About an hour southwest of Quebec City lies the small town of St Jacques de Leeds in the Eastern Townships. Today the sleepy town belies a history that changed the direction of a nascent Canada. It’s a story involving Bridget’s ancestor, one Robert Corrigan. We’ve come to Leeds to find out that story, with the help of historian Steve Cameron.
While we’re driving south from Quebec City, Bridget’s dad, Robert Dennis Corrigan, is driving north from New Hampshire to meet us. Over the years, Dennis has been working on the Corrigan genealogy, and last year he stumbled on his ancestral history in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. This is his second trip up to these parts to dig a little deeper into the story. We’ve got a date with history in the morning, but tonight is ours to play.
Bridget and I arrive in Leeds late afternoon. The proprietor of L’Auberge des Erables, our B&B for the night, isn’t home when we get there, but Le Craig across the road is open for business, so we settle in on their patio for an afternoon beer as we wait for Dennis. A couple of beers later, Dennis arrives and we’re able to check into our B&B and spruce up a bit for our trip into the countryside and dinner at Manoir de Lac William in the neighboring town of St Ferdinand.
A spectacular dinner is made even more superb by the views of the lake as we catch up on news from home and Dennis gives us a preview of what we’ll be hearing from Steve in the morning.
It’s all about food, right? In the morning, Diane, our hostess at L’Auberge des Erables, prepares a feast of crepes, bacon and fresh fruit accompanied by every possible condiment one could make from maple syrup. We’re ready to go when Steve arrives. For the next few hours, he escorts us by car through hill and dale through neighboring towns, pointing out places of interest and filling us in on the details as he knows them of the murder that changed the course of Canadian history.
In the 1830s, Patrick and Grace Corrigan and all but one of their children, Robert, emigrated from Ireland to Canada. The family were all Catholics save for Robert, who was a converted Protestant. Eventually Robert came to Canada, and in the late 1840s he bought farmland in St Sylvestre, down the road from Leeds, where he and his wife and children settled. Descriptions of Robert suggest he was a strong, boastful and belligerent man who was quick to ridicule and fight with his Catholic neighbors, members of the Order of the Ribbon, making enemies along sectarian lines.
Fast forward to October 17, 1855. In his capacity as a judge at the local agricultural fair in Leeds, Robert awarded poor marks to the sheep of an Irish Catholic farmer, John McCaffrey. Tensions were high and after an argument, a group of Ribbonmen attacked Robert so severely that he died from his wounds two days later. On his deathbed, Robert named his 11 attackers, who were subsequently accused of murder.
The accused fled to the hills and stayed in hiding for months, only reappearing when it came clear to them that since it would be impossible to identify the person who had landed the fatal blow, they would get off. And that’s what happened. In February 1856, at their trial held in Quebec City, the men were acquitted of the crime.
The newspapers picked up the story, and this is where it starts to get really interesting. A little Canadian history first: Canadian Confederation, when Canada officially became a nation, occurred in 1867, uniting four eastern provinces as a country. The two Atlantic Provinces, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, were small, both in land mass and population; the two biggies, Ontario and Quebec held most of the power, and politically, they had been at each other’s throats since time immemorial. Quebec, or Lower Canada as it was called prior to Confederation, was discovered by French explorers as early as the 1500s and was primarily inhabited by French Catholics; Ontario, then called Upper Canada, was home to English Protestants, many of them United Empire Loyalists – supporters of the English king during the American Revolution, who had fled north in the 1700s.
The press in Upper Canada made hay with the Corrigan story, creating a wave of protest among the Protestants, and a local conservative politician took on the case, presenting a resolution to the Legislative Assembly requiring that the charge made by the judge to the jury in the Corrigan case be investigated. The resolution passed and it put the coalition government in jeopardy, requiring a vote of confidence … and after some wrangling and falling apart at the seams, the head of the coalition government was forced to resign in May 1856 and John A. Macdonald, the leader of the Conservative Party in Upper Canada, formed a new coalition government. Macdonald went on to become the first prime minister of Canada upon confederation in 1867. If it weren’t for the Corrigan case, who knows if the Conservatives under Macdonald would have ever come to power, and Canadian history might have taken a very different course.
The remaining Corrigans left St Sylvestre in the years following Robert’s murder, but an Irish presence remains in the area, attending church, farming the land and populating the small towns much as their ancestors did.