GAMACHE, LOUIS (also known as Louis-Olivier), sailor, merchant, settler, and legendary figure; son of Michel-Arsène Gamache and Marie-Reine Després, dit Disséré (Dicere); fl. 1808–52.
The story of Louis Gamache’s life has been handed down through oral tradition. Since few official records of this legendary figure of Île d’Anticosti remain, it is almost impossible to verify the available biographical information.
According to tradition, Gamache’s ancestors came from the French village of Saint-Illiers-la-Ville. They immigrated to New France in the 17th century and after a number of years on the Beaupré heights they went across the St Lawrence to settle on the south shore. Some accounts say that Gamache was born around 1784 at L’Islet, the village where his parents lived. At the age of 11 he enlisted in the British navy as a cabin-boy. He spent several years sailing around the world, and the ups and downs of this tough existence gave a keen edge to his adventurous nature and strong personality. His parents died while he was away and on his return Gamache found himself alone. Tradition has it that he then went directly to Rimouski to set himself up as a merchant. But a fire, which completely destroyed his store, put an end to this undertaking.
On 11 Jan. 1808 Gamache married Françoise Bacelet, dit Casirtan (Cassista), of Rivière-Ouelle. The marriage was solemnized there and on that occasion Gamache described himself as a sailor. Does this description mean that the event took place before the Rimouski episode? Or that, disappointed by the set-back at Rimouski, he no longer considered himself a merchant and resumed his previous occupation? Unfortunately there is no way of knowing. However, it was with his wife and at least one child, Pierre-Louis, that around 1810 Gamache crossed the St Lawrence to Anticosti, which was then one of the most desolate regions in North America.
Gamache chose a spot at the head of Baie Ellis, the island’s only natural port. There he put up a house and outbuildings which resembled a fort. To defend himself, he apparently kept a large number of weapons and plenty of ammunition handy. Gamache found here the kind of life that best suited his independent temperament and his longing for freedom. He lived virtually alone on his part of the island, with his wife, children, and one or two companions. He hunted, fished, and engaged in shipping and the fur trade. Probably to prevent the authorities from searching his premises, he soon styled himself seigneur of the island, claiming he had bought it from a man named Hamel. But no evidence of this property transaction has been found, and it could only have been a subterfuge on the part of this odd individual – who, moreover, had no hesitation in detaining at his house for a whole winter a bailiff come to claim payment of a debt.
Gamache’s wife and his daughter Christine both died at L’Isle-Verte, apparently of smallpox. They were buried there on 10 July 1836. The couple had had nine children. In 1837, it is thought, Gamache married Catherine Lots of Quebec, and they had three children. Gamache’s second wife is believed to have died on the island around mid November 1845. At the time, she was alone with her children, of whom the eldest, a girl, was six; Gamache was away hunting. On his return, after an absence of several days, he found her dead and gave her a rough-and-ready burial, which was all he could manage.
Anticosti was cut off from the rest of the world during the long winter months, but in summer it was visited by seamen seeking shelter, provincial administrators, and adventurers. Relations between these visitors and Gamache were not always cordial, even though he was the keeper of the supply depot set up on the island to help shipwreck victims. Problems sometimes arose. For example, on 6 Oct. 1824, two Inuit brought an action for theft against Gamache. In his turn, on 7 Sept. 1830, he felt compelled to complain about the “continual pillage that occurs on the island of Anticosti” and to ask for “the appointment of justices of the peace on this island”; he even added that he himself was “duly qualified under the law to be a justice of the peace.”
Faced with the various dangers threatening him and his family, Gamache surrounded himself with a double protection, of both a physical and a psychological nature. The numerous weapons at his disposal could be useful against wild beasts and equally against humans bent on theft or prying. He also built up a rather disturbing reputation and deliberately cultivated it to inspire fear. He was shrouded in mystery and, according to legend, assumed a number of weird characters: pirate, sorcerer, ogre, intimate of the devil, werewolf, and will-o’-the-wisp.
Abbé Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Ferland* paid a visit to Gamache in 1852. In the accounts of his travels he recorded some of the legends surrounding this man. Gamache was said to have been seen standing on a seat in his boat and ordering the devil to bring a favourable wind. Moments later his boat was running before the wind with full sails while other vessels lay becalmed. Or, alone with invisible companions, he allegedly massacred whole crews and seized rich cargoes. He encouraged these stories by playing practical jokes. Thus one day when he was hungry he ordered two meals in a private room in a Rimouski hotel, letting it be understood that he maintained close ties with the devil. When the innkeeper asked him who was expected for dinner, he replied that this was none of her business. After he had eaten both meals, he summoned her in, and she almost fainted, for two chairs were drawn up to the table, both sets of dishes and cutlery had been used, and one man could not have eaten all the food served. “The next day,” recounted Ferland, “the whole township was informed that Gamache had spent the day before with the devil.” Not content with this response, Gamache repeated the exploit the following day, with even more fanciful refinements. In this way he acquired the reputation of being the “sorcerer of Anticosti island.” The will-o’-the-wisp legend derives from an incident involving a ship of the company which held a monopoly on trade with part of the north shore. While trying to escape arrest for smuggling, Gamache lit a fire on a small raft and set it adrift. When the ship neared what its crew thought was Gamache’s boat, they found only a “small fire which seemed to feed on the waters of the sea.” They concluded that the devil had come to Gamache’s aid by transforming him into a will-o’-the-wisp.
Louis Gamache is thought to have died on 11 Sept. 1854 on Anticosti, but no record of his burial has been found. Tradition has it that he died alone, and that a trapper named Goudreau found him several days after his death and buried him beside his second wife.
The stories surrounding Gamache far outlived the man himself. Even in the 20th century the residents of the island still recount the real or imaginary exploits of Gamache. An unpublished version of 1948 describes him as an agent of the government or a go-between in its contacts with the island’s Indians. In 1976 another facet was added to his personality, that of a wrecker of ships, and he was portrayed as a dwarf with a bent, stunted body.
His rough appearance concealed a generous nature. Those who knew Louis Gamache reported that he readily gave substantial presents to people upon whom he had played tricks confirming his legendary powers. They also quoted as his favourite saying, “The devil isn’t as black as he’s painted.”
ANQ-Q, CE2-3, 8 avril 1801, 21 févr. 1807. AP, Notre-Dame-de-Liesse (Rivière-Ouelle), Reg. des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 11 janv., 29 nov. 1808; Saint-Jean-Baptiste (L’Isle-Verte), Reg. des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 10 juill. 1836. Centre d’études sur la langue, les arts et les traditions populaires (Québec), Coll. Luc Lacourcière, enregistrement 3858. PAC, MG 30, D1, 13; RG 4, A1, 230, 241, 335, 368, 434, 544. Private arch., Catherine Jolicœur (Carleton, Que.), enregistrement 5197, 18350. Le Pays, 17 déc. 1859. Robert Choquette, Le sorcier d’Anticosti et autres légendes canadiennes (Montréal, 1975). E. A. Collard, Canadian yesterdays (Toronto, 1955). [J.-B.-A.] Ferland, Opuscules: Louis-Olivier Gamache et le Labrador (Montréal, 1912). M. J. U. Gregory, Récits de voyages en Floride, au Labrador, sur le fleuve Saint-Laurent (Montréal, 1913). Damase Potvin, Le Saint-Laurent et ses îles; histoire, légendes, anecdotes, description, topographie (Québec, 1945). P.-G. Roy, Les petites choses de notre histoire (7 sér., Lévis, Qué., 1919–44), 7: 98–101. J.-P. Drapeau, “Le sorcier de l’île d’Anticosti,” Le Soleil, perspectives (Québec), 1er mars 1975: 8–11. P.-G. Roy, “Les légendes canadiennes,” Cahiers des Dix, 2 (1937): 76–79.