Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Day in My Ancestor’s Life – Pierre Belair

Last month, I made my first attempt at recreating “a day in my ancestor’s life” when I wrote about my paternal grandmother Julie (Vanasse) Belair; you can read her story here. I’m following up that post with a go at another ancestor: my paternal great-grandfather Pierre Belair (1851-1941). (I began the research for this article a few weeks ago, but I'm just posting the finished product today.)

Note: The questions below are courtesy of the tip of the day (“Pick A Day”) for 18 November 2013 at Genealogy Tip of the Day.

Pierre Belair
Pierre Belair as a young man

I picked 6 April 1891, when the third census for the Dominion of Canada was held. I don’t know if Pierre and his family were enumerated that day (the date is left blank on the census form), but enumerators were instructed to gather information “as it applied at midnight, when April 5 turned into April 6”. [1]

April 6 was a Monday. [2]

I didn’t find weather data for Ste-Cécile-de-Masham, where Pierre lived. Instead, I chose Montreal, where the temperature hovered between -5.6 and 0.0 on Sunday 5 April and between -3.9 and 3.3. on 6 April. [3]

• Where was my ancestor living?

Pierre lived in Ste-Cécile-de-Masham, a rural community in Ottawa (now Gatineau) County, Quebec. His home was a farm house, a short distance from the village.

Belair home in Ste-Cecile-de-Masham
The Belair home (taken in the 1980s)

• Who was in his (her) household?

Besides Pierre, there was his wife Angélina (née Meunier) and their children Pierre (age 10), Paul (9), Angélina (7), Marie (5) and Jean-Baptiste (1). [4] (Jean-Baptiste, aka Fred, was my grandfather, and he was more like 1½, because he was born in December 1889.)

1891 census of Canada [5]
(Pierre's family is on the last seven lines.)

• What was the ancestor’s occupation?

Pierre was a cultivateur (farmer). He did his own work without the help of an employee, according to the census. [6] It’s too bad that the agricultural schedule of the 1891 census has not survived in manuscript form, because it would be interesting to get details about his crops, livestock and such. [7] Based on family tradition, though, Pierre engaged in general farming.

• What was the ancestor's age?

Pierre was 39 years old.

• What was going on nationally on this date (at this point in time)?

Nationally, the country’s third census had begun. A few days earlier, a newspaper worried about a “census curiosity”. The unnamed reporter wondered how the census would be able to reveal if “there are any Canadians in Canada except French Canadians”. The reporter noticed there were only two columns for nationality on the census form: “country or province of birth” and “French Canadians”, and none for “native [-born] Canadians”. [8]

Previously, but probably still in the public’s mind, was the general election that took place last month on 5 March 1891. Sir John A. Macdonald's Conservative party was re-elected at the federal level, but in the County of Ottawa where Pierre resided, the Liberal party outweighed the Conservatives. [9]

Also in the public’s mind was the Springhill mining disaster of 21 February 1891. The Nova Scotia coal mine explosion left “125 dead and dozens more injured”. The newspaper reported the latest financial contributions – amounts between 25 cents and $5.00. [10]

• What was going on locally/regionally?

One local/regional story was the continuing work of the rail line from Hull to Maniwaki of the “Ottawa and Gatineau Railway Company”. The project began in 1871, but construction didn’t start until some years later. The first section that linked Hull to Wakefield was only completed in 1891. [11]

• Were my ancestor's parents alive?

Pierre’s parents Paul and Angélique (Lalonde) Belair were alive, but I wasn't able to locate them on the 1891 census, despite a page-by-page search of the images at Ancestry.ca. The couple doesn't appear to be living in the households of their other children or in the households of Paul's surviving siblings Esther (in Montreal), Mathilde and Elisabeth (in Masham), and Denis (in Gloucester Township, Ontario).

• Were my ancestor's siblings alive?

Pierre had only one sibling living in Masham: his youngest sister Adèle and her husband Jean-Baptiste Milliquette. They had two children, and were the godparents of Pierre’s youngest son Fred. Adèle and her family lived close to Pierre, because they appear on the census two households away from his property.

His other sister Lucie and younger brother Emilien lived with their respective families in Onslow, Pontiac County, Quebec. His younger brothers Jean-Baptiste and Paul lived in Hull, Ottawa County, Quebec with their families. Finally, Pierre’s eldest surviving brother Joseph moved to Ontario in about 1883, where he, his wife Emilie Berton and their children lived.

• Where would he (she) have gone to church the previous Sunday?

The village’s only Roman Catholic church is dedicated to Ste-Cécile. It’s where Pierre was baptised and married, and where his children were also baptised. Angélina was a devout woman, so it's likely that Pierre and his family attended Mass the previous day, the first Sunday after Easter. The parishioners would have heard Father A.-G. Lyonnais preach the Liturgy in Latin, since the vernacular (native language of the people) was not used until the 1960s. Curé Lyonnais was relatively new to Masham, having arrived in the community in October 1889. [12]

• Who were my ancestor's neighbors?

Some of Pierre’s neighbors were Jean-Baptiste and Elmire Meunier (Angélina’s brother), Victor and Marie Robert, Antoine and Sydonie Giroux, and his own sister Adèle and her family. Other nearby families included those of Moïse and Marie Martineau, Joseph and Justine Martineau, Louis Rose père, and Louis Rose fils and his wife Sophie née Martineau, Pierre’s first cousin.

Some Thoughts

Although I don’t know for sure, I’d like to think that Pierre had a somewhat good life. At 39 years old, he was married, the father of five (living) children, had property that he worked himself to support and feed his family. He lived in the community where he was born and raised, and where a sister and close relatives also lived.

Pierre couldn’t read or write, but that didn’t stop him from sending his sons Pierre and Paul to school, because they could read and write, according to the census.

Speaking of the census, I wonder if Pierre was the one who gave his family's details to the enumerator? Did his children gather nearby to listen and perhaps comment among themselves about their father's responses? Did Pierre have to ask Angélina about such-and-such a child's age, or did he know all of their ages by heart?

Politically, Pierre was a constituent of a traditionally Conservative county, so perhaps he voted Conservative in the March election. If so, he would have presumably been pleased when Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, came back to power for a sixth term. What if he was a Liberal, though? Did he cheer the victory of merchant C.R. Devlin, the Liberal who won the election in Ottawa County, but feel disappointed at his party’s overall loss? [13]


1. Dave Obee, Counting Canada: A Genealogical Guide to the Canadian Census (Victoria, BC: Dave Obee, 2012), 135.

2. “Perpetual Calendar”, infoplease (http://www.infoplease.com/calendar.php : accessed 11 December 2013).]

3. “Historical Climate Data”, Climate – Government of Canada (http://climate.weather.gc.ca : accessed 7 December 2013), “Montreal”.

4. 1891 census of Canada, Masham, Ottawa, Canada, population schedule, subdistrict BB, p. 31, family 113, Pierre Jeanvry household [indexed as Jeansey, but written as Jeanvry]; digital images, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 30 July 2007); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-6412.

5. 1891 census of Canada, Masham, Ottawa, Canada, pop. sch., subdist. BB, p. 31, fam. 113, Pierre Jeanvry household.

6. 1891 census of Canada, Masham, Ottawa, Canada, pop. sch., subdist. BB, p. 31, fam. 113, Pierre Jeanvry household.

7. Obee, Counting Canada, 137.

8. “A Census Curiosity”, The [Ottawa] Evening Journal, 4 April 1891, p. 4, col. 1; digital images, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 8 December 2013), Newspapers & Publications.

9. “History of Federal Ridings since 1867”, database, Parliament of Canada (http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/Parliament/FederalRidingsHistory/HFER.asp : accessed 10 March 2014), “General Elections”.

10. Nova Scotia, Canada, Men in the Mines (http://www.novascotia.ca/nsarm/virtual/meninmines/default.asp?Language=English : accessed 9 December 2013), “The Springhill Mine Disasters of 1891, 1956 and 1958”. Also, “The Springhill Disaster – another handsome addition to the relief fund”, The [Ottawa] Evening Journal, 6 April 1891, p. 2, col. 4; digital images, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 8 December 2013), Newspapers & Publications.

11. “History of the Municipality of La Pêche”, database, Municipalité de La Pêche (http://www.villelapeche.qc.ca/index.php/en/la-peche/history : accessed 11 December 2013). Also, “Up the Line: The Railway from Hull to Maniwaki”, database, Outaouais Heritage WebMagazine (http://outaouais.quebecheritageweb.com/article/line-railway-hull-maniwaki : accessed 11 December 2013).

12. Hector Legros, prêtre, Histoire de LaPêche et Masham (Hull, Quebec: Evêché de Hull, 1966), 113.

13. “History of Federal Ridings since 1867”, database entry for “General Elections”. The County of Ottawa was Liberal-Conservative (aka Conservative) since August 1867, and then went Liberal in March 1891.

Copyright © 2013, Yvonne Demoskoff.

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