Tag: McCord Museum

Abner Bagg: Black Sheep of the Family?

Abner Bagg seems to have been the black sheep of the Bagg family, although I am not sure why. My great-aunt even insisted he was not related when, in truth, he was the brother of my three-times great-grandfather Stanley Bagg. Perhaps the problem was that Abner’s business had gone bankrupt.

Abner was born on August 5, 1790 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was the son of farmer Phineas Bagg and Pamela Stanley. His mother died around 1793 and several years later the family left the United States, settling in La Prairie, near Montreal, Lower Canada. 

Abner Bagg of Montreal?

 By 1810, Abner was in business as a manufacturer and importer of hats. At his store in Montreal, he sold “ladies’ bonnets and gentlemen’s fine hats” as well as military hats. A few years later, he opened a hat-making factory in Terrebonne, northeast of Montreal, then a second store in Montreal and one in Quebec City.

On October 22, 1814, Abner married Mary Ann Wurtele, daughter of Quebec City shopkeeper Josias Wurtele, at the Anglican Cathedral in Quebec City. According to the marriage record, Abner was 25 and Mary Ann was 19. The couple eventually had six children, three of whom died as babies. 

With his business doing very well, Abner purchased an empty lot in a suburb just west of Montreal. Between 1819 and 1821, he constructed a large stone house on the property, later adding a warehouse attached to the family home. 

Meanwhile, Abner diversified his business interests. While running the shop, he was also buying white pine from the forests of the Chateauguay Valley, southwest of Montreal. He transported the logs to Montreal and to Quebec City. The big timbers were shipped to England and the smaller logs were cut into firewood. In the early 1820s, when his brother Stanley was one of the main contractors for the excavation of the Lachine Canal, Abner supplied goods such as gunpowder, food and timber to the canal builders. In the 1820s, he bought and sold shares in several steamboats that carried people and goods across the St. Lawrence River.

Abner always kept an eye out for real estate deals, especially at sheriff’s auctions. Sometimes he made improvements to the buildings and then sold them at a profit, sometimes he kept them as rental properties. 

In the mid-1820s, however, things unraveled: his wife died in 1827, and his hat business went bankrupt. He had expanded too rapidly, using unsecured personal notes rather than cash, so when a large-scale commercial crisis reached Canada around 1825, sales fell and he was unable to repay huge debts to suppliers in England, or to others. 

Bankruptcy was not unusual. There was never enough hard cash circulating in British North America, nor was there an extensive banking sector, so merchants had to rely on credit and promises to back up their friends’ and relatives’ loans. And after he went bankrupt, there were no rules to protect his creditors or to help him through the crisis. Abner’s personal credit was ruined. 

After his business failed, Abner’s main source of income was rent from the houses he owned. He transferred these properties to his brother Stanley to hold in trust while the income went toward paying off his debts. Eventually, however, Abner had trouble feeding his family, and Stanley had to start selling the properties, including the family home.

Mary Ann Mittleberger Bagg

On February 12, 1831, Abner remarried. His second wife’s name was also Mary Ann: Mary Ann Mittleberger. They married in Montreal’s Anglican Christ Church, and, although Mary Ann was Catholic and remained so all her life, their nine children were baptized Anglican.  

Two months later, Abner and Stanley were both baptized at Christ Church. Along with a number of other New England-born Montrealers, Abner had previously been a member of the city’s Scotch Presbyterian Church. Perhaps the Anglican religion was now more in line with his beliefs, or perhaps he looked at the Anglican Church as a step up socially. 

In his remaining years, Abner tried unsuccessfully to reopen the hat factory. He travelled a great deal, buying flour and salt pork as far west as Ohio, and selling it to military posts in Upper Canada. 

Abner died on March 21, 1852, age 64. The church record of his funeral referred to him as “gentleman,” so he must have restored some of his reputation in society. I have yet to find out where he was buried. He was survived by his widow, one daughter from his first marriage and four children from his second marriage. At the time of his death, the youngest was just four years old. The widowed Mary Ann lived until 1896. 

Photo Credits:

eBay; Mrs. A. Bagg, Montreal, QC, 1862; I-4366.1 © McCord Museum; news.google.com

See also:

Janice Hamilton, “Stanley Bagg’s Difficulties” Writing Up the Ancestorshttps://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2014/01/stanley-baggs-difficulties.html

Janice Hamilton, “An Economic Emigrant”   Writing Up the Ancestors, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2013/10/an-economic-emigrant.html


Here is a list of Abner’s fifteen children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. I do not have all their marriage and death dates, only what I can find easily on Ancestry.com and in family records. Two of the daughters married two brothers, Henry and Samuel Shackell, who came from England.

Abner Bagg’s children with Mary Ann Wurtele:

  • Sophia b. 1816, d. 1850; not married
  • Abner Wurtele b.1818; d. 1818
  • Mary Ann Louisa, b. 1819; m.
  • John Porteous, 1856
  • Caroline Eleanor b.1820; d. 1820
  • Clarissa Matilda  b. 1822; d. 1848; not married
  • Catherine Pamela b. 1824; d. 1826

Abner Bagg’s children with Mary Ann Mittleberger:

  • George Augustus Frederick Edward b. 1832; d. 1845
  • Margaret Elizabeth Charlotte Eleanor b. 1833; d. 1834
  • Emma b. 1835; d. 1835
  • Alfred Solomon Phineas b. 1836; m. Priscilla Carden, 1876, Abbotsford, QC ; d. 1912 (he was sometimes referred to as A.S.P. Bagg, sometimes as Alfred S. Bagg)
  • Charles Stanley Roy b. 1838; d. 1838
  • Mary Eliza b. 1839; m. Samuel Shackell; d. 1915
  • Emma Adelaide  b. 1842; d. 1842
  • Margaret Pamilla Roy b. 1844; m. Henry Shackell 1865
  • Emily Caroline Stanley  b. 1848; m. Charles William Radiger of Winnipeg, 1885

Abner’s exact date of birth is unclear. The record of his adult baptism in 1831 gives his date of birth as August 5, 1790, however, calculating his sister Sophia’s birthday from her age at death, she was born around February 20, 1791. At least one of those dates must be wrong. At his death in 1852, Abner’s age was recorded as 64, which would have meant he was born in 1788, the year brother Stanley was supposed to have been born. When he was married in 1814, Abner gave his age as 25, which would have meant he was born in 1789. 

There was a portrait of Abner Bagg for sale on eBay a few years ago, so I made a screen shot of it. Unfortunately, the resolution is terrible. Also, I do not know whether this was the Abner Bagg of Montreal, since there were two other Abner Baggs in the United States at about same the time. They were all related, although I haven’t worked out the family tree.  

There is lots of solid information on Abner’s business activities and financial difficulties. The pay records for his hat business, copies of letters and an 1816 inventory of his possessions are part of the Bagg Family Fonds at the McCord Museum in Montreal. In 1970, historian Donald Fyson used those records to prepare an article about Abner for the museum, and I used his paper as a source for this story. The Fonds also recently acquired material from the estate of Joan Shackell, a direct descendant of Abner. 

Abner’s business agreements can be found among the notarial records at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. For example, the act of notary N.B. Doucet 134-11205, 31 October 1823 is one of many wood contracts Abner signed. Jobin 215-4778, 30 March 1829 is a document in which Abner rented out a three-storey stone house he owned. Crawford 102-178, 9 July 1830 was an act in which Abner transferred the ownership of his properties to his brother and Stanley agreed to advance the funds to pay Abner’s debts.

Newspapers provide snapshots of people’s activities. This ad from The Montreal Herald, Oct. 14, 1826 is at https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=apgxAAAAIBAJ&sjid=likDAAAAIBAJ&pg=942,6061397&dq=bagg+montreal&hl=en. The Montreal Star archives came online on Newspapers.com in 2022.

Notices in the Canada Gazette referred to a variety of topics from property sales to official appointments. For example, a notice dated March 24, 1847 announced that Abner was a captain in the third battalion of the militia: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/canada-gazette/093/001060-119.01-e.php?image_id_nbr=138&document_id_nbr=1601&f=p&PHPSESSID=j1au0sblq8sejaol266jar2vp4

Digitized books can be an excellent source of information about the past. For example, I consulted Thomas Doige, An Alphabetical List of the Merchants, Traders, and Housekeepers residing in Montreal, to which is prefixed a descriptive sketch of the town. Montreal: printed by James Lane, 1819. https://archive.org/details/cihm_36464

Another book about the period is Robert Campbell, A History of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, St. Gabriel Street, Montreal. Montreal: W. Drysdale, 1887. https://archive.org/details/cihm_00397

The Centenary of the Bank of Montreal, 1817-1917, published by the bank in 1917, https://archive.org/stream/centenaryofbanko00bankuoft#page/78/mode/2up, shows that Abner was one of the bank’s original shareholders. Doige’s directory indicates that, two years later, he was one of the directors of the Bank of Canada. In 1826, the Bank of Montreal issued protests against Abner because he had not paid his debts (Griffin 187-6273 1 March 1826).      

The Canada, British Army and Canadian Militia Muster Rolls and Pay Lists, 1795-1850 database on Ancestry.com shows that Abner Bagg was paymaster for the volunteer militia during the 1837-1838 rebellion in Lower Canada. 

Stanley Bagg and the Lachine Canal Part 3: Contractor to the British Army

When Stanley Bagg signed a contract to excavate the Lachine Canal in 1821, it was the largest and most complex job he had ever taken on. Although he was just 33 years old, this Montreal entrepreneur and his business partners had gained enough experience from a series of projects for the British Army that they were able to land the contract of a lifetime.

Stanley Bagg, 1788-1853

Stanley Bagg was born in Massachusetts in 1788 and moved to Lower Canada with his family around 1795. He grew up in La Prairie, where his father ran an inn, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. In 1810, when he was 22, Stanley and his father opened the Mile End Tavern at a crossroads just north of the city. The tavern was a great place to make business contacts, and by this time, Stanley was already selling firewood to the British Army.

The army played a huge role in Montreal’s economy at that time. Britain had reorganized its defences of British North America after the American Revolution. In the past, a fort on the cliffs of Quebec City overlooking the St. Lawrence River had protected the colony from attack. Now there was a long southern border to defend and Montreal played a key role in protecting its own location, and in moving troops and equipment to Upper Canada. The army needed firewood to keep its soldiers warm, fresh beef and flour to feed them, and people with horses, carts and bateaux (flat-bottomed river boats) to help with transportation. Large and medium-sized local suppliers bid against each other for these contracts, then usually subcontracted the work to smaller enterprises.

The outbreak of war with the United States in 1812 led to a boost in military spending and provided Stanley with his first big business opportunity. In December 1813, he and business partner Oliver Wait signed a contract to transport sixty long guns (cannons) from Montreal to Kingston, on Lake Ontario.

The contract paid well, but it was a risky undertaking, not only because of the danger posed by the enemy; if they failed to deliver the cannons safely and on time, they would be penalized. The fact that the job was to be done in winter posed an additional challenge. Normally, goods were transported on the water, but the St. Lawrence marked the border between the U.S. and Canada for much of the distance between the two cities, so the cannons were transported on the winter road, hidden from the enemy by the trees. Stanley and Oliver subcontracted the task to others, and the cannons arrived intact.  

Over the next several years, Stanley was involved in a variety of projects. He and Oliver transported several large anchors to Kingston for the military, and Stanley contracted to sell beef to the army (the meat was supplied by his future father-in-law, butcher John Clark,) but most of his activities were in the civilian sphere. He ran the tavern and the farm on which it was located; he bought, sold and rented buildings in and around Montreal; he had a share in a steamboat called Car of Commerce; and he was a partner in an unsuccessful dry goods business. For fun, he built a race track near the tavern. Then, in 1818, he placed a notice in the newspaper indicating he planned to move to Upper Canada and sell all his properties in Montreal.

A year later, he had discarded that idea and seized new contracting opportunities with the army. Stanley got married in Montreal on August 9, 1819. Five days later, he and Oliver Wait signed a contract with the army’s engineers to level Montreal’s Citadel Hill. The citadel, where arms and ammunition had been stored since the days of New France, was located in a heavily populated area of the city. The army realized this was dangerous and decided to demolish the building and level the hill. Stanley and Oliver contracted to remove 48,000 cubic yards of earth from the hill and dump it into a hollow area nearby.  

Parks Canada tour guide, Fort Lennox

The army replaced the old citadel with two new forts, with construction beginning simultaneously in 1819. Stanley, with Oliver Wait and two other partners, Andrew White and Thomas Phillips, worked on both projects.

Fort Lennox

One of the forts was on Saint Helen’s Island, in the St. Lawrence River near the port, well located to protect the city from an attack by the Americans. The initial phase of this three-year construction project included a blockhouse, powder magazine and storehouses. In the summer of 1821, Bagg and Wait obtained a series of contracts to supply 300,000 bricks and 5,000 cartloads of sand, as well as large amounts of stone, lime, pine, oak and cedar for the new fort.

The other project, Fort Lennox, was on Île aux Noix, on the Richelieu River not far from Lake Champlain and the American border. The French had also used Île aux Noix to defend New France, but the old fortifications were no longer adequate. Stanley and his partners agreed to provide timber and other construction materials for Fort Lennox.

They had not completed these contracts when, in the summer of 1821, there was a call for tenders to excavate the Lachine Canal. The foursome (Bagg, Wait, White and Phillips) were not canal builders, but neither was anyone else in Montreal. What they did have was the experience managing people and moving material required for this huge project.  

See also


The main source of this material about the army is an unpublished article by Sherry Olson and Jean-Claude Robert, “Wheelbarrows for His Majesty: the Commissariat and its Contractors in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal.” The authors based their research on contracts and agreements, many of which were handled by notary Henry Griffin. The agreement to transport guns is the act of Griffin 187-372, 9 December 1813. For the contract regarding the levelling of Citadel Hill, see Griffin 187-2745, 14 August 1819.  You can search the indexes to notarial documents online at https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/ressources/details/notaires. Many acts have now been digitized.

Olson, Professor Emeritus of Geography at McGill University, became familiar with the Bagg family while researching a book about the demographics of 19th century Montreal. Written with co-author Patricia Thornton of Concordia University, the book is Peopling the North American City, Montreal 1840-1900. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

During the War of 1812, anyone who had been born in the United States and wanted to remain in British North America had to swear an oath of allegiance to the king, or leave. Both Bagg and Wait were American-born, so they must have been very trustworthy subjects of His Majesty to be allowed to transport arms.

To see a cannon of the type that Bagg and Wait contracted to transport, check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISpTzv_nMas. In this video, a 24-pounder long gun is loaded and fired in a demonstration at Fort Wellington, Prescott, Ontario, however, the comments below suggest that the boom in the demonstration was disappointing.

On March 7, 1818, the Montreal Herald ran an ad in which Stanley Bagg announced he was leaving for Upper Canada and wanted to sell his investments and settle his accounts in Montreal.  The ad is near the top left of the page. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=_CE1AAAAIBAJ&sjid=5isDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5665,962917&dq=stanley+bagg+montreal&hl=en   I do not know why he wanted to leave, or what made him change his plans.

The Stewart Museum, in the former arsenal of the fort on St. Helen’s Island, is now closed and its collection has been moved to the McCord Museum in downtown Montreal. In the 1960s, Île Sainte-Hélène was one of the sites of Montreal’s world’s fair, Expo 67.  The island is now home to Parc Jean-Drapeau.

Fort Lennox National Historic Site, less than an hour from Montreal, is also a great destination for a family outing. Take a picnic. See http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/qc/lennox/index.aspx. Also of interest is Andre Charbonneau’s book The Fortifications of Île aux Noix: a portrait of the defensive strategy on the Upper Richelieu Border in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Ottawa: National Historic Sites, Parks Canada, 1994.