The Origins of the Béchervaise Family in Gaspé

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By Lynden Bechervaise, from the Gaspesian Heritage Web Magazine

Earliest record

The earliest recording of the Béchervaise name is that of Colinus of St Laurent 1331 -- the first member of the family appearing in Jersey records.

A fairly complete listing of the male branch of the family brings us to the late 18th century where we find Philippe Béchervaise as being a sea captain in the employ of Charles Robins at Paspebiac, in 1794. He is recorded as being a particularly valuable employee as he could “do sums”. This Philippe (for there were many as the eldest son always carried the same name for at least eight generations), was captain of the first Robin Ship built at Paspebiac, the If launched in 1794 and the Truth launched in 1796.

Philippe was married in Jersey to Marie Gasnier in 1786 and they had one son, Philippe, born in 1787 who is the ancestor of all our Gaspé family. After being widowed for a time he contracted a second marriage, to Catherine Giffard, which produced a second son named Jean (later changed to John) born in St Aubin, Jersey.

Bechervaise Island, Antarctica

Common ancestor

John is the common ancestor to all branches of the English and Australian families and is notable for a number of books he wrote, including ‘’Thirty-six Years of Seafaring Life by an Old Quartermaster’’, which tells of his maritime experiences from being captured by pirates, spending a winter in Newfoundland with the natives and ending up in debtor’s prison followed by a lifetime in the British Navy.

His books are recognized as the authoritative resource on the British Navy between 1820 and 1840. In his work, he often spoke of how he envied his half-brother, Philippe, who had found a good stable job being apprenticed to a ship builder in Newfoundland.

Philippe served out his apprenticeship and stayed on to work for his employer, became foreman, and, when his employer retired, took over the business. He is recorded as having started a large shipbuilding facility in Gaspé by 1820. In 1821, a major forest fire threatened his installation and it “was only by a great effort from the community that the ship and the accompanying jobs were saved from the disaster.”

Father's letter

In April 1808, Phillipe Snr had learned from other sea captains that the son was intending to return from Gaspé to Jersey, so he sent him the following letter advising him not to do so as it was a time of war and he would have to “run for his life”. The letter was written in the “Jerry” language and contained first-hand personal information about the Paspebiac community.

Jersey, April 26, 1808
My Son,
I received your letter through Captain LeFeuvre last fall. You are no better at writing, although letters are written to you. I thought you would send me some fish at the same time, in return for past favours; but anyhow if you are able to do so later on, do so. Mr. Mauger would have taken care of a small package of fish had you had some to send. If you could get me a barrel of cod liver oil on old Chaleur Bay debts (a small one or a large) that would suit me fine.
Several people still owe me. Louis Roussy owes me a hundredweight of Marie-Pierre Du Guet Jr, 4%. Take from anyone anything you can get.
I am quite satisfied with your staying there this winter. If I were in your shoes, I would remain another ten years rather than return in wartime. You are where money is to be earned; whereas here your youth would be wasted. There isn’t a cent to be made, and we are continually harassed. Furthermore, you would undoubtedly have to run for your life.
How often would you regret not having taken my advice? That is why I urge you to take it; and as long as there is money to be earned over there, do not return home unless we are at peace, of which there is no sign. I myself would like to be well-paid in Canada. I wouldn’t return here. No need to tell anyone this. Keep it a secret.
I am not sending you anything. Personal effects are much the same here and there. Where you are, take good care of your possessions, as I have always taught you to do; otherwise, what is the point of earning if you do not economize. You are now earning your own money; you are making good wages. I am satisfied with what you are getting. You would be twenty years in Jersey before you would make the money you do now in a year.
Now you can put away 900 pounds a year, and when peace comes you may find employment with some fine person in Jersey, or elsewhere; but here is my advice to you: Beware of those nasty Paspebiac girls, who are libertines almost all of them; they would lead you astray. Avoid them; do not associate with them.
I was told that you are courting Jean P’s young daughter. I don’t believe it. I hope you won’t be led astray by that. I would never want to see you again. I hope to leave you some property, but you would not get a cent if you contracted such a union. You have a fine example before you in Jean himself. Those children of his have cost him a pretty penny. I hope you will be more prudent than that.
You have my counsel always before your eyes. Don’t forget it then. Keep in the best of company always. You will be better for it. Do not mix with vulgar people and do not tire of helping Mr Day on a Sunday, as has been your habit. You will be better for it.
Remember me to Mr François Gallie. He is a good man He would do well to marry over there. He would be better off than in Jersey, a thousand times. To Mr Jacques Ahier, as well. If you see Mr Le Maistre, do not fail to greet him for me. Captain Robin, Mr. Day and all in general -- French and English.
I may be able to go to Gaspé during the year. I have been asked to do so, but I am not yet sure of going. If I decide to go, I will let you know. All your relatives and friends are well. Your Grandmother is still active. She certainly would like to see you, and your cousin Marguerite and all of them. Your uncles are all well. I do not think your uncle Samuel will be going to Gaspe this year. They certainly all would like to see you, but still they would rather see you stay where you are, less you be trapped here.
I am - with all the tenderness of a father - my son, your dear father,
Philippe Béchervaise
My regards to Mr James Robin and all the Captains.
Mont Bechervaise, a popular Gaspé ski resort

Prison camp

As sons sometimes do, Philippe Béchervaise did not follow his father’s advice. He returned to Jersey, was arrested, and spent ten years in a prisoner of war camp in France before getting back to Gaspé. The oral record tells us that before leaving Gaspé he saw a young infant girl, Margaret Coffin, who was still in the cradle, and he stated that he would be back to marry her.

In 1812, Philippe Snr was master of the Amazon, a Jersey ship anchored in the port of Messina, Sicily, when the crew was struck by the fever. All but two of the ship’s crew succumbed to the disease, including the Captain.When the sad news reached Jersey, friends and associates made a large, ornately carved marble slab to be placed in the harbour in their memory. The Sicilians deemed that they were infidels and refused to allow the placement of the monument.Philippe's will was notarized shortly afterwards and records that his eldest son, Philippe, was in prison camp in France at the time and so was represented by another attorney.

Philippe returned to Gaspé in the 1820s and established himself in Wakeham on a large parcel of land, where he farmed and ran his shipyard business. The shipyard must have done well for there are a number of large ships in the registry which were built there, including the 376 ton barque Annabella, the largest to have ever been built in the Gaspé region. In 1824, Philippe and Margaret Coffin procured a license and were married. Between then and 1852, they produced 14 children, the first in 1825 being a son who was named Philip.

Around the world

The Bechervaise name appears on a number of sites around the world:

  • Jersey: “ La rue Bechervaise” the road from Mont Remon to St Matthieu, St Peter.
  • Tasmania: Bechervaise Plateau
  • Antarctica: Bechervaise Island, part of the Australian sector, and Mount Bechervaise, a 7,750-foot mountain
  • England: Eric Bechervaise Hall at the Harrow Green Branch Library, Leytonstone
  • Gaspé: Mont Bechervaise, the ski hill in Wakeham
  • Gaspé: Mont Bechervaise a mountain between Gaspé and Murdochville
  • Gaspé: Rue Bechervaise- a road linking Wakeham and L’anse aux Cousins - now largely unused, but which at one time was the major passage to the north coast of the Gaspé.
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