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Today, most people don’t know who Joseph Montferrand is, nor do they know the character inspired by him, Big Joe Mufferaw. Nonetheless, Montferrand was a real person, who lived in what would one day be Canada and became a folk hero for the working man.
Montferrand was born in Montreal on Oct. 25, 1802 to a family that was known for its powerful build and strength. Growing to six-foot-four, with blue eyes and fair hair, Montferrand stood out everywhere he went. As he grew up, he became known for his ability to hold his own in a street fight and he would gain fame for a boxing match that occurred in Montreal. Two English-speaking boxers had fought for the championship and the organizers asked if there was anyone in the crowd who wanted to challenge the new champion of Canada. Montferrand, despite only being 16-years-old, stepped up and in one punch, knocked the champion down.
By the age of 21, he was working as a voyageur for the Hudson’s Bay Company before becoming a logger in 1827 in Lower Canada and along the Ottawa River. Montferrand would remain a logger for the rest of his working life. During this time, only a couple decades removed from the Seven Years War, there was a great deal of anger still existing between the Anglophone and Francophone loggers. Montferrand’s abilities with his fists became legendary as he could more than hold his own and defend his fellow Francophones. This would lead him to defending French-Canadian workers in the Baytown area against gangs of Irish immigrants. It was once said he took on 20 English troublemakers at one time. Another story tells of how he took on 150 Irishmen with the help of the Virgin Mary. It was said that hi struck like the kick of a horse and he used his leg like a whip.
So, how was Montferrand able to take out so many men, 150 in total? It was said that he took a few quick steps towards the attackers and the one that was most exposed quickly fell to him. He was then grabbed by the feet by Montferrand and used as a club to knock down everyone in the front rank. He then began picking the men up left and right, throwing them over the bridge into the water.
It was said that, “because he was the strongest and the quickest, Montferrand was king. But king though he was, he constantly had to defend his crown. On more than one occasion, he had to take up a challenge.”
In 1832, it was said that during a by-election in Montreal, several individuals were trying to attack his friend, city councillor Antoine Voyer. He quickly dealt with the gang in order to protect his friend.
While he was known for his strength, Montferrand was not just a man who resorted to violence. He was a mediator first and was valued in the Ottawa Valley by the elites for his ability to bring two sides together before things escalated. His employers would often have him resolve conflicts that broke out between Irish and French Canadian workers. He supported law and order and was an ally of the lumber workers. He was also very respectful of the clergy.
In 1857, he would retire from being a logger and instead work as a foreman, earning three times what he did as a lumberjack and helping him enjoy a comfortable life. Sadly, by the age of 55 after a lifetime of hard work, he was severely bent in the back and often in pain. On Oct. 4, 1864, he would pass away. He had married in the spring of 1864 after the death of his first wife, and his second wife produced a son after his death who would grow to be just as tall as his father.
As for his folk hero counterpart, Big Joe Mufferaw, it is believed that the name comes from the fact that English speakers mispronounced his last name.
A folk hero during his life, his reputation began to grow as more and more tales were told about him. The Mufferaw folk hero became the defender of oppressed French Canadian loggers when their bosses were English Canadians and their rivals were Irish Canadians. One such story has Mufferaw in a Montreal bar when a British army major insults French Canadians. Mufferaw beats up the Major in the story, yelling, “any more insults for the Canadians?”
His strength was also great embellished to serve the function of a folk hero like Paul Bunyan. One story states that when a man asked for directions, Montferrand pointed a direction using a plough as the pointer. Another says that he could jump so high in a dance that he would leave a boot print on the ceiling.
Over the years, Montferrand and Mufferaw have had several books written about them, and Stompin’ Tom Connors made him the subject of a song in 1999.
A statue of Joe Mufferaw was erected in 2005 outside Mattawa, Ontario. Big Joe Mufferaw is also the mascot for the Ottawa Redblacks CFL team. In 1992, Montferrand was immortalized on a Canadian postage stamp.
It is interesting to see the two contrasting paths that his image took between French and English Canada. For English Canada, he became a Paul Bunyan type person, with superhuman strength. In stories distributed by the Red River Lumber Company about Montferrand, his name would change to Mufferaw and Le Mufraw and he would often end up being Paul Bunyan’s cook.
In French Canada, he became a strong man who helped the weak and resorted to violence only as a last resort, who preserved traditional values.
Sir Wilfred Laurier, one of our greatest prime ministers, described Montferrand as possessing “undaunted bravery, muscular strength, thirst for danger, resistance to fatigue. The most truly Canadian of all Canadians ever known.”
Information for this article comes from Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Ottaw Citizen