Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 45.

The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake: Disease, Drought and Other Hardships

by Don Kealey

In the mid-1800s the Ottawa Valley received an influx of Irish immigrants. Some of them headed north of Hull in search of employment in the booming lumber industry “up the Gatineau,” and for a chance to grab a share of the Crown land grants that were to become available to committed settlers. But with opportunities came terrible hardships.

Low Municipality was part of this northward expansion, being situated immediately north of Wakefield in the Gatineau Hills. It is about halfway between Hull and Maniwaki, bordered by the municipalities of Kazabazua to the north and La Pêche to the south. The municipality stretches from Brennan’s Hill in the south to Venosta to the north, and from Fieldville in the west to the Manitou in the east. Low village sits in the middle. During this period, a large percentage of the population were first- and secondgeneration Irish immigrants.

John and Catherine Martin were among the first Irish settlers who ventured northward and settled in the Tucker Lake area of Low Municipality, just north of Low village near Venosta. The 1861 Census for Low lists the Martin household as consisting of John (56 years old), his wife Catherine (49), and their five children—William (23) and James (21), both natives of Ireland, along with John Jr. (16), Mary (15) and Eleanora (10), all born in what was then known as Lower Canada. Within a decade, as documented by The Lands Granted by the Crown in the Township of Low, son James had obtained his own 200 acres (June 1867) and his father John an additional 100 acres (July 1870).

The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake

William, the eldest son, left home in the late 1860s and relocated to Minnesota in the US. The Martins of Tucker Lake then began an almost half-century practice of corresponding with him in what would later be known as the Martin Letters. These letters were that family’s way of keeping in touch with their son and brother, who was so far from home. What they wrote about was concentrated mostly in their immediate surrounding area; however, many references were made to events and people from Chelsea, Wakefield and Maniwaki.

The original hand-written letters were passed down through generations of descendants in the Minnesota area. Around 1970 a typed version of the letters surfaced in Venosta; this version appears to have been copied and rather widely circulated since then. The fate of the original letters is unknown.

The contents of the letters touch on various aspects of everyday life of the Irish in the Gatineau Hills. Their historical importance is that they provide us a snapshot of the many challenges those first Irish settlers experienced in that era. Sadly, the news in the letters often focused on disease, drought and other hardships.

The Gatineau Valley was at times an unforgiving place for settlers in the 19th century. Homesteaders constantly battled bad weather. In March 1869, William’s youngest sister, Eleanora (“Ellie”), about 18 years old at the time, wrote to him:

Last summer was too dry for crops and consequently they were an almost total loss. Wheat alone was a good crop. Oats, except in new land, potatoes, hay etc. were wretched. Then to help the matter winter set in unusually early and severe. Hay and straw being very scarce but few people could keep much stock and even after selling their cattle folks around here are straightened enough for fodder. We will have enough feed ourselves for our stock, viz, one cow, yoke of oxen, two horses and some sheep, which we have reason to be grateful for when we hear horses, cows and other animals dying on all sides in want of the essential fodder.

The weather continued as severe as in mid-winter until Good Friday when it changed to a soft spring, the snow is dreadful here. Fences that are six feet high have been covered with the frozen element until there is no indication of their whereabouts, and its depth in Lowe1 is nothing to what it is in other parts of the country ......... Canada!!

In 1877, some eight years later, Ellie writes of another spring, a dry one with potato bugs aplenty. “Altogether,” she writes, “it would seem that the country is getting worse than it has been.”

In 1884, William’s brother, James, only two years younger, writes:

The weather last summer was wet and somewhat cold until haying and the harvest pretty dry. I had about 30 tons of hay, 40 bushels of oats, 60 bushels of wheat and 200 bushels potatoes. I made logs last winter on our land and put out about $300 worth principally spruce.

Horses were of the utmost necessity to work the land. In May 1873, brother John explains to William how he secured a team of horses:

The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake
A typical farm scene of the 19th and early 20th centuries, reminding us how integral horses once were to farm life, as described in the Martin Letters. This is Eddie Flynn (1891–1966) with his hay thresher, in the Manitou, an area north of Martindale in the municipality of Low. Circa late 1930s. Collection of Don Kealey. GVHS 02917.002/53.

We sold the old mare and a two-year-old colt, also the old oxen and other things we could not very well spare in order to get a span of horses with their fittings. Horses are very dear here now, a good span2 (say 6 or 7 years old) would cost from $300 to $400 and set of double harness costs $30 to $40. The team we got now are about third rate but are gentle and kind to work, and very quiet in every way.

Sister Ellie, now married to Francis Tucker, writes in 1893 that a cattle disease is raging and that some farmers lost all their stock.

Along with the hard work of the pioneers was ever-present danger. Running the spring drive of logs down the Gatineau River and its turbulent tributaries resulted in many fatalities. In June 1873, John reports the following to his son:

In the first week of May, Jerry Sullivan, son of Pat Sullivan (front road) with Tim and James Carroll were drowned at the Cascades—and none of them since found. About ten days ago, Pat Frarey was drowned at the mouth of Kazabasua Creek—not yet found and we have heard of four men being drowned … in or near the Thirty Mile Lake.3

The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake
Hood’s Sarsaparilla was a popular medicine of the day, reported to cure a variety of disorders, and used by members of the Martin family. GVHS 02917.003/53.

Another letter recounts an accident involving a man named Mahoney whose leg was badly cut. Everyone thought the leg would have to be amputated. But it healed. Alas: “Shortly, after, he lost all his four children by diphtheria!”

In another incident, an 1873 letter tells of an alcohol-related death. A man “being too far gone in liquor” fell off his horse-drawn wagon and the vehicle rolled over him. He died a day later.

The Gatineau Valley of the late 1800s was an area lacking in law enforcement. Often the area had to “police itself” and wait for the arrival of police from the Hull/Aylmer region. In 1877 Ellie wrote of the murder of one of her neighbours, Martin Kealey. The murderer, John Hughes, escaped. Meanwhile, in Wakefield, a man named Thompson stabbed another man, Fields, through the lungs with a bowie knife.4 Thompson also escaped.

Probably the most prominent and disheartening accounts in the Martin Letters are the ever-present, deadly threat of diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, smallpox and measles. These contagions spread throughout the Gatineau in deadly cycles during the late 1800s, infecting and killing mostly the young and the elderly. In 1872 James wrote:

There has been a good deal of sickness on the Gatineau especially small pox and scarlet fever. The latest news I have to tell is a visit from old father Death, this time he very impartially called for Mrs. Farrell. She took ill at 10 a.m. and was a corpse at 7 p.m.

Another sad and very detailed report of family illness was given by James in a December 1889 letter:

We have sickness in our family since Christmas. First my eldest daughter, Mary, got bronchitis and before she recovered we had the doctor to see her nine times. Then Katie got tonsillitis and we had a few more visits from the doctor. Next all the children got scarlet fever but only Mary and Katie were prostrated with it. Then measles being very prevalent all over the Gatineau, we could not escape that, so Annie and five children were all laid up at one time. This was in May. A few more visits from the doctor.

We thought now that we were done with sickness but the worse was yet to come. About the 18th of August our youngest, Rose Anne, a fine girl who was just able to walk, had a cold with a hard cough. The doctor reported she had the croup. She died on the 25th and was buried on the 26th. Annie, our next, who was at three years old, got a similar cough, became restless, also died and was buried on the evening of the 27th. Two days later Lizzie our five-year-old took sick of the same symptoms but after 10 days we managed to save her with advice given by an old Canadian woman.

On the 7th of September we had an increase in our family—a fine big boy whom we called Patrick. He was a strong healthy child but he died on 26th September with the same disease the others had. So, we are left pretty lonely. Three beautiful children in about a month gone from us. The disease was, I think, membranous croup, the throat swelled inside and choked them—they did not seem to suffer much. A great many children died in this neighborhood from the same disease.

The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake

The central cenotaph at the Martindale Pioneer Cemetery, with a close-up showing the engraved names of the senior members of the Martin family: John Martin and Catherine (née O’Connor) Martin, 2018. Credit: Adrienne Herron. GVHS 02917.004/53 and 02917.005/53.


The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake

In February 1894, William’s sister Ellie wrote of a spell of sickness:

It was the measles this time which I had escaped all my life until now. Our youngest, Johnny at three years eight months, was three weeks in bed, part of which he was not expected to live, however he is pretty well now although not yet able to walk. And now that the cloud of impending death has blown away we realize that all our troubles sink into insignificance in the presence of death because for all every other trouble there is hope but for death there is none. The measles has been working around the parish for the last 12 months and nearly every family have now got their share.

One uncharacteristically light-hearted account of illness was given by sister Mary (then in her late thirties) in April 1898, when she recalled her remedy for the “grip.”

When I saw the grip coming I thought I would be ready for it, so these are a few of the medicines I had. Two quarts of flaxseed, one bottle cough syrup, one bottle whiskey, bottle of pills, bottle Hoods sasparilla5 [sic], bottle of borax, and honey, sugar and butter, white goose oil. I didn’t have that but I guess I drank so much of the goose oil when I had the grip at home that I did not need any this time!

In the same letter, she provides another amusing account in reporting the health of the family.

The baby has two teeth. The grip went hard on him. You wish I would tell you all about the kids. Well, if I told you the half about them when they were sick you would not want to hear it twice. They are as bold as pet pigs, and that is putting it mild!

The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake The Martin Letters of Tucker Lake

The author beside the headstone of Eleanora (Ellie) Martin Tucker at St. Martin Catholic Cemetery, and a close-up of the engraving, 2018. Credit: Adrienne Herron. GVHS 02917.006/53 and 02917.007/53.

Romance was another source of news. In October 1872, James, then about 32 years old and still unmarried, writes to William saying:

There are any amount of single girls in this neighborhood but being a little fastidious I have not made any selection. However, I have one “in my eye” and if she consents there might be a marriage this fall yet or next spring. The tailor has three girls who are marriageable, some of long since, but although the tailor brags of all the fortune they are to receive, yet no one comes to woo.

In the same year James writes of a fellow named Mickey whose marriage plans went awry. He proposed to one woman, who rejected him. “This affected his sensitive nature very seriously.” Then he proposed to a woman named Mary. She accepted. A wedding date was set.

On the day appointed Mick did not put in an appearance, and the priest, who had married another couple that morning, waited two hours for him – but he did not marry Mick yet. Of course, 101 reasons were assigned by the public for the misadventure but I am not certain the cause or which parties was to blame. The proceedings had a disastrous effect on Mick as ever since he shuns society, will go into no house (except on urgent business) and when he has to go, he is very silent.

Brother James later sends William yet another couple of accounts to describe particular ladies of the area. One fashion-conscious lady is described as “the belle of these regions.” And then there is Mary, “who astonishes the vulgar by the style in which she comes to mass.”

There were hints in the letters of how one’s social status might affect potential marriages.

Anne is wed two years to a storekeeper at the Desert6. Mary (her sister), she done pretty fair. Catherine was not so fortunate—she made a real love match, having selected for her choice a nice young man—but in the social scale he was but a carpenter. However, her parents accepted the situation and I believe helped the pair pretty well. Some years later he rented Josh Ellards tavern at Pickanock, and whilst there, became a drunkard.

Yes, disease, drought and other hardships plagued the various families in the Low area during the late 1800s. But the Martins, like so many Gatineau pioneers, survived these struggles. Conditions improved with the coming of the Gatineau Valley railroad to Low in 1892, and the municipality further prospered with the eventual building of the Paugan Falls hydro-electric dam. The Martin Letters remind us that those of us who descended from those early immigrants came from very tough, determined stock.

1In earlier days, Low was often mistakenly referred to as “Lowe” in the press, in government documents, and even locally.
2A span refers to a pair of horses driven together.
3This may have been an incorrect reference to Thirty-one Mile Lake
4A fixed-blade fighting knife.
5American Charles Hood, who established a patent medicine company in the 1870s, created his own sarsaparilla medicine, combining sarsaparilla root with dandelion, the herb gentian, juniper berries and 18% alcohol. It was sold as a cure to a variety of disorders such as heart disease and rheumatism.
6Most likely a reference to River Desert at Maniwaki.

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