Saturday, November 5, 2011

Voyageurs' Wives, Legal or Otherwise

When young men of Quebec entered the fur trade, they entered a world where their former customs and rules did not entirely apply, particularly when it came to women. I don’t mean to criticize those men for having relationships with native women—quite the contrary. I merely note that they were human beings and that few men are willing and able to live a life of celibacy. As we have now all learned from the news, even vows of celibacy can be and are violated if sexual inclinations are strong enough and sexual partners (of either gender and of any age) are available (willing or otherwise).

It should not come as a shock to anyone that the engagés who did the hard and dangerous work of paddling the canoes in turbulent waters, carrying canoes and goods over long portages, building the trading posts and occasionally being shot at (as well as having to cope with the fair chance that they might not survive at all) took opportunities for drinking and sex whenever such pleasures were available. That’s human nature.

It is only natural, therefore, that voyageurs and native women developed relationships, many of which were brief flings. But in many cases, the relationships became exclusive and lasted until death, even if there was no Catholic priest available to bless the union. A common custom was for the couple to declare themselves husband and wife before witnesses. According to John Johnston, Jr. (in a letter written in 1889 to Judge Joseph J. Steere), my 4G Grandparents Louis Dufaut and Marie-Louise/Kingenini “Mentosaky” did exactly that, then later traveled all the way to the Montréal area to solemnize their marriage by Catholic rite. (I have the Quebec records for the marriage and for the baptisms of the wife and all but one of the children born before or during their 5-year stay.)

Now, under the civil law on both sides of the border, a declaration before witnesses was not enough to make sure the marriage was a legal one, and the children of such a marriage might not be considered legitimate and therefore eligible to inherit their parents’ property. But voyageurs had 3 other options:

1. They could arrange for a civil union, either by finding a notary at Mackinac or other town and signing a civil marriage contract or by having a civil ceremony conducted by a judge or other civil authority. Jean-Baptiste Cadotte fils married Janette Piquette that way at Sault Ste Marie, then later had a Catholic ceremony at the mission at Oka. If there was a record of the contract or civil ceremony, the children were considered legitimate by the civil authorities, although not by the Catholic Church.

2. They could find a Protestant minister who would preside over the wedding. This had the same status as option 1: not recognized by the Catholic Church but accepted for legal purposes. My 3G Grandparents Joseph Dufaut and Julie Cadotte were married at La Pointe by the Protestant minister there in September 1834; when the Catholic St. Joseph Mission at La Pointe opened, the sacramental marriage of this couple was the very first one in the mission marriage register.

3. They could, and sometimes did, travel long distances to have a Catholic marriage ceremony. My 4G Grandparents Michel Cadotte and Equay-say-way took the entire family from La Pointe to Mackinac in 1830 for this very purpose. This insured that their children (who are listed in the record) would be recognized by everyone as the legitimate heirs of their father.

Note that without a legal marriage in place, mixed-blood children were considered illegitimate unless and until the parents had a legal marriage ceremony presided over by a person legally authorized to do so. Marriages by “Indian custom” generally didn’t count (unless both parties were full-bloods or close to it), and declarations before witnesses were very iffy as to legality.

Of course, many white-native liaisons were considered by both parties as matters of temporary convenience right from the start, but naturally there were numerous cases where the woman was left with a lasting souvenir of the encounter in the form of a mixed-blood infant.

My 3G Grandmother Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lacombe/Lacombre was one of those souvenirs. There is no record of her mother’s name, but it is reasonable to conclude that Lizzie's recorded surname was that of her father. All I had to go on was that surname, her age (given as 33 in her 1839 baptism and marriage records, therefore born about 1806), and her place of birth, recorded in her baptism record as Lac la Pluie—Rainy Lake, which had been a fur trade center from the 1780s onward.

Now, Lizzie’s surname is not a very common one, but it was not unique in the La Pointe records: there was a Séraphin Lacombre as well. Séraphin was born about 1803, about 3 years before my 3G Grandmother was born. He married Catherine Roy on first day the La Pointe mission was open in August 1835, the third marriage in the register. (Catherine was baptized that same day, age 26, and the record states that she was born at Sandy Lake. Unfortunately, Baraga did not record the parents of adults he baptized.)

Now then: Séraphin Lacombre, the husband of Catherine, died and was buried on 31 December 1840. Linda E. Bristol’s transcription of the headstone on his grave (in her Liber Defunctorum 1835-1900 Death Registry of the St. Joseph Mission and Holy Family Catholic Church, Sunup Press: St. Paul 1994) reads “This stone is erected to his memory by his friends as a mark of respect and esteem.  Born 13 Mar 1803   Died 31 Dec 1840.”

Now obviously, this Séraphin, however precocious, could not be the father of my 3G Grandmother Lizzie (born 1806), but even six years ago it struck me as very possible that he was her brother or half-brother. And since Lizzie married Vincent Roy fils, it was possible that Séraphin’s wife Catherine Roy was her husband’s sister.

And there matters sat while I worked on other family lines, until one fine day when I was going through the records of Montréal Notary Louis Chaboillez (who drew up many fur-trade contracts). I found myself looking at the 1792 contract between fur-trade company Todd, McGill & Co. and one Séraphin Lacombe of St-Sulpice.

By this time I had come to recognize Quebec naming customs, so when I found a fur-trade contract for a Séraphin Lacombe I immediately realized that if he ever had a son, that first son would be named Séraphin—which is a very unusual name in this time period. But was there any documentary proof?

I did a quick search at for a Séraphin born about 1803, give or take a couple of years, and Ancestry came through with the “sous condition” baptism records for Séraphin Trullier dit Lacomble [sic] and that of his younger brother Jean-Baptiste at L’Assomption, both dated 23 Aug 1805. The records gives the names of the parents: Séraphin Trullier dit Lacomble [sic] and his wife Charlotte Cadot. It also states his exact age at baptism: 2 years, 5 months, and 10 days. This works out to a birth date of 13 March 1803—the exact birth date on the LaPointe tombstone. Clearly Séraphin père kept track of the calendar and carefully recorded the birth dates of his children.

This is about as close of a smoking gun as you can get in genealogy, particularly when you realize the rarity of the name Séraphin. Séraphin fils’s baptism record does not state a place of birth, but that for Jean-Baptist, baptized the same day, states that he was born “dans le haut-Canada” (meaning what now equates, more or less, to the present province of Ontario but in this time frame includes the watersheds of the Ottawa River, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior—including Rainy Lake.) Jean-Baptiste was age 5 months and 8 days on 23 August 1805, therefore born 15 March 1805.

There was just one problem: the father of the two boys was recorded as François Trullier-dit-Lacomble, not Séraphin. Still, St-Sulpice and L’Assomption are only a few miles apart, so naturally I thought it extremely likely that the father of the two boys at L’Assomption was at least a close relative of the Séraphin of St-Sulpice who had entered the fur trade in 1784. Then I found the marriage record of the parents of the two boys—in December 1805, 4 months after the boys' baptisms. The wife’s name was the same, the marriage lists the children who are being made legitimate by the marriage (including Séraphin,  Jean-Baptiste, and Marie-Anne, but not Charlotte, who must have died before the return to Quebec); the husband was now recorded as Séraphin Trullier "marchand voyageur". His parents were Jacques Trullier-dit-Lacomble and a woman whose name was illegible; both were deceased. Two of Séraphin's brothers signed the register as witnesses.

That made it pretty darn certain that the Séraphin who had signed that engagement was the father of the Séraphin Lacombre in the records at La Pointe. But was there any proof as to whether this Lacombe had been at Rainy Lake in the right time frame to father Lizzie Lacombre there?

The answer was supplied by my cousin and well-known scholar Theresa M. Schenck in her book All Our Relations: Chippewa Mixed Bloods and the Treaty of 1837 (Amik Press: Madison, Wisconsin 2009). As I discussed in a previous post, this particular book transcribes all of the applications of Mixed-Blood Chippewa for benefits under the 1837 Treaty and adds information about the applicants. The application for Séraphin Lacombre (the son) states flatly that he was born at Rainy Lake and lived there until age 5, and Theresa notes that the father (Séraphin père) “is mentioned by Hugh Faries in 1804 as being in charge of the XY Company Fort at Rainy Lake.”

Contracts for men in charge of a particular trading post were commonly for 3 years, including two winters. Séraphin and his family were at L’Assomption in January 1803; if they left in the spring of 1803, Séraphin would be at his post from summer 1803 through summer 1805. The timeline fits: Séraphin père and his family were back at L’Assomption by early August 1805, so they must have departed from Rainy Lake as soon as the ice finished breaking up, probably about May or June 1805. (Winters are exceptionally long and cold in the area north of what is now Minnesota, making it dangerous to travel by any kind of boat through Lake Superior until it is clear of ice.)

I conclude that while Charlotte was occupied with recovering from childbirth in mid-March and fully occupied with the care of newborn Jean-Baptiste, Séraphin had a liaison—possibly only a one-night stand—with a local woman not long before leaving Rainy Lake. He may very well have had no idea when he left that she was pregnant with his child. On the other hand, he might have known the situation and made some sort of arrangements for the welfare of his child. There is no evidence, either way. What is clear, however, is that he was there, in the right place at the right time, to be the Lacombe/Lacombre/Lacomble who was Lizzie’s father. Lizzie would therefore have been born in the spring of 1806, consistent with all of her later records. That made Séraphin père my 4G Grandfather, and I needed to collect the records for his family line. cooperated splendidly. I found that he had been born and baptized at Boucherville on 13 May 1769. His baptismal name was François-Séraphin, which accounts for the two names used in his records at L’Assomption. The parents of François-Séraphin were Jacques Trullier-dit-Lacombe and Marie-Anne Levasseur. The mother’s name instantly resonated because by then I knew that the mother of my 2G Grandfather Pierre Forcier was surnamed Levasseur/Vasseur.

It was not difficult to find the relationship to my Forcier line: Marie-Anne was already in my database, the daughter of Pierre-Jacques Levasseur by his second wife, Marie-Anne Papin. Now, Pierre-Jacques, born 1703, had an older half-brother named Noël-Pierre, born 1690, who was the GG Grandfather of my GG Grandfather Pierre Forcier by his father's first wife, Madeleine Chapeau. After Madeleine's demise at the age of 32, the father married again to Anne Ménage, who was the mother of Pierre-Jacques. This made the father of both sons, Pierre Levasseur dit L'Esperance, my 7G Grandfather twice over, by both marriages. And Anne Ménage’s sister Marie-Anne had already been proved to be my 7G Grandmother in another line.

Complicated? Of course. Was I surprised? Not really. I rather think there is no such thing as a straight-line family tree in Quebec; there are lots of cross-overs and cross-connections, because of the relatively small pre-1700 population base. 

Equally important—and a tad embarrassing—to me is the revelation that Charlotte Cadot, the wife of Séraphin père, was the daughter of my 5G Grandfather Jean-Baptiste Cadot (who died in 1800) by a Sauteuse woman known in the few available records as Catherine. Catherine became his wife by Indian custom after the death in 1776 of my 5G Grandmother Marie-Athanasie (Equawaice). Since Jean-Baptiste was considered white (he was 1/8 Huron), the marriage was considered not binding in the eyes of the law, their children were considered illegitimate, and therefore they did not share in their father’s estate after his death.

Now, Jean-Baptiste’s second set of children are very scantily documented. The border area eastern Michigan was in dispute as to whether it was—or should be—part of the new USA or part of now-British Canada, a dispute which culminated in the War of 1812. During Jean-Baptiste’s later years, access to a Catholic priest at Sault Ste Marie was spotty at best, although I’m sure that the children were baptized at home shortly after birth. A brother of Charlotte, Joseph Cadot, went to L’Assomption (where Charlotte and Séraphin were living) in 1807 and was baptized there on 30 March of that year.

I owe the correct identification of Charlotte Cadot to Heather Cadotte Armstrong, who has researched this line extensively for years and who has been very generous in helping me sort out this situation. I am very grateful for her assistance, because what’s the point in researching your ancestors if you fill your family tree with the wrong people?

Where did I go wrong? Well, the records at L’Assomption showed a Jean-Baptiste Cadot born in 1747 in that parish, who went into the fur trade, married a Sauteuse woman at the mission at Oka, eventually returned permanently to L’Assomption (where Charlotte and Séraphin also settled), re-married after his first wife’s death, and finally died in 1822. He was not recorded as being present at the marriage of Charlotte and Séraphin or at the baptisms of any of their children, but some curés did not give the complete list of everyone who was present at baptisms or weddings. In fact, he seemed a perfect fit for Charlotte’s father.

However, I had failed to notice that in Charlotte’s 1805 baptism and marriage records and in her brother Joseph’s baptism record two years later, their father Jean-Baptiste was stated to be deceased! My proven ancestor Jean-Baptiste Cadot had died at Sault Ste Marie in 1800, but the L’Assomption Jean-Baptiste was still very much alive until 1822. (The two Jean-Baptistes were actually first cousins.)

This is why you should always read every record you think may be your ancestor’s very carefully, so as to pick up every detail. This timeI didn’t, and I spent a long time floundering around unnecessarily until Heather set me straight.

The logical conclusion of all this is that François-Séraphin, who preferred to be recorded as plain Séraphin, knew that Charlotte had been baptized by her father or by a neighbor and probably considered himself married already by Indian custom (or possibly by a declaration before witnesses). He did not mention the fact that there had been no Catholic marriage ceremony when, in 1803, he first brought his wife Charlotte to L’Assomption along with their 5-year-old daughter, who was baptized and named Charlotte on 5 January that year. They then went back out in the field in the spring of 1803.

Oddly, the couple had another daughter, Marie-Anne (born 15 December 1800), who apparently did not travel with them to L’Assomption in 1803—or if she did, they didn’t get around to having her baptized there. But in 1805 the couple brought all their children to L’Assomption and settled there for the rest of their lives. As noted above, two boys, Séraphin fils and Jean-Baptiste, were baptized in August of that year. It wasn’t until December that someone noticed that that Marie-Anne, then about 5 years old, had no baptism record at L’Assomption. I suspect that this led the curé to ask for details about Marie-Anne's baptism and then about mother Charlotte’s baptism and where and when the couple had had a proper Catholic marriage rite.

The result: little Marie-Anne and her mother Charlotte Cadot were both baptized “sous condition” on 23 December 1805, and the parents were properly married in church the same day. The record states that the marriage legitimizes their three children, Marie-Anne, Séraphin, and Jean-Baptiste. (Since little Charlotte is not mentioned, it appears that she died before the family returned to L'Assomption.) The family remained at L’Assomption after that; little Jean-Baptiste died in July 1806. The parents had 4 more newborn children baptized in the parish, of whom at least 2 died in infancy; they might have had more, but Séraphin père died in May 1817, age only 47. In 1820 Charlotte married widower Jean-Baptiste Peltier, who had children by his previous wife; they had one son, Theophile, born in 1821. Charlotte died in October 1851, age about 72.

Meanwhile, in due time Séraphin fils took up the family business and became engagé ouest at the age of about 15. (His extended family’s influence doubtless helped him get the job). He was posted to Rainy Lake until about 1832 (so stated in his application for benefits of the 1837 Treaty). It is possible that he met his half-sister, my great-great-great grandmother Lizzie, there, but if not, he certainly met her at La Pointe. There is no way to know whether Séraphin knew of his half-sister’s existence until he met her, but the La Pointe records show that Séraphin Lacombre fils and his wife Catherine Roy were on very good terms with Vincent Roy fils and his wife Elisabeth Lacombre.

A family connection which had been missing was now whole, both for me now and for my ancestor Lizzie back then. As for the question about a family relationship between Catherine Roy and Vincent Roy fils, well, I’m still working on that one.

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