I have a Christmas story for you about a humble young couple, a long and difficult winter’s journey, and a beloved baby boy.
No, it isn’t the couple, the journey, or the baby you’re thinking of. It happened about 1,830 years after that other couple travelled to Bethlehem to be counted and taxed.
It was a hundred and eighty-seven years ago today, on December 28, 1833, that William and Sarah Warner (my third great grandparents) found themselves standing with their baby son beside the font of the Aubigny Anglican church, in what is now the east end of the city of Lévis, Quebec. Lévis is on the south side of the Saint Lawrence River opposite Quebec City.
William was a young farmhand and Yorkshireman of 25 who had come to Canada with his parents as a teenager. Sarah was Irish-born and a few years older. They had been married 17 months earlier in the Anglican Cathedral in Quebec City.
Now they had come from their home in Frampton for the baptism of their first-born son who, like his father before him, was to be christened William. Born on October 5, 1833, he wasn’t quite three months old.
Here, below, is the church’s official record of the baptism (on the right hand page):1
And here it is transcribed:
Warner baptized >
William, son of William Warner, farmer in the Township of Frampton in the County of Beauce in the District of Quebec & of Sarah (formerly Leitch) his wife was born on the fifth day of October and baptized on the twenty eighth of December in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred & thirty three by me, R R Burrage, Minister at Aubigny, Pointe Lévis.
Sponsors < Robert Julyan / William Jobson X his mark / Catherine Arthur Bragg X her markRecord book of the Church of england at Aubigny, Pointe Lévis, lower Canada, 1833
The couple lived on William’s father’s farm in the township of Frampton, about 55 kilometres south of the Saint Lawrence River. Despite the distance, the church in Lévis was the closest to their home. It would be another eight years before a church was built in Frampton township.2
Let me tell you about the arduous trip that brought them here to Lévis, and that would soon take them back home again.
It Would Be a Short Drive for Us
Nowadays, you can get from Frampton to Lévis in less than an hour. The fastest way, by a couple of minutes, is Autoroute 73 but, since the site of the church in question is on Wolfe Street at the east end of town, you can get there almost as quickly by taking the side roads north northwest from Frampton until you reach the south bank of Rivière Etchemin. You cross at Saint-Anselme and then connect with Quebec Route 173 (Route du Président-Kennedy). Google Maps puts it at 55 minutes on a quiet Sunday afternoon, averaging 60 km/h.
That’s probably more or less the same route that William and Sarah took with their baby in 1833. The difference is that, for the young family, it would have taken at least a whole day and probably part of a second day, by sleigh, over snow-and-ice covered trails through dense woods.
Dashing Through the Snow
It was mid-winter, just a week after the solstice when the cold winter nights are longest. The average December high temperature in Lévis is -4º C (25º F). It would have been even lower in the 1830s, when North America was still living through the climate phenomenon known as “the little ice age.”
The land between Frampton and Lévis was primordial forest, with scattered farms that settlers had only begun clearing in the last decade or so. Ten or fifteen years earlier it had been a wilderness, home only to the Abenaki First Nation.
Roads and trails were primitive. When the weather was coldest, they were lost under the snow. On the few days in December that the temperature rose above freezing, they turned into muddy ruts.
We can only imagine what the journey was like for William and Sarah. They left us no record of it, of course. To give you an idea, I’ve chosen three drawings done in roughly the same region but in the 1890s.3 That was almost sixty years later but not much would have changed.
In a One-Horse Open Sleigh
They would have bundled the baby and themselves in blankets, furs, or both. For an event as important as a baptism, perhaps William’s father and mother would have come too. He was also named William and she was Elizabeth. Maybe a brother or sister or two, as well? Robert Julyan, who signed the baptismal record as a “sponsor” (godparent), was a neighbour and friend who would have accompanied them from Frampton.
It would have been prudent to travel with at least two sleighs and lots of strong arms in case a sleigh became stuck or broke down.
If they could average six and a half kilometres per hour (four mph), the 55-kilometre trip would take them eight and a half hours, which is almost precisely how much daylight they would have had in late December. Travelling after dark would have been difficult or impossible and they couldn’t travel non-stop. Both horses and people need rest, and horses need to be watered and fed.
If it had been cold enough in the preceding weeks, they might have been able to use the frozen-solid Riviére Etchemin as their highway for part of the trip. If so, they would have made much better time on that part of the route.
My guess is that they would probably have left home on Boxing Day and arrived on December 27, ready for the baptism the next day. Or they might have travelled all day on the 28th and arrived the morning of the event. I have no idea where they might have spent the night on the road. Was it some little country inn or was it the hospitality of a settler family along the way?
After the ceremony, they would almost surely have waited until the following day – December 29 – to start for home, repeating the same grueling experience on the southbound leg of the trip.
The View from the Church
The church where William was baptized was about 20 years old, built in 1811 and 1812 at the corner of Wolfe and Notre Dame Streets in Lévis.4 It was at the top of a ridge looking down to the Saint Lawrence and across to Quebec City.
Around the same time as William and Sarah’s journey (but in the summertime), a British officer name James Pattison Cockburn did a drawing of the view from just below the church, across the river to Quebec City. It was published that year, 1833, as a hand-tinted engraving:5
Try to imagine the above scene with snow on the trees, snow up to your knees, and the river half frozen. That’s likely what William and Sarah experienced as they entered the church with their baby that day.
If you could follow that charming dirt road down to south bank of the river today, this is what that same view would look like:6
There is still a church building on approximately the same spot as the church where little William was baptized, but it isn’t the same structure. The existing church was built about 15 years later, beginning in 1848 and finishing in 1850, and it has since been converted to a fabulous concert hall and cultural centre know as “l’Anglicane” (“the Anglican [church]”):7 8
The Rest of Baby William’s Story
I have often wondered why William and Sarah decided to make that cold, difficult, mid-winter journey through a frozen Lower Canada landscape.
Yes, it’s true that little William, at almost three months old, was past due to be baptized. It’s also true that there was no church any closer than the one in Lévis.
But maybe the trip wasn’t really necessary, if they didn’t mind waiting a month or two?
In those days the Church of England had travelling ministers who would visit communities in the hinterland to provide spiritual comfort and to celebrate church rituals with isolated groups of families. Why didn’t little William’s parents just wait for the itinerant minister to make his rounds to Frampton?
There may have been a good reason but, if I’m right, it was a dark and desperate one. If they decided they couldn’t wait, the only good reason I can think of is that their baby was deathly ill and they feared he might die unbaptized.
We don’t know when little William died. It might have been that same winter. I haven’t found a burial record, but that isn’t unusual for that time period. We do know that William died, at the latest, before reaching his teens.
We know that because, as was the custom in the nineteenth century and earlier, William and Sarah gave the same name, William, to a later-born son. That only happened when the first child to bear the name had died.
That second William was born in Yorkville, in what is now the city of Toronto, in July or August of 1842. He died in September, 1843 of tuberculosis, at the age of thirteen months, and was buried in Potter’s Field Cemetery at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets in Toronto.10
That means that the first William must have died sometime between December, 1833 and July, 1842, at the age of anywhere from under a year to up to eight and a half years.
William, the father of the two baby Williams, died in 1845. Sarah, their mother, died in 1893. So it’s probably safe to say that both boys were forgotten more than 120 years ago.
I’m happy that I was able to honour their memory by telling you this story.
1 Institut Généalogique Drouin; Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Drouin Collection; Author: Gabriel Drouin, comp. Ancestry.com. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2008. Aubigny, Church of England, p. 35. Original data: Gabriel Drouin, comp. Drouin Collection. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Institut Généalogique Drouin.
2 Reference to “Christ Church of Springbrook (1841)”, Municipalité de Frampton. https://chaudiereappalaches.com/en/travel-quebec/la-beauce/frampton/frampton/municipality/
3 The three drawings of nineteen-century travel by sleigh are by the American artist, Frank Schell, apparently for an article that appeared in the December 13, 1890 issue of Harpers Weekly Magazine (you can see the illustrations in Harpers here on page 977). Although this was almost sixty years after William and Sarah’s journey from Frampton to Lévis and back, neither the weather conditions nor the sleigh technology would have changed very much. The drawings were sourced from Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.
4 Gagné, Jacques, Anglican Churches of Quebec City and Surrounding Area. https://genealogyensemble.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/anglican-churches-of-quebec-city.pdf
5 The view of Quebec city from below the Aubigny church at Pointe Lévis is a hand-tinted engraving by Henry Pyall, published in 1833 based on a drawing by James Pattison Cockburn. It was sourced from Library and Archives Canada.
7 Wikipedia (French), L’Anglicane. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Anglicane
8 l’Anglicane. http://langlicane.com
9 Wikipedia (French), L’Anglicane de Lévis. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Anglicane#/media/Fichier:L_Anglicane,_Levis_07.jpg
10 Toronto Trust Cemeteries; Toronto, Canada; Cemetery: Potters’ Field Cemetery; Volume: 01; Year Range: 1826-1850. Ancestry.com. Ontario, Canada, Toronto Trust Cemeteries, 1826-1989 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2017. Potter’s Field Cemetery. Volume 01, 1826-1850. p. 89. Original data: Toronto Trust Cemeteries, Toronto, Canada.