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From Land of Moose to Land of Pine

My great-great grandparents, Pierre Gamache (b. 2-7-1856) and Marie Aurore (Dubé) Gamache (b. 8-28-1855), were married on Pierre’s birthday in 1881 at St. Cecile parish in Le Bic, a town near Rimouski in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec. Rimouski’s name comes from a Micmac word meaning “Land of the Moose.” I haven’t yet traveled to Le Bic or Rimouski, but I hope to one day soon. There I hope to visit the beautiful Parc National du Bic with its wildlife and archaeological sites. You can see beluga whales and seals in the waters off the coast. One of these road trip tours would be nice. (Hint, hint to my hubby.)

Back to historic Rimouski. Henry Hugh Manvers Percy painted the view below of the Rimouski River in 1840. In those days, people made their living off the seaway, the forests and farms. Pierre, like his father before him, was a farmer trying to make a living off the land.

The Mystery of Marie Illumina

On May 2, 1882, a priest baptized Pierre and Aurore’s 1-day-old daughter, Marie Illumina, at Notre Dame du Sacre Couer (Our Lady of Sacred Heart) parish in Rimouski. Then Marie Illumina disappears from the records. So far, I haven’t found a death record or any other records with her name. Based on the 1910 U.S. Census, I know that only four of Pierre and Aurore’s seven children were still alive. They must have been so happy to welcome their first child into the world, and despondent to lose her so young.

Marie Illumina's baptismal certificate is below. The Catholic Church in French Canada kept thorough records of baptisms, marriages and burials. Many of these records are on-line, enabling genealogists to trace their ancestry back for hundreds of years. Marie Illumina was born on May 1 and baptized on May 2. Her godparents were Etienne Patry and his wife, Elmire Collin.

In later census records, Pierre and Auroré say they first immigrated to the United States in 1882, so they may have gone to New England or elsewhere. Marie Illumina might be buried in any number of locations.

My Great-Grandmother is Born

Pierre and Aurore’s second daughter was my great-grandmother, Marie Amélie Gamache. She was born in Rimouski on February 8, 1884 -- one day after her father's 28th birthday. Sometime later that year, the Gamaches moved to Champion, Michigan. Once in the United States, they Anglicized their first names, changing them to Peter, Ora and Minnie. That's how I'll refer to them going forward.

By the time Peter and Ora arrived, the Champion-Humboldt area in western Marquette County was a thriving mining community with about 2,400 residents. I have a number of unanswered questions about this period in their lives. What drew them to Champion? Did they know someone who already lived and worked there? How did they travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? What did Peter do for a living?

Canadiens in Michigan

Peter had been a farmer (cultivateur) in 1881-82, and a laborer (journalier) in 1884 when Minnie was born. The American economy was growing rapidly in the 1880s, while the Canadian government was unwilling to open undeveloped land for settlement. In his book Settling the Great Lakes Frontier: Immigration to Michigan, 1837-1924, C. Warren Vander Hill noted that these conditions “convinced thousands of French Canadians in Quebec that a farm or a job in a mine or lumber camp was far better than an uncertain future in Canada.”

I’m not sure how Peter and Ora traveled to Champion, but the railroad seems likely. They could have traveled some of the distance by ship. In the 1850s, a lock was built on the Ste. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie to allow travel into and out of Lake Superior from the lower Great Lakes. It's possible they traveled via the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes to Marquette, but not very likely. The railway seems a better option. Rimouski had been somewhat isolated until 1873, when the railroads first connected it to the rest of Quebec. The railroad reached Champion, where iron ore was waiting to be shipped, in 1865. By 1883, the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad connected Marquette County to Chicago. Passengers and freight could now move across Canada and into the Upper Peninsula more easily.

A Rand McNally & Company map at this link shows the railroad routes criss-crossing Canada and the United States in 1883. Peter, Ora and Minnie might have traveled from Rimouski all the way to Chicago by rail and then north on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, which would have stopped briefly in Nadeau, Minnie’s future home. I hope to find their actual immigration records one of these days. For now, I imagine their route via railroad might have looked something like this:

Possible 1884 railroad immigration route for Peter & Ora Gamache

I also don’t know much about the Gamaches’ life in Champion. However, I can infer a few things from other records. With the help of many local residents, Sharon and Don Mikkola have produced a wonderful two-volume illustrated history of life in Champion and nearby communities from the 1860s to 1960s. Glimpses of a Century in the Wabik Area was published in 2019 by the Champion, Beacon, Humboldt Historical Society. Through original records, photographs and newspaper accounts, the books provide a detailed history of early life in these Upper Michigan mining communities. They note that natural resources of western Marquette County brought many immigrants to the area in the late 1800s. “Specifically, these resources included native copper in large amounts, rich deposits of iron ores … and mature white pine forests that covered millions of acres.”

Plenty of Work

Workers, workers, workers. The Champion area mines needed miners. The lumber companies needed lumberjacks and sawmill workers. By 1870, more than 1,700 people had moved to the Champion-Humboldt area — including 326 Canadians, the largest group of immigrants at that time.

“Certainly many of them had experience in logging, particularly as teamsters and horsemen. Those skills were important to the early mining operations, which depended on horses for powering many aspects of the surface operations, as well as in logging of mining timber used in underground mining and wood needed for boiler fuel.”

--Glimpses of a Century in the Wabik Area

In addition to the mines, other markets for wood included three sets of local charcoal kilns and the housing and commercial building industries. Sawmills produced everything needed to build a house: lumber, shingles, flooring, sashes, etc. Logs could be floated to mills in Menominee via the Michigamme and Menominee rivers, or via rail and other rivers to Marquette and other markets. The Mikkolas' research has documented hundreds of men working in Champion-area lumber camps in the 1880s and 1890s. These include many French Canadians, with last names such as Des Cheneaux, Dishnow, Hebert, LaCosse, Gagnon, Forgette, Garon, Lamouraux, Rochon, Theriault and Arsenault. The lumber companies also employed Finnish, German and English workers. The mines employed English, Swedes, Finns and other nationalities. Immigrants from England's Cornwall region, in particular, were known for their mining skills. Vander Hill's research describes how French and Cornish immigrants learned to exist together in rugged mining towns.

“Beginning with a mutual admiration of each other’s skills, felling trees in the case of the French and digging ore in the case of the Cornish, this relationship actually reached the point where the Cornish coached the French on the finer points of wrestling, the Cornish national sport, while the French taught the Cornish how to trap rabbits for their pasties.”

-- C. Warren Vander Hill, Settling the Great Lakes Frontier: Immigration to Michigan, 1837-1924

"One of the Pleasantest Locations Imaginable"

Iron mining drove the Champion economy in the late 1800s. The Champion Iron Co. not only provided employment but also company housing for miners, building homes for them in the town of Beacon. A news account on June 27, 1891, describes work at the mine as well as life in Champion:

"The company has surrounded itself with the very best class of labor and rewarded it by paying the highest wages. Here a premium is paid for activity. The best man earns the highest pay, the rule adopted being that each ton of ore placed upon surface is worth so much to the company, and the miner who can produce the greatest number of tons receives the greatest number of dollars when pay day arrives...
"The Champion has one of the pleasantest locations imaginable. There is plenty of room for the men, the latter being provided with the most comfortable homes, each being accorded as much land for gardening purposes as he cares to cultivate, and this for a nominal annual rental.
"Fuel is procured by the miners at actual cost to the company, an item of considerable importance when the length of the cold season is taken into consideration."

--Glimpses of a Century in the Wabik Area

All was not entirely sunny from the miners' perspective. On July 15, 1895, the miners in the Marquette iron range went out on strike, demanding better wages. The Champion mine was paying workers $1.75 a day when the strike began. The strikers wanted $2.00 a day. The Diamond Drill in Crystal Falls, Mich., reported on July 27, 1895, that "the miners there are very bitter against the management of the Champion mine. A notice has been posted ordering Supt. Fitch to leave town under penalty of death." The Marquette County towns of Ishpeming and Negaunee, where the strike began, saw the largest demonstrations, with up to 3,000 men marching in the streets. By late August, local officials asked the governor to send in National Guard troops to help keep the peace. This link has an interesting account of the troops at "Camp Ishpeming" in September 1895.

For his part, Supt. Fitch was using the divide-and-conquer tactic to break the strike. He lured some strikers back to work. He considered recruiting strikers from Ishpeming and Negaunee or elsewhere. "But I want my old men if they will return to work," he said, going on to blame certain ethnic groups for the strike. "The backbone of the strike at Champion is furnished by a few Irishmen, who instigate a lot of Finns. These Finns are a most ignorant and dangerous class; none of them speak English and all carry knives. Only a few nights ago they planned to kill a couple of men working at the Champion. ... There are forty Swedes at Champion who would go to work if they were not afraid of these Finns." (Detroit Free Press, Sept. 15, 1895) News reports indicate Fitch tried to import a slew of Minnesota miners before the strike came to a close on Sept. 18-19.

Lumber and Logging

Although iron ore was king in Champion, it’s likely that Peter Gamache worked as a lumberjack. Later records indicate he worked in lumber camps in Menominee County. Peter probably spent winter months in the Champion-area lumber camps along with other Canadien immigrants. He may also have worked in the sawmills during the summer. Lumberjacks cut trees in the winter because it was easier to transport them out of the woods on a horse-drawn sled. They sent out some logs by railroad and piled others by riverbanks to await the spring thaw, when they could float them to the mills. These images from the Library of Congress show loggers in the late 1800s in Michigan. I'll write more about logging and logging camps in future posts.

In the photo above, the man at left is cutting a notch with an ax while the two men at right use a crosscut saw to cut toward the notch. Skilled lumberjacks could fell a tree in the exact direction they wanted it to fall, often precisely between other trees in the forest.

The Family Grows and Moves

After their arrival in Champion, the Gamache family continued to grow. Three boys were born: Edmund in 1887, William in 1888 and Frederick in 1890. During those years, Minnie would have started school in Champion or one of the nearby one-room schoolhouses. Consistent with the paternal corporate philosophy of the era, the Champion Iron Co. built or helped build not only homes and boarding houses for workers but schools, community buildings and churches. Such amenities were often necessary to lure workers to remote locations like Marquette County.

"The schools of Champion are of the best. Indeed, many of the larger towns could well copy after the methods here observed. The best talent in the line of teachers is secured and the graduates turned out will compare favorable in examination with those from any in the state.
"A large and comfortable public town hall to which all the people are at liberty to visit free of charge is one of the worthy institutions. Here are the popular magazines of the day, the best newspapers. Champion is renowned for its Republicanism, being outspoken in its denunciation of those teachings that are against the success of the mining industries of the region."

--Glimpses of a Century in the Wabik Area

Sometime in the 1890s, the family moved to Menominee County. The Panic of 1893 and ensuing depression led to large layoffs. The Gamaches don’t show up anywhere in Michigan’s 1894 census, meaning they were probably still in Marquette County, where Michigan census records have been lost. I believe they must have moved to Hermansville sometime after the 1894 Michigan census but before the 1900 U.S. Census.

On the outskirts of Hermansville, many immigrant families bought farmland from the Wisconsin Land & Lumber Co. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As the lumber company cleared away the trees, they sold the stump-filled land to aspiring farmers. In those days, Hermansville area families self-segregated into communities with common nationalities. Italians lived in town in a neighborhood called "Little Italy." Croations lived near the sawmill. Swedes built farms near Cunard and attended the Swedish Methodist mission church there. In 1900, the Gamache family was living on a farm in Meyer Township, north of Hermansville. Peter and Ora settled in a mostly French-speaking farming community near the intersection of Vega Road and Old U.S. Highway 2. Their neighbors’ names included Raiche, Desjardines, Paquin, Menard, Glachieu, Bergeron, LaCosse, Sicord, Gravel, Rochon, Duby, Chenard, Carrier, Gauthier, Allerie and Ayotte.

We’ll pick up the story of these immigrants in my next post.


Earlier this year, my cousin Mary Betters found a small, 1904 daybook among her belongings. Turns out the daybook belonged to her grandmother (and my great-grandmother), Minnie Gamache. It contains brief daily entries in which Minnie chronicles her life on her parents' farm in 1904. If all goes well, I plan to post a blog entry every week or two in 2021, describing what Minnie was doing on those dates, along with some of my own interpretation and research. Her entries are very brief, but they provide a glimpse into a 20-year-old woman’s life at the turn of the century in Hermansville, Michigan. I’m hoping to also post her daily entries on Twitter at @LeavesMenominee. Look for the hashtag: #MinniesDiary

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of my readers. Thank you for taking time to read and share my blog posts! May your days be merry and bright.

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Dec 30, 2020

I'm ready for a road trip as soon as the Canadians will let us back in their country.

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