William McNaughton (1780-1857)

Landowner William McNaughton: – Churchwarden of St-Sylvestre

Louise Benson Griffith, USA

This is the story of William McNaughton, born in 1780 in Ireland, the first child born to his parents, Bridget née Cannon and William McNaughton, Sr. Along with his parents, three sisters and two brothers, William emigrated from Ireland to Lower Canada in about 1816. According to a genealogy relationship calculator, he is my “third great-grandfather.”

In 1828 William and his wife Catherine née Murphy purchased land in the predominately Catholic community of St-Sylvestre, a farming village in the hill country of Lower Canada. He was 48 years of age, and she was 44, and they had been married for about a year. The McNaughton land was a single lot lying on the north side of St. Mary’s Road. Here they would make their home for the rest of their lives.

The Irish Catholic McNaughtons were among the first landowners in the village, where they settled among the French, with whom they shared a church but not a language, and the British, with whom they shared a language but not a church.

When I first discovered William’s story, one item especially stood out. Not only was William an early landowner here, but within months of his arrival, he would be elected the first churchwarden of a new parish. Many tales of the hill country describe the discord between the French and the Irish, so the striking thing about this election is that the Irish William McNaughton was chosen for this important post by his French neighbors.

The Catholic residents of St-Sylvestre, the Irish as well as the French, had longed for a church within their own settlement. It was a hardship to travel to neighboring parishes for weekly mass, as well as for weddings and funerals. Roads were few and ill-maintained; even Craig’s Road, a major artery, suffered from lack of maintenance. Travel was often on foot through field and forest.

The church served not only sacramental purposes; social life was another consideration. The church, for remote villages that had one, provided a special gathering place.

Father Michel Dufresne, rector of St. Nicholas parish, also served the neighboring missions in the hill country. For several years he had been asking the bishop to form a parish comprised of those members of his flock who lived in this far-away part of his district. The bishop was at last persuaded of the need, and the canonical proclamation of the new parish was made in November, 1828.

Establishing a new parish required that its laity assume responsibility for parish affairs. A churchwarden would be needed. On November 5, 1828, local land owners gathered for an election at the home of Pierre-Noel Fontaine, a land owner since 1825. Most of those present were not able to write, so each man cast his vote for the position of churchwarden by stepping forward to whisper his preference into the priest’s ear.

When the voice vote was finished, William McNaughton’s French neighbors, including Bedard, Simoneau, Turcot, and Drouin had elected him to the office of first churchwarden. His St. Mary’s Road neighbors, Julien Simoneau and Etienne Drouin, were elected second and third churchwardens. An old parish record describes the event this way:

The votes were whispered into the pastor’s ear. The results were in favor of Messrs: Guillaume Naughton, first, Julien Simoneau, second churchwarden and Etienne Drouin, who accepted their duties in the presence of Messrs.: Pierre Bedard, Augustin Simoneau, François Turcot and several others who could not sign. Only Guillaume Naughton signed with us.”

Witnesses Pierre Bedard and Augustin Simoneau had lived on the west side of Craig’s Road, Bedard since 1820 and Simoneau since 1823; Francois Turcot was another St. Mary’s Road neighbor.

William alone was able to sign his name accepting the position. (Literacy was a necessity for one who would manage the funds, superintend the property and coordinate parish activities.)

Soon after the churchwarden requirement had been met by the election, the bishop acceded to the petition, and the parish of St-Sylvestre was founded.

A first item of business was the erection of a church building. The chosen site was at the hub of the settlement on the north side of the main road. Churchwarden McNaughton set about organizing the construction effort. The chapel would be built of local fieldstones by local workers, but some skilled labor had to be hired from as far away as Québec City. In November, 1829, Maitre Charpentier et menuisier (master carpenter and joiner) Jean Baptiste Caillouette, resident of la Ville de Québec, was contracted to work on the construction for the sum of £100. We know this because Mr. Caillouette filed a protest against William for nonpayment of his wages.

In March, 1830, William was in the office of Ste-Marie’s Notary Public Jean-Baptiste Bonneville to answer the complaint. The four-page handwritten document details the protest, in French. Mr. Caillouette was represented by Notary Public Jean-Joseph Reny. The carpenter was appealing to be paid for his expenses, costs, damages, and tant soufferts que à souffrir (much suffering). William McNaughton, in the presence of St-Sylvestre witnesses Charles Bilodeau, shoemaker and merchant, and Romauld Gagnon, farmer and merchant, declared that he declined to pay because the workmanship was not as promised and signed to. How the dispute ended we will never know, but the church was indeed built.

Construction was completed in 1831 at a cost of $3000. Above the nave were a few rooms for the priest’s living quarters. Improvements and enlargements were made over the years, and the building carried on its mission until May 27, 1914, when fire ravaged the structure.

On May 16, 1829, a son, Charles, was born to William and Catherine. He would be the couple’s only child. The new mother was 45 years old, and William was nearly 50. Charles McNaughton was baptized five weeks after his birth by Fr. Michel Dufresne, priest from the neighboring parish of St-Nicolas. Fr. Dufresne, having persuaded the bishop that a new parish was needed had been put in charge of it temporarily, so he was present to baptize the son of his churchwarden. Fr. Dufresne recorded the event in the parish register:

On June 23, 1829, I the parish priest of St-Nicolas who has signed below, have baptized Charles born five weeks ago of the marriage of Guillaume Naughton cultivator and of Catherine Murphy of this parish. Godfather Patrice Sheridan who signed with the father, Godmother: Hélene Haven who declared not knowing how to sign.

Patrick Sheridan
William Naughton
M. Dufresne, Ptre

Young Charles would grow up on his parents’ farm in St-Sylvestre, learning the skills of farming as he worked alongside his father. Two decades later Charles would bring his young wife, Mary, to live with them on the McNaughton land until 1867, when Charles, Mary, and their nine children immigrated to Minnesota.

What Led Them to St-Sylvestre: the Back Story

Although four generations of McNaughtons would make their home in St-Sylvestre, the village had not been their first choice. The family started out life in Lower Canada at Lévis, a port and a farming community on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River directly across from Québec City.

While they were living at Lévis, the McNaughtons made the acquaintance of Robert Hamilton, owner of a chantier (shipyard and merchant docks). In those years Québec City offered the country’s sole inland harbor deep enough to accommodate ocean-going sailing vessels. Ships left the port carrying timber from Canada’s forests and returned bringing merchandise, provisions and new immigrants. The firm of Hamilton & Brothers would have been a major employer.

Robert Hamilton also owned land in the Township of Leeds in the newly opened crown lands to the south of the St. Lawrence River., which he was eager to clear of virgin forest and to sell. On November 11, 1820, William with his sons Michael and John went from Lévis to meet with Robert Hamilton in Québec City, where Hamilton lived. They met in the office of Notary Public Archibald Campbell to negotiate the purchase of land from Hamilton. The younger William was not present but was included in the contract by virtue of his father and brothers acting on his behalf. Two lots comprised the parcel of land located about forty miles to the south, in Leeds. The sale price was $1 per acre to be paid with interest within a period of four years. The four McNaughtons agreed to set out for Leeds almost immediately, before the end of November:

The said William Naughton Senior & Michael & John Naughton oblige themselves to proceed with William Naughton in the course of the present month to the Township of Leeds so as to commence a settlement on Lots Numbers Eighteen & Nineteen in the Ninth Range of said Township and then to work and employ themselves in clearing & cultivating the said lots of Land. . . .

There were exacting stipulations. The land must be cleared and readied for cultivation and the debt fully paid before the sale would be finalized. The McNaughtons would be paid nothing for their labor as they cut timber, removed stumps, broke the earth and cleared rocks, but they would be entitled to keep whatever they could produce from the land during that time.

– And it is hereby agreed that should the said Lots of Land be cleared . . . Robert Hamilton shall and will grant and proffer Titles and Bill of sale. . . . It is further agreed that the said Consideration Money shall be paid in four years . . . . Otherwise these presents shall and will be null & void and the said Robert Hamilton be at liberty to take possession of the said lots of land . . . shall in lieu of all wages and for the clearing of the said lands be entitled to receive, enjoy and keep for their own use the product of the said land . . . but shall not be entitled to any other enrollment wages or consideration whatsoever.

One might think that clearing the land would be a year-round task, but Robert Hamilton had further requirements. During the summers, brothers William and John would return to Québec City to work in Hamilton’s shipyards or on the docks . . . or in other place as he may think proper to place them, the said Robert Hamilton in such case paying unto them the Wages granted by him to his other Workmen. . . .

In the early winter of 1820, the three McNaughton brothers, their father William and their mother Bridget began clearing their jointly-owned property at Leeds and turning the virgin land into a farm. Catherine joined them as William’s new wife in 1827.

On March 18, 1828, the two Williams and Michel were back in the Québec City office of Notary Public Campbell to sort out a disagreement. John was not with them, but they acted on his behalf. “Difficulties” appear to have divided Michael and his father on one hand from brothers William and John on the other. The dispute involved division of labor. William and John had accomplished significant improvements to the land, perhaps out of proportion to what they believed the elder William and Michael had contributed. William and John had worked every summer at the Hamilton Brothers shipyards, resulting in unequal investment. A legal document was drawn up:

. . . And whereas difficulties have arisen between the said William Naughton Senior, Michel Naughton, William Naughton Junior, and John Naughton with respect to their claims and interests upon the said Lots and improvements – And whereas the said parties did . . . come to terms and arrangements with a view of settling the difficulties and disputes . . . And whereas the said [McNaughtons] have requested of the said George Hamilton. . .

The solution was that the original owners, the Hamiltons, should act as agents to sell the land and would “buy out” John and the younger William. For Lot Eighteen, William Senior and Michael agreed to pay £30, 13 shillings and 2 pence to the younger William and to John. For Lot Nineteen, William Senior and Michael agreed to pay £30, 19 shillings, 2 p. to William and £30 to John. William Senior would pay off his remaining debts to the Hamiltons and would relocate to St-Sylvestre; the younger William would use money from the sale to purchase his farm in St-Sylvestre; John would buy other land in Leeds and later relocate to Lévis, and Michael would remain on Lot Nineteen while paying his debt to the Hamiltons.

A sale inventory shows that the four men had cleared 42 acres of land. They had built a house valued at £90, put up the required fencing, and raised a barn and stable worth £30. Livestock included a pair of oxen worth £6, a colt, a mare, six pigs, and a heifer. They owned a carriole, two sleighs, a riding carte, and a carte and wheels. Among the farming implements were Harrows, Sythes & reaping Hooks, 7 Hoes, 2 ox chains, Crowbars & Sledge Ham., 1 pick, ox Yokes, Whip saw and 5 axes. The barn contained Sug. Kettles, Barrell, Grindstone of old Iron 2 of, Hay in Barn 400 Bales, Potatoes, Seed wheat 18 bush, and peas 3 Bush.

William and Catherine had been husband and wife for nearly a year when they left these assets behind on the Leeds farm and embarked upon a new life at St-Sylvestre.

The village of St-Sylvestre stands on a hilltop. All around it lie valleys and rolling hills. From the crest of St-Sylvestre’s hill the landscape today appears as a freestyle quilt of meadows and pastures, hedgerows and woodlands. Creeks and brooks run down the Appalachian slopes winding through the farmlands and on to the horizon.

William died at St-Sylvestre, Québec, on August 21, 1857, and on August 23 was buried in the cemetery of the church he had served as churchwarden. Catherine lived until 1862 and is also buried in the churchyard. Services for both were conducted by Fr. I. M. Dowling, priest.

In 2005 I visited St-Sylvestre and roamed the churchyard searching in vain for McNaughton gravestones. Signs of their presence are gone.


 St-Sylvestre church 2005
The St-Sylvestre church building as it appeared in 2005.
Celtic Cross on the Ste-Agathe road
Celtic Cross on the Ste-Agathe road commemorating the Irish settlers of the area
and listing the family names, including McNaughton. Dedicated on July 1, 2000.
 baptismal record of Charles McNaughton
The baptismal record of Charles McNaughton, June 23, 1829.
 cemetery of St-Sylvestre
The cemetery of St-Sylvestre as it looked in 2005.
 St-Sylvestre church
The steeple of the St-Sylvestre church rises from the top of the hill in the photo’s background.

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