Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pierre Forcier: The Hunt Begins

I spent nearly ten years, off and on, trying to collect enough information about my great-great grandfather Pierre Forcier to connect him to his family in Quebec. Early this year, I finally succeeded

The first problem, as usual, was the surname. Forcier, like Chaussé and many other names of French/Quebec origin, has many possible spellings, especially on this side of the border. I have found Pierre and his family under Forcier, Forcia, Forshay, Forsey, Forcey, Forsay, Forshee, Forshia, Fosha, Forsha, and there are probably a whole lot of others. This makes searching for him more difficult than necessary. It also suggests that Pierre may have been illiterate, because otherwise he would “probably” have used one spelling and been able to give that spelling to the census taker. (But of course, we have no way of knowing who supplied the information for his entries to the census taker!) 

Pierre’s first appearance in the USA is the record of his first marriage, to Marguerite Raimond, at La Pointe, Madeline Island, Wisconsin, on 19 August 1838; his stated age was 21 at the time, and I was sure that this was fairly close because the priest at La Pointe, Frederic Baraga, was a shrewd individual who would not have put that age in the register if Pierre did not appear fairly close to that age. This places Pierre’s birth about 1817. 

Pierre’s bride, my great-great grandmother Marguerite Raimond, had been born at  La Pointe about 1820 to an Ojibwe mother recorded as Julia Ikwesenchich (“Big Woman” and a father recorded as “N. Rémont”. (“N.” is not the initial of the father’s first name but Baraga’s abbreviation for “Nomen” = ”name”.) Baraga had personally baptized Marguerite and her brother Antoine on 31 January 1836; the record gives Marguerite’s age as 15 years and Antoine’s as 11 years. Their mother, who lived at La Pointe, had been baptized on 17 November 1835 (the 17th baptism in the register), age 40, and was buried at La Pointe on the following 5 February, less than a week after her children’s baptisms. 

The La Pointe baptism register also records Pierre’s and Marguerite’s first two children: Simon, baptized 26 May 1839, born on 15 May at La Pointe; and Henriette, my great-grandmother, born at Iron River, WI on 1 April 1841 and baptized on 5 September.

After that, the trail gets complicated—really complicated, at least for me. (I’m sure it was no problem for Pierre.)

Let’s start with the censuses.

Pierre and his family apparently managed to escape the 1840 and 1850 US Censuses. This could mean that they were living too far from the nearest good-sized town to be sought out; it could also mean that he was living among the Indian population, and to far too many people, counting Indians on the census was equivalent to counting the other local wildlife such as bear or moose. However, Pierre is in the Federal censuses for 1860 and 1870. 

Here is his family entry in the 1860 census:

Note  the creative spelling of his surname and that Pierre has “americanized” his name to Peter; all his American records call him Peter. His age of 46 suggests a birth year of about 1816. But where is Marguerite and any other children he may have had by her? Answer: since a divorce was out of the question for good Catholics, Marguerite must have died before the census. Elsewhere in Le Ance (L'Anse), Henriette “Harriet” is now married to Joseph “Chousay” and has two children. “Solomon Forsey” (Simon) age 21 is living next door to the Chosas, with his wife Charlotte age 20; he is a cooper like his father.

Pierre's wife now is an Indian woman named Josette and there are other persons in the household: Campbell age 17; Louis age 9; Thomas age 7; Eveline age 5; and Lucinde age 2. 

Peter’s occupation is cooper (barrel-maker, in case you don’t know), as is Campbell’s, who may be a son or other relative of Josette by a prior union or, to my mind more likely, an unrelated apprentice. (Campbell is not an acceptable baptismal name for a good Catholic. Only a saint’s name will do. Campbell may even have been the young man’s surname.) We don’t know the surnames of all the people in the household, although it appears that they all had the same surname as the family head because the surname is shown as " . The 1860 enumerator recorded every member of every household the same way except where a person in the household was too old to be the offspring of the head or a specific other surname was supplied.

I suspect that Campbell may have been the Charles D. Campbell who enlisted in the Union Army on 13 August 1862 at nearby Ontonagon, Michigan. It may be only coincidence that Pierre’s son Gabriel Forcia likewise enlisted in the Army a few days later, on 21 August, and that both served in the Michigan 27th Infantry Regiment, Charles in Company A and Gabriel in Company C.

In the 1860 census, the form has a column to indicate race, the choices being white, black, or mulatto. This enumerator, faced with a large number of Indians in his district, put “Ind” to indicate that race, put a diagonal line for obvious white persons, and left the box blank for persons of mixed white and Indian blood or, as racists so charmingly put it, “half-breeds”. For Pierre’s family, only Josette is stated to be “Ind”, the male youngsters, including Campbell, have the slash indicating White, and the two little girls are left blank.

In the 1870 census, there have been dramatic changes again in Pierre’s family:

Pierre’s age of 52 suggests he was born about 1818. This is remarkably consistent with the other records. He is now simply a laborer, and his family consists of another Indian wife Sophia, age 25, and their Indian daughter, Mary J., age 2. 

Peter himself is not in the 1880 census, but living at the Catholic mission we find a widow age 36, Sophia Forcier and her daughter Mary, age 11. Living at the school is a 5-year-old girl named Charlotte Forcier. All are listed as Indian.

Obviously the Federal censuses were not going to give me everything I needed to identify Pierre in Quebec, so I checked the microfilmed Michigan State censuses for 1864 and 1874. Pierre managed to avoid the 1864 census. However, he does appear on the 1874 census—which gives only name and occupation of heads of families—on the Baraga Township list of Trappers and Hunters Indian and Half-Breeds. Perhaps age was slowing him down, or the local market for barrels had crashed. Anyway, he certainly wasn’t making things easy for me!

But census records are never enough for any serious ancestor hunter. The most obvious place to look for more information about my great-great grandfather Pierre (aka Peter) Forcier after the census records would be the records of the mission at Assinins on Keewenaw Bay, Michigan, where Pierre spent his life at least from the 1850s onward. This mission had been established in 1841 by Frederic Baraga, the same Slovenian missionary who had established the mission at La Pointe. Baraga had baptized Pierre’s wife, my great-treat-grandmother Marguerite Raimond, and had presided over the couple’s marriage at La Pointe; as good Catholics, Pierre and Marguerite would want to have their children properly baptized, attend Mass, and so on.

Many Catholics (white, Indian, and mixed-blood) moved from La Pointe to the new mission over the following decades as the economic boom at La Pointe faded. From 1841 onwards, Baraga went back and forth between the two missions as well as to other areas where there were Indians eager to learn about this new religion and/or professed Catholics, white and Indian, who needed his services. Even after he had been ordained as the Bishop of Marquette, he continued with his missionary work and presided over the 1855 marriage of Pierre's daughter Henriette to Joseph Chaussé/Chosa at Assinins.

Unfortunately, the original records for the mission church at Assinins were lost in a devastating fire some years ago, although the early records had been photographed. There is a copy of those early records on microfilm held at the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, but for various reasons I haven’t been able to get there yet to view it. However, a Forcia cousin in the Keweenaw Bay area who had seen the original registers before the fire was able to give me specific dates for Pierre’s second marriage to Josette Cloutier and for Great-Grandfather Joseph’s marriage to Pierre’s daughter Henriette. With the parish records unavailable to me for the time being, I turned to civil records.

Unfortunately, although Michigan had become a state in 1837, the counties of the new state were slow to keep official vital records other than marriages and were not required to report all vital records to the state until 1867. This means that the births of Pierre’s children by Marguerite and Josette, and the deaths of both wives, were unavailable. I did, however, find vital records for children born during and after 1867, and I found several Forciers or Forcias in the area who were listed as Indian or mixed-blood and were in the right age group to be his children.

However, my wily ancestor did not evade the vital records in the end: I found a 27 December 1879 State of Michigan death record reported by Baraga County for Peter Forcier in Baraga Township, which gives Pierre’s age at death as 65 (suggesting a birth year of 1814).  

Now, the records I had which gave an age for him are remarkably consistent as to Pierre’s birth year: all point to around 1816-1817 except for the death record, and that’s fairly close. When searching records in Quebec, then, to be safe I would have to consider any Pierre Forcier born between 1812-1821 as a “possible”. However, I still did not know the names of all of his children, and because in Quebec the normal custom was to name the first boy and the first girl after the parents, and the rest after close relatives or the godparents, I knew that I would need the names of all of Pierre's children to be able to pick him out of the crowd of other Pierre Forciers.


  1. my family tree research has lead me to Pierre...unsure though if he is truly a relation.
    my name is Elizabeth Forcia

  2. Same as I Elizabeth. Mine is Pierre to Gabriel (son) to Henry (his son) to MARGARET (Henry's daughter) whom is my grandmother. I loved this read. Any new findings?