Was the Death of Jean Houymet in 1687 Caused by an Outbreak of Measles
By Denis Ouimet (3)
Translated by Marc Ouimet (155)
In our last newsletter (1), we stated that the average number of deaths in the parish of Sainte-Famille was higher for the years 1687 and 1688 than the previous and subsequent years. We also expressed the following assumption: the death of our ancestor Jean Houymet or Wuillemet, on the 19th November 1687, could have been caused by an epidemic.
The object of this article is to try and give precise details on the cause of our ancestor’s death. We have few documents to help us, but we’ll nevertheless try to extrapolate in order to bring more light on the last portion of his life.
Indeed, Michel Barbeau notes that «the burial certificates occasionally mention the causes of death, but often don’t. It is interesting in those cases to verify if the cause of death was due to an epidemic» (2). In the case of Jean Houymet or Wuillemet, it is not specified. Thus, we have to speculate.
One source of information shows that in 1687, New France is afflicted by an outbreak of measles responsible for 150 deaths (3). Another source says «in 1687, an epidemic of typhus kills approximately 150 people» (4). Those two sources seem to be referring to the same events under different names. In both cases, it seems that the epidemic was strongest in the Fall of 1687. It is therefore logical to think that it lasted until the Spring of 1688. A third source of information states « In Canada, epidemics were frequent and disastrous every time. In three quarters of a century, we can name about ten that were particularly intensive: 1685, typhus; in 1687-1688, smallpox, with 500 victims...» (5).
The origin of this epidemic coincides with the arrival « of twelve Companies of Royal Troops in Québec City in May 1687, on a squadron of six vessels sailing from La Rochelle...» (6). Therefore, the passengers of one or more ships were contaminated upon their arrival in Québec City.
According to the Larousse dictionary, «measles is an infectious, contagious and viral disease, frequently found on children, characterized by an inflammation of the superior respiratory tract, a fever and eruption of red pimples».
The Micro-Robert dictionary, defines typhus as being «an epidemic disease characterized by a brutal and intense fever accompanied by a red rash». The red blemishes or skin eruptions being the common element, I believe, could have mistaken one for the other.
Both are contagious diseases; typhus (Bacillis pestis) is brought about by lice or rat fleas (arthropoda), transporting a rickettsia (some kind of bacteria). Flea bites infect the human lymphatic system. Internal haemorrhages cause the red pimples that darken with time and the victims die in a state of shock.
A short research has permitted us to collate deaths data for the existing parishes on the Isle of Orléans and the surrounding region for that particular epoch. This data is shown in the charts and graphs below.
With the help of the RPHD (Research Program on Historical Demography) (7) and of the Genealogical Dictionary of Québec Families (8), we have succeeded in finding the number of deceased per year and their age. We’ve put the data in two different charts in order to facilitate the analysis. Chart no. 1 consolidates the data for the parishes on the Isle of Orléans and those on the Côte de Beaupré between 1679 and 1694, obviously a few years before and after the death of Jean Houymet. Chart no. 2 regroups only the data for the parishes on the Isle of Orléans. Finally, chart no. 1 permits us to better visualize the statistics in order to compare effectively.
Number and average age of deceased persons in the region of the Isle of Orleans and the Côte de Beaupré between 1679 and 1694
a = number of deceased persons
b = average age of deceased persons
c = average number of deceased persons per year
- data not available
Sources : Research program in historical demography, vol. 2+ Genealogical Dictionary of Québec Families (René Jetté; PRDH coll.)
Number and average age of deceased persons on the Isle of Orléans exclusively between 1679 and 1694
Statistics for the Isle of Orléans
Comparing the data of five «small» parishes in a relatively small geographical space (island) can show the absence of exterior influences; on the other hand, one can imagine that the inhabitants of the island moved about more than we think. There was probably more movement amongst the inhabitants of the island and the communities located on the shores of the Saint Lawrence than we are led to believe.
Since we don’t know the total population of each parish at the time, it’s hard to evaluate the demographical importance of each of them (the last census of New France had been done in 1681).
For those colonial times, the number of inhabitants of a parish could possibly be determined by the date of foundation and the opening of the registers. Underneath, the dates of foundation of the parishes of the Isle of Orleans (9):
NB. In 1651, the point of Sainte-Pétronille sheltered the Hurons pursued by the Iroquois. In 1674, following an attack, the Hurons moved to Lorette (today L’Ancienne-Lorette). The parish of Sainte-Pétronille was founded in 1870 or 1872 depending on the consulted sources.
Analysing chart 1, reveals variable numbers and average age of the deceased but 1687 and 1688 show a marked increase in both categories.
Analysis of chart 2 and graph 1 reveal the following observations:
- the total annual number of deaths is always inferior or equal to 8 except for Sainte-Famille in 1684 (ten), 1687 (eighteen) and 1688
(sixteen) and for Saint-Laurent in 1687 (fourteen),
- the average age of deaths is generally inferior to 25 years old except for Sainte-Famille in 1686 (26.83 years), 1687 (38.61 years) and Saint-François (26.48 years),
- the total annual number of deaths for all parishes is normally inferior or equal to 25, except for 1687 (47 deaths) and 1688 (36 deaths),
- the average age of death for all parishes is normally inferior to 19 years old except for 1682 (22.5), 1687 (25.15) and 1688 (20.11).
In 1687, in the parish of Sainte-Famille, all the deaths except one happened between the months of September and December. The epidemic was at its strongest in the Fall of 1687. Remember the arrival « of twelve Companies of Royal Troops in Québec City in May 1687...». The start of the epidemic and its propagation, thus originated in the month of May in Québec City.
We can thus conclude that in the parish of Sainte-Famille, the number of deaths is higher than the average of the other parishes of the island and so is the age of death. We have to consider that after a certain number of years, families get larger and people get older; it is therefore normal to have more deaths in older parishes where there are more inhabitants. The average age of death is thus the indicator to understand that deaths are not only attributable to infant mortality but also to another phenomenon affecting every age group.
We have chosen parishes on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Three of them were established a little before and after Sainte-Famille.
For parishes of similar age, we should find similar statistics. It’s not the case for the number of deaths, but evidently in 1687, the average age of death tends to be higher in Château-Richer, L’Ange-Gardien and Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Does it mean that the epidemic would’ve had comparable or more severe effects on the older populations of those parishes? Certainly! Oddly, the number of deaths diminished quite a lot in those three parishes in 1688 while they increased in Sainte-Famille.
The parish of Sainte-Famille has 24% of the deaths of the nine parishes we have chosen for the period of time we have selected. The average age of deaths is also higher than the others. That parish would have been affected by the epidemic more than the others. Nevertheless, the number of deaths is certainly proportional to the total population for each parish.
We could point out and comment many more observations, but we believe that the tendency is obvious. Moreover, we don’t pretend being demographers or statisticians. We assert that the epidemic did affect those populations and particularly the parish of Sainte-Famille.
Was Jean Houymet one of the 150 victims (or more!) of the typhus outbreak? Maybe! We cannot be certain without written proof. It is nevertheless odd that nearly all of the deaths in the parish of Sainte-Famille happened in the last four months of 1687.
Life expectancy towards the end of the 17th century varied from 33.5 (11) to 35.5 years (12). Today (2003), due to progress in medicine, nutrition and physical activities, life expectancy in Canada is 76.7 years for men and 82 years for women (13). In 2017, it was 79.6 years for men and 83.8 years for women (14). Jean Houymet died at 53 years old, which surpassed life expectancy of his time.
This exercise has helped us better comprehend local history and living conditions on the Isle of Orléans at the time of Jean Houymet’s death.
1. Le Houymet, vol. 12, no 3, September 2002, p. 84.
2. Barbeau,Michel(1995).Epidemics in Québec, (on line). Association of genealogists, « (Page consulted again on the 28th September 2017).
3. « (page untraceable in September 2017).
4. ________(2006). GenWeb of Montreal, (On Line). « qcmtreal/Histoire.html» (Page consulted again on the 28th September 2017).
5. Trudel, Marcel (1971). Initiation into New France : history and institutions, HRW, Montreal, 323 pages.
6. « (page untraceable in September 2017).
7. Charbonneau, Hubert, Légaré, Jacques (1980). Repository of baptism, marriage, burial certificates and census of ancient Quebec, Research program in historical demography, volume 2, Isle of Orleans and Côte of Beaupré, PUM, Montreal, 389 pages.
8. Jetté, René (1983). Genealogical dictionary of Quebec families, from the origins to 1730, PUM, Montreal, 1176 pages.
9. Grenier, Roland (1986). Repository of catholic registers of births, marriages and deaths and of popular Quebec toponyms, Quebec genealogical society, contribution no 53, 316 pages.
10. Ibid 8.
11. « ( page untraceable in September 2017).
12. « (page untraceable in September 2017).
13. « (page untraceable in September 2017).
14. ________(2017). Life expectancy in Canada: the gap is narrowing between men and women, La Presse newspaper, Montreal,
( 12th July 2017 edition), (On line). « (Page consulted on the 28th September 2017).