From time to time, we get a bee in our bonnet, as is wont with genealogists. This particular bee is one of those shared by the many people whose interest in the French settlers of Natchitoches, Louisiana, was -- like mine -- aroused by Elizabeth Shown Mills's fascinating historical novel: Isle of Canes. In it, one settler she names is Jean Baptiste Le Comte (or Lecomte).
Le Comte was a real person, a soldier from France who was sent to Louisiana and then stayed. He married Marguerite Le Roy, bought land, owned slaves. He had numerous children. He died in 1784, seemingly never having returned to France. Documentary evidence about his early life is scarce, to say the least. He is mentioned in Glenn R. Conrad's The First Families of Louisiana, as having been on the General Roll of Louisiana troops and as being among those discharged on the 15th of September, 1763 (about seven years after he married).
We were curious to know where in France he was born. As he was not an officer, there is no pension file on him in the military archives at the Service Historique de la Défense. Military records on rank and file soldiers are difficult to search if one does not know where the man enlisted or was conscripted. That avenue of research seemed closed for the time being.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Louisiana was French. Births, marriages and burials were recorded in parish registrations, registres paroissiaux, exactly as they were in France. Marriage registrations almost always give the date and place of birth of both parties, and the names of their parents. We thought that it could be simple to track down his place of birth via his marriage registration. Jean Baptiste Le Comte's marriage registration, however, is just about indecipherable, especially the part that relates to his origins:
It seems clear enough that his parents were Claude le Compte and Anne Combe. He seems to have been a "native of the parish of St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge in the diocese of St. glaude".
Thus began a long, frustrating and at times rather humourous search for that parish and diocese. Surely the diocese was Saint Claude, we presumed. Yet, when we checked the list of parishes for that diocese, there was no "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge" or anything close to that. We wrote to the archivist of the diocese, who responded after a few weeks, telling us that there never had been any such parish.
Hours of manic googling brought Saint Martin de Cormeilles-en-Vexin, in Normandy. Could this be it? Not really. That parish was in the diocese of Pontoise. It would be stretching the truth of the bad handwriting too far to try to make "St. glaude" read as Pontoise and to assume that Le Comte forgot to say Cormeilles but did say "graingrouge". That is the very mistake many genealogists -- in France and elsewhere -- make when they are desperate for an answer, and it is interdit.
We attended a genealogy fair which had members of cercles from all over France present. We diligently wandered from one booth to another with Le Comte's marriage registration, asking paleographers to decipher it, asking if anyone knew of a Saint Glaude. Everyone wanted to help, but we reached no definitive answer. One of the best suggestions was that "graingrouge" was a corruption of grange rouge, or red barn, and that perhaps it was a name of a property and not part of the parish name. No one knew of a Saint Glaude.
We approached the table of the cercle for Franche-Comté in eastern France, where the diocese of Saint Claude is located. Again we showed our paper and asked if they knew such a saint or diocese. All enthusiasts, a small group rushed to read the registration, carefully reciting each word aloud. In unison, when they got to "Saint Glaude", they burst out laughing and slapped one another's backs, nodded, and passed around the regional wine they were offering. (Tasty.) "Saint Glaude" they kept repeating, causing them to collapse into hilarity all over again. The joke was that the local pronunciation of Claude sounds like Glaude to an outsider, a non-Comtoise, which that priest in Louisiana clearly was. Oh yes, they assured me, if anything confirmed that Le Comte was a Comtoise speaking, two hundred and fifty years ago, it was that pronunciation of their diocese.
So, it seemed likely that Le Comte was a Comtoise, but from which parish? A rush to the computers ensued, as everyone searched their lists of old and new parishes. No one had anything resembling "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge". The laughter died away. One by one, people gave up and wandered off. The die-hards kept the wine close and pounded their keyboards but found nothing in their databases and grudgingly gave up as well.
We left the fair, satisfied that we had a diocese of origin at least, but we still desired to find the parish where Le Comte was born. We thought it unwise to return to the Saint Claude diocesan archivist and insist that he check again for "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge". We embarked on another route. France-Comté includes the departments of Doubs, Jura, Haute-Saône and the Territory of Belfort. The diocese of Saint Claude is today in Jura but in the eighteenth century was larger and extended into Doubs and what is now Rhône. We decided to write to the archivists of the Departmental Archives of Doubs, Jura and Rhône, including a copy of the marriage registration and begging their assistance. Generally, though they will not do research for people, they will try to help and guide researchers in the right direction.
Only one archivist bothered to respond, but she provided gold. Writing that her entire staff had been baffled by the parish name "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge" and all had been determined to solve the puzzle, making it an institution-wide hunt, she then wrote that they had found it. The word beginning with V was not Vecin or Vexin, nor was it a word on its own at all. It was part of the following word. The name of the parish is Saint Martin de Vaugrigneuse. It was an exceedingly tiny hamlet next to the village of Cornod in Jura.
Given the uniqueness of the parish name in all of France, we think we can say with reasonable certainty that Jean Baptiste Le Comte was from that hamlet of Saint Martin de Vaugrigneuse, that he grew up looking at the lovely chateau of Cornod, and that something made him prefer the sultry clime of Louisiana to the cold mountain weather of Jura. Our numerous and intensive research efforts did nothing to bring about this discovery. All we had to do was ask the right people, which we highly recommend to you all.
©2012 Anne Morddel