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.


  1. Lots of French names preserved around here. Malheur, Nez Perce, the Dalles...

  2. My great, great, great grandfather is Hyacinthe Delage Lavigueur. I live about 30 miles from St. Paul. Thank you for your article. I would be interested in finding out your sources for information on Hyacinthe and the Lavigueurs.

    1. Paul, thank you for writing. It is interesting to learn that descendants of Hyacinthe are still in that area.

      The sources used to piece together the Lavigueur story in Québec (known as “Lower Canada” in those days) were the material available on microfilm at the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in Boston, MA. These sources include the manuscript parish registers of St-Eustache and Ste-Geneviève, the manuscript Canadian censuses of 1825 and 1831, the indices of the notaries practicing in these places, as well as Montréal newspapers that provided a tidbit or two.

      I believe I first learned of Hyacinthe’s marriage in Oregon from the Loiselle indices of Québec marriages. I found a translation of the marriage record in a book called Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest (St. Paul, OR: French Prairie Press, c1972-<1989>). That book I also found at NEHGS. This book also had a translation of the burial record for Hyacinthe and for his wife Marguerite. To fill out the context, I also relied on the Oregon Historical Society’s web page about St. Paul

      BTW, our common ancestors are our 4th great-grandparents, Jean-Baptiste Delage-dit-Lavigueur and his wife Marie-Josette Meilleur who were married at St-Eustache in 1793.

      Please let me know if I can answer any other questions.

    2. Hello my family line from Qu'ebec to the French Prairie consists of Plourde, Dubois, Paquette.Thank you for your article.Donelle

  3. Thank you for this information. I am researching the history of French in British Columbia as it was the working language of Columbia before the 1846 boundary decision. It seems that most of those from Quebec settled south of the 49th. The first governor of BC spoke French at home with his native wife and French was a common language in Victoria and Langley. Blanchet sent Bishop Modeste Demers north. St Paul Church appears to be the last building built before the area became part of the US. There is a possible connection with St Paul Hospital in Vancouver BC which was founded by a nun from Oregon. It is wonderful to hear that the French Canadian community in the French Prairie is well. Sam

  4. Hyacinthe and Marguerites surviving son Francois made his way to the Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada area by 1860. 12 miles north, Frenchmans creek was named after him.

  5. If some of you read French, there's a very good book on French-Canadian fur traders and woodsmen forgotten through time... it's called: Ils ont couru l'Amérique ISBN 978-2-89596-161-1 (

  6. Thank you for your interesting article. My fifth great uncle was Joseph Frederick Despart. Born in Montreal in 1797, he traveled west, settling in St. Paul, Marion County. He was married to Lisette Tchinouk, the flathead Indian chiefs daughter. I always wondered about the trip west and the transition from trapping to farming once they settled in the Williamette valley.