boredom, seasickness, dysentery, and fevers took hold. 

Passengers from steerage, were forbidden access to the upper deck, and forced to remain in these unsavoury conditions for the duration of the crossing. This rule was strictly enforced by the captain. Penalties such as the stoppage of a day’s water ration served as an effective deterrent to trespassers.

Although not luxurious in comparison to today’s standards, cabin passengers, less crowded with their own space, had a much easier passage than those lodged below. 

The ship’s log was required to list the name, age and origin of steerage passengers only. This was done faithfully as the government or sponsor of the immigrants paid the captain only for those arriving alive at their destination. Many did not.

Those who succumbed on the voyage were wrapped in sail and, with fellow passengers gathered around, a few prayers were said and the body was dropped overboard. Burial at sea.

The loss was required to be noted in the log book.

Although passengers were expected to bring their own provisions for the long journey, the law required a ship to carry a meal allowance for below deck passengers to supplement their own provisions, which were understandably meagre or nonexistent. The provisions cited consisted of 1 pound of meal or bread per adult, half a pound for those under 14, and a third pound for children under seven. The food was distributed on a daily basis to prevent it being consumed at once. The allowance was often not respected and travellers, if they had the means, brought provisions with them.

The crew was usually a little better provided for with a pound or two of meat and biscuit for their daily allowance. Unless they were on a temperance ship, they were also / a ration of grog or rum. Lime juice, to prevent scurvy, was also issued to the crew.

On the foredeck were large wooden cases lined with bricks and a metal grill on front. These were coal fired fireplaces for below deck passengers to prepare their food. From early morning to the evening when the fire was doused small groups gathered around the fire cooking whatever stores they were lucky enough to have. Meagre stews (some might have a little bacon or herring to put into a stewpot, particularly in the early part of the voyage) or cakes or griddles were baked on the fire.

The cakes, about 2 inches thick, were often encrusted with a thick, black, smoke flavoured crust and still quite raw in the middle. If the ship was in a region where fish were in abundance passengers as well as crew threw makeshift lines overboard to catch as many fish as they could. Surplus catch was cured and kept for later on in the voyage when stores were low and there were no fish to be caught.

Ships were obliged to carry enough water for the duration of the trip. Again legal the requirements were often not respected. Often, due to leakage, spillage, contaminated barrels, or not enough being brought on board, water was scarce. Water, often stored in unsavoury barrels, soon became foul and putrid. As with the rations, the daily allowance was strictly measured. Even those afflicted with fever were not allowed an extra allowance. Certainly none to clean up vomit or other excrement.

With so many crowded into such a limited space disputes were bound to appear. Theft, sickness, and restricted or none compliance with the daily supplies resulted in much grumbling among the suffering passengers. On many ships one of the group was elected to represent them to the captain.

This person was permitted to go aft to meet with the captain to plead the case of those in steerage. Should the captain refuse satisfaction to the requests, their representative was not well received on his return.

In turn the captain expected this representative to see that the below deck was kept as clean as possible, the no smoking rule was respected, and order was kept.

Arguments were to be settled before they escalated into a major brouhaha or physical confrontation. Rowdy boys ignoring warnings by this leader were controlled with the use of ‘the cat with 9 tails’.

Days on board ship crossing the Atlantic were very boring nothing changed from one day to the next. Occasionally a ship was sighted in the distance but very rarely approached close enough to even identify the vessel. 

The only diversions were the occasional appearance of a party of bottle-nosed whales, two or three seals, or a porpoise swimming near the ship. At times they passed through a school of fish and armed with any type of rod and bait available the crew and passengers were soon reeling out to catch fresh fish. What was not used immediately was salted and put away for later when food supplies were becoming evermore scarce.

Several weeks passed while the ship battled wind and waves slowly making its way across the Atlantic.

The only diversions were the occasional appearance of a party of bottle-nosed whales, two or three seals, or a porpoise swimming near the ship.

A long, uncomfortable, and boring passage!

Rough map of the approach to Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and up the river to their destination, Quebec City.

Before the advent of photography, sketches and drawings were the only visual record of history. Professionals and senior members of the British Army were taught to sketch as part of their training and were expected to augment their reports with sketches. Military draftsmanship focused on representation of objects, scenes, and places, as they actually were rather than the then popular inclination to elaborate and decorate to render the picture more pleasing.

Prior to the British presence there are  few, if any, sketches of Lower Canada. British officers stationed in the New World are to be thanked for their proficiency in recording the early history of the Canadas with scenes and incidents witnessed during their stay. The majority of sketches used here were taken from a collection of sketches from the Sigmund Samuel Canadiana Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum and reprinted in The Early Face Canada.  

These two publications have been the main source of information for the following descriptions of the travel up the St. Lawrence.

Finally, weary passengers caught the first sight of land since leaving home several weeks earlier. Thus there was much relief and delight at sighting land. Little did they know they still faced as much as two more weeks on board ship before arriving at Quebec City.

The ship continued to sail around the southern tip of Newfoundland and into the relatively narrow forty-two mile (approx. 65k) passage of Cabot Strait separating Newfoundland from the northern tip of Cape Breton.

Although passengers could not view both islands at once, land could be seen on one side of the ship or the other depending on channel their vessel was using. 

Those with access to the deck area hung over the rails gazing hungrily at the rocky shores of Newfoundland. 

On approaching the Cape Breton coastline they were much gratified to see the gentler, greener, images of Cape Breton. 

At this time both islands were sparsely settled, usually with only temporary shelters along the coast line where fishermen could sleep after  processing their daily catch. 

Prior to the British presence there are  few, if any, sketches of Lower Canada. British officers stationed in the New World are to be thanked for their proficiency in recording the early history of the Canadas with scenes and incidents witnessed during their stay. The majority of sketches used here were taken from a collection of sketches from the Sigmund Samuel Canadiana Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum and reprinted in The Early Face Canada.  

Much of the information I have used describing the sail approaching and entering the St. Lawrence River is based on George Heriot’s 1807 publication , “Travels Through the Canadas”.

 George Heriot was sent to the Canadas in 1792 to take a post in the paymasters department. In 1800 he was made Deputy Postmaster General of British North America. In this capacity he travelled throughout the area of the British holdings in the New World. He recorded all that he saw as well as making several sketches of various areas and activities. I have included some of his sketches as well.

Captains of ships sailing back to Europe flew their flags to identify themselves and, if possible, drew near enough to exchange news. This would be the first word an incoming vessel would have received since having left port several weeks earlier. 

The waters around their vessel were also filled with small fishing vessels of various styles and sizes, bobbing about as fishermen went about gathering their catch. 

Soon enough the excitement on board would be tempered. Cold Atlantic waters meeting the warmer waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland tended to create dense fog. The shift of the winds determined where, and how thick, the fog would be. At times it was so dense ships were obliged to weigh anchor and wait until the fog lessened. 

Captains were reluctant to weigh anchor as it prolonged the trip upriver for at least a day. The frustration of the crew and impatience of the passengers permeated the entire ship as it lay at anchor waiting for the fog to rise. 

Weighing anchor was not just pitching an anchor overboard. The procedure was a long, laborious, task taking four or more hours involving the sailors manning the ropes and pulleys to ease the anchor down. Raising the anchor was the same procedure in reverse. 

The delay could be a day or more, depending on the duration and intensity of the fog.  

Once through the strait the ship entered the Gulf of the St. Lawrence the high spirits on board quickly dispersed as the site of land disappeared from view and realization that their destination was still many days ahead.

After making its way slowly through the Cabot Strait the ship proceeded towards Cape Ray and Cape North where the Isle of St. Paul, actually a huge rock rising from the water, divided to form three conical peaks. The water on either side of the “island” was deep enough for ships to pass through either passage was difficult and there were many shipwrecks in this area.

Remnants of these disasters, including human bones, was visible to those on board. Not a very and heartening site.

As the ship continued on its way towards the mouth of the St. Lawrence the monotony on board would occasionally be broken by the glimpse of a distant shore or even small ‘islands’ that were in reality huge rocks jutting out of the water. During the summer months these rocks were home to thousands of large white sea birds called gannets.They built their nests on these rocks every spring and spent the summer feeding in the Gulf waters coming back to nest on the rocks at nightfall.

Smaller birds would also entertain the passengers, following ships crying for bits of food thrown overboard. Incoming ships would be poor pickings compared to those heading out but the birds were ever hopeful as they flew and squawked behind ships going either direction.

What the immigrants could not imagine was the size of the gulf and river they were entering. In comparison, rivers in the British Isles were merely creeks in relation to the St. Lawrence River. In places the Gulf of St. Lawrence reached 42 miles (approx. 64k) across and it was a 180 mile (290k) sail on the St. Lawrence River to their destination of Quebec City. In ideal conditions the sail up the river took 8 days, the return trip was 5 days. Conditions were not always ideal.

Many challenges faced the captain if he wished to deliver his passengers expeditiously and safely.

Unavoidable delays due to storms or calms were frequent. Wild, stormy, weather, with little or no warning swamped sailing vessels sometimes even blowing the ships back towards the gulf. Calms left them sitting idly in the river.

Where the river was especially treacherous licensed pilots had to be taken on board to guide the ships through these channels. Pilots, especially in the high season, were not always available and the ship was forced to lay at anchor to await his arrival. In rough weather pilots on ships sailing back to Europe were sometimes obliged to stay on board until the ship docked in Europe where they then boarded the first ship going back to Quebec.

Before the advent of photography, sketches and drawings were the only visual record of history. Professionals and senior members of the British Army were taught to sketch as part of their training and were expected to augment their reports with sketches. Military draftsmanship focused on representation of objects, scenes, and places, as they actually were rather than the then popular inclination to elaborate and decorate to render the picture more pleasing.

A camera lucida was used by many artists in the early 19th century. This was an ingenious instrument used in a very primitive form as early as the 16th century, rediscovered and improved by the early 19th century. It consisted of an arrangement of mirrors or a prism of unusual shape, together with an eyepiece, so that the landscape or object scene would be reduced to the size necessary for a sketch. The right and left sides of the image were transposed when seen in the camera lucida. The artist could make a pencil or ink tracing in the instrument and later make a free hand sketch from the tracing, reversing the right and left side of the picture. Only a talented and capable artist could do good work with this instrument, but it did increase the speed and accuracy of the work very considerably.

Sailors were known to be very enthusiastic tour guides pointing out the landmarks as S S Lively proceeded towards their destination of Quebec City.

Miramachi, on the shore of what later became New Brunswick, on a clear day was visible from the deck of  passing boats. Although this might seem a very primitive settlement, in 1811 the Miramichi had been settled by Europeans for 163 years. The Mi’kmaq nation had long been in the area previous to the arrival of the French. 

After the Treaty of Paris, (1765 – 1800) many Scottish immigrants settled in Miramichi. Irish immigrants began arriving there in 1815. 

Ship building and the export of lumber dated back to 1765. This industry suffered greatly when steel hulled ships replaced wooden hulls, and the over cutting of the white pine greatly depleted the forests. The great fire of 1825 was yet another blow to this production.

The Magdalen Islands on the port side were much more visible to passing ships. Although there was no farming done on this isolated cluster of small islands, dwellings of a few fishermen and their families were visible from the decks of the many vessels sailing through the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.

Occasionally the passengers would be able to catch a glimpse  of a distant shore or even small ‘islands’ that were in reality huge rocks jutting out of the water.  In early July these rocks would be home to literally thousands of large white sea birds called gannets. They built their nests here every spring and spent the summer fishing in the Gulf waters coming back to nest on the rocks at nightfall. 

If the winds were favourable this trajectory of the Gulf of St Lawrence to the mouth of the river would take about twenty four hours. Bad weather could delay the progress for days.

The Gaspé Bay
by Hervey Smyth, an aide de camp to James Wolfe.
This sketch was drawn during Wolfe’s approach in view of taking the French Jewel in France’s crown for the British Government.

Continuing on, the shores of the Gaspé Peninsula drew ever nearer  as ships slipped past the south side of Anticosti Island which divided the entrance to the St Lawrence River. The south channel was used as it was wider and better sailing than the northern channel. Here it is about 90 miles (approx.145k) across between Cap Rosier on the tip of the  Gaspé and the nearest shores of Anticosti Island which was uninhabited at this time. In winter it was used by a native tribe for hunting but none actually lived there.

The Gaspé not only had fishermen settled along its banks but there were shipyards scattered along the coast, as well.  In his 1807 publication, George Heriot reported 300 families, mostly Roman Catholics, settled in this area.

The Gaspé peninsula, known as the cradle of New France, was claimed for France in 1534. Jacques Cartier, having been forced ashore due to stormy weather, raised a cross and claimed it for France.

The area was sparsely settled with about 300 fishermen along the banks of the river. In 1758 General Wolfe raided this area in an attempt to demoralize the people into surrendering to the British. In this he was not successful, however the Treaty of Paris in 1763 saw it under British rule. In the interest of laying claim to their new land, the British were anxious to see this area settled by their own citizens. British officers and soldiers were given grants of land and encouraged to establish in the Gaspé. The newcomers soon had an important fishing industry, mostly cod but salmon and herring, as well. 

Ten years later, in 1773, there was a thriving ship building industry as well as an important lumber export business in the Gaspé.  The year 1784 saw the arrival of several United Empire Loyalists to the area. In 1804 the first post office was opened in Gaspé.

Finally sailing into the mighty St. Lawrence River, there was still had another 400 miles (approx. 645k) to go before arriving at Quebec City. The trip up the the river took as much as two weeks.  The current often negated the wind power  and sudden storms and violent wind squalls tended to cause frequent delays. At times sail boats were completely stilled, at other times the wind was so ferocious they had to weigh anchor to avoid being thrust upon the rocks or islands that dotted the river. In certain places, due to narrow passages, hidden rocks, fickle shoals, or devilish currents, captains of vessels going upstream were required to take on special pilots to guide them through the water.

In early the summer season the many sailing vessels heading upstream passed along fields lush with green grass and grain, with cattle grazing contentedly in the pastures.

Percé Rock
by Hervey Smyth

Sir Hervey Smyth was knighted for service during Wolfe’s campaign to capture Quebec City.

This earliest known sketch of the Rock was made from the deck of the deck of the 64 gun deck of the S S Vanguard under the command of Robert Swanton.

In 1607 Samuel de Champlain was first known European to see the Rock which he described in his log book. By the beginning of the 19th century when many settlers, including those coming to Rawdon, there was concern that erosion would cause the Rock to disappear.

Ships sailed near enough to the already well known phenomen for passengers to get a good view of the the rock.

The Rock was featured in many travel books which were very popular at this time.

As the river gradually narrowed passengers on board ship could enjoy the scenery on both river banks. And what a view it would have been for them! The thick, green, forest of the mountains coming down to meet the river as it flowed past , sparkling and dancing on sunny days, dark and threatening in foul weather.

When the Rawdon Township was being opened, there was little or no settlement on the banks on the banks of the Lower St. Lawrence River. As the river continued to narrow and the waters of Saguenay Rivers rushed in to join the St. Lawrence small settlements came into view.

On the north shore settlements were mostly related to the fur trade and fishing. The south shore was spotted with farms running back in long strips from the river bank

A few small ship yards were established along both sides of the river and Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River was a harbour for ships and a port of entry for the river.

LaMalbaie had yet another, definitely not picturesque, type of settlement. Rough buildings to house the seasonal fishermen their land operations were scattered around the bay.

Every spring fishermen trapped porpoises to extract their oil which was in great demand. This was a very lucrative business. A barrel of oil could be extracted from even the smallest porpoise. Seals and sea cows were also harvested here.

In 1811 porpoises were still plentiful and would follow passing ships and playing around the vessels much to the amusement of those on deck. They might follow the vessels as far as Ile d’Orleans seemingly welcoming them to their new home.

Some 40 miles (approx. 64 k) Les Eboulements came into view. These huge masses of rock, several hundred feet (metres) in height, jutted into the river seeming to be standing guard over the river.

On the south shore the little town of Kamarouska nestled on the south river bank. White washed farm houses built side by side, faced onto the river which was the main means of travel. During the summer season the white of the buildings with the green of the fields and the even darker green of the mountains behind offered a picturesque sight.

In the village a steepled church surrounded by houses and commercial buildings, all white washed, was the first hint of civilization along the river.

From here on the land became ever more arable and farms lined the river bank.These farms, settled under the seignorial system during the French regime were long and narrow, the fields stretching back from the river.

A scarce twenty miles further Ile aux Oies lies off the south shore, a little island about seven miles long and three miles at its widest. As the name indicates, this was a nesting place for wild geese whose activities could be seen from on board ship. The sight of thousands of these magnificent white birds flying and honking as they went about their business was a very impressive sight indeed.

Here there was a settlement of about thirty families. They lived off the land, logging, farming, and fishing. The buildings and fields of this island were visible from the ship’s deck.

The St. Lawrence River gradually loses its salt as the river penetrates further inland the water becomes fresh.

 La Traverse, a little further upstream, was considered the most hazardous part of the journey. A local pilot had to be taken on to guide the ship through this channel. This could delay the arrival at Quebec City for a few hours or even a day, depending on the availability of a pilot.

Immediately after Ile aux Oies, Ile d’Orléans came into view. The river having narrowed considerably, the island almost blocks the river on the north channel.

Only very small vessels could use this north channel. The usual practice was to use  the south channel. As they eased their way through this passage, they had a close view of  island life. 

Ile d’Orléans by Thomas Davies

Ile d’Orléans was one of the earliest and most densely populated settlements in New France. It was also the most fertile area providing food for Quebec City and the surrounding area.

Ile d’Orleans presented a picturesque view rising from steep banks in some places, a more gradual ascent in others. It was divided into five parishes, St. Pierre and Ste. Famille on the north, St. Francis, St. John, and St. Laurent on the south. About 2000 people lived on the island.

Typical of the French settlements, the farms were on narrow lots with houses sitting side by side facing along the waterfront. The house in the sketch appears to be made of stone. The majority of homes on the island were constructed of wood. 

Ile d’Orléans  was one of the earliest  and most densely populated settlements in New France. It was also the most fertile area providing food for Quebec City and the surrounding area. Most of the farmers on the island were descendants of the original owners. Today this is still true.

Farmers brought their produce a mile across the river on barge or by boat. During the winter months when the river was frozen they they crossed on what was called the pont.

A few years earlier, for two consecutive years, a plague of grasshoppers had ravished the island but by 1811 it was once again thriving and supplying the Quebec City region with its produce.

While Ile d’Orleans was known as the breadbasket of the Quebec City area, surrounded by water, they also profited from the river’s bounty. Eel traps are seen set out along the shore.

While Ile d’Orleans was known as the breadbasket of the Quebec City area, surrounded by water, it also profited from the river’s bounty. Eel traps are seen in the sketch set out along the shore.

As ships continued on, the shores of the Gaspé Peninsula drew ever nearer.  They slipped past the south side of Anticosti Island dividing the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. The south channel was wider and better sailing than the northern channel was the popular choice. 

Quebec City from Point Levis by George Heriot

Ships sailed some 350 miles (approx. 565k) from the mouth of the river into the Quebec harbour. The first view of their destination city from on board ship would have appeared much like this sketch by George Heriot. 

 George Heriot was sent to the Canadas in 1792 to take a post in the paymasters department. In 1800 he was made Deputy Postmaster General of British North America. In this capacity he travelled throughout the area of the British holdings in the New World. He recorded all that he saw as well as making several sketches of various areas and activities. I have included some of his sketches as well.