Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Line of Patriots

Since we in the USA have just celebrated Memorial Day, I decided to discuss a problem posed by my grandfather’s brother, Frank Chosa. In August 1942 (9 months after Pearl Harbor) Great-Uncle Frank gave an interview to his local newspaper, the Ely Miner, about the many Chosas who had already signed on to defend their country, and about the long family history of military service (which has continued to this day, by the way). Great-Uncle Frank (who was 74 at the time) specifically stated that his father, (my Great-Grandfather Joseph Chosa/Chaussé) had served in his country’s military “for many years”.

I discovered the interview about two years ago in the Minnesota newspaper microfilms held at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota. (You can search their excellent website, which includes a catalog of their vast collection. You can search the catalog for the names of individuals as subjects or authors; there are also searchable indexes of state vital records as well. Just follow the links and explore the site.)

I was reasonably sure Great-uncle Frank hadn’t just made the story up: he had two brothers living in the same area of northern Minnesota who read the Ely Miner regularly. Grandpa Henry and Great-Uncle Leo were notoriously honest and would surely would have challenged him if there weren’t at least a kernel of truth in Frank’s assertion. So I set out to look for that kernel of truth.

Well, I already knew that Great-Grandfather Joseph had not served in the American Civil War, although two of his brothers had. So I began considering other possible wars in which Great-Grandfather might have served. I was handicapped by the lack of any proof as to when he crossed the border to the USA: it could have been any time up to his marriage in Michigan in June 1855. Joseph might have arrived in the US sometime during the mid-1840’s, for example, in time to take part in the USA’s war with Mexico 1846-48. The Joseph I believed to be my great-grandfather was born would have been 13 in 1846 and 15 in 1848: a highly unlikely participant unless he was some general’s personal servant or a bugle boy, but not an utterly impossible one.

When the 1851 Census of Canada came online at, the first thing I did was to see whether the Joseph Chaussé I had already identified as my great-grandfather (born at Ste-Elisabeth, Joliette, Quebec in August 1833 to Joseph Han-dit-Chaussé and Catherine Lavoie) was still in Quebec as of the official census date of Sunday night, 11 January 1851.

Well, the census showed that Joseph was there at Ste-Élisabeth on that date, with his parents and all but one of his siblings, who was still in the same parish, working for another farmer. (Much of the 1861 census was lost, including, alas, the record for this entire family.) This meant that since he hadn’t emigrated as of the census date, this Joseph Chaussé couldn’t have been a US soldier in the Mexican war.

Now, I already knew that Great-Uncle Frank was mistaken as to his father’s dates: on the tombstone he erected on his father’s grave, the dates are shown as 1812-1921. The birth year is about two decades out of whack with his age in the US censuses and his stated age of 21 in his 1855 marriage record; his Baraga County, Michigan, death certificate gives his date of death as 8 October 1919.

As I have stated before, you never know who supplied the information as to age to the census taker, and before the 20th century many people did not keep track of their own age anyway. Joseph Chosa’s census ages (which do not agree with one another) and stated marriage age could have been erroneous—although I was inclined to believe the marriage age of 21 matched fairly well with his appearance. Frederic Baraga (by then the first bishop of the diocese of Marquette) presided over the marriage ceremony at the Assinins mission which he had founded in Assinins, Michigan, and he was a pretty shrewd individual.

I concluded that if Great-Grandfather Joseph had ever been a military man it almost certainly must have been while he was still living in Canada. But Canada’s military history between 1800 and 1855 (when Joseph Chosa married in Michigan) consisted of only two conflicts: the War of 1812 (obviously out even if Great-Uncle Frank was correct in his belief that his father was born in 1812), and the Peasants Rebellion (aka the Patriots Rebellion) of 1837-38, when the Joseph I had identified as my great-grandfather was only 4-5 years old.

Now, if I had linked my great-grandfather to the wrong family, my whole chain of reasoning fell apart and I had collected hundreds of records for the wrong set of ancestors. I simply had to determine whether Great-Grandfather Joseph could have served in any Canadian military unit before emigrating to the USA.

To explain what I did, I need to take you through a quick review of some Quebec history during the 18th and 19th centuries.

As a result of the Seven Years’ War (aka the French and Indian War on this side of the Atlantic), the French Regime in Canada ended in 1760 and New France became the property of Great Britain, although the Treaty of Paris (which officially ended the war) was not signed until 1763. In the meantime, the occupying British had wisely decided to permit the French-speaking inhabitants of their new Canadian real estate to continue to use their native language, retain their property and customs, be governed by most provisions of French civil law, and in general to live as they had always lived.

They continued this policy after the treaty was signed. The Catholic Church no longer had absolute sway over the spiritual lives of all of what had been New France; a wave of non-Catholic immigrants, mostly British, built their own houses of worship, but there were no forced conversions either way. Transcriptions of the Catholic and non-Catholic registers of births, marriages, and deaths were (and are now) made to be deposited with the civil authorities; some of those civil copies are the only ones that have survived. Human nature being what it is, soon there were intermarriages between the French speakers and the speakers of English.

However, there was a also takeover of the seigneurial system of land ownership, the lucrative fur trade, and the development of industry by English-speaking immigrants who considered themselves inherently superior to everyone else. The new British seigneurs who began to buy out the French seigneurs demanded higher exactions of the French tenant farmers (habitants). French voyageurs were still welcome to do the heavy work of the fur trade but French businessmen began to be ousted from the management levels of the fur-trade companies. French who weren’t wealthy were looked down upon as lacking in ambition and intelligence.

It is axiomatic that a conquered people is not a happy one; the British were aware of this and did in fact make a serious effort to make the transition more palatable for the French-speaking inhabitants of what had been New France. They allowed Francophones to vote, to run for office, and to head the local militias. They got nervous when their colonies south of Canada successfully broke away from British rule to become the United States of America, and even more nervous when the French monarchy fell, clearing the way for the rise of Napoleon and ten years of war.

But they were shocked to the core when their peaceful system in Canada began to fall apart in the early 1830s, when three successive years of poor harvests naturally created unrest among the peasant farmers. They were horrified and outraged when the resentment of the supposedly long-pacified French-speaking peasants turned into an outright Patriots Rebellion (also known as the Peasants Rebellion) in 1837. Many members of the local militias in Quebec joined the rebellion; others tried to remain neutral, or supported the government.

For a full account of the rebellion, its causes, events, and aftermath, I strongly recommend Allan Greer’s The Patriots and the People, The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada (University of Toronto Press: paperback edition reprint 1996).

Now, Great-Uncle Frank must have gotten his idea about family participation in war from somewhere, most likely from his father’s reminiscences about his family’s history. So in addition to reading Allan Greer’s book, I google-searched the 1837 rebellion and hit pay dirt: a website dedicated to the rebellion which included a searchable list of the participants. Among the the Berthier contingent I found the names of Joseph Chaussé père and Joseph Chaussé fils.

(The site I found then seems to have vanished, but a new Patriots Rebellion site also includes a searchable list of the participants. The site is entirely in French, but if you want to find out if one of your ancestors was involved in the rebellion, this page of the site is not difficult to use. Enter your ancestral surname in the box labeled “Entrez une chaîne de lettres correspondant au nom de famille recherché” and then click on the >> next to the box; you can also search for a list of every rebel in a particular parish or area in the box “Cherchez tous les individus d’une région”: select a locality in the pulldown TOUS (meaning “all” if you want to search all localities), then click on the >> next to the box.)

Now, “Berthier” in general use means the town of Berthierville aka Berthier-en-Haut (“Upper Berthier”) and/or the parish of Ste-Genevieve de Berthier in Berthier County, as distinguished from Berthier-en-Bas (“Lower Berthier”), which is much farther north. Note that in Canadian geography, “Upper Canada” (including the province of Ontario) is south, adjacent to the USA, and “Lower Canada” (including the province of Quebec) is northwards, which is confusing if you look at a map, where north is at the top. I still have to stop and think about that. But the designation comes from the fact that the St. Lawrence River—the easiest travel route for new settlers in a roadless land—flows from south to north, so “upriver” is south and “downriver” is north, and the designation stuck.)

Now, Ste-Élisabeth, where Great-Grandfather Joseph was born, is just a few miles inland from the St. Lawrence River from Berthierville and had been part of that town's parish until it became a separate parish in 1802. (Ste-Élisabeth is technically in Joliette County, but propinquity is what counts here: you have no more difficulty passing from one county to another in Canada than you have in the United States.) Therefore, it was perfectly reasonable that would-be rebels living in rural Ste-Élisabeth would go to the much larger town of Berthierville to sign up.

There were a lot of Chaussés in the general area of Berthier, but there was only ONE father and son in the neighborhood of a suitable age who were both named Joseph Chaussé. The Joseph who I still believed was my great-grandfather Joseph Chaussé/Chosa, born in 1833, was obviously far too young to be the son who served in the Berthier contingent in 1837-1838, but being the first son of his parents, he had been named for his father, also named Joseph Chaussé, who had been born and baptized in Berthier in 1812—the birth year attributed to my great-grandfather on his tombstone. The father was therefore about 25 in 1837. And being the first-born son of of his parents, the father had likewise been named after his father, Joseph Chaussé père, who was born in 1786, therefore age about 51 in 1837. This grandfather was a hale and hearty farmer whose last child was born in 1836 and who lived until 1874; it was by no means unlikely that he was well able to participate in the rebellion of 1837-38.

Pretty clear, isn’t it? Great-Uncle Frank heard his father (my Great-Grandfather Joseph Chosa) talk about his family’s part in the Patriots Rebellion, knew the family lived in the neighborhood of Berthier, knew that his father was the son of a Joseph, and knew that a Joseph Chaussé, son of Joseph Chaussé, of his own direct line had been born and baptized at Berthier in 1812. Frank also knew that his own father was quite old when he died (he was in fact 86). It did not occur to Frank that the father-and-son Josephs in the Berthier contingent of the Rebellion could be his great-grandfather and grandfather, not his grandfather and father.

And so when Great-Uncle Frank put up a tombstone over his father’s grave several years after the old man’s death, he had it inscribed “Joseph Shosa Sr. 1812-1921”, using a spelling reflecting the original pronunciation, and using his grandfather’s birth year of 1812 instead of the correct 1833. (Great-Grandfather was correctly identified as “Sr.” because at the time of his death, he had a living adult son named Joseph.) By the time he put up the tombstone, Great-Uncle Frank had also forgotten that his father had died in 1919, not 1921.

In his newspaper interview, he also may have inflated participation in a short-lived rebellion into “many years” of soldiering. However, it is not at all unlikely that the two Joseph Chaussés who did participate in the rebellion also served in the local militia perhaps for “many years”, as many other participants did. Great-Uncle Frank may have been entirely correct as to fact and length of military service even though he was mistaken as to the generations involved.

But the fact that he had the correct birth year for his grandfather—even though he gave it as that of his father—and the fact that he did indeed have direct ancestors who truly had been involved in patriotic military action—was confirmation that I had connected Great-Grandfather Joseph to the correct family in Quebec. I could now breathe more easily; my research was correct.

All of this brings me to my Fourth Genealogical Mantra: Family lore should never be accepted as fact until proven. But errors of fact in someone’s memory may hold a kernel of truth that can help you trace your family line back another generation, or determine whether or not you are on the right trail.

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