Seignorial Homes of French Canada
F. S. Somerville
SCATTERED throughout the Province of Quebec, there stand more than two hundred and fifty quaint
and picturesque old manor houses, the relics of a day and generation when the seigniorial system added a distinction and a glory to the period of the French regime. Even to-day these manor houses possess a charm and a glamor which even the prosaic present has been unable to dissipate.
Of course there are some of them which have no strange or romantic tales to tell, but they form the exceptions rather than the rule. Almost any one of them, selected at random, has somewhere hidden/away back in its past history, a thrilling chapter. With the seigniorial/ system and its
workings, it is not the purpose of this article to deal. Suffice it to say that the system, while introduced in the first place for military ourposes, became eventually the basis of a New World aristocracy, modelled on the old French pattern, and that the seigniors, the lords of the land, held sway over their extensive properties with all the pomp and circumstance of the French noblemen.
It is only possible within the limits of a magazine article to glance at a few of the more notable manors and to contemplate any features connected with them which render them worthy of notice.
The manor house on the Seigniory de la Petite Nation is one of the finest
examples of old manorial architecture in the Province of Quebec. This seigniory was granted to Bishop Laval by the Company of the West Indies in 1674. It consisted of a tract of land on the Ottawa River fifteen miles square. The property was given to Laval University by Bishop Laval, from which institution it was purchased in 1694 by Joseph Papineau. The first manor house was built at Papineauville, a year or two later, and was replaced in 1813 by another manor house, built upon Isle Anosin, opposite Papineauville. This house was destroyed by fire about 1840. The present house was begun in 1849 by Louis J. Papineau, son of Joseph Papineau, and was completed in 1851. In 1871 it passed into the hands of L. J. A. Papineau, and upon his death in 1903 it became the property of his grandchildren. The house was built of stone, quarried in the neighborhood, and all its beams were sawn or hewn by hand.
This particular house is more pretentious than most of the manor houses of Quebec, although it follows almost precisely in design the usual style. Near by the old house is the chapel and other buildings, which were usually found close to the old
seigniorial mansions. The main part of the building is oblong in shape and has at one corner a round Norman tower which does not look unlike the old Martelio towers that were erected throughout Canada for defensive purposes during the French Regime. Another tower of imposing proportions, rises from the other corner of the house and in it is situated the green house and vinery. The library which is one of its interesting features of the house, is built of solid stone and is detached from the main portion of the house, standing at another corner. It is absolutely fireproof and contains over 5,000 volumes, some of which are very old and valuable. A curious little old Norman gate may also be seen on this side of the house. The view from the top of the mansion looking up the Ottawa is one unexcelled on any other part of the river. The present owners of the seigniory are descendants of Louis J. Papineau, the Canadian patriot.
Another old manor house which has an exceedingly interesting history is that situated on the Seigniory LTslet du Portage in the county of Kamouraska. This seigniory was granted by the good Intendant Talon, in the year 1672. The first manor house was
commenced in that year and completed the following year. The original building was the habitation of many lords of the seigniory down to the year 1835, when it was almost entirely rebuilt, most of the old house, however, being incorporated in the new building. About this time this portion of the Province of Quebec had become the centre of a large shipbuilding and lumbering trade, and the master of the old manor house was
engaged in this industry.
The house is situated on a plateau, which rises high above the St. Lawrence River. As one gazes at the old house, standing in its lofty situation, the well wooded slopes of the Notre Dame Mountains in the background make a fitting setting for its ancient walls. Near by runs a brook, coming from the mountains, which in the old days was used to run the banal mill, built at the point where the brook flowed into the St. Lawrence.
Near the old mill may be seen the store house, barns
and sail-making house and the residences of the employes, and the habitans. These buildings are now all fallen into decay, and the old lovershot waterwheel has probably turned for the last time. When the shipbuilding industry was no longer profitable the owner abandoned the old house and it was shut up for a long time during his absence in England.
A tragedy associated with the history of this old seignioral home is the foundation of superstition, which prevails among the habitans even to the present day. Although enacted nearly a century ago the belief still obtains among them that the disembodied spirit of the victim of this particular “affaire d’honneur,” continues to make nocturnal visits to the old manor house. The story as told in the little village is as follows. One of the early seigniors had a niece whose charms had won the hearts of both the resident physician, and a visitor to the manor house, who was of high military rank. Both were handsome men, and received equal encouragement from this well favored daughter of Eve. It was plain that this state of affairs could not exist for long and they finally had recourse to the “code,” which was in those days considered the only way for gentlemen to
settle their difficulties. The story goes that the doctor, who was a dead shot, having had much practice on the game preserves of the old seigniory easily killed his adversary and became the successful suitor for the hand of the fair young lady. The victim of this unfortunate affair is believed to have been burried beneath the trees at the rear of the manor house and from his sleeping place in the woodland glade, makes nocturnal excursions about the place. At night uncanny sounds are heard and the present occupants of the house, grown familiar with these accustomed visitations, dismiss the idea contemptuously with the remark, “Oh, it is only the ghost," and compose themselves to slumber.
The foregoing story is a fair example of many that hover about these old mansions.
As an instance of the wonderful hold which the seigniorial system of land tenure has even to this day upon the habitans, who still reside upon the seigniories, the following story is told. A dependent farmer, who upon presenting himself to pay his tithe of one cent per annum, was asked why he did not buy the farm on which he had resided all his life and in that way be-
come absolutely independent in the possession of a freehold deed, since he could well afford to do so, answered, that the new order of things was distasteful to him, and he much preferred to pay his cent every year, and preserve his dependent position. This is not in any way a solitary instance and shows how deeply the roots of the old system are set in the people who have for hundreds of years resided on these old seigniories. The Seigniory LTslet du Portage is the property of Mrs. John Rankin, of the city of Montreal.
Another old seigniory which possesses many features of particular interest, is that known as the Seigniory de St. David, situated in the heart of the French Canadian country. The manor house was built by the first Wurtele who came to this country, and was for many years the seat of this distinguished Canadian family. The architecture of the manor house, while in the main possessing the salient characteristics of the old French houses has incorporated in it many features which are distinctly German, thereby reflecting the nationality of the builder who came to Canada from near Stuttgart in Germany. It was in a measure a reproduction of
his home in that city, being a large square stone structure with an enormous roof, the whole containing two stories and an attic. It was beautifully situated on undulating ground, surrounded on three sides by the River David, the waters of which drove the wheel of the old grist and saw mills in the neighborhood. It was like an oasis in the desert, the country for miles around being as level as a prairie. The old house was embowered in trees and shut in beautiful grounds. The fruit trees were imported from the seigneur’s old home in Germany, as were also the grape vines, from which real Rhine wine was made. At one time, this seigniory was owned by a French Hugenot, named Dr. Calvet, who was said to have been a political traitor and it is also said that he received harsh treatment from the government of Governor Haldimand.
The late Judge Wurtele may be considered as “the last of the old Barons,”
because he was the last seigneur to render “Foi et Hommage” to the Governor on his succession to the property in 1853, before the changes in this system of tenure rendered this ancient and picturesque custom obsolete. Time’s effacing fingers, have wiped out all beauty from .the place and change and decay have destroyed the grand Lombardy poplars and stately elms, which at one time made this one of the beauty spots of the Province of Quebec.
Another of the ancient chateaux of Canada, which is woven into the warp and woof of the history of the country is the Chateau de Ramesay, in the very heart of the city of Montreal. This building is one of the oldest, if not the oldest building in Canada, which is still in good condition, having been erected in the days of Louis XIV., and it is doubtful, if there is another old house in Canada around which there clusters so many associations of bygone days of political and
social life, not only in the days of the French regime, but also since the day Canada was won for the British on the Plains of Abraham. This fine old chateau was built by Claude de Ramezay, the eleventh governor of Montreal in 1905. Its site was then in the most fashionable quarter of the city. Nearby were the dwellings of such
distinguished people as the D'Aillebouts, D'Eschambaults, Barons de-Longueil.
Madame de Portneuf, the widow of Baron de Becancourt. Claude de Ramezay was a man of considerable importance in the colony, holding many positions of trust, during a period of forty years. He married Mademoiselle Marie Charlotte Deny, who was a daughter of one of the most aristocratic houses of Canada. Within the old chateau were held many brilliant entertainments, and the leading ecclesiastical military and political
dignitaries of the state, were entertained within its walls. It was here that the councils of war were held and it was here also that the terms of peace were considered. The noble red men came to the chateau to air their grievances to the governor, as did also members of the noblesse, all having meted out to them justice
and good advice by the excellent Governor de Ramezay. No partiality was shown by him in his dispensation of justice. Later, the chateau became the property of the Company of the West Indies, and ultimately was bought by the Government, as a residence for the governors. During the time of the American invasion of Canada, Benjamin Franklin, and his fellow commissioners Charles Carrol, of Carrollton, and Samuel Chase, who were sent here to treat with the Canadian government, resided during their stay, in the old chateau. Franklin brought with him a printer by the name of Fleury Mesplet, who set up his cases and hand press in the basement of the building, and this is the first recorded instance of a printing press being operated in Canada. After Franklin had returned to Philadelphia, Mesplet remained in Canada, and founded the first paper in the city of Montreal, the Gazette. This building has been more fortunate than some of
the other ancient structures of the country, as it was rescued from inevitable decay and ruin, by being purchased by the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Montreal, who have retained it for the headquarters of the society. In it now, are gathered many of the relics of the past, which have found a safe resting place from Time’s despoiling hand. In its picture gallery may be seen the portraits of nearly all of the governors of Canada before and since the capitulation of Quebec and various others connected with the history of Canada.
The Chateau Bigot, or “The Hermitage” as it is known among the English people of Quebec to-day, is possessed of an absorbing history as it has been the abode of both a man of the highest and noblest character, and once also was the dwelling of one whose deeds will ever remain a stain on the pages of the history of Canada. Within these venerable walls, the good Intendant Talon was accustomed to call
together his advisers, to consult with him with regard to matters of state. Those were troublous times for Canada, and she required and fortunately had good men at the helm of the ship of state to direct her affairs. The mother country was very parsimonious in her treatment of the struggling young colony, and only such wise and able statesmen as Talon, and the men whom he gathered äbout him would have ever piloted her safely through this critical moment of her existence.
The Chateau Bigot or “Beaumanoir ’ as it was called when the infamous Bigot assumed possession of it, was, however, soon to witness different scenes than these. Councils continued to be held, but they were not councils which had for their aim, the advancement of the colony. The Intendant Bigot, who was hand in glove with the members of the organization, known as “La Friponne” conspired here with his fellow libertines to rob the colony of the funds, small as they
were, which were sent from France, 'lhe old halls have rung with the d. unken laughter of these men during their periodic carousals.
It is told that in this same mansion, the Intendant had a secret bower, in which he had confined, against her will, the Indian princess Caroline, and it was his habit to exhibit her to his boon companions.
Nothing remains of it now, but a mass of old ruins, around which cluster many tales of romance. According to old prints and descriptions, it was a very stately pile, and was built on the same general lines of other manor houses, but larger and more pretentious, as this particular mansion fell in the class known as chateaux. It was built of stone, gabled and pointed in the style of architecture prevailing in those days. It was built by Jean Talon, whose name will ever be associated with the best traditions of Canada. Among others who came to the chateau to re-
late his wanderings in the new country, was the Sieur Joliet, as came also Pere Marquette, and it was from here also that the intrepid LaSalle, one of the most romantic figures in Canadian history, set out to explore the waters of the Mississippi River, news of which had been brought by Father Marquette. The grounds around the old chateau were patterned on those of the Luxembourg. The main building was set in the midst of exquisite gardens. Fruits of great variety grew in the broad fields of the estate. The old chateau was in a measure a striking contrast to the beauty of the surrounding gardens. Sombre and majestic, it rose with its massive doors and mullioned windows, all of which were kept barred, ofttimes holding within their four walls, victims who were guests against their will.
Such then is a brief glance at an ancient and effete institution, which would be regarded as an anchronism to-day, but which in “its day and generation” possessed its advantages as well as its disadvantages. As a country grows and prospers and becomes wealthy, and its people are permitted more leisure, for a consideration of the history of the past, they will find that the material appanages derived from such sources are small, but the romantic and emotional value of them, cannot be overestimated. There are to-day hundreds of the progeny of these ancient seigneurs in the province of Quebec and if these traditions of the past serve no other purpose for them, they at least indicate that they possess a proud and distinguished ancestry which will always remain a source of rare gratification to them.