The Jeffrey Men And Grisly Discoveries in the Waters of the St. Lawrence Pt.1

A Quebec City family who spent generations finding life and death in the St. Lawrence seaway.

In the course of researching my Jeffery/Jeffrey ancestors I have pretty much ignored one branch of the tree. In my defense I had my reasons but I think the biggest was that Robert Andrew Jeffrey, my ancestress Hannah’s brother had 3 wives had a total of 21 children. Most of those children were given the names of either Joseph or Marie, I was intimidated. I was pretty sure I couldn’t track them all. On top of that the records were in French, the last straw in my mind. I tucked them away, in the peripheral of my research.

Have I gotten braver that I want to tackle this family? A bit but there are other factors as well. First off, a distant relative who is French has sorted out most of the 21 children, and so I have relied on her tree at Ancestry. This really helps alleviate my confusion.

Another reason is that BAnQ (Quebec Archives) has added so many newspapers that I can track the people in the tree better. I can’t read the French articles but I can usually make out enough that I know who the newspaper is talking about. When I get really stuck I reach out to my French relatives (Thanks Gail!) And now onto the stories uncovered about the Jeffrey boatmen.

The Hero #1

My first discovery about these boatmen and what they regularly encountered in the waters starts with Robert Andrew Jeffrey. He was born in Quebec City in 1827, the son of a Robert Jeffery a stonemason and his wife Elizabeth Tipper. I don’t know what led Robert to a life on the water but he spent his life doing just that.

The first accounting I find in the newspaper is from the Montreal Herald and Daily Commercial Gazette, July 9, 1857, the article talks about the wreck of the Montreal where 247 lives were lost, how awful. Robert Jeffrey is mentioned as recovering about 130 bodies from this wreck. How incredibly disturbing that must have been for Robert.

“Since Monday last two or three police boats have been constantly around the wreck, picking up and guarding the drowned ; and that crimps have in no case robbed the dead or even grappled for them is best proved by the fact that, of the bodies recovered, one hundred and thirty have been picked up by a boatman, named Robert Jeffery, who is well known to be a strictly honest man, and who up to the wreck in the same steamer as the Mayor, the night of the occurrence…”

Montreal Herald and Daily Commercial Gazette, July 9, 1857

When I learned he was a boatman, I guess I didn’t picture what that meant. 130 bodies retrieved by Robert, YIKES!

And then the newspaper articles kept coming, bodies discovered, rescues, the clippings mounted on my desktop. I began to wonder what toll it took? How do you let those images not haunt you? It turned into a morbid fascination for me, the lives touched, the deaths witnessed, the Jeffrey calling of the water.

In 1882, Robert was able to save Joseph Talbot of Hadlow Cove. The article goes on to state that this is the 27th person thus far that had been saved by Robert. How many people can save they saved 1, just 1 person? I think 27 would makes him a hero.

Morning Chronicle and Shipping Gazette June 10, 1882

Louis Gariepy, fell into the water on the Napoleon Wharf in 1895. Although Robert rescued him, he sadly succumbed to the effects from his fall.

Quebec Chronicle Oct 14, 1920, in a article about incidents that happened 25 years ago.

In 1888 Robert found a child drowned, the son of William Tracey which must of brought up memories of the loss of his own son in 1862. Antoine Jeffrey who drowned in the St. Lawrence when he was 10.

Quebec Saturday Budget 21, July 1888 son of William Tracey found by Robert Jeffrey

The death of Robert’s son Antoine

“Accidently drowned, on Friday, the 4th instant, Antoine Jeffery, eldest son of Robert Jeffery, aged 10 years. The funeral will leave his father’s residence, Point Levi at 3 1/2 o’clock p.m. on Sunday. Friends and acquaintances are invited to attend without further notice.”

In May 1890 an unnamed man was found by Robert, the body was in a bad state of decomposition. This just sounds awful.

“In the pond between the ferry wharf and the Montreal boat by Andrew Jeffrey, boatman…” Quebec Saturday Budget May 24, 1890

For all he did Robert was remembered in his passing in 1897, as they flew the flag at Finlay Market at half-mast.

Mr. Robert A. Jeffery, the oldest master boatman of Finlay Market wharf, died at 6 o’clock yesterday morning, after a long illness. The flag on the market wharf was flying at half-mast all day out of respect to his memory. Quebec Morning Chronicle June 4, 1897
Jeffery – On the 3rd instant, Robert A. Jeffery, master boatman, aged 77 years and eight months. The funeral will leave his late residence, No. 38 Champlain street, on Saturday morning at 8 o’clock, for the Basilica, and thence to Belmont Cemetery. Friends and acquaintances are respectfully invited to attend without further intimation. Quebec Morning Chronicle June 4, 1897

My view of a boatman working the waters between Quebec City and Levis has been completely altered reading these articles.

Part 2 next week will cover the next generation of Jeffrey boatmen who continued to work the waters of the St. Lawrence.

*Featured Image from Pixaby