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James McWilliams, Merchant

"I James McWilliams, formerly of the Town of Berthier in the County of Berthier, in the District of Richelieu, in the Province of Quebec, Merchant..." (Will of James McWilliams, 1873)

Sometimes key genealogical information is found in the most unlikely of places. James McWilliams, then a resident of Shamrock in Renfrew Co., Ontario, apparently still had property or business from Berthier that might impact his estate. So a trail was left behind which would lead to the discovery of much other information. If not for the Will of James McWilliams, which was written and probated in Ontario, answering the question of where in Quebec the McWilliams family came from would have been much more frustrating.

James McWilliams and Margaret Conroy, both born in Ireland about 1795, are the maternal grandparents of Robert Charles Hudson. They were also married in Ireland--my guess would be about 1825--and came to Quebec following the birth of their first two children. They arrived in the town of Berthier, now Berthierville, shortly before 1830, either from another location in Quebec or directly from Ireland.

If we take the next step and ask what was their county of origin or port of departure in Ireland, or the name of the ship that transported them to Quebec, that information remains unknown. What we can know with a fair degree of certainty is the type of ship and the conditions of their journey.

In Place of Timber

"Ships going out for timber provided the passage; conditions in Ireland provided the passengers." (Houston and Smyth, as below, p. 82)

Passenger ships, luxurious or otherwise, were not available for the trip to North America until later. How then did thousands of Irish emigrants make the journey prior to about 1850? Authors Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth tell us in a book entitled Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990): "Until the mid-century advent of regular and cheap steam-passenger shipping, emigrants from Ireland journeyed on timber ships, forming a human ballast. Voyages could last six to ten weeks, depending on the weather, and most were undertaken in the months of April through September....Conditions on board...rarely exceeded minimum standards. Shortages of clean water and food, as well as cramped quarters and pestilence, often made the journey a misery." (p. 107)

The timber ships required some modification before each journey with anywhere from ten to 200 passengers: "The ships were intended to carry cargo, and for each voyage out from Ireland they had to be refitted as temporary passenger boats. The refitting involved putting in a platform to cover the ballast and erecting thereon rows of bunks between the decks in a space rarely exceeding six feet in height." (p. 109)

The financial burden of the journey fell dramatically during the decade preceding the McWilliams passage to Quebec. Average fares dropped from £16 in 1816 to only £4 by 1827. The reason for this was competition: "The emigrants traveled in the steerage berths of cargo ships going out for loads of timber and thus helped finance the return leg of the voyage. As the volume of transatlantic shipping increased, there was subsequently greater demand and competition for passengers, prompting merchants to reduce the cost of passage." (p. 82)

Arrival at Berthier

Berthierville can be found on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, midway between Montreal and Trois-Rivières, across the river from Sorel. Lovell's 1871 Canadian Dominion Directory (FHL microfiche no. 6046766) describes the town's industry, trade, and transportation: "A foundry, two tanneries, and an extensive manufactory of buff and pebbled leather are in active operation." Berthierville enjoyed "soil unsurpassed in the province" which promoted a healthy trade in hay, grain, and flour. Transportation to Montreal (45 miles) was $1 by steamboat in summer, $4 by stage in winter. With a population of about 1700, the town had daily mail delivery and its own telegraph office. Today Berthierville is best known as the home town of the late Gilles Villeneuve, champion Formula One race car driver, who is remembered with a statue and a museum.

The McWilliams family did not leave quite that large an impression on the town! Indeed, the memory of the Irish in Quebec is almost completely gone, due in part to emigration and intermarriage. As an example of the latter, Ann Jane McWilliams married Louis Joseph Fernet, and thus their children assumed a French name and identity. As an example of the former, the rest of the McWilliams family migrated further west to Renfrew County, Ontario, and from there at least some of them went to the United States. Nevertheless the Irish, both Protestant and Catholic, came to Quebec in large numbers in the first half of the 19th century. Afterward most of the traffic from Ireland went to the United States.

Associated with Berthierville was a Catholic parish named Sainte Genevieve de Berthier. The parish register documents the baptisms of 5 McWilliams children and 2 marriages (Fernet-McWilliams and Hudson-McWilliams), as well as the baptisms of several Fernet grandchildren. Another Catholic institution in Berthierville important to the McWilliams family was a boarding school for girls founded in 1825 and run by the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame. In the 1851 census the James McWilliams household has one member of the family absent--this turns out to be Margaret (our ancestor), age 17, who instead is recorded with other students at the boarding school.

From various records (parish register, census, directory and estate), the occupations that James McWilliams pursued while living at Berthierville can be identified. In order they were:


1830, 1831, 1832 Journalier Day-laborer

1834 Colporteur Hawker, Peddler

1837, 1853, 1859 Marchand Merchant, Shop-keeper

1851, 1861, 1871 Commerçant Merchant, Trader


In the 1831 census he is listed as James Williams, day-laborer, not a home-owner, married with three children (presumed to be Robert, Ann, and John). By 1851 he was established on an acre-plus lot with a general store (actually a house and store in the same building) made of wood materials. In addition to the store, the family raised several crops (wheat, corn, Irish potatoes, carrots, mangel-wurzel*, broad beans) and enjoyed the services of two milk cows and a horse. Annual produce of the household also included 200 pounds of butter! In the 1871 Canadian Directory the location of his store is given as Edward Street.

James McWilliams continued as a merchant in Berthierville until shortly after 1871. Apparently following the death of his wife (date unknown), he and his son John moved to Renfrew Co., Ontario, where four of his children (Mark, Margaret, James, and Thomas) already lived with their families. He died there 8 May 1874.


*Mangel-wurzel: "a variety of the Beet, too coarse for table use, is good for cattle, who thrive excellently upon this diet, both its leaves and roots..." (

Family History Document

Will of James McWilliams (abridged). Renfrew Co., Ontario, 1873. Surrogate Register, Book A, pp. 174-175.


"I James McWilliams, formerly of the Town of Berthier in the County of Berthier, in the District of Richelieu, in the Province of Quebec, Merchant, and now residing in Shamrock, in the Township of Admaston, in the County of Renfrew and Province of Ontario, being in ill health, and of sound and disposing mind and memory, do make, and publish this my last Will and Testament, hereby revoking all former wills by me at anytime heretofore made.

"First--I give, devise and bequeath all my messuages, lands, tenements, and hereditaments and all my household furniture, ready money, securities for money, money secured by life assurance, goods and chattels, and all other my real and personal estate and effects whatsoever, and wheresoever, unto John McWilliams, one of my sons, at present residing in the Village of Renfrew, in the County of Renfrew aforesaid, his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns....

"Second--I hereby constitute and appoint Thomas McWilliams, also one of my sons, of the Village of the County of Renfrew...aforesaid, Merchant, and Louis Levesque, of the Parish of Daillebout in the County of Jolliette, in the Province of Quebec, Seigneur, to be Executors of this my last Will and Testament.

"In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal, and published and declared this to be my last Will and Testament in the presence of the witnesses named below, this 27th day of September 1873, at Shamrock...."

[Signatures follow, including those of the witnesses: John Gorman, Township of Admaston, Merchant; John Hartnett, Township of Admaston, Blacksmith.]

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