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Monday, February 19, 2007

The Laramies of Laprairie

Louis Bertrand Aupry dit LaRamée was a soldier, and he arrived in Québec sometime in the early 1690's.  He had been born in St Pierre, in Bordeaux, France, in about 1674, the son of Jean Aupry and Françoise Coiffard.  In 1694 he married Anne Dumas dite Rencontre, the daughter of another soldier who had arrived a generation earlier in the famous Carignan Regiment, and who had married one of the Filles-du-Roi, women sent to New France specifically to marry the soldiers and colonists.

Louis and his wife married and lived in La-Prairie-de-la-Madeleine, across the St Lawrence River from Montréal.  LaPrairie was a village that had sprung up around the Jesuit Mission that was ministering to the native Americans, specifically the Mohawk.  A successful colony of Catholic Mohawks had been established on the riverbank to the west, and it survives to this day as the Kahnawake Tribe Reservation.  Louis may have been part of a military detachment stationed at LaPrairie after it had been attacked, twice, by the English from New York in 1691.  He and his family would have lived within the wooden palisades of the village.

Louis' son, François Antoine, also married and lived in LaPrairie.  Sometime between 1755 and 1770, François and his family moved east to Chambly.  Perhaps it was after the death of his mother, Anne Dumas, in 1761.  These were the years of the French and Indian War, and of the loss of New France to the English.  François returned to LaPrairie County in the late 1780's, apparently with his son Denis and his family.

Denis, with his wife Marie-Elisabeth Lefort dite Laforest, established himself in St Philippe, where he lived until his death in 1806.  It was three of his sons who decided to emigrate to the United States.  Two of them, François-Xavier and Ambroise, decided to seek their fortune in the Missouri Territory in the United States in about 1805, where they took another dit nom, Constant.  They moved to the Florissant Valley, just north of St Louis.

Fifty years earlier, the French had controlled the entire Mississippi basin, from New Orleans up to the Great Plains, from the Ohio Valley through all of the Great Lakes.  It was called Louisiana, after King Louis XIV.  This was the backbone of the fur trade.  There was not enough French population to establish large settlements, but the French controlled navigation on the rivers, thanks in part to a network of alliances with Native Americans.  In 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave all French territory east of the Mississippi to England, and the remaining territory to Spain.  French settlers on the east side of the Mississippi moved across the river, and the Spanish established civil governments in settlements like St Louis, which became the capital of Upper Louisiana.  Fleurissant, the Valley of the Flowers, became San Fernando.

Napoleon secretly gained this territory back from Spain in 1800, with plans to recreate an empire in North America.  War with England was imminent, however, and when American diplomats approached him in 1803 to purchase New Orleans, he sold them instead the entire Louisiana Purchase.  Upper Louisiana became the Missouri Territory, and eventually St Ferdinand became Florissant.  To this day there are a large number of Laramies in and around St Louis.

The third son to emigrate, Joseph, was not seeking his fortune.  He may have been trying to save his neck.  These particular events would not unfold for three decades, though.  Until then, Joseph lived in St Philippe with his other siblings, having married Marie-Françoise Perrault in 1804.  He had twelve children, and by 1834 had moved to St Edouard, in neighboring Napierville County, to the south.

The early 1800's was a difficult time for farmers in Québec, especially French farmers.  Land continued to be controlled by a system best described as feudal, and though the government in Québec was technically democratic, it was actually controlled by a small elite.  Demand for political reform combined with a need for land reform, and by the 1830's agitation was growing for change.  Both the Roman Catholic Church and the British authorities were keen to squelch this agitation, and in 1837 a group of politicians decided that rebellion was the only course.  A number of public protests were held, farmers and laborers were recruited, and armed rebellion ensued.

Hundreds of Quebeckers, both English and French, pledged their support, and hundreds more were sympathizers.  The Richelieu Valley, which included Napierville, was one particular hotbed of rebellion.  Far fewer actually joined the insurgent militias, and fewer still actually fought, but British suppression was quick and brutal.  Many families thought it a good time to leave for Vermont or New York.  There is no written record of Aupry LaRamées being involved in the rebellion, but one of Joseph's sons-in-law, Antoine Achim dit St Andre, had pledged support.  In 1838, Joseph and his family relocated to Champlain, New York.

It was not complete exile.  The border with Canada was porous, and Joseph's children would go back to St Edouard to baptize their children.  But within a decade, the families had settled in the Au Sable Valley, in Ausable Forks and Black Brook and Clintonville and Keeseville, along with hundreds of other French-Canadian immigrants looking for work.  The iron industry in the Au Sable Valley was booming.  Work was available in the iron mines, in the cast-iron mills and foundries, and in the nail factories.  The barges in Lake Champlain needed crews.  There was always farm and lumberjack work.  And here Aupry dit LaRamée would become Aupry or Obry or Laramee or Laramie. 

One of Joseph's grandsons, also named Joseph, worked in an iron mine.  He lived in Ausable Forks, where he married Olive Delphine Grenier in 1856.  They had both been born in Québec, and had come to New York as children.  Now, five years after their marriage, with children of their own, they would once again return to Québec, this time to sit out the American Civil War.  Joseph was joined by his brother François-Xavier in Montréal.  It was during this hiatus that my great-grandmother, Edwidge Mary, was born.

Joseph returned to the Au Sable Valley after the war, and stayed for almost two more decades.  On the day Edwidge married in 1882, her parents packed up their remaining children and headed for Michigan.  Other Laramies headed for Michigan at about the same time, including Joseph's uncles François-Xavier and Theophile.  Better work was available in the timber industry, way up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in Marquette County, which was easy to reach through Ontario.

Meanwhile, the iron industry was petering out in the Au Sable Valley.  Edwidge and her two older siblings, Euclid and Mysie, moved their families across Lake Champlain to Burlington, Vermont in about 1888.  Edwidge and her husband, Frank Bombard, continued on to Barre, where my grandmother Mildred Marguerite was born in 1901.


Related websites:
The Carignan Regiment and Filles du Roi
The English Colonial Raid on LaPrairie
The French and Indian War (Seven Years War)
The Louisiana Purchase
The 1837 Rebellion

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Alvena McGraw

Josephine, Marg, and Vena McGraw, abt. 1913 All of us grandchildren knew Alvena as Nana, which I think was a corruption of her nickname, Vena.  I remember her as a jolly old lady (she was 60 years older than I) who loved family gatherings.  She was famously gullible, and easy to confuse.  She sometimes had funny ideas about what was happening around her.  I have always been intrigued with her face, a big Irish/English mug with unusually squinty eyes and a small, perfectly horizontal smile atop an imposing chin.  The eyes she got from her dad, James McGraw, and the mouth/chin combination from her mother, Selina Sheppeck.  Some of us have inherited her plump Irish nose with chagrin.

I have also been intrigued with stories about Nana's possible emotional or intellectual deficiencies.  I had no experience of this except for the increasing level of dementia that accompanied her aging (she lived to be not-quite ninety).  So I have had to rely on the descriptions and explanations of other relatives.

One frequently-told story is that Nana came from an isolated, rural setting to live in big, cosmopolitan Boston, and the change was too much of a shock.  The only problem is that Nana grew up in Ithaca NY, a small city to be sure, but a county seat with a significant population.  In addition, plenty of people successfully made the transition from country to city, so if Nana couldn't, why not?  Well, she was a little simple, or slow.  You mean, like mentally retarded?  Oh no, nothing like that, she just seemed not to have been exposed to much in her early life.  I'm sure, though, that Nana had the basic schooling that most of her contemporaries had.  And a person can have plenty of smarts not related to traditional school achievement.  My dad, Nana's son, was dyslexic, but that didn't prevent his educational and professional success.  So the question remains - what was up with Nana?  Well, she was a little unstable emotionally.  How so?  She could get confused and then hysterical, and not be able to function.

It was Nana's inability to function as a mother that seemed to be the main symptom of her ailment.  Her unhappiness, as many put it, seemed to begin with the move to Boston.  As she gave birth to more children (she had six altogether) she seemed less able to care for them, or keep a proper home.  My dad, who was her youngest, felt that he had really been raised by his father's sisters (especially his Aunt Mazie).  By the time my dad was six, his older sister Josephine had married and moved her family in, effectively taking over Nana's duties.

Hysteria was the name given to a disability that seemed to afflict mostly women.  Sigmund Freud's career was based on trying to solve the hysteria puzzle, and hysteria was continuing to be diagnosed as recently as the nineteen-thirties.  The cause was unknown, which stopped no one from guessing, and the treatments were often bizarre, humiliating, and sordid by today's standards.  The existence of hysteria helped reinforce the notion that women were weak, fragile, unstable, and unreliable.

Fortunately, hysteria is no longer a valid medical diagnosis.  Though just about every kind of mental illness has been labeled hysteria when manifest in a woman, the most common problem seems to have been an anxiety disorder.  Agoraphobia is a good example, but Generalized Anxiety Disorder may be the more common illness, and may be what afflicted Nana.

Nana's father, James McGrath, was born in a log cabin in Avon, New York, the son of William McGrath and Catherine Kelly.  He was their second child.  Catherine died young, in childbirth, when James was nine, and William moved the family to a house in Avon town.  James met and married Selina Sheppeck when he was about 23, and he and his family continued living with William.  Alvena was their second child, born in 1894.  When Vena was about four, James got a new job in Ithaca and moved the whole family, including his father.  Selina had her sixth child in 1905, the same year that William died.  Vena was eleven.

When Vena was about eighteen, her parents separated, and her father moved away to Rochester, some eighty miles distant.  I imagine he continued supporting the family, though I can't imagine he saw them often.  James and Selina never divorced, but never reconciled.  It was 1918 when Vena met and married James Calhoun - she was twenty-four.  She and James stayed with the family in Ithaca.  Two years later Vena gave birth to Josephine, her first child.  And six months later Vena's mother, Selina, died unexpectedly, of a stroke.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is thought to run in families.  It is often triggered by a stressful event in young adulthood, and from there it is chronic, and can get worse.  It creates a state of excessive worry, not about anything in particular, but every little thing in general.  If the anxiety is severe or prolonged enough it can lead to depression - an inability to function at all.  It is similar to ordinary worry (my dad was well-known as a worrywart), but is more like a continuous, subdued panic attack.  It is very tricky to diagnose correctly, even by professionals.

After Selina's death, Vena and James moved to Massachusetts, and lived and worked on a chicken farm in Reading, a dozen miles north of Boston.  I've not heard many stories from this period in their lives, but I have heard that they were very happy.  James and Vena lived in Reading until after the birth of their third child, Mary, in 1925.  They moved to South Boston, where the rest of James' family lived.  And this is when, at age 31, the "unhappiness" for Vena began, and grew worse.

But I will always remember the happy Nana, forty years later, who loved the kids, and laughed when she was teased, who lived in the mysterious triple-decker with the smell of varnish, and who was just a little nutty, in a most delightful way.