Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pierre Forcier: Picking Mine Out Of The Crowd

Last fall I finally felt that I had acquired enough information about my Great-Great Grandfather Pierre Forcier to have a decent chance of picking him out from his kinfolk in Quebec. This time around, I didn’t have to work with microfilms, because Ancestry.com has most of the parish records of Quebec online and I have the level of membership that lets me access them. 

You should know, by the way, that the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is in the process of getting those same parish records online … for free . You can search for a particular name; you can do an advanced search; or you can simply browse the original images, parish by parish, grouped chronologically as they are on the original microfilms. When you find the record you want, you can download it to your computer (giving it a helpful name such as “1797 Sorel B Jos Forcier” instead of the gobbledegook string of numbers that the website uses). If necessary, you can massage a downloaded image (from either Ancestry or from the Mormon website) a bit to make it more legible. (I use Adobe Photoshop Elements.) 

The first question is, of course, where to start looking? Tanguay or any of the marriage indexes is a good start if your Quebec ancestor was born during the French Regime, i.e. up to 1760. If your ancestor crossed the border in, say, 1808, the only marriage index that will help is Loiselle and its supplement, which goes up into the early 1900s and includes some marriages that took place in the United States. (You can order the correct films for your ancestor’s surname through a Family History Center at your local LDS church.) The chief advantage of Loiselle is that there are entries under the surnames of both bride and groom. At the very least, Loiselle can give you a clue where people with your ancestor’s surname were getting married in time to have produced your ancestor. (Bear in mind that, just like today, marriages generally took place where the bride’s family was living.)

Another starting point is to run a search either at Ancestry or at the Mormon website for a baptism record for your ancestor in the right time frame, say plus or minus 5 or even 10 years from the estimated birth year you have deduced from US records. This will give you a pretty good notion of where families with your ancestor’s surname were living about the time your ancestor was born, so that you can home in on those parishes.

And then, of course, you can cheat a bit. Use your favorite search engine to check out other people’s online family trees or queries on surname or locality message boards and mailing lists to see what other people have found on your ancestor and/or his/her family, or you can just run a search on your ancestor’s name. Many of the results will give you dentists in New England or auto dealers in Louisiana or politicians in Canada or college students on Facebook or other social networking sites, but you also may find someone who has posted a family tree online which includes someone with your ancestor’s name.

If the site lists the sources, all the better, but even if it does, you should look up those same sources yourself anyway to make sure that it says what the other researcher thinks it says. If no source is given, it may have come from an unproven assumption by the other researcher or even from a fraudulent pedigree (there are and always have been people eager to make one up for you, for a nice fat price). But at least you may get some sort of starting point.

In the case of Pierre Forcier, I was fortunate on several counts. One is that the original immigrant ancestor from France, Pierre Forcier, had a very uncommon surname in New France—in fact, I’ve never run across any Quebec Forcier before 1850ish who wasn’t his descendant (although some other Forciers may have immigrated by now). Pierre had had an early marriage contract (which gives the names of his parents and their home parish in France), but that was annulled and he actually married only once, to Fille du Roi Marguerite Girard, about 1674. We know nothing about her origins since neither a marriage contract nor a parish marriage record for this couple has survived.

Pierre and Marguerite lived at St-François du Lac and had only 7 children before Pierre was killed by the Iroquois in 1690, age about 42 years old. (Marguerite then married widower René Abraham and had 4 children with him.) Of those 7 Forcier children, only 2 daughters and 2 sons survived and had descendants. The sons were Joseph (1677-1741) and Jacques (1682-1750). Essentially all people with the surname of  Forcier during the French Regime were the descendants of Pierre Forcier and Marguerite Girard through one or the other of those two sons.

Furthermore, by the 1800s, most of the Forciers were still living in the same general area of  St-François du Lac, Sorel, and St-Michel d’Yamaska, the majority being at Yamaska. And as it happens, I had also learned that many of the men living in that particular area signed on as voyageurs on a regular basis to supplement their income. (The Manitoba online database of voyageur contracts  I mentioned in my previous post has 151 contracts for voyageur Forciers, almost all from that area, up to about 1820.

So I went online to Ancestry, whose search engine failed to find any Pierre Forciers born anywhere other than Sorel, Yamaska, or St-François du Lac in the right time frame to be my 2G Grandfather. Either my 2G Grandfather was born at one of those three parishes, or he had been dropped off on Earth by visiting aliens.

I began to view the records for those three parishes and comb through them page by page. I wasn’t looking only for Pierres born between 1812 and 1822. I was collecting everything on every Forcier in the area, looking for every married Forcier male in the area whose wife would have been young enough to have a child between 1780 and 1850.

Since the three parishes are fairly close together, and the families in each parish kept visiting relatives in the other parishes (sometimes having babies or dying during such a visit), it was necessary to make a wholesale page-by-page search of all three parishes in order to reconstruct all the Forcier family groups.

Why did I search such a wide spread of dates? Simple: I had no idea whether Pierre was the eldest child, a middle child, or the baby of the family, and I wanted to make sure I got all his siblings and other close relatives even those who had not been born before Pierre left home. (Illiterate voyageurs were not necessarily out of touch with their families back home; company clerks could, and commonly did, read letters from home to the voyageur and write replies from him, the letters being carried by arriving or returning company canoes.)

There was another reason why I collected so much information: I was looking for a Pierre whose close relatives, including in-laws, might include a Simon or Simeon or Solomon, an Henriette, a Gabriel, a Jacques, an Angélique, a Charlotte, and a  Marie-Jeanne—all names that my Pierre gave his children. In other words, I was attempting to see whether my Pierre had followed Quebec naming customs in his American marriages. Absence or presence of any of those names in his family would not prove whether a candidate was my Pierre or not, but it would certainly be suggestive.

Going through the parish records, particularly those at Yamaska, was not an easy task, since in the period when my Pierre was probably born, the curé at Yamaska clearly was having great difficulty sorting out all the Forcier families himself. The Yamaska curé kept getting mixed up as to which couple he was dealing with: Ignace is sometimes recorded as Isaac, Victoire was sometimes mixed up with Charlotte, etc., so when he recorded a death, for example, I had to figure out which of several persons with that name was the one who had died. (Admittedly, there were a LOT of Forciers at Yamaska to keep track of; all three parishes were awash in Forciers and their connections. The curés at Sorel and St-François du Lac were less confused, however.)

Well, I kept plodding through the registers and finally came up with six Pierre Forciers who were born in the right time frame to be my great-great grandfather. Two could be eliminated immediately because they died in infancy; a third, born in 1820 at Sorel, was amply documented elsewhere as a farmer in the USA with a wife and children who are very clearly not those of my great-great grandfather. This narrowed down the field to these three:

1. Pierre Forcier-dit-Nadeau, born 20 April 1815 son of Augustin Forcier-dit-Nadeau and Victoire Modau at Yamaska. This Pierre had a maternal uncle named Gabriel. There were in fact several men named Gabriel living in this area, so it's likely that everyone at Yamaska had a connection to one or more of them.

2. Pierre Forcier-dit-Gaucher, son of Pierre and of Marie-Josephte Vasseur (Levasseur), born 12 Jun 1817 at Yamaska. This Pierre had a second cousin named Henriette, born in 1816 at Yamaska, who was still alive when my Pierre was getting married at La Pointe. His maternal aunt (named Angelique, after her mother) was married first to a Gabriel Lambert, who died when this Pierre was 5 years old. He also had a sister named Angèle, a third cousin named Marie-Jeanne, and a third cousin named Solomon who was 4 years younger than he. (My 2G grandfather's son, baptized as Simon, appears as Solomon in at least one American census record.) In other words, most of the names my 2G Grandfather gave his children connect with this candidate.

3. Pierre-Joseph Forcier-dit-Gaucher, baptized at Yamaska on 15 April 1819, son of Pierre-Marie and Marie-Madeleine Benoit. These parents also had a daughter named Henriette and a grandson named Simon (born in 1856, 7 years after my Pierre’s son Simon). The father was the first cousin of the father of Candidate 2.

You might think that a second or third cousin would be too far afield for Pierre to name a child after that cousin, but all of these people belonged to the same rural parish and saw one another every week. In Yamaska, all the Forciers were related not only on the Forcier side but by maternal connections as well. The simple fact is that the names my Pierre gave his children are names which are found in Yamaska during the years Pierre lived there, belonging to people who were his relatives or to people who might have been close friends either of Pierre himself or of his parents.

I could have kept on with this for years tracing all possible interconnections, but frankly, I’m not so young anymore, and I didn’t have the energy to trace all the families in the area looking for connections via the maternal sides. For me it was enough to know that the names my 2G-grandfather gave his children were names of some of his contemporaries in the Yamaska area who were more or less connected to various Forciers.

By the time my Pierre was born (whichever of the three he was), the records of all three parishes show that desperate parents were adopting new dit names and giving very uncommon names to their children so that it would be possible to have normal conversations (and appear in legal documents) without having to recite the whole pedigree of a person to identify him. While Augustin and Victoire, the parents of Candidate 1, were pretty conventional in naming their children, the other two candidates had close relatives with less common names. Candidate 2 (son of Pierre and Josette) had siblings named Eloise, a Marie-Elmire, a George-Octave, and an Adèle. Candidate 3 (son of Pierre-Marie and Madeleine) had siblings named François-Regis, Basile, Luce, Magloire, and Henriette.

I continued searching through the records after 1838 (when my Pierre married at La Pointe) to determine which, if any, of my 3 candidates had married and remained in Quebec, and/or when they had died. This led to some interesting tidbits regarding the three families:

Item, Augustin Forcier, father of Candidate 1, is stated to be a voyageur in the 1808 baptism of daughter Marie-Celeste, and again in the 1820 burial record for his wife Victoire. Augustin’s experience might have encouraged his son to become a voyageur himself.

Item, I have a burial record for (unmarried) Pierre Forcier dit Gaucher, son of the deceased Pierre-Marie and his wife Magdeleine Benoit dated 17 August 1845. This—assuming that the curé didn’t get his Forciers mixed up—clearly eliminates Candidate No. 3 above.

Item, I have burial records for two married Pierre Forciers: in December 1844, Pierre Forcier age 59 was buried, but the widow is stated to be Théotiste Bergeron. That couple did indeed have a son named Pierre who was apparently still living in 1844, but he had been born in 1832 and was only 7 when my Pierre married Marguerite Raimond at La Pointe. The other record is for Pierre-Marie, age 57, specifically stated to be the spouse of Marie-Magdelaine Benoit; the funeral on 15 February 1841 was attended by “ses fils” Basile and Louis Forcier as well as “plusieurs autres Parens et amis”. This can’t possibly be a mis-identification by the curé; Pierre-Marie did in fact have adult sons named Basile and Louis. His son Pierre-Joseph was Candidate 3—and was not listed among the mourners at the funeral.

What I don’t have is a burial record for the Pierre who was married to Josette Vasseur, which presumably occurred before November 1843, when he is stated in his son Joseph’s burial record to be dead. All later records for his children and for Josette state that this Pierre was dead. I’ve looked all over the place for his burial record: no record found. The only explanation I can think of is that Josette’s Pierre fell into the river and drowned, and that the body was never recovered. You can’t have a burial without a body, and therefore there is no record in the parish register.

The parish records, then, while helpful in narrowing down the field of possibles and suggesting connections, were not enough to prove which Pierre Forcier was at La Pointe in August 1838.

However, I had one other arrow in my quiver: notarial records. The Manitoba searchable database of voyageur contracts doesn’t go beyond about 1820, so I did some research on the American Fur Company’s recruitment of voyageurs in Quebec and learned that between 1832 and 1837 the company’s principal agent in Montreal, Gabriel Franchère, had most of his contracts handled by Chevalier de Lorimier (baptized François-Marie-Thomas).

Unfortunately, de Lorimier was deeply interested in politics and played a major role in the Peasants Rebellion of 1836-37. He took refuge in the USA but returned to Quebec for the second uprising in November 1838. He was captured, prosecuted, and in due course hanged on 15 February 1839. His notarial records, probably due to this situation, are still held in the Montreal archives, but have never been filmed and could not be accessed without a trip to that repository. So I turned to the notaries who practiced in the Yamaska area in hopes of finding any information that could help.

Here again, Ancestry.com made up for the occasional oddities of its search engine by having online the indexes or repertoires of many of the notaries of Quebec. I had looked in my copy of Robert Quintin’s The Notaries of Quebec to determine which notaries practiced in the target area between about 1812 and 1850, and was delighted to find that most of those indexes were online. I went through all of them, hoping to find some notarial record which could shed light on the whereabouts of the two remaining candidates.

I struck pure gold.

First of all, in the records of notary PIerre Piette, I found that Pierre Forcier, “fils d’Augustin” i.e. Candidate # 1, signed a note of obligation on 23 July 1839. While it was not impossible for my Pierre to have gone back to Yamaska (with or without his new bride and 9-week-old son Simon), it was unlikely: in the early summer, the boats were going the other way and the creditor would surely have objected to Pierre’s departure without getting repaid. This makes Candidate 1 very unlikely to be my 2G-grandfather.

However, there were other notaries in the Yamaska area. I went through the index of notaire Pierre-Joseph Chevrefils, who practiced at Yamaska 1808-1839, I noticed that he was obviously well aware of the multiplicity of Forciers in the area, since he used dit names and other identifying information even in the index so as to make it clear which person is meant. And in the index for 1836, I found in the index two engagements (hiring contracts) for Forciers hired by “la compagnie americaine”. Here’s the entry:

As you can see at the bottom of the page, the first was for Michel Forcier; the second was for his cousin Pierre fils—i.e. a Pierre who was the son of a Pierre. And “la compagnie amercaine” was almost certainly the American Fur Company. Naturally I rushed down to my local Family History Center and ordered the microfilm as soon as possible, and when it came in, I rushed to view the item. And it was everything I could have wished for. The Pierre who had signed on with the American Fur Company was indeed the son of plain Pierre Forcier-dit-Gaucher. Not Pierre-Marie. Not Augustin Forcier-dit-Nadeau. Pierre was legally a minor at the time, so both he and his father had to sign the contract, or rather, since both were illiterate, had to make their marks next to their names written by the notary.

Here is the contract:

Now, I realize that this image is not of the best quality but if you enlarge the image on your screen you should be able to get the gist of it. The most important features are: (1) the contract was signed on 21 March 1836 and was for 3 years and 2 months beginning on 1 May 1836; (2) the fact that the contract was signed (with a mark) by Pierre's father, since at age 19 Pierre was not legally an adult; (3) that the father is clearly identified as Pierre Forcier-dit-Gaucher to avoid any confusion as to identity; (4) that the contract is a fill-in-the-blanks-pre-printed standard form, specifying a payment of 360 piastres to be paid in American currency in 3 installments beginning after the first year of work, with a small advance (so that he can acquire necessary clothing etc.).

It is not stated, but it is clear that Pierre is destined for manual labor with the American Fur Company since he is illiterate and this is his first voyage. That means, at this time, that he would almost certainly work at La Pointe, which my 2G Grandfather worked as a cooper for the AFC's fishing endeavor, married my 2G Grandmother, and had his first 2 children baptized, one of whom was my great-grandmother Henriette. 

Even better, I found on the same microfilm that Pierre’s maternal uncle Noël Levasseur, who had become an engagé ouest with the American Fur Company before Pierre was born, was back in Yamaska that same day, hiring two men to transport a load of goods for him. Uncle Noël had settled at what is now Bourbonnais, Kankakee, illinois, where he married several Indian women (in succession) and persuaded many Quebec families to move across the border and settle in that area. (The present-day elementary school in Bourbonnais is named in his honor.) It seems reasonable to conclude that it was Uncle Noël who convinced Pierre to sign on with the same company and take advantage of new economic opportunities on the other side of the border. 

I now had documentary proof that my 2G Grandfather Pierre was the son of Pierre Forcier-dit-Gaucher and Josephte Vasseur (Levasseur). I had his direct ancestry traced back to the first Pierre and his wife Marguerite Girard. Now I was in a position to begin tracing his maternal ancestry. But that’s another story.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post, Dreamcatcher! It seems like you always come up with some place I haven't looked yet.

    We come from the same part of the world, you and I. I've been working on Couturiers from St-François-du-Lac, Sorel, and Yamaska. On the other side of the family, I've been poring over parish records from Ste-Genevieve-de-Pierrefonds looking for Payments/Paiements. It seems like every family had at least one Pierre, an Antoine, a Joseph, a Louis, a Jean Baptiste, and several Mary-somethings. There could be three Pierres, with the same surname, born about the same time, in the same parish, but with different parents. Crazy. But fun!