The Tree: A Fiddle’s Tune


August 7, 2012 by LeVoyageur

It is frequently the case when I am “doing genealogy” that mostly what I am doing is just ‘clicking around’ – following links in various databases, going off on flights of fancy, following other people’s un-sourced family trees with their spurious links back to Charlemagne. It can be fun, but it’s rarely time well spent. You can’t really call it procrastination when it’s a hobby, but you get the idea. It’s the genealogy equivalent of surfing the web.

Zacharie Cloutier

Image of Zacharie Cloutier. True to life?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of that. But on some days I actually get down to the nitty-gritty of researching mysterious family lines and uncover documents that prove links from generation to generation. Those are satisfying days and when they come along there are not enough hours in the day to enjoy the pursuit before other matters press in.  I had such a day recently, which drew me ever closer to proving my descent from Zacharie Cloutier, who arrived with the first wave of emigration from France to Quebec in the early 1600s.

I’ve tried to figure out why some days of genealogical searching just don’t ever go beyond the ‘clicking around’ stage. What I’ve concluded is that viewing names and dates is not inherently interesting, even if it’s your own family. On the other hand, I do enjoy reading old records and coming up with a timeline of life events: baptism, marriage, children, property, death and burial. A few simple occasions and a life begins to take shape.

After a while a database is just a database. What most interests me about genealogy are the answers to questions such as ‘who were these people?’ and ‘what kind of lives did they lead?’ Uncovering the daily lives of people through genealogy can be a difficult proposition. Most people were not notable. So how do we go about understanding them and their times? How do we put their lifetimes in context?

Making the Voyageur World

Making the Voyageur World

I have recently been exploring these questions in two ways: through my own French-Canadian culture as it has survived in my family and throughout historical New France, and through reading scholarly works that look closely at various aspects of French Canadian history both in a general way (such as the histories by Eccles and Moogk) or in more specific ways (such as Carolyn Podruchny’s Making the Voyageur World.)

With regard to this latter approach, reading scholarly works gives me the background to more fully appreciate the world in which many of my ancestors lived. I’ve learned about the challenges they faced and the cultures they gave birth to. In just a few volumes, this self-directed reading project has taken me a long way from the idea that ‘all French Canadians were voyageurs or lumberjacks’ to a picture of a culture rich in folktales, travel, encounters with other peoples, work, and tradition. Reading history confirms for me why French Canadian culture has not simply assimilated away.

With regard to exploring genealogy through my own culture, I have rediscovered how much you can learn through conversations with friends, strangers, and relatives. Of course, often what happens is I usually end such conversations or finish reading something and I have a whole new set of questions that begins anew the cycle of research and learning.

One recent conversation with an acquaintance I met via the FCHSM Facebook page helped me to begin looking at genealogy in ways that take into account the complexity of the past, including uncovering identities that aren’t always as straight-forward as we might assume. An interest in oral traditions led me to pair up with my sister to start a family history project to collect memories of family traditions and events from our own generation. A conversation with my cousin Dolly reminded me that genealogists can often get stuck in the past – but life is not all about the ‘old days’ and memories. Life and culture is about having relationships now, not just remembering them.

When I think of the many years I have spent doing genealogy, I often come up with the same image from when I began – of a little boy who was curious about ‘who we were.’ In every culture, whether it is one with many rituals and overt expressions of ‘who they are’ or one that is less overt, each generation is responsible for passing on their cultural legacy to the next. More than just seeking names and dates, that is ultimately why I continue to be interested in genealogy.

French Canadians, US

Population of French Canadians in the US, based on 2000 Census

French Canadian and Métis cultures, in their stories, traditions, music, food, and beliefs are legacies passed down from generation to generation. And while they may not always be on the radar of broader society, that does not mean they are not important, especially to those of us who claim them.  And in the main, there is only one way that future generations will be able to conceive of them beyond a vague sense of ‘something that once was.’ It is up to us. If we don’t tell our own stories, who will know them? If we don’t dance to the tune of our own fiddles, who will?

43 thoughts on “The Tree: A Fiddle’s Tune

  1. You’re descended from Zacharie, too?

  2. Loraine says:

    James, you are exactly right. Our generation will be as important to document as the previous ones were. That’s part of the reason I am also an amateur photographer and the family photo archivist. I love to pair up pictures with the stories whenever possible. We all have a story to tell!

    • James LaForest says:

      Thank you for the comment Loraine. It’s one of the reasons FCHSM is so valuable! It’s funny how so many families have a ‘family historian’ or ‘family photographer.’ In my family we have at least three of us with a strong interest in family history. Very lucky!

  3. Have you read my voyageurs blogs?

    • James LaForest says:

      I had not. Thank you for pointing them out. I think that was before I started reading your blog. It looks like a great series! I have put a link to your blog in my blogroll. I hope you have no objections, but please let me know if you do.

      • It’s quite the coincidence. I wrote then several months ago. Ironically, I also recommended Carolyn Podruchny’s book to my readers, but Grace Lee Nute’s book (The Voyageur) was my starting-point. Thank you for writing. Best regards, Micheline

      • James LaForest says:

        That is interesting! Since there is not a lot of literature out there on the topic, it would make sense that people with an interest would find the same works eventually. Podruchny’s take on the development of voyageur culture really resonated with me. I am looking for more on the folklore and spiritual aspects that grew up around them which is difficult to find. Best – James

      • I will post my list of voyageur blogs. Best, Micheline

  4. vanbraman says:

    Great post. Like you, I like to surf through family trees and try and trace my family as far back as possible and find connections to others. However, I have been changing my focus and have been trying to find out more details about my ancestors and the times that they lived in. Why did they immigrate? What were their contributions to religion, science, politics or the arts. What connection can I make with them?

    • James LaForest says:

      Sounds like we’re of a similar approach. I tend to move back and forth between seeking out dates and facts, then shifting to more cultural explorations. Thanks for reading!

  5. I love your post — the turning point of understanding self through past and present. A foot straddling both. Great job being freshly pressed!

    • James LaForest says:

      Thanks very much! One never knows where insights will arise. I feel lucky to be able to have reached a point of understanding, even though there is always more to do. Thanks for reading!

  6. I’ve got to admit that what I know about my ancestry is based on the efforts of others in my family, I haven’t got your expertise or understanding of research. It does help to put names and dates in context by learning what you can of the times they lived in, if there is any literature available. I am extremely fortunate in that I have a “gateway” ancestor, if she had not been part of an aristocratic family there would have been no documentation relating to her. As it is I can trace my family to a point in Irish history where information about them is derived from poems that were taken down in writing years after the events they describe. I find the use of DNA and similar sceintific approaches fascinating and I sometimes wonder about the change in physical appearance over the generations. Do I resemble someone I am descended from in any way? Unfortunately one ancestor had quite a lot written about her because of what I would regard as bad behaviour (I come from a long line of troublemakers!) who by a strange coincidence had a rather negatve encounter with another ancestor of mine, but I have to take into account the circumstances she lived in. She was regarded as something of a hero in her own time and I would like to have met her in person. I would also like to have met my paternal great great grandparents just before they experienced a terrible tragedy as I have their photograph and they seemed so happy. I think genealogy gives us all an opportunity to reach across history to real people, however much or little we know about them and I don’t think it does any harm if imagination fills in the gaps. Great post and well done on being FPd.

    • James LaForest says:

      Thank you – One of the more difficult aspects of family research is not only coming up with the scandals (although it is kinda fun too) but figuring out how to convey such family history to other, and whether or not its a good idea especially if the generations are not far removed. I have not yet used DNA for genealogical purposes. But someone’s DNA in my family was very strong as we all look alike! : ) Happy searching and thanks for reading!

  7. itsmecherry says:

    I found your humor very interesting. 😀 I had a wonderful time reading this.

  8. Great post. Genealogy research always gets my imagination going. I recently wrote about a discovery here in Ireland that linked people currently living in our area to the 3500yr old body of a child which was found in the same area. They used DNA testing to confirm the link. Bet that’s got you thinking now! too!! 😉

    • James LaForest says:

      That sounds like a fascinating story Ellie. I looked on your blog, but didn’t see it. Maybe post a link here? Thanks for reading! : )

  9. This is a wonderful post and well written. I have been lucky to make a great many finds in my short two years of research. In May 2013 I will make the trek to Italy to meet the family I have found there and to dig up as much as I can on the earlier generations.

    • James LaForest says:

      That sounds like a fantastic trip you’ve got planned. Italy is a wonder. Love it there. Genealogy has really become in a way easier and harder because of computers and the internet. Easier because so much is at our fingertips, but harder because there is just so much to sift through. Glad to hear you’ve made some great finds! Thanks for reading! – JL

      • Your welcome, I loved reading your post.
        Yes, the internet can be a mixed bag. For the most part connecting with my library’s History Dept. online has given me timelines and some document numbers. From there I physically go to the Main Library to wade through the mountains of “stuff” and I use the free library version of
        I used the internet to locate the current phone book for the Citta’ of my grandparents, found 43 people with my last name and wrote them a letter
        with old photo’s attached. The emails came like a Tsunami. It put me in the clouds for weeks! Now, we are connected via the internet and next year I get to meet them in person.

  10. Wow! That was really interesting – thank you!

  11. cool! i’ve never really thought about genealogy, to be honest, but this is really interesting.

  12. Love how you put this, never though about this!!
    Do you mind checking out my site, its new and im posting about everything and would love your opinion
    Thanks so much!

    • James LaForest says:

      It is a nice start! It’s kind of makes me wonder if Tumblr would be a better platform for your content. Not sure what your plan is, but that was my first impression. It looks to be coming together – it’s got a cohesiveness about it. Good job!

  13. Kinza Ahmed says:

    What a lovely piece. In fact, looking under the surface will always give you satisfactory and interesting answers that lead to more questions. As observers on this planet, we have a gift to learn and gain knowledge and its such a pity most people arnt interested in doing that.
    Happy learning, folks! And good luck to you!

  14. Great post! I love genealogy and how it allows us to trace our life to this place and time. It’s interesting that we know little about our ancestors personally, and yet their blood flows within us. Distant and yet so close. I’m from Bangladesh, so I am not blessed with a database that will contain the pasts of my ancestors. It would be great to know about my ancestors from centuries ago, but sadly, I’m restricted to the past century. But getting info from my grandparents is just as interesting.

    • James LaForest says:

      I often speak with friends from areas of the world where record-keeping was just not the same as it was in French Canada, for example. But it is wonderful to know that you have it in mind to learn about your family’s past from your grandparents. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and learned so much from her about our family that I would have never found in a database! Plus, you never know how far back there memories can stretch. You may find yourself quickly back earlier than you thought. But in the end its not all about the distant past, knowing about the lives of recent generations is just as rewarding for me. I didn’t know either of my grandfathers – I missed a lot in that way. Good luck! Thanks for writing.

  15. Georgianna says:

    Nicely written and very interesting. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  16. Jnana Hodson says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the problem of unsourced material found online. In my surname ancestry, we have the situation of the repeated references drawn from a book that leaped to erroneous conclusions. Countering that, of course, is very difficult.
    On the other hand, much primary source material is also being posted, allowing a researcher to peruse rare documents at home, at odd hours, rather than in limited periods after expensive travel. In my case, that’s involved church records from northern England from the 1500s and Quaker records from the mid-1600s. Online contacts, too, sometimes allow one researcher to contact another who has key information or insights.
    The real value of doing genealogy is not the family trees we construct, but the insights we gain into the alternative histories — the ways our ancestors lived, the struggles the faced, the communities they relied on. The scandals are part of that, whether we like it or not. It’s all part of the nitty-gritty that produced us.

    • James LaForest says:

      Jnana – Thank you for your insight and experience. More and more people I meet in the genealogical research community are very much on this wavelength, which I am very glad about. Its a very meaningful pursuit for many people. Also, I checked out your blog. I look forward to reading more of it! —James

  17. rivardbravog says:

    Reblogged this on Generation Gap and commented:
    James LaTree captures with gentle storytelling prose the value of family genealogy.

  18. I have seen the Cloutier house in Quebec near the banks of the great St. Lawrence. Seeing the house made me wonder what our ancestors must have thought when they came to this wild and beautiful land. The house is sturdy but also ornate and well-proportioned and very unlike anything that existed on this continent in the years when it was built. When I saw that land I felt connected to it immediately. Although my ancestors left it long ago, generations of them are buried beneath that soil. It was as if their voices were crying out. As if they were guiding me home.

  19. What a great post! You hit it spot on: “After a while a database is just a database.” And we couldn’t agree more – the trick is turning that information first into a framework (as you mention) and then into a story that is weaved together by intricate levels of detail. Great blog and we’re excited to see what comes next!

  20. Karen Blair (Cloutier) says:

    It seems we are all descendants of Zacharie. I am from the Chicago branch of the family. Apparently there are over 10 thousand descendants and counting.

  21. Dan Gaulin says:

    I have all the same questions that you wrote about. One in particular is that I want to make sure my kids (20-somethings) have an understanding of what it means to be French-Canadian since they grew up in cities with negligible F/C populations. And I couldn’t do that until I had a better understanding of what it means myself. In addition, I want to travel in Quebec/NB/NS with them and my dad so we can visit the land that our ancestors farmed and see the types of houses they lived in and speak with my Quebecois aunt, uncle and cousins.
    I also have geography questions. I made a map of my wife’s German/Czech immigrant ancestors, there are only 16 of them since they all came in the mid to late 1800’s. It ended up that were scattered throughout modern day Germany. I wonder if that is typical or if there were strong regional variations in the German emigration. At some point, I want to map where in France my ancestors came from and how it compares to the overall emigration. I want to understand the push/pull factors that prompted those ancestors to leave France. Like most French-Canadians, I have a lot of Perche ancestors including the first Gaulin family, Francois X. and Marie Rocheron. If I ever get back to France, I would love to spend some time in the Perche and La Rochelle.

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