Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tracing Southwest Louisiana Ancestors

Notes Taken From SW Louisiana Records, Father Hèbert
Call it America if you wish, but put away preconceived colonial and US customs and traditions when you are researching your Acadian ancestors; those from Southwest (SW) Louisiana and originating from the French and Spanish colonies of the Louisiana Territory. As with any ethnic research, we must be open with Anglicizing names, following cultural naming conventions and phonetic spellings as we dig through church records, civil records and cemetery inscriptions, but in the SW Louisiana culture so much more must be considered. So, when researching that SW Louisiana ancestor and their Acadian heritage throw out the norm and input “strong cultural influence” influenced by religion and enforced by law!

Religious Considerations
It would benefit any researcher of this region to read the Introductory Notes of Father Donald Hèbert’s SW Louisiana Records volumes for a cursory religious and Civil Code understanding.  In this he explains that record keeping was important to many Bishops, and guidelines were set as early as 23 Oct 1796: “Bautismos, Matrimonios, y Entierros de Blancos, otro de bautismos y matrimonios de gente de color” (Baptisms, Marriages and Funerals of the Whites and also the baptisms and marriages of people of color; pg 13 Volume1A.)

Numbers and Names
Besides the common use of nicknames (dit which literally means called) and direct translations Canero to Mouton, it is important to understand that number 8 was used for the sound of huit (French number 8) in official records. An example is Marie Cag8ires. I suggest researchers use wildcards (? or *) when possible to open search options for sounds like “huit.”

My research study was on the surname Broussard.  Any quick Google search will lead you to the many references of the forever happy Acadian leader Joseph Broussard “dit” Beausoleil. This nickname was carried for generations.

It was also a practice to name children after Godparents, so by tracing nicknames and Godparents, you may uncover additional generations on your ancestral tree. 

Following Records via Race Designation
I probably don’t have to mention that there were enough interracial relationships to substantiate the need to describe persons by race: mulatto, tierceron (or octaroon), quaterrone, etc. By 1810 this becomes even more prevalent in the Louisiana church records due to the Haitian refugees (mostly New Orleans). The idea was to identify the amount of mixed blood in people of African descent for typically 4 generations: Tierceron was most often used as an offspring of a white father and quaterrone mother. Of course there was even the quinterone that described light skinned person usually with blue or green eyes and hair; perhaps 1/16 African blood. This knowledge will assist the researcher in locating church records and tracing back additional generations. A good book to have on hand is A Creole Lexicon, but note that some words on your ancestor’s vital records will not translate.  

The most important note in records that you may find is “passe-à-blanc,” or “passeablanc” (has black bood but could pass for white).  You may find that your otherwise recent ancestral family was white, but in earlier records were identified as one of the mixed races.  A recent discovery of a Louisiana family is the true story of One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life .

Finding Records Based on Degree of Legitimacy
A few notes to keep in mind: Using Father Hèbert’s book, we learn not to look for the deaths of people of color in the Opelousas Church. Yet, we are given hope that grandparent’s names may be found in the records. Oh, and keep in mind that Protestant marriages were kept separately as were most records of color. There are many other hints to assist in your research, but besides these noted exclusions of records, legitimacy of a child may keep you from uncovering desired the church or civil records. This could be due to the Civil Codes of the time. Not all children could be recorded with the church, so we must first understand the terms:
  • Illegitimate child: off-springs of a single man and woman (eligible to be married) but not yet married. These children were usually white, and could inherit property from their father if no legal child existed.  Be sure to research probate/will records. They could also ask for alimony  or attempt to prove parentage.  Be sure to look at court records along with wills.
    To complicate this issue of legitimacy, a white child “could attempt to prove paternity to a white father, black children could not” under the Civil Code of 1825, since it specifies “free illegitimate children of color may be allowed to prove descent from a father of color only (see SWLR, Volume 1A, pg. 25).  
  • Natural Child: usually referred to a white father who acknowledged his children born by a slave or free color. This was a way to record a relationship in spite of the laws that against miscegenation (mixed marriages) were not allowed.  No law prohibited a white man from acknowledging his “colored” offspring.
    A white child may also be recorded in some records as “natural child” if the father acknowledged his illegitimate white child.
    As natural children were acknowledged by their father, they were able to request support from the heirs of the father. If there were no legal/legitimate children, a natural child was able to inherit from their father.  So be sure to look at deeds, probates and wills.
  • Bastard Child: usually referred to a white child that the father did not acknowledge, so there is no formal record of the father with church birth record. Although bastards could not ask for inheritance, could ask for alimony. So be sure to reference court records.
    Children resulting from incest or adultery (black or white) could not be acknowledged. You may find alimony payment records for these children but they could not be acknowledged legally. I have been successful in finding notes in deed records, but have not located any as of yet in church records.
 Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers

1 comment:

  1. Well done. Thanks for explaining the SW LA naming system. I put this on the home page of my blog as a reminder and for future reference.