August 21, 2012 by The Editor
This is my 100th post, coinciding with a year of blogging! Now, I’m going on vacation for a few weeks and will be back writing toward the end of September. Thank you all for reading and commenting over the past year!
When I look at the recent generations of my father’s family, back to the early 1800s, I see six generations from myself to my great-great-great grandparents, and all of us have something in common. All us have French surnames and with one exception, all of those names are attached to people whose families emigrated from French Canada, either Quebec or French-speaking villages in Ontario, to Michigan, then known as New France. The exception is a French Swiss line whose family arrived directly from Switzerland and intermarried with the local French Canadian population.
There is so much more to identity than a name, but this point in common with my recent ancestors has played a very important role in why I have identified myself as French Canadian for as long as I can remember, even if I identified as other things over the years too. For 200 years or more all of my direct paternal ancestors are geographically, culturally, and religiously linked to one another, a heritage that began taking form in the early days of North America along the northern shores of the St. Lawrence River.
I long assumed, particularly when I began genealogical research as a boy, that this situation would be repeated among the many generations yet to be discovered. Despite family lore pointing in various directions I felt some pride and comfort in that assumption. I liked the idea of a long ‘pure’ line that would unambiguously connect me to untold generations past, from the Great Lakes, to Quebec, and ultimately back to France.
But this assumption I now realize was mistaken. In a way it was a rookie mistake. If only things were that simple – but then, they might not be nearly as interesting. It is only in the past few years that I have grasped just how mistaken I was.
For example, without going too deeply into my own genealogy, I have discovered ancestors with the nicknames ‘dit Portugais’ (known as the Portuguese) and ‘dit Anglais’ (known as the Englishman.) I have discovered 18th century couples comprised of early Albany, New York settlers who were Dutch and French; an Anglo-American married to an early Detroit Campeau; and finally there is my 7x-great-grandmother Capsi8ek8e, a woman of the Illinois or Kaskaskia tribes whose French Canadian husband had a distinctly Basque ‘dit’ name.
Again, these might all be considered outliers from the French Canadian ancestors who make up the majority of my paternal ancestry. But as I continue to research I have begun to question the lingering notion that when in doubt, assume they were of old French Canadian stock, pure laine as it were. Also, as I increase my reading of the early history of French Canada and of the Great Lakes area in particular, my conception of ‘who we were’ is changing.
My genealogical research has long depended on the work done by earlier genealogists including Dennisen, Tanguay, and more recently Jetté whose great works are standard references for anyone researching French Canadians. We are of course also indebted to the Drouin Collection, ever more vital to those of us who want to prove our lineages through actual records.
Yet all of the genealogical works mentioned include mistakes. All genealogists make mistakes. Once you are dealing with several hundred or thousands of names, many of which are similar and in overlapping generations, it is easy to become overwhelmed. And relying on established narratives of origin is all well and good, but what happens when those narratives are wrong, or even worse, based on ideas about ourselves that do not conform to the historical reality? In the past year, I have resolved once-intractable questions not through authoritative resources, but through oral tradition, hunches, and wild speculation.
This has led me in recent months to abandon the notion that anything is necessarily straightforward in genealogy. It has led me to begin thinking outside the ‘cedar chest’ of precious assumptions and to think more creatively in hopes of solving genealogical mysteries. Orthodox thinking is far too narrow when dealing with the multifaceted history of the world in which my French Canadian ancestors lived and traveled.
For example, I have an ancestor who was identified as an anglais de nation which is accepted as meaning that he was abducted from the English colonies and raised among the French. Does this mean he was English? What exactly would he have remembered if he was abducted as a little boy? And how did his family name written in some records as Camyelay become Kinsley? Another forefather named Antoine Deshetres was a blacksmith at Michilimackinac and of unknown origin. Deshetres is a common French name. But, translated into English it becomes Beech or Beechtree, a name found with great frequency among some Native American tribes.
Yet of the genealogies that include these men, one has been identified as Anglo-American in origin, the other as French. To my knowledge there is no real proof of either of these assignations. We find this despite the knowledge we have of the (Métis) culture that developed in the Great Lakes and Illinois Country through early contact, intermarriage, and trade among indigenous tribes and people of European and African heritage. In other words, when in doubt, some people have assumed these men were of European stock when the complexity of their culture demands closer scrutiny.
I plan to explore this Métis culture of the early Great Lakes more in-depth and will write about it in the future. But already it has allowed me to consider an entirely new perspective on ‘who we were’ and what my (largely French Canadian) ancestors experienced when they were part of a widespread Métis culture with communities at Green Bay, Michilmackinac, St. Joseph, Kaskaskia and other sites.
Discovering that my French Canadian heritage is more complicated than I thought has encouraged me to think more ‘outside the box’ as I dig into my family roots. And far from being disappointed in the diversity I have found, I feel enriched by the knowledge that my ancestors were involved in the naissance of the unique cultures of French North America. Who we are includes the whole story of who we were, and that story continues to unfold in unexpected ways.
In honor of my dad, Joseph LaForest, born 86 years ago today. May he rest in peace.