There are currently 34 letters in the collection of Kaine letters and as they are hard to read in their original form, I am including a scanned image of each letter followed by my best efforts at transcribing. The transcription was a real challenge as spelling, punctuation and grammar in the 1800’s was different to what we are accustomed to today. Why did a sentence run on for an entire page with no periods? In addition, paper was precious and the writing went right to the edge of the page and then people sometimes wrote over what they had already written.

After each letter, I am sharing my thoughts and some of the historical information that I have gathered. My conclusions and interpretations may more fiction than fact but it has been an interesting endeavour thus far in getting to know the different personalities and trying to figure out the story behind the letters.

The first letter is to Father and Mother from St. Helens Island in Montreal on July 8, 1852 . The writer indicated that he was writing in haste so perhaps that is why he left off his name at the end of the letter! The author was most likely James Kaine who was 18 years old at the time. My skills at handwriting analysis are quite rudimentary but I compared the handwriting to later letters he wrote and it looks close.

1 Kaine Letter July 8, 1852

Transcribed from the original by Kerrin Churchill January 3, 2020 (punctuation added)

James Kaine to Father and Mother from St. Helen’s Island Montreal Quebec

Dear Father and Mother

I hope you are well Excuse us for not writing to you for so long a time but we though better not as Christy was about leaving his place. He left on 17th of May and now he is with Colonel Dixon R. E. He has nothing to do only to care 2 horses and Carriage and drive out and about a couple of hours in the day. and another thing kept me from writing was because we were about removing to the Island. we are both in good health thanks to almighty God for all his blessings bestowed upon us miserable sinners. Dear Father and Mother we send ye £4 hoping you will excuse us for sending a trifle but we could not help it on account of Christy leaving his place. The weather is intensely hot here at present. You could scarcely walk on the flags with the heat. That is what killed they people here intense heat and intense cold. We seen Joseph Wellwood and Family. Christy seen Kitt Sanders and got my present which you must return many many thanks for and also Charles and Anne for writing. I dont know whether I will thank John or not on account of using so much paper but however I was glad to get it. There was a fire here on the 5 of June that lasted for more than a month burning and also this morning before I began this letter another fire began. I dont know how long it will last. I like to be on the Island on account of going over to town every day in a small Boat. It is very near a Mile I think from the Island to town. I dont think that Christy dont write to Mary Maguire at all. Remember us to Mr Mease Mr and Mrs Stammas to Aunt Bess Aunt Mary and family Uncle Jim and family and all enquiring Friends. I hope that you will excuse this as ye may see yourselves it is in haste

Where was St. Helen’s Island and what was James doing there? I discovered that it is part of Montreal and was the site for Canada’s renowned Expo 67. I was lucky to attend Expo as a teenager , so actually stood on the same ground where my ancestor penned his letter so long ago.

Before the island became a public park in the 1870’s, it housed a fort, a powder-house and a blockade built after the War of 1812 by the English for British troops in North America. In the 19th century, Montreal served as a distribution hub for war equipment, weapons and munitions for the military. Until the construction of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in 1930, St. Helen’s Island was accessible only by ferry just as it was described in the letter James wrote in 1852.

I surmise by what he wrote that James was working for the British army who had barracks on the island, rather than being enlisted in the army. There is no information on when he arrived in Montreal because almost no ships records from that time have survived to this day.

View of Montreal from St. Helen’s Island 1830

James mentions his brothers Christy and John in the letter. Christy (no birth date found yet), John (b. 1829) and James (b. 1834) Kaine were three of the seven children of Charles (b. 1806) and Bessie (Elizabeth) Kaine (b. 1801) from Freshford, Kilkenny, Ireland, a village in southeast Ireland an hour an a half by car from Dublin. Charles and Bessie had four more children. Anne (b. 1835), Charles (b. 1839), Elizabeth (Liza) (b. 1846) and Mary (b. 1849). The family all eventually joined James, Christy and John in British North America as Canada was called then. More is shared about some of these folks in subsequent letters.

The young Kaine men had left Ireland to look for a better life for themselves and their families as did many of their fellow countrymen. There were many reasons why folks left Ireland but the main impetus was the Great Famine which lasted from 1845 to 1852.

“Families did not migrate en masse, but younger members of families did, so much so that emigration almost became a rite of passage, as evidenced by the data that show that, unlike similar emigrations throughout world history, women emigrated just as often, just as early, and in the same numbers as men. The emigrants would send remittances back to family in Ireland, which, in turn, allowed another member of their family to leave.” Wikipedia

I was also curious about the fires that James mentioned in his letter and was surprised to discover that the day he wrote his letter on July 8, 1852, was the very day that a disastrous fire started. He wondered how long the fire would last and had no idea that it would burn for four months and destroy much of Montreal.

“The Great Fire of 1852 was a fire in Montreal that began on July 8, 1852, and left as many as 10,000 people homeless (at a time when the city’s population was only 57,000) and destroyed almost half of the city’s housing. The fire occurred at a time when the city’s recently constructed reservoir, located at the site of today’s Saint-Louis Square, was drained and closed for repairs. The first fire broke out at a tavern on St. Lawrence Boulevard and spread quickly, fanned by strong winds and hot, dry summer weather.” Wikipedia

In my next post in a couple of weeks, I will share information about the village of Freshford In Ireland where the family came from.

One thought on “Letter #1 July 8, 1852 Montreal is Burning!

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