Digging up roots made easy

The Colchester Sun      November 21, 2002   Vol I, No. 11


Genealogical Society offers wealth of help


             Have you ever wondered where you came from? Or why you have the name you have? Or who your great, great, great grandmother Was? According to statistics complied by the Canadian Studies program at the University of

Vermont, nearly half of Colchester’s population is of French Canadian descent. If you fall into this category and have a desire to fmd your roots, you can begin, and quite possibly complete, your search without ever leaving town.


             In the Dupont building at Fort Ethan Alien, there are three rooms full of records documenting the births, deaths and marriages of the French immigrants who began arriving in the New World in the 17th century In addition to the bound volumes, microfiche and CDs which hold this information, there are census records, catalogues of cemetery inscriptions, Burlington City directories dating back to 1865 and military rosters from the War of 1812. Reference books cover everything from French Canadian history to common variations of French family names and feneral migration patterns.


             Since June 2001, the Vermont French Canadian Genealogy Society has housed its library here and opened the doors to researchers twice a week. For a $25 annual membership fee, you can access the materials - and lots of expert advice - Tuesday evenings from 7-9:30 p.m., on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by special arrangement. Nonmembers may use the library once at no charge and continue to do so for a fee of $5 per visit.


             On a recent Tuesday night, at least a dozen people occupied the three first-floor rooms maintained by the society. Most of them were in search of information for their genealogical charts. When completed, these fanshaped graphs document ten generations of an individual's ancestry and include 1,028 names.


             Paul Landry. a past-president of the society, has been at work on his chart for 20 years, but has one blank line traveling nearly from the center to the outer edge. He has been unable to move beyond one set of great grandparents who worked as itinerants in the logging industry during the 19th century "The problem is," said Landry, "I know they were married in 1857 but I don't know where they were married." Names, and the date and location of a marriage, are usually the keys to unlocking ancestral mysteries if your forebears were French Canadian. John Moreau, another member and avid researcher, explained why. During the 16th century, just prior to the beginning of large scale immigration to North America, the French government issued a mandate that all marriage records include not only the names and vital statistics of the husband and wife, but also those of the couple's parents. The practice was carried over into Quebec. For the genealogist, that kind of information is as good as a signpost pointing toward the next piece of the puzzle.


             Even in those cases where the church in which the marriage took place burned - not an uncommon occurrence - and the parchment document recording the event destroyed, the ancestral trail has not necessary turned into a dead end. Since most marriages were arranged, prenuptial contracts were cornmonplace. Those contracts, usually drawn-up by notaries, were considered civil rather than religious records. If a marriage took place in a church in Quebec, it is likely that the contract which preceded it is included in the province's archives.


             "You  can't  find  better records," said Moreau. Other ethnic groups in Canada and the United States were not as thorough in recording their personal histories. If your ancestry is French and English, your English relations will probably prove much more elusive than the French Canadians. Many French Canadians can trace their family heritage directly back to a military regiment sent to Quebec in 1667, said Moreau. There were 400 men in this regiment assigned to stay in Canada for an indefinite period of time. There were very few women available. In the interest of keeping his soldiers happy and settling the region, the French king recruited members of the opposite sex, provided them with dowries and sent them to the new world as royally sanctioned "mail-order brides." The result was a profusion of well-documented arrivals and marriages within a specific period of time, about five years.


             "But there are still lots of road blocks," said Moreau who, like Landry, is missing a line in his genealogical chart. One of the biggest challenges can be the family name itself. As the immigrants moved south into the United States, often the names changed. During a time when many people could not read or write, official records of arrivals contained some creative spellings and sometimes Anglicized versions of the original names.


             You can see the results of this linguistic confusion today in local phone directories. Gingras was written phonetically as Shangraw; Imblault became Amblo. Courtemanche turned into its literal English translation: Shortsleeve. Given that poisson is the French word for fish, Poissant became Fisher. Landry's wife, Janet, managed to complete her 10 generation chart only after solving the mystery of an ancestor named Whissel. In Canada that ancestor had been Loiselle. "That was a stumper," said Landry. Why go to all this trouble to get a few names and some sketchy facts about people who died centuries ago? For Landry, the impetus to know more about his heritage coincided with his mother's death. He knew she had been orphaned as a child and claimed some Irish ancestry. At her funeral, he found himself wondering how he was related to the other mourners. A search for a vaguely remembered "Aunt Sarah" led him to a wedding photograph taken in 1912. Talking to other family members over a period of years, he identified most of the faces in the photograph and gradually began to develop an understanding of the relationships between those people, and how he was connected to them.


'It is just names, then there's the history, and that puts blood and bones on the names.'   John Moreau


             One of Landry's earliest discoveries was that he was related to a former employer. More recently he stood on the tidal flats of southern Nova Scotia knowing that his ancestors had farmed that land more than 300 - years ago. His mother's claim to Irish ancestry, he now believes, may be as'a descendant of the Irish king, Brian Boru. After the king's death in battle in 1014 and the dissolution of a unified Irish government, some of Boru's progeny forged alliances with other countries and military powers, and eventually populated most of Europe, including France, with their descendants. "It is just names," said Moreau. "Then there's the history, and that puts blood and bones on the names."


             The Vermont French Canadian Genealogical Society was founded six years ago and began its library in two metal filing cabinets at St. John's Club in Burlington. The collection has grown and continues to grow, spreading from filing cabinets to shelves, microfiche files and computer discs. There are now about 250 members hailing from places as far away as Hawaii and Australia. Each spring the society offers training sessions in genealogical research. Fall conferences feature speakers with expertise in certain areas such as the French and Indian Wars. For more information, visit the Vermont French Canadian Genealogical Society's website at http://www.vt-fcgs.org or call