SUZANNE PALMER for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
Sue Palmer’s contribution to The Storykeepers Project shows how French Canadian ancestry has often been obscured through the generations due to anglicized surnames. It also shows that having tangible reminders of our ancestry, even something like an old church record, can elicit strong emotional responses. In this case, digitized records of old family occasions revealed a new world of family history and helped shape a new sense of personal identity. — the editor
I did not know of my French Canadian ancestry until the year 2007. I knew I had French ancestry but never gave it much thought. My foray into genealogy began in 2003 with the notes my 13-year-old self had written after interviewing my great-aunt for a school paper. I should mention at that point I had no idea I was searching for French Canadian ancestry.
The information from my aunt was that my 2nd great grandfather’s name was Adolphus Dewey. Adolphus married a beautiful French woman named Emily Dandurand (she wasn’t sure of the spelling but worked it out to Donjereau – I later discovered Dandurand); and that we were related to two great men, namely Admiral George Dewey and Thomas Dewey, Governor of New York and the man who lost to Harry S. Truman in the race to become the 33rd President. So began my search for British and Irish Dewey’s. Along the way I learned a great deal about Adm. Dewey and Gov. Dewey and I also realized I was actually not related to either of these men!
I had replied to a post on a message board regarding Dewey in Michigan in 2005 and given up hope of receiving a reply. In 2007 a brand new cousin contacted me via this post. He ‘oh so innocently’ informed me we were French Canadian and that Dewey wasn’t really Dewey but something pronounced like “Du-gay”.
I happily spent the next several months researching my newly discovered French Canadian ancestors, the Duguay’s, the Dandurand’s, Paille/Paye’s, Harnois and more. These surnames were like fine wine pouring forth and entering my ever-growing database. I also met my new cousin who bears an uncanny resemblance to Adolphus.
What joy I encountered in these searches! The first Drouin record I looked at gave me a moment’s dismay (and a trip to the bookcase to find the French-English and Latin-English dictionaries). I soon found that deciphering the handwriting of the priests who had provided the Sacrament of Baptism or Marriage, or who had buried my ancestors, was actually enjoyable. Yes, even those records written with a quill that had seen better days! If the parents or parrain or marraine could sign their names, my heart lept! This handwriting was something tangible – a part of that which I had come from. The part of me that is French Canadian.
My family includes two Filles du Roi, Madeleine Olivier and Marguerite Hiardin who are both 7thgreat-grandmothers; a Filles a Marier, my 8th great-grandmother Louise Duval; Louis Hébert, my 10th great-grandfather, the first colonist of Nouvelle France. My family also includes carpenters, seaman, farmers, day laborers, everyday people who have given me the right to say, with pride, I have French Canadian ancestry.
Suzanne Palmer – 1 July 2013