Beans, Benways and Bombardiers

French-Canadian Vermonters dig their roots

The SEVEN DAYS newspaper 15 October 1997   by Ruth Horowitz


            Some years ago, Philippe Clavelle was watching WCAX  from his home near Montreal when a man came on the screen who looked like him. After making some inquiries, Clavelle discovered that the balding guy on the screen was a not-so-distant cousin he’d never known existed. Among French-Canadians, it’s a small world. Quebec genealogist David Toupin estimates that most of the 20 million people worldwide who claim French-Canadian ancestry are descendents from just 10,000 original settlers. As South Burlington genealogist John Moreau puts it, “If you’ve got any French-Canadian in you, you’re going to find a cousin not too far from your elbow.”

            Even within such a compact group, however, familial relations aren’t always obvious. Last year, Peter Clavelle’s first cousin David, the self appointed genealogist for the Vermont Clavelle family, received a call from a Louisiana woman. Chris Clavelle said she entered a hospital emergency room, where the triage nurse has recognized her last name from her former home in Burlington. “She never realized there were any Clavelle’s in Vermont, and we didn’t know there were any in Louisiana,” says David. Both now hope to find out if their separate family threads lead back to a common Canadian forbearer.

            Tracing a family tree back through the generations can be an arduous task. Fortunately for people like David Clavelle, the Vermont French-Canadian Genealogical Society is there to help. Formed 18 months ago by Moreau along with John Fisher and Paul Landry, French-Canadian genealogists from Burlington and Essex Junction, the group maintains a genealogical library and offers help and advice for fellow French-Canadian roots researchers.

            Four times a month, society members meet in the basement of the St John’s Club, in Burlington’s traditionally Francophone Lakeside neighborhood, to sift through their growing collection of historical documents. The group also publishes a Journal and maintains a Web Page. This Saturday the society will hold its third semi-annual conference, with talks on historical research and French-Canadian surnames by Andre Senecal, director of the Canadian Studies at the University of Vermont, and local genealogical expert Veronique Gassette.

            Compared to the work needed to study other ethnic groups, French-Canadian research is relatively easy, according to Moreau. He began investigating his own family ancestry 20 years ago, tracing it back eight or nine generations to the 16th century in France, when he observes, “the number families was a durn sight fewer.”

            What more, Moreau explains, priests in New France were required by law to keep written accounts of every birth, death and marriage taking place in their parishes. These church records contain a wealth of information that’s not readily available to other ethnic groups. “People drool if there not doing French-Canadian Genealogy and they see all these names filled in,” he says. “Some people knock their heads on the walls for years.”

            One major roadblock for French-Canadian Vermonters turns out to be the U.S. border. Susan Whitebook, a UVM professor specializing in language development, has spent 5 years studying family name changes between French Canada and the United States. Many of these changes, she says, derive from English-speaking priests inability to understand their francophone parishioners. Guindon became Yandow, Benoit became Benway. The soft “ch” turned Choiniere into Jouinaire. Other changes resulted from misinterpretation. Though many Vermonters are named St Onge, no such saint ever existed. The name comes from Saintonge, a region near Bordeaux in France.

            Confusion can also arise from names that were translated into English, especially when the translation was in error. Racine was correctly translated into Root, as was Courtemanche into Shortsleeve. But Brodeur (“embroiderer”) became Brothers, and Lafleur (“the flower”) became Miller (“as in flour”). La febvre, one of the most common names in France, is literally the French equivalent of Smith. But by the early 1800’s, when so many Quebecois emigrated to this country, few people rememberd the archaic term for blacksmith. Instead they interpreted la febvre as the legume, la feve, and changed their name to Bean.

            Whitebooks findings will be included in “The Dictionary of American Family Names”, (Oxford University Press), a work that should help many stalled genealogists get past mangled spellings and assimilationist mistakes to the original Canadian name. But even for those who successfully cross the border, obstacles await. One hurdle is the “dit” name – the nickname taken on as a second surname. Senecal says the custom originated from an initiation ritual among the Carignan soldiers who originally settled in New France. Dit names may have described where a person lived, distinguishing Henry Paquette dit LaRiviere (who lived near the river) from his cousin Henry Paquette dit Lavallee (who lived near the valley). Others may have taken the wife’s family name, acquired a descriptive phrase like “drinks wine” (Boivin), or adopted a military reference like Bombardier.

            Dit names flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, but in the early 1800’s, people began to drop either one name or the other, a habit that simplified their lives but complicated those of their curious descendents. With as many as 50 dit names associated with a single family name, these monikers can make a genealogist’s job much more difficult. But they can also be an asset. “They can help you to know that you are on the right track,” says Gassette. “There are thousands of Paquettes, for example, and its easy to go up the wrong branch.”

            Not everybody is cut out for genealogy, says Fisher who caught the bug in 1978 after reading a newspaper article on the subject. The meticulous, often tedious research requires a high level of organization, patience and interest. For those who are suited to the task, however, it quickly becomes an obsession. “If you get the disease, there’s no cure,” Moreau adds. “Its unique in that the sicker you get, the more you like it.”

            But for the members of the Vermont French-Canadian Genealogical Society, a family tree is more than just a puzzle to be solved. Janet Allard, who travels to the St John’s Club from Essex Junction, sees her work as a source of connectedness between generations. “Maybe, some day,” she speculates, “somebody will look at my records and they’ll help them figure out who they are.”