The Fight at Chaffey’s – 1834
Note: This article is based on a previously unpublished poem by Captain Edward Fleming.
Intriguing title for a poem, eh?
In the “good old days,” there were many scuffles at the various Rideau Canal locks between the crews of the vessels passing through and the lock staff. For example, Lockmaster Jones of Old Sly’s (near Smiths Falls) complained to Captain Bolton that he had been attacked by the captain and crew of the steamer Cataraqui – Monday, June 5, 1837. So what’s so special about a fight at Chaffey’s Lock in 1834?
The author of this unpublished poem was Captain Edward “Ned” Fleming who was variously captain of the Rideau Queen, the Rideau King, and the Loretta, well-known steamers in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. He was an accomplished violinist and horseshoe player, as well as a poet and storyteller. Ned Fleming was also the grandson of William Fleming, the first lockmaster at Chaffey’s Lock.
Have you heard of “Big Joe” Mufferaw, aka Joe Montfrett, aka Joseph Montferrand? Why these different names? Well, because there are three different storytellers. Benjamin Sulte provides the most complete set of exploits, some possibly imaginary, of a man, Joseph Montferrand, who actually existed. “Stompin’ Tom” Connors certainly has the most imaginative version of the feats of “Big Joe.” Captain Ned focuses on one fight, also likely imaginary, that took place between Joe Montfrett (footnoted as Mufreau) and Lockmaster William Fleming.
What do these three versions say about Joe and the Rideau Canal? Sulte has Joe in Kingston in 1819-20 but working as a carter between Montreal and Kingston. Joe becomes quite active in Bytown but not in relation to the Rideau Canal. His fights are mostly with rival loggers operating on the Ottawa and Gatineau, but he found time to take on the “Shiners” when the occasion arose.
“Stompin‘ Tom” gets “Big Joe” as far south as Smiths Falls. In fact, he credits him with wearing out a path as far south as Kemptville, thanks to his many trips to see a girl. According to Tom, Colonel By took advantage of this path to make the canal. Full marks for imagination!
That leaves Captain Ned.
Captain Ned’s Version
Here I quote from the poem itself to set the stage.
“Joe Montfrett, is boss bully on de river Ottawa:
Also, he is mos’ bes’ man dat work on Gatineau.
Now the Rideau Canal, she’s only jus’ put troo-
And Joe, he’s say: ‘B’gosh, I be big boss up dere too.
We are take dis raft to Kingston, and while we’re on the trip-
I’ll fight it out wit’ any man dat opens up de lip.
To make it Newboro Saturday night is bes’ dat we can do;
We have to wait for Monday, to lock de big raf’ troo.
On Sunday morning Joe’s get up, he’s feeling ‘bout right
He’s say to the lockmaster – ‘Have you any man can fight?”
Here is the first indication that suggests that the coming fight didn’t take place in 1834: evidently the canal is closed to traffic on Sunday. Such closures did take place but not until after the 1850s.
“We have no man’ lockmaster’s say, ‘Dat care to fight wit’ you-
Dey all hear of Joe Montfrett and de grat tings dat he do-
But over at Chaffey’s Lock, Bill Fleming I am hear-
Is mos’ bes man dat come wit’ Royal Engineer.”
(two more verses)
“Dey send Fleming up to Chaffey’s wen canal she is complete-
Tomorrow you will have de chance, give him his first defeat.”
Joe and two of his men row down to Chaffey’s, where they announce that Joe Montfrett has come to fight. Fleming is shaving, but comes down to face Joe.
“Dey send Fleming up to “Bill is come down on de lock, he’s tak a look at Joe,
‘Ho, ho,’ he’s say, ‘dey tell me dat you’re de great Montfrett.”
Joe is say, “I’m bes’ man on Gatineau, and de Ottawa river too-
I’ll be bes’ man on Rideau, wen I get troo wit’ you.”
“De Gatineau an’ de Ottawa,” Bill says, “You may be de boss of bot’
But no man has ever scare me, by shootin’ off de mout’.”
Bill Fleming, he is train, to fight it roun’ by roun’
He does not jump it on his man, wen he is knock him down.
But Joe is fight it any way, he’s use de knee and foot,
And wen he’s get it down hees man, he’s jump on heem wit’ boot.
(Ten more verses of back and forth knockdowns)
So for bout an hour dey fight, dey bote feel little sick,
Tree times again Bill goes down, before dat awful kick.
But Joe is get hard also, ten times he’s been knock down,
He’s leetle slower get him up each tam he hits the ground.
Dey bote are shaky on de foot – Joe can hardly see at all
Nex’ tam he’s get a right and lef’, he’s lay jus’ where he fall.
Bill, he’s pull it on hees shirt – he’s say “Tak ‘way your man,
Even do he don’t fight fair, he’s sure got plenty san’.”
(Three more verses)
Next day de raft is come to Chaffey’s, Joe Montfrett goes ashore,
Bill Fleming he is say, “Well, Joe, you tink you want some more?”
Non, non,” Joe Montfrett say, “I jus’ want shake de hand,
You lick me fair and square, you are the mos’ bes’ man.”
(Three more verses)
An’ now wen raft is pass at Chaffey’s de raftsmen yell and say
“Dis is de man dat lick Montfrett, Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!”
Now this is the story told me by Hec Berau,
His Grandpere was raftsman on the Reever Ottawa.
He was one of the men at Chaffey’s; tells of the fight he saw,
When Bill Fleming of the Engineers won from the great Montfrett.
One hundred years have passed – no raftsmen now we see,
And I have told the story, just as ‘twas told to me.
It’s impossible to verify or disprove this story, as far as I know. Looking at Lockmaster Fleming’s existing log book doesn’t help, since it doesn’t start until 1835. It does show that there were many rafts passing, but they were all small, from local people and not going very far.
Other questions arise: where did Montfrett start his trip; how big was his raft; how many men did he have with him; how did he tow it? It seems unlikely that he started from the Ottawa River and went up the Rideau Canal to Newboro. Why? Well, there is about a 280 foot difference in elevation, so he would be going upstream; not impossible, but difficult. Most of the timber rafts in the upper Rideau went down to Ottawa. He would have arranged a tow from a steamer to take him the other way.
Better yet – maybe he started from Merrickville. Fewer locks to pass through and only a 70 foot difference in elevation from Newboro, so a mild current against them would be workable. Smiths Falls would be a nuisance, with multiple locks in a relatively short distance, but if you’re this far along, what’s another lock to deal with?
From the poem, it sounds as if he had at least two men with him, possibly more, since he had two rowboats (“chaloupes”). This suggests that it was a fair-sized raft.
If it was too long and wide, then it would have to be disassembled to pass through the locks. Very time-consuming, but this is what had to be done. If it was small enough to fit into a lock (134 x 33 feet), he would not have needed so many men, but then the trip wouldn’t have paid for itself. But he wasn’t motivated by money….
Another interesting aspect of the legends surrounding Fleming and Montferrand is that they both picture the two men as having exactly the same attitude towards fighting. As we have seen above, Fleming didn’t start fights and always fought fair, as befits an English-trained boxer.
The same is true for Montferrand - he is said to always fight fair, but could respond quickly to an opponent who did not play by the rules.
In 1818, a boxing match took place in Montreal between 2 English army boxing champions. The winner was proclaimed champion of Canada. Montferrand jumped into the ring and challenged the winner. Montferrand won the fight with a single punch. In 1828, he fought another match with an English boxing champion; the fight went for 17 rounds, with the usual outcome - Montferrand knocked out the Englishman.
Captain Fleming has penned another interesting epic. He has patterned Lockmaster Fleming on almost exactly the same attributes as Benjamin Sulte patterned Joseph Montferrand. Fleming has patterned the French-Canadian fighter as a man who did not fight fair - Sulte did just the same for most of the English fighters.
- “The Fight at Chaffey’s - 1834”. Unpublished poem by Edward Fleming. Thanks to Maggie Fleming for permission to publish.
- “The History of Joseph Montferrand, The Canadian Athlete aka Joe Mufferaw.” Translated by Iris Neville. The Historical Society of Ottawa. Bytown Pamphlet Series, No. 74, ISSN No. 0823-5457. ISBN No. 0-920960-87-1.
- “Big Joe Mufferaw.” “Stompin’ Tom Connors. LyricsFreak.com©2014.