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Joseph Montferrand stood on Sapper’s Bridge, which connected the two areas of Bytown, Upper Canada. He was a hero for the French-Canadian workers he sought to protect, and was the sworn enemy of the Shiners, a gang that ruled Bytown. In front of him were 150 members of that gang, who were ready to take him down
One man against a sea of Shiner, throwing fists in an epic battle. His great strength allowed him to knock several men off the bridge with one punch.
In the end Montferrand stood victorious and supreme as dozens of the Shiners lay on the bridge, bruised and bleeding at his feet
Or at least that is what the legends say. I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Long before Ottawa was the capital of Canada, with majestic Parliament Buildings looking out over the Ottawa River, it was a rough and tumble place called Bytown.
And surrounding Bytown was an immense forest where the trees rose 100 feet in the air. White and red pines, along with spruce, hemlock, oak, and maple all provided ample wood for Bytown. To understand the tall tale and folk hero Joseph Montferrand. How he came about to fight the Shiners who indeed caused death and mayhem for a brief period in the 1830s.
I need to give you a brief background….on timber….
The timber history of the area began on June 11, 1806, when Philemon Wright, his son Tiberius, London Oxford, Martin Ebert, and John Turner, left nearby Wright’s Town with 700 logs and 6,000-barrel staves on a large raft on the Ottawa River. It took them 35 days to reach Montreal and the journey was anything but easy. To get beyond the Long Sault Rapids, once located east of Cornwall but now long gone due to damming, the raft had to be broken into cribs and transported over land.
The 300-kilometre trip was fraught with danger. At one point, the raft came apart, adding two months of repairs to the trip. The delay in reaching Quebec City caused Philemon to miss his contract. But, due to a French emperor running his armies across Europe, that delay turned out to be fortunate, and it altered the history of Ottawa and Canada, forever.
In 1806, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a blockade of the Baltic Sea in the hopes of bringing Britain to its knees during the Napoleonic Wars. Almost all the timber Britain used came from Baltic countries and the United States, but tensions were growing between the United States and Britain, which would culminate in another war half a decade later. As a result, Britain looked to its colony — Canada and its vast forests.
The arrival of the timber in Quebec City could not have come at a better time and Philemon was able to sell his timber not to the French but instead to eager British buyers. After he returned home, Philemon put all his efforts behind the Ottawa Valley timber trade. As Philemon made money, others sought to do the same and timber companies sprang up around the area.
The importance of the Ottawa River increased as timber trade grew. Then came the War of 1812. From 1812 to 1815 war raged between the United States as Upper Canada. The United States planned to invade Upper Canada from New York by following the St. Lawrence River.
If the Americans were successful, Montreal would be cut off from the naval base in Kingston. Thankfully, the war ended with neither side gaining any ground. After the war was over, the British government decided they needed to ensure safe passage between Montreal and Kingston in the event of another war. This necessitated a new route north along the Ottawa River, to the mouth of the Rideau River, southwest via canals to Kingston and to Lake Ontario. The last portion of this route would become the Rideau Canal.
Construction on the canal began in 1826 under the supervision of Lt. Col. John By of the Royal Engineers. For the previous two decades, By had distinguished himself for his work building fortifications in Quebec City and improving ship navigability along the St. Lawrence River. With his experience, the British felt he was the perfect man to oversee the construction. Now with the huge project of the Rideau Canal on the go, thousands of Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian labourers came to the Ottawa Valley to work as labourers.
Work on the canal started in the fall of 1826. With so many people in the area working, a small community sprang up. Stores catering to the workers appeared, schools to educate their children were built, and homes were constructed. Rather than have a community that was built haphazardly, with winding and confusing streets, Colonel By laid out the streets of this new community in an orderly manner.
Wellington, Rideau, Sussex and Sparks Streets were the earliest streets built. Parliament Hill now sits on what was once Barracks Hill.
The west side of the community became known as Upper Town and was populated by Irish Catholic immigrants. The east side of the community was known as Lower Town and was populated by French Canadians. The two sides of the river were connected by Sapper’s Bridge, now known as Plaza Bridge.
The new community needed a name and Bytown was chosen, in honour of Colonel By, the man who built the canal. On May 22, 1832, Colonel By and his family left on a ship from Kingston and arrived in Bytown seven days later using the canal he had constructed. He then returned to England, and never again visited the community that was named after him.
In 1836, he died at the age of 56.
The end of the Rideau Canal construction brought on another, much more dangerous era for Bytown.
The era of the Shiners.
With the Rideau Canal completed, the timber trade continued to be the main employer of the area and that attracted more entrepreneurs who built their own sawmills and timber companies. Then came Peter Aylen. In 1835, he decided he was going to control the timber trade through violence and mayhem.
Little is known about his life prior to his arrival in Bytown. But we do know he was born in Liverpool in 1799 and according to legend he was a runaway sailor who changed his name. He arrived in Bytown at around 21830 and started working in the timber trade. Aylen had an immense ambition and was prepared to do anything he could to control the timber market of the Ottawa Valley.
Prior to the completion of the Rideau Canal, he raided the timber claims of his competitors, destroyed their rafts and, in a sign of things to come, attacked other timber crews with his own crews. To put that into perspective , a raft from Bytown to Quebec City had 2,000 to 2,400 timbers on it, worth $12,000. Adjusted for inflation, that is worth over $400,000 today. After the Rideau Canal was completed, Aylen put himself forward as a champion of the unemployed Irish.
He began to recruit them into his service to help grow his timber business even further. He also created an enemy for the Irish , the French Canadian timber workers, who were also unemployed and competing for jobs. Aylen told his supporters that they were the ones taking their jobs.
Thanks to his shady and violent business tactics, Aylen quickly controlled the timber along the river by 1835. That’s when he turned his sight on a new target…Bytown.
Aylen sought to control it. With a group of 200 Irishmen, who adopted the name Shiners, he took over control of Lower Town. The origin of the group’s name is unknown. One possibility is the French word cheneur, which means cutter of oak trees. Another possibility is from the phrase, shine above others.
A third possibility is it came from the shiny coins the members were paid in by Aylen. Regardless, almost as soon as the Shiners appeared, Bytown was less of a quiet frontier town and more a Gangs of New York crime infested locale. In July 1835, Aylen was arrested for assault for the first time. The British Whig and General Advertiser for Canada West stated on June 12, 1835,
“The account of the troubles in Bytown, contained in the Montreal Gazette, is incorrect. It seems Peter Aylen, a gentleman of large property near Bytown, and a friend to the poor man, though proper to inflict a tremendous horsewhipping on D. McMartin, an attorney of Perth, who it is said richly deserved it.”
His Shiners quickly went on a rampage, destroying a canal steamer in the harbour. At this point, Aylen was released, and the lack of consequences for his actions showed others in the community that he was now untouchable. While the Shiners started by attacking French-Canadian timber workers, they soon expanded their victim base. Murder, assault, and arson were not out of bounds for them.
At one point, they beat a farmer’s pregnant wife with sticks as she rode by on a sleigh. She jumped out but her dress became caught in the sleigh and she was dragged along the frozen ground before getting free. The reason? She was the wife of a farmer named Hobbs who had offended the Shiners in some way.
The Shiners were known to pollute wells, kidnap children and throw them far away from home in the snow for them to run back, shatter windows and on one occasion, they broke up a funeral procession and threw the coffin off the hearse and into the street simply because they could.
When Joseph Galipaut, who owned Lower Town tavern which was frequented by French Canadian raftsmen fired a shot at one of the Shiners during a fight, they went to the magistrate who happened to be Irish and a friend of Aylen.
Galipaut was jailed for assault and while he was incarcerated, the Shiners burned his tavern to the ground.
At other taverns, the Shiners would go in as a large group, armed with clubs and force the owner to supply them with liquor for free.
They then got drunk and trashed the tavern before moving on to the next one. Father Alexis de Barbezieux, an area priest, said,
“There is no God in Bytown.”
It was not unusual for someone to go to Bytown for work, and to never be heard from again. In the 1800s, it was said that if you crossed the Chaudiere Bridge over the Ottawa River, you could hear the haunting cries of drowned French-Canadian workers in the water below. Special constables were hired to deal with the problem, but they were quickly paid off by Aylen to look the other way. Even if someone pursued the Shiners, they just ran over the bridge into Lower Canada where they could evade arrest.
The fact Bytown had no courthouse or jail further complicated things. Most officers didn’t want to travel 75 kilometres to the nearest jail in Perth and it was easier to just let the gang members go. Even those who were not on the payroll were powerless. In August 1835, when a constable went to arrest a Shiner who attacked some residents, one Shiner took the gun out of his hand and beat the constable, while the other Shiners jumped on him.
The wealthy elite of Bytown didn’t care too much about The Shiners because they were left alone, as the street warfare was confined mostly to Lower Town.
Slowly though, things began to change. Farmers were reluctant to go into Bytown to buy or sell provisions.
They instead chose to go a longer distance to another, safer town. This caused the merchant class to wake up to the issue.
In August 1835, Aylen made the first move that caught the notice of Bytown’s elite. He took over the Bathurst District Agricultural Society, which was the pinnacle of society in Bytown at the time. In a move that would then be replicated by comic book villains decades later. Aylen had his men pay the one dollar membership fee, overwhelming the authentic members of the society, who then voted in Aylen and his supporters as directors.
Despite all the violence that the Shiners had conducted over the previous few years, this was the tipping point for the elites. On Oct. 20, 1835, the Association of the Preservation of the Public Peace was formed to combat the violence. With guns provided by town magistrates, the organization formed the Bytown Rifles.
Unfortunately, no one liked the commander of the force, Captain Baker, and they soon disintegrated. At this point, those weapons fell into the hands of vigilantes who tried to maintain order, with limited success, against the Shiners. In March 1836, the Ottawa Lumber Association was established to stop the violence in the timber trade. Aylen became one of its first officers.
While this may seem like an odd turn of events, Aylen had gained all he could from controlling the river and timber trade, and was now focused on being the man about Bytown.
Plus, joining the organization benefited his business. The first act of this association was improving the movement of timber on the Madawaska River, where Aylen had operations. Aylen now found he could make money by influencing politics, without the need for violence.
Nonetheless, that wouldn’t stop the violence in Bytown. The French-Canadians had rallied around their own leader amid this violence.
And now we’re at the beginning of the episode and the story of Joseph Montferrand defender against the Shiners. French Canadians now had their own comic book hero. Montferrand was born on Oct. 25, 1802 in Montreal, and arrived in Bytown in the 1820s to work in the timber camps.
Montferrand stories say he was a hero for sure… since then something of legend but stories started because he was a champion bare-knuckle boxer who often fought English opponents and used his skills to defend French-Canadians in bars, and in the streets.
In 1832, during a violent by-election in Montreal, he fought off a group of attackers who were threatening his friend Antoine Voyer. Another story tells of how he could put a heel-mark on a tavern ceiling with a somersault, or could lift a plough out at arm’s length with one hand. Regardless of the tall tales, Montferrand did defend his French-Canadian timber workers against the Shiners throughout the 1830s in Bytown, and thus further cemented his legacy as a folk hero in Quebec.
The worst year for violence was 1837. The town council election was disrupted by the Shiners and Aylen was elected as one of three councilors. He then demanded that the other positions be filled by his supporters and 60 men stormed the meeting room to back him up. James Johnson, a local newspaper editor, was beaten with sticks and horse whips at the meeting. Which ended with legitimate attendees fleeing and Aylen now in control of the political affairs of Bytown.
I know… it sounds like something out of Gotham City…
Ten days later, an inquiry was held and nearly every witness blamed Aylen for the council affair. Aylen and his men did not testify in the inquiry. It was determined by the inquiry magistrates that a proper municipal police force was needed, As well as a jail and courthouse. Still, the reign of terror continued.
In late February 1837, the Shiners took a local Indigenous man, beat him and threw him out a window. Several people rushed him to a doctor, but he died within hours. A week later, a man named Scarf was dragged from his sleigh, had his shoulder dislocated, head cut in three places and was badly beaten.
That same evening, The Shiners robbed a man of $30. The British Whig wrote on March 7, 1837,
“We learn by a gentleman who has recently visited Bytown that outrages of a most brutal nature are of a frequent occurrence in that place and its neighbourhood, the work of a set of men called Shiners.”
As for poor James Johnson, he was a constant target for the Shiners. He owned the Bytown Independent and Farmers Advocate, which reported on the Shiners’ crime spree. In March 1837, armed men went into his home and shot off guns in his house.
The newspaper stated on March 22, 1837,
“A band of desperadoes, armed with guns, came in front of the dwelling-house of Mr. James Johnson, Bytown, and demanded the body of a person supposed by them to be concealed there. On being informed by Mr. Johnson that he was not in, or about his premises, several shots were fired through the windows of the upper story.”
No one was hurt, but a short time later, Johnson was ambushed on the bridge by three men, Thomas Burke, Patrick O’Brien and James McDonnell, with guns and whips.
Johnson saved himself by jumping off the bridge into the snow, suffering a fractured skull. The three men who attacked Johnson were captured and taken to Perth to stand trial. Aylen broke them out of prison, but they were recaptured later in the year and sentenced to three years of hard labour. As it turned out, terrorizing Johnson proved to be the Shiners undoing.
Johnson wrote to Lt. Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, stating,
“Mr. Peter Aylen has already proved to all Bytown that he neither respects himself, nor fears God or Man. The laws are like cobwebs to him. There are now several warrants out for his apprehension, but there is not a constable in Bytown who will undertake to arrest him.”
At this point, Bytown citizens were becoming more organized. Armed night patrols were formed, and special constables were sworn in to arrest lawbreakers. Through determined action, the Shiners were brought under control between April and May 1837. With the Shiners becoming powerless, Aylen found himself on the receiving end of threats. On May 9, 1837, a man named Murphy went into a store where Aylen was and unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse against him, then drew two loaded pistols and threatened to shoot him before he was restrained by others.
At this point, Aylen saw that his time as the top dog in Bytown was over.
He leased out most of his property which included 150 acres along Richmond Road that contained a two-storey house, barns, stables, a blacksmith shop and a store.
He also sold a 300-acre lot and 12 ten-acre woodlots. He also leased out his own Bytown home and store, along with another 250 acres of land. He then moved across the river to Lower Canada. Without Aylen leading them, the Shiners disbanded and the Gangs of New York-era of Bytown ended.
It was time for a new, more peaceful chapter to begin.
But what happened to Aylen after he left Bytown?
After Aylen moved across the Ottawa River near Symmes Landing, he bought a farm and continued to operate a timber business. Either wanting to repent for his past transgressions, or scared of being arrested, Aylen turned over a new leaf. A year after he moved, in 1838, he was one of four trustees who built a church in the settlement. In 1846, he became a member of the Hull Township Council, by legitimate means this time, and a year later was the assessor for Symmes Landing.
In 1848, in a wild turn of events, he was appointed as the justice of the peace. Aylen’s children turned out to also be respectable citizens. One became a doctor; another became a lawyer and a third became both a doctor and a lawyer. His descendants would include Aldeous Aylen, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1950. But a leopard cannot change its spots, and a tiger cannot change its stripes.
In Aylen’s case…his return to villainy was relatively minor.
In 1851, his timber limits were confiscated by the Crowns Land Office because he failed to pay his dues and conducted some unspecified illegal proceedings. Aylen died around October 1868, long enough to see the town he terrorized become the capital of a brand-new country called Canada.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Historical Society of Ottawa, Wikipedia, Run Ottawa, Logging in the Ottawa Valley, British Whig and General Advertiser for Canada West, Montreal Gazette,