I’m not going to pull any punches here. Genealogy is fun yet often frustrating.
Family stories passed down through the generations often turn into a game of Telephone. A little bit of the true story gets lost with every passing generation.
Case in point: As a teenager, I heard a fantastic story about my great-great grandmother’s aunt. It featured murder, revenge and the Gold Rush. Decades later, I was bored and plugged a few keywords into a newspaper search engine. And I made a fantastic discovery. The story was true. Mostly. The murder happened. The revenge happened. It did indeed happen during the Gold Rush. However, the great-great-aunt’s name was different from the family’s recollection.
So, I thought it would be fun to open this blog up to Louisiana genealogy stories you’ve heard but never been able to verify. Maybe some armchair detectives can prove or disprove them. Submit them in comments.
An impulsive moment brought me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November, where I discovered a Louisiana connection. More on that in a moment.
Months ago, before my Instagram account was hacked by someone in Nigeria, I saw an ad for a conversation between Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten in Brooklyn. I thought about it for a week and then bought two tickets. I love their cookbooks, their cooking shows and their social media. And, the last time we were in New York, the Twin Towers still stood. So, why not take a trip to New York City and admire the fall colors?
We spent a beautiful, breezy November week walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, exploring DUMBO, admiring awe-inspiring churches, choking back tears at the 9/11 Museum, visiting the biggest bookstore ever, stepping carefully away from a sidewalk rat, seeing two renowned cooks and rambling through the rain at Central Park before my husband dropped me off at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If you’ve never been to this museum, I have to insist that you go – even if you’re not in the area to see two cooks talk about the danger of cooking with a mandolin.
The museum wasn’t on the itinerary this trip. We’ve been before, and my husband can speed walk through a museum faster than an elderly mall walker. But I really, really wanted to go. I couldn’t stop thinking about that ancient Egyptian temple built thousands of years ago along the Nile and transplanted, block by block, to the Met. I wanted to turn the corner once again for the big reveal of that temple in the middle of Manhattan. So, we compromised. I went to the Met. My husband went to the Carlyle and sat in the sumptuous bar soaking up the atmosphere and chasing away the rain with hot toddies.
If you’ve never been to the Metropolitan, take a moment to study the floor plan and develop a battle plan since this is a huge museum. I circled the galleries containing the art I just had to see. However, I kept getting distracted. I planned, for example, to visit the Astor Chinese Garden Court. I did not plan to be stopped in my tracks by gorgeous, kimono-inspired fashion on my way to the court.
Another distraction was Madame X.
Currently on view in Gallery 771, this stunning portrait by John Singer Sargent features Madame Pierre Gautreau, who was born as Virginie Amélie Avegno in New Orleans on Jan 29, 1859. The painting was considered risque (look at the amount of pale white skin on display, the figure-revealing dress, the strap inching down her shoulder) in the 1880s, prompting Sargent to mask the subject’s identity by referring to her as Madame X.
I wanted to know more about Madame X. A long piece in a December 1984 edition of the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper filled in the rest of her story.
Amelie was born in New Orleans, supposedly in a house that still stands on Toulouse Street. Today, it’s a towering, salmon-colored townhome worth millions of dollars. No doubt, it was equally as nice in Amelie’s time. That’s it above in a drawing from the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Her father was Anatole Placide Avegno, a merchant’s son who raised his own regiment to fight in the Civil War. Unfortunately, he had a flair for fashion that led him to outfit the regiment in brightly colored uniforms that included flared pantaloons. He stood out on the battlefield and soon was fatally wounded. He tried to get back home only to die on the way.
Her mother was Marie Virginie de Ternant, who spent her childhood drifting between France and her family’s sprawling plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish.
Paris is a common thread in the family history. After Marie Virginie’s father died young, her mother found solace in Paris and retreated there often with her young daughter in tow. Marie Virginie would make the same trek with her own daughter years later after becoming a young widow.
It was in Paris that Amelie became the bride of banker and ship owner Pierre Gautreau (pictured above). Her uncle traveled from Louisiana to walk her down the aisle. Married life didn’t prevent Amelie from making the rounds of Parisian society. She was known for her beauty. Artist Edward Simmons wrote that she “walked as Virgil speaks of goddesses – sliding – and seems to take no steps.”
Amelie also wasn’t shy. She flaunted her cleavage and was rumored to be unfaithful to her husband. At the beach, she hired a strong man to carry her, Cleopatra like, across the hot sands.
As soon as he saw her, Sargent became obsessed with painting her portrait. Her skin, he later said was “uniform lavender or blotting paper color all over.” That would probably be the arsenic Amelie used to drain the color from her skin.
Amelie sat 30 times for the portrait. Sargent was exacting in his approach, even choosing the sassy dress she wore. He was young and ambitious. He wanted this to be a sensation. Both he and Amelie were social climbers. They viewed the portrait as an opportunity to cheekily dazzle French society.
Problems emerged long before the portrait was shown to the public. Sargent tired of Amelie’s “hopeless laziness.” Amelie, no doubt, was restless about the long sittings. She had a young daughter and social engagements. Still, Amelie seemed pleased with Sargent’s work.
The portrait was designed to titillate. In the original version, one dress strap snaked down Amelie’s shoulder. The black dress is a sharp contrast to the sickly shade of porcelain skin on display in an apparent nod to the complexion of consumption patients.
The unveiling at the Salon of 1884 was a disaster. Amelie became a caricature, the Morticia Addams of her day. Critics compared her to a corpse. “The bluish coloring atrocious,” the New York Times sniped.
Amelie’s mother was mortified, saying her daughter was lost. Certainly, society shunned Amelie, forcing her to take the arm of low ranking escorts when she went to the opera. Sargent fled to London, taking the painting with him. His ambition took a deep dive.
It wasn’t until 1916 that he sold the painting to the Met. All those years later, the debacle was fresh in his mind. He didn’t want Amelie’s name attached to the portrait because of “the row I had with the lady years ago.” Amelie became Madame X. Today, the museum identifies her as Madame Pierre Gautreau. Sargent restored the fallen dress strap to its proper place on her shoulder before relinquishing what he called his best work.
Amelie died a year before her portrait made its way to the Met. She outlived her husband and daughter even though she was only 56 when she died. She’s buried in France, the country that shunned her allure. Today, she’s a sensation.
Stefano Dolese/Doleze/Dolise immigrated from Italy and settled in Plaquemines Parish’s Pointe a la Hache, where he died a horrible death in the summer of 1857. His house caught fire. He rushed to his son’s bedroom only to find the door locked. Not knowing the son had already escaped through the window, he broke down the door, bursting into the bedroom just as the fire reached seven kegs of gunpowder in a neighboring room. Afterward, only bits of Stefano were found.
Here’s what I didn’t know until today.
After Stefano’s death, his widow started sleeping with the local priest, resulting in an even more horrific death not even six months after the fire.
Here’s the story.
I came across a piece of this history in a book called “The Catholic Church in Louisiana.” It’s one of my favorite books in the genealogy collection at the Main Library in Baton Rouge. Basically, it’s a history of all the Catholic churches in Louisiana. You would think it would be a dry read. It’s not. Granted, the writeup tilts heavily in favor of the church.
The church, for example, would like to characterize this saga as an assassination. Others might call it justifiable homicide. Let me set the scene.
The community of Pointe a la Hache – located near New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish – is vulnerable to hurricanes. The population’s dwindled since Hurricane Katrina. In 1845, however, the community was growing enough to earn its first resident priest. Father Nicholas Savelli – a native of Italy – arrived in 1845 and started preaching from a church built atop an Indian Mound. Within less than 10 years, it would all come to a very bloody end.
According to the book, Father Nicholas Savelli was going about his business tending to the Catholic population of Plaquemines Parish in 1857 when “sentiment against the priest flared up and fanned by gossip and slander, soon blazed into bitter hatred.” A message was sent to the priest about a sick parishioner. Father Savelli set off and reached a point in the road where murderers were waiting in the bushes to ambush him and stab him 36 times. They then found a bathtub, deposited the priest’s body in it, stripped him, mutilated him, filled the tub with whiskey, drank the whiskey that was marinating in the priest’s body parts, danced in an orgy until dawn and left the priest’s clothes hanging in the confessional. Quite the day in 1857 Plaquemines Parish.
The book attributes the murder to anti-clericalism. Newspaper stories from the era fill in the rest of the details.
A man named Dominique Ormes was arrested as one of the murderers. He quickly started talking.
According to Ormes, who seems to have married into the Dolese family, Father Savelli started visiting Stefano Dolese’s widow every night after Stefano’s unfortunate death. Exactly what happened during those visits was in dispute. One relative said the priest slept with the widow. Another said he stroked her bosom with his cane to excite her. The widow herself said, yes, the priest stroked her bosom with his cane but it was just to convince her to move in with her mother.
Whatever happened, the Dolese family didn’t like it. Their neighbors didn’t like it. The Dolese family was well respected in Plaquemines Parish. On Oct. 3, 1857, the priest and many members of the community met up on the highway. Father Savelli wouldn’t leave the encounter alive.
What happened to the priest’s murderers is unclear. The Catholic Church eventually sent in a new priest who presumably stayed away from the Widow Dolese. There was mention in the newspapers of arrests but no further mention of trials.
There is one postscript buried in the church archives.
The priest’s father wrote Archbishop Anthony Blanc in 1858 thanking him for sending documents that apparently questioned the imputations of shame in his son’s death. He also had a favor to ask. It seems that Savelli had never done anything for his family, which included his parents, four brothers and a sister, but had promised to support them once he’d regained from the church the money he’d spent building a church, a presbytery, a cemetery, a garden with 600 feet of oranges and several chapels.
Would it be possible, Savelli’s father wrote, for the family to get a reimbursement?
One of my favorite ways to explore the past is through fire insurance maps. I’ve talked about Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps before, but I always discover something new when I revisit them.
The maps were launched in 1867 to help insurance agents determine the risk of insuring properties. They offer a bird’s eye view of every building on a plot of land and detail how many stories, doors and windows a dwelling had.
The first thing to do when looking at the maps is to find the key. This will explain all the notations on your ancestor’s home. Usually, it’s on the first page of a map series.
I decided to revisit the maps after driving past the home of silent film star Mary Miles Minter’s cousin in Alexandria. I’d visited the home in real estate listings and wondered why in the world it was selling for such a bargain basement price. Well, a drive past the day after Christmas ended that wonder. The neighborhood’s definitely seen better times. We didn’t even get out of the car. I wanted to see what the neighborhood looked like in 1914 so I turned to Sanborn.
Introducing the Branch Mansion, circa 1914:
With a little imagination, the neighborhood quickly comes into focus even though more than a century’s passed. 103 Bolton Avenue was the lone house on the block. A servant’s dwelling was located behind the beautiful mansion. Today, the servant’s quarters are gone as are most of the neighboring houses on 16th. The steps to one house still are there.
It happens. Houses burn down. Other times, they’re abandoned and quickly crumble.
Turning to the key, I learn more about the Bolton Mansion. It’s two stories. Oh, that building at the far right was a stable (now gone). All the houses in the neighborhood were frame. Fascinating!
These maps tend to focus on cities rather than rural areas. Enjoy!
When Etienne Bourgeois died in 1879, he left a young family behind: his wife, Marie Landry, their 3-year-old son, Alexis Etienne, and their 1-year-old daughter, Leonie. Marie quickly remarried, but life in the 1800s could be cruel. By 1883, Alexis Etienne and Leonie were orphans.
It was the district attorney for St. Mary Parish who went to court and reported that the children “were without proper care or moral training.” Worse, their mother’s sister, Victoria, was mistreating them and usurping their inheritance. The district attorney’s recommendation was that Etienne’s property and belongings be sold to pay for the children’s care at a Catholic asylum in New Orleans.
The saga is contained in St. Mary Parish’s probate records, proving once again just how interesting dusty old court records can be. You’ll also find a list of every looking glass, mattress and lamp Etienne owned because it all had to be sold for the children’s benefit.
What’s interesting is that the children’s mother remarried before swiftly dying. I don’t know why her second husband’s family didn’t take charge of the children. Maybe Aunt Victoria – who was helping herself to their inheritance – wouldn’t allow it.
Regardless, the court records shows that the district attorney was successful in placing the children in St. Mary’s Catholic Asylum in New Orleans. The proceeds from the estate sale were to be used for their schooling, board, tuition and the upkeep of property that wasn’t sold.
Curious what became of the children? Alexis became a steam engineer and settled in Morgan City with his wife and their two girls. Leonie – later known as Leonide – stayed in the New Orleans area, raised a large family and died just two months shy of her 97th birthday.
Many years ago, I set out in search of my great-great-grandfather’s fractured family.
Augustin Giroir was just 6 when his father died around 1874. I’m not sure of the exact death date or even what killed Eulice Edmond “Ulysse” Giroir. The story passed down was that he died when his youngest child was just a baby. That caboose was Valsin – or Valcin.
In less than 10 years of marriage, Ulysse and his wife, Anaise, had five children: Augustin, Augustine, Marie, Alice and Valsin. Valsin was named for Anaise’s father. Because he was born on Christmas Day, he was given the middle name Noel.
When a parent died young back then, families tended to splinter. Anaise couldn’t have provided for all of her children. She seemed to have kept the two boys with her. The girls went to live with relatives. They were split up but lived not far from each other.
Augustine moved in with a Landry family and married Jean Baptiste Arretteig. At first, they lived in Gibson, where they lost a child before moving to the Lafayette area. Like her mother, Augustine was widowed fairly early in life. Her youngest child was just 15 when Jean Baptiste died. Augustine’s children would do well. They attended college and went into the medical field. The only girl became a nun. Augustine died of a stroke at age 56.
Marie was listed as an orphan on the 1880 census even though her mother was still living. I really didn’t know what had happened to Marie after the 1880 census until I stumbled across her grave in a St. Mary Parish cemetery. She had been buried under her maiden name. Years later, I discovered that she married at age 22 to Placide Bourke, had eight children and died in Lake Charles at age 86. Her children buried her in Patterson, near where she was born and where she started her family.
Alice was said to be 101 when died. She wasn’t. She was only 91. As a young girl, she moved in with her father’s sister Elizabeth when the family fractured. I suspect another aunt’s death brought her to Gibson. She was there in 1900 living in the household of her mother’s deceased sister Lizzie. No doubt, she was helping care for Lizzie’s children since she was listed as the cook. Alice stayed in Gibson, where she married and adopted a child.
Finally, there’s the caboose. Valsin was living with his mother in 1880. Also in the household was a male carpenter and an orphaned child. I don’t know what the story was on that. It looks like Anaise’s mother-in-law was living nextdoor. Perhaps Anaise was running a boarding house?
Valsin married in 1898 to Marie LeBoeuf. They had at least two children: Robert and Lillian. On the 1910 census, Valsin was listed as Charles (his grandfather’s other name). It’s possible Valsin’s real name was Charles Valsin Noel since his grandfather’s full name was Charles Valsin. Valsin is listed as a sewing machine salesman. Then, poof. Valsin and Marie vanish. Their children later turned up in Texas, where they married and died.
Court records tell me Valsin sometimes got himself in trouble. He was caught trespassing in 1908.
He engaged in a property sale in the town of Franklin a year earlier.
And he ignored court summons. It was a busy two years.
What happened to Valsin is beyond me. I can’t find him in further court records or burial records. It’s like he vanished.
A few years ago, I started transcribing records for familysearch.org. Imagine my surprise when I found myself transcribing my great-great-aunt’s birth certificate. Not only was I helping other people, I was also helping my own family.
Transcribing makes genealogy more accessible by using volunteers to index records. Years ago, we looked at census records on microfilm and spent hours hunched over those machines looking for our ancestors. Now we can look at census records online and even search a digital index for names.
The Smithsonian Institute is looking for volunteers to help transcribe records. Among the projects is the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was a federal agency that helped freed slaves and poor whites with shelter, food, clothing and fuel.
Records for Louisiana aren’t in the available list yet, but you can help with records for North Carolina and Tennessee. Here’s the handy dandy link: https://transcription.si.edu/
If you’d like to see the records for Louisiana, you can hop on over to familysearch.org. Carve out a few hours. There are nearly 100,000 images of records, and they’re not indexed. See: This is why transcribing is so important!
I’ve driven past this church for years. It’s off a state highway that runs through Napoleonville. That little archway has always beckoned me. This weekend I finally pulled over and explored the world behind it.
Long weekends are made for rambles. This is Christ Episcopal, which was designed by an NYC architect. For some reason, he wanted it to have the feel of an English country church even though it’s in a Louisiana country town. This church was an English-speaking oasis in French-speaking Napoleonville.
A cemetery is at the back of the church. This lovely statue holds watch over the graves, all of them magnificent even though some are crumbling.
The church dates to 1853 and was built at a cost of $9,500. Time hasn’t always been kind to it. During the Civil War, Union soldiers used it as a barracks and later a stable. The stained glass became a target for shooting practice.
The creation of the church was a true collaboration by the Episcopal members of a largely Catholic community. Napoleonville was very Cajun in the 1850s, but a few residents weren’t Catholic and they wanted their own church. New Hampshire native Ebeneezer Eaton Kittredge donated a corner of his plantation for the church and cemetery. Col. William Whitmell Pugh supplied the cypress and bricks. George Ament oversaw the construction and is buried in the church cemetery.
The original congregation numbered just 21 members. Not all were Episcopalian. Some were Catholics who wanted to participate in “so great a good.” Let’s face it: They were probably curious.
After the war, the congregation pulled together once again. They held church services in the courthouse down the road while rebuilding their ruin of a church.
The church would later be struck by lightning and ravaged by other acts of nature. Still, it endured.
At times, the church has been a bit of a hotbed for controversy. One clergyman, Quincy Ewing, embraced women’s suffrage and the equality of black people during the early 1900s. Enraged by a sermon on women’s suffrage, U.S. Sen. Walter Guion stormed out and quit the church. Ewing survived the controversy, largely because his family donated the land for the church.
Today, Christ Episcopal is one of the oldest Episcopal churches west of the Mississippi River. The grounds were quiet when we visited. We ignored the “private property” sign, kept to the pathways and respected the serene beauty. Hopefully, we didn’t offend.
Before she married, my grandmother was a Creekmore.
Her Creekmores lived in East Texas. As a child, I went to several family reunions and funerals for the Creekmores. I fondly remember rambles down country roads, walks through the woods, visits to log cabins and picnics at state parks that always accompanied a Creekmore family visit.
My grandmother dearly loved her many uncles and few aunts. Unfortunately, I didn’t see everyone enough to keep the names straight so I need help with family photos.
A few years ago, I took a day off work and drove to Houma, the parish seat of Terrebonne, to do a little courthouse research. I looked through the record indexes, made a short list of the files I wanted and handed it to the clerk. I was told to come back in a week to collect them. A WEEK?
I’m used to that kind of response in New Orleans, where records are kept in other buildings because of the volume of records. Houma, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a Costco. It has exactly one movie theater. My cousin’s senior prom was held in a former TG&Y. You get my point.
After swallowing my shock, I asked exactly where the records were located. “Oh, they’re upstairs,” the clerk told me. “But we’re only allowed to go up there once a week.”
I didn’t ask why they only retrieve records once a week. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume there’s a poltergeist on the second floor of the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse. The only person brave enough to confront it is a blue-haired old lady who only works once a week.
Needless to say, I didn’t take a second day off work to return for the records. I was annoyed. Records should be accessible unless they’re stored offsite. Most other courthouses in Louisiana are very obliging. Terrebonne Parish isn’t.
Even more annoying, Terrebonne Parish hasn’t allowed the Church of Latter Day Saints to photograph its records. So, you have to drive to Houma, put in your order and then come back in a week.