The Tree: Wild Speculation or Thinking Outside the Box?


August 21, 2012 by LeVoyageur

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.

Dad at the Farm

Joseph LaForest 1926-1987

12 thoughts on “The Tree: Wild Speculation or Thinking Outside the Box?

  1. LaVagabonde says:

    Congrats on your 100th post and have a great vacation!

  2. vanbraman says:

    Have a good vacation. I know what you mean about mistakes in genealogy. It takes years to stamp out simple mistakes that get propagated. I am still trying to correct mistakes made by others and set the record straight on some of the branches of my family.

  3. A fine post, James. No sooner did I launch my first genealogical site some years back than I received a message from a noted Franco-American genealogist and historian disputing a “fact” in one of my articles. My error was based on a secondary source and I ended up changing my article.

    Independent verification of the facts with my own eyes is the only trustworthy approach and even then, I’ll check again. One of the drawbacks of Internet publishing is that sources and details generally do not get the complete and independent vetting and critical examination they receive in standard publishing. Any crank can (and does) say anything he or she likes and passes it off as fact. May I never be numbered among them!

    However, my own “rookie mistake” demonstrated the limitations of the type of research in which we’re engaged. It requires a firm attitude that it is more about learning than it is about knowing. It’s not just likely, it is *definite* that new research will come to light which will importantly alter at least the interpretation of our facts. It is possible to see the primary sources with our own eyes, to reason logically, to check the facts and check again – and still get it wrong.

  4. That was fascinating and full of human tenderness. Here’s to the next 100!

  5. This article says it all for me! Since I majored in both English and Anthropology in University, my approach to genealogy is social with a smattering of statistical truth.

    I thought also that just getting names and dates….etc. would be all that was needed.

    It was Dick Garneau [ ] that opened my eyes to the narrow view I had concerning my origins. It was my belief that professional genealogist had to be right—we indeed had to assume that we all came from France, despite the oral tradition that pointed elsewhere!

    The search for social truth must never be stifled. It must be nurtured and encouraged wherever possible! We are, after all, family—-not statistics.

    • James LaForest says:

      Thank you for your comment. I apologize for the delay in responding. The more I research the more I see the complexity of early Great Lakes life. I appreciate being able to explore it personally and share it online. As a librarian I am always keen to back things up with cold hard facts: data, records, etc. But the reality is we have to look at all sources of information to get at the truth of history, which in some ways will always remain unknown to us in full.

      Thanks again for reading my post!

  6. jody notarianni says:

    I too am a descendent of Antoine Deshetres. I am so fascinated by my genealogy I am always digging for new tidbits. I am related to the michigan Deshetres,( Louis Gonzague) My grandmother was a Dehate, sadly they are now gone. I just wanted to say hi cousin, I’m glad I stumbled upon your site!

    • James LaForest says:

      Hi Jody – I’m glad you stumbled here too! The Deshetres family is very interesting, although I’m just beginning to learn about them. Check back…they may feature in future posts! : )

    • Margaret Beach says:

      Hi, I am also related to Louis de Gonzague but we are named Beach and I live in Ontario. I have been to this site before but. Issed this post!

  7. Dan Gaulin says:

    I’m still working on my tree and will want to do more work to confirm things, but the outliers are the most interesting to me. If they prove out, I have a French Huguenot guy who married an English woman and moved to Acadia. They left for Boston when the French were back in power but a few of their sons stayed and married into a prominent French family. I have what appears to be a Scottish soldier who stayed after the Seven Years War and married a French woman. There are also three salt smugglers. I also re-learned that my paternal grandparents emigrated in the 20’s but went back to Quebec when the Depression hit and my gf lost his job here. As a young man, he worked in US lumber camps, sometimes paying the fee for a work permit and sometimes not.
    It is good to stumble on David Vermette’s comments here. His book, A Distinct Alien Race, is required reading for anyone wanting to understand the emigration to New England and the experiences of French Canadians once they got here.

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