Monday, September 24, 2012

A Visit To Cajun Country

A close friend was heading off to graduate school. It was the summer of 1989 and I was visiting his home near Baltimore to help him with his preparations. He was moving to Lafayette, Louisiana to study at the university there. 

We loaded all of my friend’s worldly goods into a U-Haul trailer on a humid afternoon and attached the trailer to an army green, 1975 Dodge Dart. How this caravan was going to make it over the Appalachians was a mystery.

A night or two before his departure, my friend asked me to accompany him on his long drive. I made some phone calls to get some cash wired and to wrap up my affairs for a week or two. What followed was one of those sprawling, kerouackian voyages possible only in one’s twenties.

I am a musician and my friend a music folklorist and we took this opportunity to visit the South’s many music centers starting with Nashville and Memphis with side jaunts to New Orleans and Austin.

In Nashville, I encountered the most intoxicated person I have ever seen still capable of standing upright. She was in a modest café where about a half dozen Country singers, aspiring or over-the-hill, were passing around a guitar taking turns on one lonesome, late-night ballad after another. The superlatively intoxicated Pennsylvanian took many photos of the café denizens that night. I doubt she could identify a single person in them the next day although we were all the best of friends in the moment.

There are more than a few stories to tell from that trip: hearing the sales pitch of Memphis’s most inept hustler (he should consider a reliable line of work, like congressman); a close call with an idle deputy sheriff in southern Arkansas (idle, small town lawmen are the most dangerous kind for young males, with out-of-state license plates); and a potentially dangerous brush with three aggressive hustlers in North Little Rock.

Maybe I just have the look of a mark but it seemed that hustlers often beset these young travelers in the South while the North has formalized its hustle into institutions like Harvard and Wall Street. These digressions, however, distract me from my theme: the Cajun Country of Southwest Louisiana.

After our adventures, we unburdened the faithful Dart in Lafayette and pulled into some touristy place in nearby Breaux Bridge. We were looking for a beverage or two and some live music. As touristy places are wont this joint had a printed placemat like the kind found in Chinese restaurants, the ones that have the audacity to call you a pig, a dog, or a snake.

On this placemat was written “Are you a Cajun?” followed by ten questions. They included queries like, “Did your grandfather call you only by your ‘Ti’ name?” No, but we had a cat with a 'Ti' name of my grandfather’s invention. I answered yes to seven of the ten questions. I suppose that constitutes a passing grade. It seems that I had lived twenty-something years as an invisible Cajun.

My grandmother was an Acadienne, a Doucet(te) from Prince Edward Island. Her family tree is laden with Daigles, LeBlancs, Gallants, names common among Cajuns as are many other Acadian surnames. What I did not know at the time of my first visit to Louisiana is that there is a strong historical link between my grandmother’s Island Acadiens and the Cadiens.

There’s a common simplification that says, “The Cajuns are the descendants of Acadians deported from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.”  In fact, the Acadians were not deported to Louisiana and many of the Acadians who wound up there were deported not only from today's Nova Scotia but also from other Acadian settlements. By design, Le Grand Dérangement scattered the Acadians far and wide. Most of them were sent to the British-American colonies (the future USA), to Britain, and to France. Others ended up in other French colonies.

In the mid 1760s, a number of deportees came from Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) to Louisiana. Despite a smattering of Acadian refugees who had made their way to Louisiana even earlier, this group is recognized generally as the commencement of the Acadian Diaspora in the region. In the following years, a trickle of Acadians arrived in Louisiana from other places especially from Maryland.

When these first groups of deportees arrived, Louisiana had been ceded from France to Spain. The vast Louisiana territory would later revert to France before it was sold to the United States in 1803.
Romanticized Portrayal of the Acadian Arrival in Louisiana
Many of the ancestors of the future Cajuns were from among the Acadians who had been deported to France in 1758 from Île Saint-Jean, the future Prince Edward Island. In France, they were joined by some of the deportees who had been sent to Britain. About 1500 souls from among this mixed group of Acadians gathered in France came to Louisiana in 1785. They constitute a core of the group later known as Cadiens or Cajuns, although many of those who claim Cajun ethnicity today are not descended from the Acadians at all.

What I remember most vividly about my first visit to Cajun Country is the ubiquity and quality of the music. It was here that I first heard the musician/poet/advocate, Zachary Richard, dear to the French North Americans as a whole. On a subsequent visit, I attended the music festival at Mamou where I ate boudin while the Balfa Brothers appeared on stage followed by the (then) young upstarts Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.

In and around Lafayette I heard Creole Zydeco, Cajun rock, Cajun swing, and the traditional Cajun music, and through it all courses the blood of old Acadie, the strains of the dance music and plaintive ballads brought by our French ancestors to a wild new world.

Despite my 70% score on the placemat quiz I can’t really claim Cajun identity. Cajun culture is a mix all its own. Still, I discovered there something hauntingly familiar in the French accent, in the joie de vivre, and in the music of this people. My visits to Cajun Country planted seeds for my later ruminations on French North America.

Among this hospitable, festive people, exotic yet mysteriously familiar, I caught an inkling of how the pockets of French-descent peoples in North America are an extended family – separated by history and geography but a family nonetheless.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Naturalization and Leadership in the Franco-American Community at Brunswick, Maine

General histories of the Franco-American communities in New England have claimed that the immigrants resisted naturalization. The usual reasons cited include a desire to avoid paying taxes to two governments and to evade service in the American military. The Franco-American community at Brunswick, Maine, however, does not seem to have been troubled by such concerns. Consider this item from the August 22, 1884 edition of the local newspaper, the Brunswick Telegraph, page 3:


Meeting of the French-Canadians. A meeting of French-Canadians was held in the Court Room, Town Hall, Monday evening, Joseph Dufresne being elected temporary chairman, and Louis Trudeau, sect'y. Henry Ragot addressed the meeting in French, upon topics in which the people were interested, the result of which was the formation of a permanent organization. President, Noel Vandall; Secretary, Louis Trudeau; Vice Presidents, Exavier Payment, Ermenigle Coulombe, Telesphore LaPoint, Jos. Machaud, Frank Maturin, Jos. Dionne, and Henry Ragot, Marshall.

The subject of naturalization was discussed, the question being, shall the French take out naturalization papers or remain foreigners? It was unanimously decided to naturalize, and 53 were found to be ready for naturalization; others will be naturalized when they become eligible. It was also decided that all possible means of information should be resorted to, to gain political information. (Note: Names spelled as they appear in the original article.)

The article shows the communal, tight-knit character of the Franco-American group in Brunswick. Although some Brunswick Franco-Americans had attained U.S. citizenship prior to the meeting, the issue of naturalization was not decided on an individual basis. It was deemed a vital interest of the Franco-American community as a whole and the community met in a body to discuss it. A consensus was reached and a "permanent organization" formed.

Who were the leaders mentioned in the article? Since many of the Brunswick Franco-Americans were from the village and county of L'Islet on the south bank of the Saint Lawrence does it then follow that the majority of the leaders were from this location? Were these leaders already naturalized and therefore able to help others to achieve citizenship?

I researched these leaders using Naturalization Petitions and checked the information there against the Drouin Institute microfilm of the Québec parish registers. Where there is a discrepancy between the date of birth given on the naturalization petition and what I discovered in the parish registers I have placed the date found in the latter in parentheses with the parish name and the number of the baptismal record.
  • Noel Vandal, President: b. Sorel, 1845 (December 25, 1844, Saint-Pierre-de-Sorel, B. 323). Arrived in USA: April 1, 1860. His initial "port of arrival" in the USA was the state of Rhode Island. The 1880 census corroborates that Noel and his wife had at least one child born in the Union's smallest state. He was naturalized on April 4, 1876. No witnesses are listed with his naturalization petition.
  • Louis Trudeau, Secretary: b. Saint-Constant, County of Laprairie, October 1, 1849. Arrived in USA: November 16, 1866, Brunswick. Naturalized: September 10, 1886. Witnesses: Alexis St-Marie, Casimir Deshetre, and Henri Ragot of Brunswick. 
  • François-Xavier Paiement ("Exavier Payment"), Vice President, b. Roxton Falls, Shefford County, June 6, 1857. Arrived in USA: March 1, 1869, Brunswick. Naturalized: August 23, 1882. Witnesses: L. (Louis) Normand and P.F. Root (Philibert Racine, alias Philip F. Root). 
  • Herminigilde Coulombe ("Ermenigle Coulombe"), Vice President, b. L'Islet, September 4, 1858 (September 4, 1857, Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours (L'Islet), B. 143). Arrived in USA: June 15, 1871, provides no place of entry. Naturalized: August 28, 1880. Witnesses: Joseph Dionne and Thomas Gagné of Brunswick.
  • Telesphore Lapointe ("Lapoint"), Vice President, b. Kamouraska, March 25, 1857 (March 26, 1858, Saint-Louis-de-Kamouraska, B. 30). Arrived in USA: March 1, 1871, Brunswick. Naturalized: September 11, 1886. Witnesses: Philip F. Root and Andrew Libby (André L’Abbé).
  • Joseph Michaud ("Machaud"), Vice President, gave his place of birth as "Quebec." This could mean either a parish somewhere in the province or perhaps he means the city of Québec. Date of birth: November 19, 1851. Arrived in USA: April 16, 1869, Brunswick. Naturalized: August 28, 1880. Witnesses: Joseph Dionne and Andrew Libby.
  • François-Xavier Mathurin ("Frank Maturin"), Vice President, b. Sainte-Rosalie, Bagot County, December 27, 1864 (December 26, 1863, Sainte-Rosalie-de-Bagot, B. 55). Arrived in USA: July 10, 1868, Brunswick. Naturalized: September 5, 1888. Witnesses: Pierre Letarte and Joseph Dionne.
  • Joseph Dionne, Vice President, b. Saint-Alexandre, County of Kamouraska, July 14, 1862. Arrived in USA: 1870, Brunswick. Naturalized: March 1, 1884. In his naturalization petition, filed just a few months prior to the publication of the article transcribed above, Joseph gives his address as Lewiston, not Brunswick. His witnesses, P.X. Angus and John McGraw are Lewistonians. I’m persuaded that this is probably the man cited in the article above, but I can’t be sure. There was no shortage of Joseph Dionnes available in Québec and its New England extensions at this time. 
Although his name appears in at least two petitions as a witness, I have not been able to find a petition for Henri ("Henry") Ragot, the only leader who is mentioned as having addressed the 1884 meeting. Unlike almost all of the Brunswick Franco-Americans of the time, the census of 1880 indicates that Henri Ragot, born in 1850, did not work for the Cabot textile mill. He was employed as a glassmaker. Louis Trudeau, not surprisingly, given his role as Secretary was a clerk. He was not an operative in the mill although he may have clerked at the mill.

Although the naturalization petitions do not allow us to determine the last known Québec residence of our petitioners (which is not necessarily the same as their place of birth), it appears that the L'Islet Brunswickers were not especially prominent in the leadership group. The leaders of the "permanent organization" had their origins in many regions of Québec. I find only one representative from L'Islet among them.
Naturalization Petition for Theodore Vermette:
He must swear he is neither an anarchist nor a polygamist!

Five of the eight leaders identified above were United States citizens at the time of the 1884 meeting. Allowing for some inaccuracies with respect to the very precise dates the petitioners provide for their arrival in the States it is evident that the leaders had been acquainted with Brunswick for some time. Most of them arrived in the 1860s and all of them claim to have come to the States before 1872.

Among the leaders, the President, Noel Vandal, had been in the States the longest. He was south of the border nearly 25 years before the 1884 meeting. He was naturalized eight years prior his election as President.

The Brunswick Franco community at large decided that it was to its advantage to engage the American political process. This makes Brunswick an exception to what we read in some general histories and contradicts the messages about Franco-Americans in the mainstream media of the day.

This post was excerpted and edited from an article with the same title written in 2006.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Beauty in the Heart of the Land

There is a beauty in the heart of the land of our ancestors. Yes, lands have hearts. Their hearts not only beat, they speak. They speak with words that call out over centuries. They call to us from lakes and rivers, from rocks and woods and maternal soils.

When I first laid eyes on the St. Lawrence the river spoke. It called to me in silence and I responded in kind. To speak of ancestral memory begs for a magical thinking that is uncongenial to me. There’s no mechanism to account for such a thing, no iron proofs, no stony reasons. And yet, the first time I saw this river I felt that this is home. I grew up far from its banks and yet I knew that I was home.

We, the exiles, through poverty banished from this land, feel only her lack. We feel her absence, since absences too are felt and known: love lost, departed family members, the faith we may no longer know, the dreams abandoned in a cynical age.

Québec is called aptly la belle province. No one would mistake me for a photographer but in rural Québec pictures come easy. The picture below I took in 2005 at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli on the south bank of the St. Lawrence down river from Québec City. The colors are music here, the river and sky blending their blues, the clouds and mountains beyond the water providing an obbligato. There is a quality of light here, a crisp purity in the air, that is distinctly Northern.

St. Lawrence at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli

This next picture I took on that same trip, near L’Islet not far from where the previous picture was shot. On this autumn day a huge flock of migratory birds had gathered in the sky. I followed the flock until it rested on the banks of the river behind a large, long-inhabited piece of property. I tried to take a picture of the birds, but at my angle I couldn’t catch them in a photo as they were obscured by a stand of trees.

An old man saw me from the house peering into his property. He marched out of his front door with purpose and I felt a need to explain myself. “Les oiseaux migratoires,” I said and pointed to the white, avian blanket beside the river. He answered but I could not quite catch what he said. He looked over at my car, parked opposite his house and espied a USA plate. He spoke again in a labored English pulled from some long-abandoned, basement storage area of his brain: “I own…all dis lan’…and I say…you can go down!” He then abruptly disappeared into his house.

It was a command I dared not contravene. I went into his backyard, an enviable piece of property planted directly on the river. There the birds, hundreds or thousands of them, were in the sky and beside the river like dense snowflakes in an early winter squall. Toward the center and left of this photo below you will see the white specks, representing my best attempt to shoot the sheer numbers of les oiseaux migratoires. They too felt, by some inexplicable ancestral memory, that this was a home.

Les Oiseaux Migratoires
Near L'Islet

This last picture I took in a different part of Québec, in a place called Lyster in the Eastern Townships region. This was part of the former Nelson Township, Megantic County. This picture, showing the Bécancour River toward evening, was taken right behind the church of Sainte-Anastasie. If you look at the map in a previous post, indicating the location of my ancestor’s property in the 1860s and 1870s, you can see that the Bécancour River ran right beside it not far from where this photo was shot. I have used this photo as the background picture for this blog.

Bécancour River at Lyster

As I took this photo I couldn’t help but imagine my great-grandfather, who grew up here, gazing on this river on a warm summer evening, after a day’s work. This portion of Québec bears a resemblance to northern Vermont or Maine. It is not as startlingly different from my familiar New England as is the Saint Lawrence Valley. But this too is la belle province.

I showed some of these photos to a young cousin and, struck by their beauty, he asked, with great energy, “Why did they leave?”  For the 19th c. habitants, along with the French language and the Catholic faith, the connection to the land was a third element that defined them, the third geometrical point that defined the plane of national identity. Contradictory strains existed in this people: the restless spirit of the voyageur and the sedentary ways of the habitant. Demonstrating the latter, for 200 years my Vermette line moved not 50 miles or so from where my ancestor landed when he came from France in the 1660s.

I am firmly convinced that in most cases our ancestors left this land not because they wanted to but because they had to. So many of our people would not have left their land and their rivers but for the most dire of necessities, the necessity of life or death for their families.

There is a beauty in the heart of this land. This heart beats silently. It takes a sympathetic silence to hear her heart beating, and a still and perceptive mind to receive her beauty and to hear the words she speaks.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A French-Canadian Pioneer of the Oregon Country

The French North Americans played an enormous, unheralded role in the European exploration of the continent. By 1700, these pioneers had traced the great water highway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, via the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Great Lakes Region, and the Mississippi. By the first half of the 18th c. the land they knew as le Pays des Illinois in the present day American Midwest had farms supplying food to the French colonists of the lower Mississippi.

The explorations of La Vérendrye and son in the 1730s-1750s pushed westward to the modern day Dakotas and Wyoming, to Manitoba, and the Saskatchewan River. All but the latest of these adventures occurred before the Anglo-Americans had discovered the Cumberland Gap. 

French-Canadians of Québec were also pioneers of the West Coast. Among them was my third great-grandfather’s brother, Hyacinthe Delage a.k.a. Lavigueur.  Hyacinthe Lavigueur, as he was known in the West, was a pioneer of the area the Americans called the Oregon Country, but known as Columbia to the competing British claimants.

Hyacinthe Delage-dit-Lavigueur was born on July 26, 1796 at Saint-Eustache in the county of Deux-Montagnes not far from Montréal. Hyacinthe and several of his brothers, including my ancestor Joseph Delage-dit-Lavigueur, relocated from St-Eustache to the parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Pierrefonds not long before 1820.

At Sainte-Geneviève, one of the Lavigueur brothers had a next-door neighbor named François-Benjamin Pillet. Pillet was from a family of fur traders and was born and raised at Oka, a village in Deux-Montagnes then mainly occupied by Algonquins and Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”). Pillet was one of the famed Astorians, a clerk and free trader hired by John Jacob Astor for his Pacific Fur Company. In 1810, the Astorians were given the task of establishing a trading post on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

Pillet’s tale is a fascinating one I will save for a future post but for now know that Pillet returned from his Pacific voyages in 1814 having traveled over land to his home at Oka. Around the same time that the Lavigueurs arrived at Sainte-Geneviève, Pillet also moved there.

There were several connections between the Pillet and Lavigueur families. My third great-grandmother was a Cécile Pillet, the wife of Joseph Delage-dit-Lavigueur. It is certain that Cécile bears some relationship to the family of François-Benjamin but that relationship is, as of yet, unclear. The ties of family and proximity between the Lavigueurs and the Pillets suggest that it was through François-Benjamin's Astorian adventures that Hyacinthe learned of the Oregon Country and it was Pillet’s tales that probably inspired Hyacinthe to settle in this far away land.

Exactly when Hyacinthe departed for the West is unknown. His eldest child was conceived in the Oregon Country and born in 1830, suggesting somewhere around 1829 as the latest likely date for his arrival in the West.

Among the documents of the notary Joseph Payment of Sainte-Geneviève is found a procuration of “Hyacinthe Deloge” to “F. Pillet,” dated May 2, 1820. The term procuration refers to a granting of proxy or power of attorney and the existence of this document establishes a direct relationship between these two men. Was Hyacinthe giving Pillet his proxy in preparation for Western travels? I have not yet been able to view the complete 1820 contract, which might help to answer this question.

With the years 1820 and 1829 as the limits binding the departure of Hyacinthe Lavigueur for the West, I repaired to the 1825 Canadian census of Sainte-Geneviève to see if they could be narrowed any further. Although we see some of the Lavigueur brothers here, Hyacinthe is not among them. Arguments from silence are weak, but I suspect that Hyacinthe may have headed for the West sometime between 1820 and 1825. After the mid-1820s we hear no more of him at Sainte-Geneviève.

Most of the French-Canadians who traveled to the Far West in this era were, like Pillet, associated with the great fur trading companies. However, the traditional occupation of the Lavigueurs was menuisier, a joiner, a maker of home furnishings generally of wood but sometimes of other materials. Hyacinthe was a craftsman and no merchant. However, he may have signed on with a fur company as a means of reaching the West. How he got from one end of the continent to the other remains a mystery.

In the Oregon Country, Hyacinthe formed a relationship with a young, Native American woman he knew as Marguerite Colville. Colville was the name given by those of European descent to one of the nations of Northwest Native peoples. It was common to use the tribal designation as the surname of a Native American individual. Marguerite, who was born around 1814, is also referred to as Marguerite Spokan, indicating the region from which she hailed.

Hyacinthe and Marguerite settled at what became St. Paul in Marion County in what is now the State of Oregon where a group of French-Canadian settlers and a few others formed a small community. In the 1830s, the residents of the settlement began to petition the Catholic Church authorities to send them a priest to help them form a proper French-Canadian parish on the West Coast. In 1836, the settlers built a log church in anticipation.

On November 28, 1838, Fr. François Norbert Blanchet and Fr. Modeste Demers arrived at Fort Vancouver. Father Blanchet served the very first Roman Catholic Mass known to have been celebrated in Oregon at the log church on January 6, 1839 and dedicated the church to St. Paul.

A couple of weeks later (January 21), Fr. Blanchet served what became known as “the big wedding” blessing the unions between the settlers and their common law, Native American wives. Over time, the children born from these unions prior to the big wedding would be baptized. His marriage record indicates that Hyacinthe Lavigueur was “of the parish of Sainte-Geneviève,” Montréal leaving no doubt that this Hyacinthe was indeed my ancestor’s brother.

Marguerite bore Hyacinthe at least seven children. He worked as a farmer as well as a maker of pottery, ironwork tools, and housewares. He died on November 10, 1846 while performing heavy labor in a brick kiln in an effort to build a new church at St. Paul. His was the first burial of one of the French-Canadian settlers from this new church. His wife Marguerite died two years later on April 1, 1848 and was also buried at St. Paul.

Memorials at Saint Paul Including the Names of
Hyacinthe Lavigueur and his Wife Marguerite
(Courtesy of Deborah Guinther)

In the year of Hyacinthe’s death, the 49th parallel was established as the northwestern border between the United States and the British North American possessions. By this treaty, the St. Paul settlers had become residents of the United States. As an American Territory, the area became the home of peoples of many nationalities. At St. Paul, a small band of French-Canadians still find a place among the memories of the frontier.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Canadien in the American Revolution: The Reluctant Patriot Charles Racine

The American Revolution was a conundrum for the Canadiens. Under British rule for a mere dozen years prior to Lexington and Concord, the Canadiens faced an American invasion in the first years of the War for Independence. The British Parliament’s Quebec Act of 1774 had secured the privileges of the seigneurs (lords) and the clergy winning these elites over to the cause of Great Britain. The great mass of the population, les habitants, was ambivalent.

Caught in the crossfire of what they regarded as a civil war between Englishmen, the habitant's tendency was one of neutrality with modest aid proferred to either side in accordance with the shifting winds of war.

During the American invasion of Canada in 1775, a certain Charles Racine, my 16-year-old 4th great-grandfather, was driving his cattle southward when he encountered the American invaders in the Richelieu Valley and was taken prisoner. Why the Americans seized Racine is unknown. It would take little imagination to devise that the Americans chose to “requisition” Racine’s cattle, that the latter took exception, and found himself arrested.

After serving time as a prisoner of war, the Americans gave Charles the choice of joining their cause or remaining a prisoner. He opted for the former and officially enlisted on December 16, 1777, becoming a Private in Captain M. Gilbert’s regiment of foot under Colonel Moses Hazen. Congress had given Hazen the commission to raise a regiment in Canada, which, since it was not part of any State’s militia, came to be known as Congress’ Own.

Moses Hazen was a man of great energy and determination but of questionable moral fiber. From Haverhill, Massachusetts, of Puritan stock, Hazen’s military career began with the British army in the Seven Years (“French and Indian”) War. In the epoch of the Deportation of the Acadians, Hazen bore the responsibility for the burning of four men, two women, and three children in a house he set ablaze, as well as for the scalping of six others. One of the women and the children Hazen immolated were the daughter and grandchildren of an Acadian leader who was forced to witness these killings.

During the siege at Québec in 1759, Hazen’s party was engaged in raids on the countryside, a mission that probably included the killing and scalping of a priest and thirty parishioners in the country near Québec City.

After the war, Hazen followed the victorious British armies into Montréal where he partnered with a merchant and succeeded in land speculation and development. When war came between Britain and its American colonies, Hazen first sided with the British and then switched allegiances. Before gaining his commission from Congress, Hazen had already been imprisoned by both the Americans and the British. He was later court-martialed by the Americans but acquitted. During the course of his career, Hazen was jailed no less than 14 times for debt, and was in an out of lawsuits for most of his life.

With Hazen’s regiment, Private Charles Racine, along with many other Canadiens, participated in some of the most storied events of the American Revolution. Congress’ Own was at Valley Forge, took part in the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown in the Philadelphia campaign, and was present at the climactic siege at Yorktown. Racine served for the duration of the war and mustered out on June 30, 1783.
Uniform and Equipment of Congress' Own

In the war’s aftermath, the Canadiens who had served with the Americans were persona non grata in their native land since they had fought against their country’s sovereign. For a time they were under the ban of the Catholic Church as well. Hazen’s litigious habits, however, appeared to be a boon to the veterans since he pursued Congress doggedly on their behalf, securing them lands in upstate New York.

A return of January 26, 1785 confirms that Racine had been granted two lots totaling 500 acres in Clinton County, New York. However, Racine, like most of the refugees, seems never to have taken possession. The lands required surveying and the destitute veterans had no money for these services. Neither had they supplies nor tools with which to work the land. Their plight was exacerbated by the fact that they had become Congress’ own problem – foreigners and not citizens of any of the thirteen United States.

Racine tiptoed back into Canada in 1785. Evidently back in the Church’s good graces, in 1791 he married Josephte Desrochers at the parish of St-Charles-sur-Richelieu. After his homecoming, Racine sold off his New York holdings in parcels to Hazen’s nephew, Benjamin Mooers, who sent his agents into Canada to buy the lands of the Canadien veterans. Mooers eventually controlled about a quarter of these lands.

Racine worked as a carpenter and fathered seven sons and two daughters. He died at age 68 in 1827 and is buried at Saint-Damase, QC.

In 1855, the adult children of Charles Racine attempted to secure payment of the pension due to their late mother as a widow of a Revolutionary War veteran. They hired an American lawyer to press their claim and acquired affidavits from men who had known Charles Racine. These men testified that they had heard Racine speak many times of his service in the American army in the Revolution. These affidavits also reveal that Charles had documentary proof of his service but a 1795 fire had destroyed his house and everything in it.

One of Racine’s sons, Louis-Augustin, also testified under oath that his father had spoken of his adventures in the campaigns “near Philadelphia” and that Charles had mentioned Livingston, Allston, and Campbell as among the officers under whom he had served. Livingston had also raised a regiment in Canada that was folded into Hazen’s late in the war. There is a great deal of documentary evidence for Charles Racine's military service, but this was unknown or inaccessible to the Racine family in 1855.

19th c. Transcription of the Roll of Hazen's Regiment:
Charles Racine is No. 23 in the list of Privates
 
The only surviving possession of the fire of 1795 was the rifle with which Charles Racine had fought for American independence. His family preserved the weapon until about 1880 when it was dropped in a lake during a hunting expedition.

This rifle may well have seen action in the Québec Rebellion of 1837, in which Charles’s son Prudent Racine, my 3rd great-grandfather, fought. Three generations of Racines were involved in signal events of North American history since Prudent's sons, Philibert and Cyprien Racine, were volunteers in a Vermont company in the American Civil War.

I have no evidence to support the claim but I tend to believe that Charles’s war stories influenced Prudent’s decision to serve in the cause of the liberty of “Lower Canada” (Québec) in 1837 and perhaps his grandsons’ efforts in the cause of preserving the Union Charles had, under duress, fought to establish.

And all of this because a teenager, tending his cattle, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I would like to acknowledge my distant cousin Janine LaFleur Penfield for sending me a large collection of documents regarding the story of Charles Racine. Most of these materials were scans of primary sources from which the majority of this post was gleaned. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Repatriation Revisited

You are tired of life in the mills. You have told me so. Many among you have written me to that effect and I have seen it with my own eyes. Your financial status is not what it should be. For a long time you have served masters without hearts. For too long you have built fortunes for rich Americans. It is time to think about yourself and your children. Your fifteen to twenty-year experience in the United States shows you that there is nothing but the life of a mercenary here. Do you want to be truly free?…Do you want your independence? 

These words were spoken in 1910. Were they the exhortations of a Union organizer?  A Communist agitator? A demagogue running for office? No. They are the words of a Roman Catholic curé and repatriation agent Albert Bérubé speaking to Franco-Americans in my maternal grandfather’s hometown of Biddeford, Maine.

Michael Guignard, in his well-researched article “The Franco-Americans of Biddeford Maine”,*  quotes Father Bérubé in his discussion of the partial successes enjoyed by the movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to encourage Franco-Americans to return to Québec to colonize frontier regions.

In a previous post I discussed an article from a 1900 edition of the Brunswick (Maine) Record attempting to discredit the work of repatriation agent René Dupont. Guignard’s essay reveals that Dupont was a native of Biddeford. Dupont himself was a retourné, a repatriated Franco-American, and therefore well suited to advocate repatriation.
Are They Leaving or Staying?

That 1900 article from the Record bore the headline “French to Stay.”  Nine days prior to this article’s publication, the New York Times had published an article regarding Dupont’s efforts, based on the very same information, under the diametrically opposed headline “French-Canadians To Leave.”  The Times piece, however, adds a detail which the Record omits – the reason why Dupont expected many Franco-Americans to heed the call to return to Québec.
One of the reasons why the French-Canadians desire to leave Maine is that the Roman Catholic Churches in several places in the State have denied them the privilege of having priests of their own race. The dispute has caused bitter feeling, and the matter has finally been referred to Rome for adjustment.
[New York Times, December 22, 1900]
 

The New York Times had been covering the repatriation movement since at least 1883 when the following item appeared.
WOOING BACK THE FRENCH CANADIANS
OTTAWA, May 1. – In moving for a statement in Parliament last night showing all the sums of money expended since 1875 to secure the repatriation of French Canadians who have emigrated to the United States, Mr. Tasse stated that it was done with a view to regaining to Canada thousands of French Canadians who have sought in less favorable times employment in the neighboring Republic. There are at present, it is estimated, 300,000 French Canadians in the United States, and the subject of repatriation has on more than one occasion engaged the attention of Parliament…In 1881 10,000 Canadians returned from the United States and in 1882 20,000. 
[New York Times, May 2, 1883]

These figures might have been a cause for optimism on the part of repatriation advocates. However, they do not take into account the number of Canadiens who departed Québec in 1881 and 1882. The rising tide of returnees may be a lagging indicator of the growing number of emigrants leaving the Province.

A more detailed article regarding a specific case of repatriation appeared in the same newspaper three years later.
RETURNING TO QUEBEC
FRENCH CANDIANS LONGING FOR THEIR NATIVE PROVINCE
MONTREAL, Quebec, Sept. 12. – Negotiations have just been concluded here with the Government of this Province and the Montreal Colonization Society, at the head of which is Archbishop Fabre, by Dr. Johnson La Paline of Lawrence, and Camille Roussin, a merchant, of Lowell, Mass., who were duly appointed delegates of 105 heads of French Canadian families in those towns and the neighboring country to make arrangements for their return to this Province. These French Canadians wish to return to Canada and settle on land in their native Province, as many others have already done. A contract has been entered into by the delegates by which 50,000 acres of land in the La Lievre and La Rouge Valleys, in the Ottawa district, have been secured for the settlement of families whose intention it is to come when the clearing of the land and the building of houses is completed, a special fund having been subscribed for these purposes. They will come in an organized body and take possession, provided with implements to till the land. Many have already returned through the exertions of Father La Belle, who has been a pioneer in colonizing the district in question, which is of great extent. Those who have come have been very successful, being more progressive than before they left their own Province. The present movement is expected to be the beginning of an extensive repatriation of the French element.
[New York Times, September 13, 1886]

The region to which the Lawrence and Lowell families were to be repatriated, described as “the Ottawa district,” is in Western Québec. La Lievre River is directly north of Ottawa, while the river La Rouge is to its east, situated northwest of Montréal.

The terms of the contract were quite favorable. The land would be cleared and houses built prior to the arrival of the repatriated families. Agricultural tools would be provided as well. It is most likely that these 105 families came, as did my forebears, from the class of landless journaliers or day-laborers. If they had owned lands in Québec it stands to reason that they would have returned to those.

The article also claims that, “many others have already” returned to Québec, confirmed by the earlier piece from 1883, and that these prior returnees had been “very successful.” They are characterized as “more progressive than before they left their own Province” and high hopes are expressed for “an extensive repatriation” of Franco-Americans.

All of these assertions contradict the spirit of the 1900 article from the Brunswick Record, which seeks to debunk the entire repatriation enterprise as unnecessary and based on unsubstantiated facts.

The above research suggests that there was some legislative corpus under both the Ottawa and the Québec governments regarding the repatriation of Franco-Americans. Are these laws and policies still on the books? Could freshly cleared land await us in Western Québec or the Lac Saint-Jean regions?  Does any Franco-American lawyer wish to press a claim for repatriation?

I am only half joking.

*Michael Guignard's essay appears in Steeples and Smokestacks: A Collection of Essays on the Franco-American Experience in New England, ed. Claire Quintal, Worcester: Assumption College, 1996, pp 122-144. The passage from Fr. Bérubé cited above appears on page 133.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

An Acadian’s Stand for Tenants' Rights: The Tale of Joseph Doucette

Poor Doucette…his sooty forge shall never again…resound to the music of the hammer and the anvil. These harmonious sounds will never more…gladden the wife's heart; and the helpless family, within whose circle peace and plenty once reigned, will be cast upon the cold charity of the world.
Charlottetown Herald (January 31, 1866)

The “poor” blacksmith in question was my maternal great-great grandfather, Joseph Doucette (1826-1899). The story of the incident that separated him from his home and hearth was handed down in my family. Thanks to my sister’s research we now have a more complete picture of a man known as Tenant League Joe.

My grandmother was an Acadienne. Her Doucette ancestors had left mainland Acadia circa 1741 to settle the island that they knew as Île Saint-Jean. After Le Grand Dérangement – an atrocity of the Seven Years War known in English as the Deportation of the Acadians the Doucettes returned to the island. The treaty ending the war had ceded the island to Great Britain. It was later renamed Prince Edward Island.

In 1767, four years after the treaty, King George III divided the island into 67 lots, 66 of which were sold by lottery. Most of the buyers had close ties to the Court. The fate of many of the survivors among the Acadians who returned to the island was to find themselves tenant farmers on British lands held by overseas proprietors. The majority of the immigrants who came to the island in the 19th c. from Great Britain and Ireland were also tenant farmers under absentee proprietors.

The system of absentee landlords was flawed since such a proprietor has little stake in the community. The land had been sold under the condition that the landlords met certain obligations regarding development of their properties but in most cases the proprietors did not abide by these terms. Record keeping was poor and the collection of rents was erratic. An 1860 commission, including two of three members hired by the proprietors themselves, found that the record keeping was so poor that it was unreasonable for a landlord to hold any tenant responsible for more than two years rent in arrears.

Pressure to end this leasehold system of land tenure rose throughout the first half of the 19th century. In the 1830s and 1840s attempts were made to influence the proprietors to sell their lands to the tenants at a fair price. Tax schemes, royal commissions, and overseas delegations failed to convince the proprietors to loosen their grip. 

Having failed through these means to end the leasehold system, in 1864 the tenant farmers formed an alliance known as the Tenant League. The Tenant League was multicultural and boasted 11,000 members. The League’s aim was to withhold rent and force the proprietors to sell. Local chapters of the League would negotiate terms of sale with the proprietors in each district. When the authorities came to enforce the collection of rents, the Leaguers would support one another in their resistance. Tin trumpets, sounding from farm to farm, were used to signal the Leaguers to come to each other’s aid.

On July 18, 1865, Deputy Sheriff James Curtis with three bailiffs came to serve writs against two farmers in arrears on their rent. The tin horns sounded and the Tenant Leaguers moved to halt the Deputy’s mission. Curtis and his bailiffs seized a horse, wagon, saddle, and harness belonging to James Proctor, one of the farmers under writ, as surety against payment of rent. After repairing to the Curtisdale Hotel, the Deputy and his men encountered a group of Tenant Leaguers demanding the return of Proctor’s goods.

What followed was an ugly confrontation in which one of the Leaguers, Joseph Doucette, a farmer as well as a blacksmith, attacked Curtis with a fence post, shattering his arm. Proctor’s goods were rescued and the Tenant Leaguers escaped. After further incidents, on August 1st, the island authorities requested that British regulars be sent from Halifax on the mainland to quell what was perceived as an incipient rebellion against Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

Joseph had immediate motives for his actions on behalf of the Tenant League. A warrant had been issued for the arrest of his septuagenarian father, Fabien, for supposedly owing 19 years of back rent. Both men vehemently denied this claim and such a charge flew in the face of the general findings of the 1860 commission.

On August 15, 1865, Sheriff Thomas Dodd and nine armed men were sent with a warrant for the arrest of Joseph Doucette for “riot, assault, and rescue” of the property seized from Proctor. Anticipating arrest, Doucette had men stationed in outbuildings on his property and in his house as well. Expecting the Sheriff’s approach by night, the men outside the main house had fallen asleep when the Sheriff and his force arrived at about five in the morning.

The posse broke down the door of the house after having been refused entry and after Doucette had put his head out the window to blow his signal trumpet. The posse heard the signal repeat in the distance. A pitched battle then occurred between the Doucette family and supporters, and the Sheriff and his men.

The family, including my teenage great-grandfather Felix, took refuge on the second floor with several others. When one of the Sheriff’s men tried to enter the second floor through a window, one of the women cold-cocked him with a pot. Doucette and his men held the stairs with sticks and on more than one occasion repelled the posse’s assault.
Arrest of Joseph Doucette
Halifax Morning Chronicle
August 22, 1865

Deputy Sheriff Curtis then ordered his son to charge the stairs with fixed bayonet. A shot was fired which the lawmen claimed was aimed at no one in particular. However, our family story says that Joseph had a “British ball” in his leg for the rest of his life as well as a cleft in his head where he was struck with a pistol. This armed charge broke the resistance. Doucette was dragged by his hair down the stairs and arrested.

At his trial, the Islander newspaper (January 26, 1866) described Doucette as “a Frenchman, tall and muscular, of middle age, and bearing on his countenance traces of an excitable and turbulent nature.”  In the case of The Queen vs. Joseph Doucette, the accused received a two-year jail term for the assault on the Deputy Sheriff and the resistance at his home, as well as a fine of 20 pounds.

The conviction of Joseph Doucette and two fellow Tenant Leaguers became a cause célèbre. A petition with 5,275 names was gathered and, reportedly through the agitation of his progressive, québécois parish priest, Georges-Antoine Belcourt, Doucette was released on August 1, 1866 and his fine excused.

The family history says that Joseph suffered for the remainder of his days from physical wounds as well as from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1875, ten years after the Tenant League Riots, Joseph was deposed by a commission that resolved the land dispute in favor of the tenants.

In his deposition he gave an Acadian’s view of the essence of this struggle: “I have resisted paying rent because I thought it was not due…When the treaty was made, the French were offered to be allowed to remain if they would take the oath [of allegiance to the British Crown]. They did so, but they were not treated right…It was this grievance that made me fight so well in the Tenant League.”

I would like to acknowledge my sister Joan Vermette who did the primary research on our Acadian line and who collected the documents regarding the story of Joseph Doucette. I have also relied on the article “Tenants and Troopers: The Hazel Grove Road, 1865-1868” by Peter McGuigan (The Island Magazine, Fall/Winter 1992, pp 22-28) and the book The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, 1864-1867 by Ian Ross Robertson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, cf. esp. 172-5).