IN SEARCH OF A BEAUTIFUL BUT LITTLE-KNOWN CEMETERY OF FRENCH IMMIGRANTS IN SOUTHERN WISCONSIN. HOW THEY MANAGED TO PLANT VINEYARDS IN THAT AREA
This is a story that will interest you Stéphane, as an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, with a particular fondness for the state of birth of your mother. MIMI, in her always interesting stories relating the lives and cooking habits of her French ancestors in Wisconsin posted on her “très sympathique’’ blog ‘’French Kitchen in America’’, often talked about their old neighborhood of Frenchtown. It always tickled my curiosity, and every time I asked myself where exactly was that mysterious ‘’Frenchtown’’ located? My impression was that MIMI’s Frenchtown was perhaps located somewhere between Green Bay and Marinette on Lake Michigan, perhaps Oconto, since she alludes to fishermen and seagulls. I had found a Frenchtown in Michigan on Lake Erie, near Monroe, and several roads and neighborhoods named Frenchtown in areas like Eau Claire, Prairie du Chien, and Withee, Wisconsin. But I could not locate any place close to Lake Michigan or to fishing grounds. So I decided to find out how many Frenchtowns I could find in the Midwest and more specifically in Wisconsin, and if they actually had been populated by French people from France, or by French-speaking Canadians or Belgians, as it is often the case in Wisconsin. Searching for reliable historical sources, I first consulted ‘’ The Time Of The French In The Heart Of America’’ , a very good book published in 1996 by Charles Balesi, a former French teacher and historian from Chicago. It contained interesting pieces of info on French explorations and military expeditions in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. But they did not mention any Frenchtown. Then, as I was browsing through a website of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, I found a very interesting project sponsored by a group of professors of French that studied 400 years of connections between Wisconsin and French-speaking countries.
That report, “Wisconsin French Connections" was published in 1999, to mark the 150th anniversary of that state in 1998. It is useful to remember that it is a Frenchman from Normandy, Jean Nicolet, who landed in a canoe near the site that is now Green Bay with a small group of Hurons in 1634, coming from Quebec. He was in fact searching a passage to the ocean that would allow him to sail to China. He was also acting in an unofficial capacity as sort of an ambassador trying to establish in the name of France good relations and commercial partnerships with the local Indian tribes. He met with Native Americans members of the Winnebago tribe, along the Menoninee River, that first he thought were Chinese people. He engaged into a good relationship with them. In these days the French called Green Bay the “Baie des Puants” (the stinking bay) . Reading this report I was very excited to learn that there was an area, located in what was called Montrose Township in Dane County, near Belleville, that was actually called Frenchtown because it was populated by French people who came from France between 1850 and 1870. What fascinated me the most is that they were all coming from the same region in France, the Département of Haute-Saône, in the region of Franche-Comté. That district located about 240 miles southeast of Paris, is situated southwest of the Vosges Mountains and Alsace, and 30 miles northwest of the Swiss border. More precisely most of them came from the tiny town of Saint-Germain, north of the city of Lure, and from other villages nearby. It just happened by coincidence that my good friend Georges Cuisance (Kiki) the owner of KIKI’S BISTRO, my favorite eatery in Chicago, is precisely from Vesoul, the major city in Haute-Saône, that is less than 20 miles due southwest from Lure. You can read Kiki`s story in an interview on this blog.
Why and how did so many French people of the same region ended-up settling in such a rural area of Wisconsin?
The reason for that migration of French people from the same area to create such an important “ethnic”concentration so far away from their home base is very unusual since the French in these days did not expatriate themselves so massively, especially to the United-States. But in fact the explanation to this quite unique phenomenon is simple.
The first Frenchman from Saint-Germain who came to Montrose was named Jean Roi. By the time he arrived in Belleville he already had anglicized in name into John Roy. Before settling there in 1850, he had lived in the upper New York state since 1835 and had fought as an enlisted soldier in the Mexican war until 1848. According to Jerry Remy, the local ‘’historian’’ of Belleville, who is a direct descendent of the original French first settlers, Roy was probably given a ‘’land grant’’ when he was discharged, and perhaps was persuaded by another soldier to travel West to Belleville to purchase a piece of land from one of the early American settlers who lived in the Belleville area and were always eager to sell their property to go farther West. These early settlers in Belleville were not German, Swiss, Norwegian, Scotch or Irish like most of the other settlers in the surroundings towns of Dane County and Montrose township , but rather ‘’Yankees’’ from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New England, and New York state, and a couple of Kentuckians. In fact the gentleman who founded the city of Belleville in 1851 was an English-speaking Canadian, Mr. Frederick, who gave to the new town the name of the city in Ontario he came from, Belleville. And the man who put Montrose Township on the map in 1840 was one John Kendrick, from Kentucky, who named Montrose after a town in Pennsylvania. The founder of Paoli also came from Pennsylvania. Roy, whose wife who joined him later was also from Canada, was so happy to live on a small piece of land where he cultivated hops a few miles northeast of Belleville that he wrote to his former neighbors in Saint-Germain to tell them how easy and cheap to buy good-size parcels of agricultural land in this area.
That is how the immigration of whole families from the region of Saint Germain to Belleville started to reach a total of 32 families before it ended around 1870. Many of them probably benefited directly or indirectly from those land grants attributed to ‘’Yankee’’ families who has settled in Montrose Township that allowed them to purchase land that they sold later to the new French settlers. Some of the ‘’Haut-Saônois’’ families to follow Roy’s bear names like Tisserand, Garvoille, Remy, Genin, Tourdot, François, Carteron, Viney, Pernot, Gehin, Henry, Frelin, Menigoz, Faivre, Lamboley, Laroque, Carteret, Dubay, Pillar, Germain, Clerget, Leclerc, Petitot, Carteron, Grillot, Durand, Perrin, Begey, Grosjean, Fleury, Gerard, and many others.
The majority of the new French settlers were poor, but honest hard-working people. They had a great sense of what their community should be in order to survive and prosper, and they helped each other toward that common goal. Before they came to Wisconsin, they had difficult lives, trying to survive from farming a few acres on land disseminated in small parcels in and around Saint-Germain. In their early years in Frenchtown they lived in very simple log houses deprived of any kind of basic comfort. Their clothes were of the same simple kind that they wore in France and they walked in wooden ‘’sabots’’ (galoshes). Their way of life and day- to- day habits and routines in those days were very modest and frugal. They relaxed from their hard labor regimen with lots of singing. They also were devout Catholics and had many children, that they either brought with them or who were born and raised in Frenchtown. Some of these French families counted up to 10 or even 12 children. They knew how to plant, grow, and harvest barley, oats, and hops, and to process small grains. And what I was amazed to learn about, and that fact was confirmed by Jerry Remy, is that they brought from France their native habit of drinking wine, even though the Haute-Saône area is not a wine-growing region. So they planted vineyards at the edge of some of their farm’s back plots and harvested substantial amount of grapes, mostly Concord, that they transformed into wine. Jerry Remy told me that not only his ancestors produced wagon-loads of grapes, but that his great grandfather drank a glass of his own wine every morning for breakfast. And his grandpa must also have been a strong man since he died at the age of 103 in Frenchtown in 1965 after having lived there for 100 years. He arrived to Belleville from Saint-Germain in 1865. Perhaps the red wine produced on his family farm had helped him to maintain his coronaries in good condition. I do not know if, when in the 1860s some bad insect infestation ruined lots of wheat and other cereal crops in Southern Wisconsin, those French farmers started to raise dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, and poultry like many of their Swiss, German, Scandinavian, and American neighbors did. A very interesting historic map of Montrose Township dated 1899 shows the different land properties belonging to French settlers with their names clearly marked. The early French settlers did not speak English of course, but got along well enough to be accepted by the other ethnic groups of Montrose Township and the city of Belleville. The French that they spoke at home was not ‘’high French’’ but rather a regional ‘’patois’’. Much later the new generation of children and grandchildren of the early settlers born in Frenchtown, who had married among themselves, became English-speaking Americans but some of them continued for a while to speak their original patois at home. A few descendants of some of these families are still living in the Belleville area: Several members of the Remy family are listed on Remy Road in Belleville and the name of Francis (François) can also be found in a few places. But nowadays the few direct descendants from these early French settlers still living around Belleville do not speak French, or have a very limited knowledge of it, according to what Jerry Remy told me.
Where exactly was Frenchtown? How to get to its cemetery?
The name of Frenchtown referred to a five-square-mile area northeast about 3 miles northeast of Belleville where Jean Roy started his farm, and where all the other families from Haute-Saône settled and bought pieces of land as large as 80 to 100 acres. Three of the early French immigrants, Olympe Genin, Auguste François et Xavier Garvoille (whose name was changed to Gavoille) were forced to serve in the army during the civil war. Their tombs are in the French cemetery on Frenchtown Road. Some local historians have estimated that the 32 original French families had so many children (sometimes 10 to 12 ) that around 1902 the size of the French settlement, Frenchtown, had expanded to 400 or even 500 souls, according to an article written by August Roden in the State Journal, published in Madison in 1902. By that time the new generation spoke English. This is why many of the more recent headstones in the Frenchtown cemetery, that used to be called Saint Raphael cemetery in its early years, bear many English first names, even though the last names are the same as those of their elders. Some original names were anglicized many years later. For example, François became Francis. The French town cemetery’s early name of Saint-Raphael referred to the catholic church of Saint-Raphael that was erected in 1869 near Paoli, a charming little village a few miles north of Frenchtown, that welcomed catholic parishioners from the French and Irish nearby communities. Saint-Raphael was replaced by a larger church in 1900 in Paoli and was renamed Saint William.
And the few people who had been buried in the Belleville cemetery were exhumed and buried again in Fenchtown cemetery.