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The first generation of sailors – Zéphirin the adventurer

In the beginning of the 19th century, descendants of Nicolas Desgagnés had been living in Île aux Coudres for over 50 years. As territory on the island was limited, it was the eldest sons who inherited the land. The youngest had to exile themselves. Étienne Desgagnés acquired land on the north shore, in a range nicknamed “Misère” (misery), near the village of Les Éboulements.

A black and white portrait of a man. The picture is cut at the bust line. On it we see an aged man with short hair sporting a white beard under his chin. The man is wearing a jacket.

Zéphirin Desgagnés

Born in 1829, Zéphirin, son of Étienne, inherited the family property. He married a widow, Marie-Anne Tremblay. He practised subsistence farming. Some years the crops were more bountiful. Always the ingenious one, Zéphirin took a $1,000 mortgage to build a small 29-ton schooner in order to sell his surplus vegetables in Quebec City.


In 1864, this ship was christened the Mary-Ann, no doubt as an homage to his wife, its anglicized name a reminder of how the river and its administration were still under British authority.

And so it was that Zéphirin launched the Desgagnés’ seafaring legacy.

A newspaper article describing the cargo of Zéphirin Desgagnés’ schooner, the Mary Ann.

The Mary Ann at Quebec City harbour

When Zéphirin was planning a trip, he made sure to load his schooner with a shipment of goods he could sell in the city. Lower crop yields meant that he would have to go around the village and supplement his cargo with produce from the neighbouring farms, or take passengers. Once in the Old Capital, relieved of its freight, Zéphirin started to plan the return trip. He put up ads in the local papers advertising his departure date and filled the hold of his ship with varied goods he could sell upon his return to Les Éboulements.

View of the dock at Les Éboulements (Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive), circa 1890. This photo was taken from a ship moored at the end of the dock, the shore, along with a few houses are visible on the horizon. The wooden dock. In the foreground, a man stands in uniform. Next to him are a few children and other men. Some horse-drawn carriage in the background.

The dock at Les Éboulements


It was around that time that the Saguenay territory was opened for settlement. Zéphirin’s adventurous nature incited him to leave his village to settle in Anse-Saint-Jean. As he multiplied his occupations, Zéphirin—now a sailor, a farmer and a parish syndic—continued to prosper thanks to the family’s flour mill and cheese dairy. Of his seven children, four would reach adulthood. His sons Maurice and Joseph embarked on the family schooner and became sailors themselves.

Family tree. The name Zéphirin Desgagnés is written in bold, along with his date of birth and date of death. Under the name there is a pictogram of a schooner next to its name (Mary Ann) and year of construction (1864). Two arrows point to his sons and their ships: Maurice “Jimmy” and Joseph.