When she got ill, she went into the hospital and we used to go up to visit her a lot there. Some of the nurses were nuns and they all spoke French. She would rattle off French to them like you wouldn't believe. Like that's all she spoke was French. (1)
IN THE EARLY SPRING OF 1931, Marguerite Jette (nee Liard), an elderly woman of eighty, spent the last weeks of her life at St. Vincent's Hospital in Portland. St. Vincent's, founded by the Sisters of Providence, was then still staffed by missionaries sent out from the order's motherhouse in Montreal. What was unusual about this particular patient was the fact she conversed with the nuns in French. Although Marguerite had been born and raised and had lived all her life in Oregon, French was one her native languages. (2) This was the result of her familial links with French Canada. Her father, step-father, grandfather, and husband had all been born in Lower Canada (Quebec).
Marguerite's singularity in 1931 did not end with her French-Canadian heritage. Family photographs depict a stern-faced matriarch with high cheekbones and dark, coarse hair that hint at her Indian ancestry. Her Oregon family roots stretched back more than a hundred years to the initial phase of Euro-American colonization in the Pacific Northwest--when Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) fur traders and trappers exploited the region's natural resources. Marguerite's mother and grandmother were among several generations of Native and metis women who intermarried with French-Canadian men employed by the HBC. Both the men and the women played crucial roles as laborers and cultural brokers in the fur-trade enterprise, albeit with second-class status. During the mid 1800s, Marguerite's parents and grandparents witnessed the United States' annexation of the lower portion of the Oregon Country, Anglo-American settlers' rise to political supremacy, and the settlers' institution of a regime of racial exclusion across the region. Raising a large family under the force of these processes in the late 1800s, Marguerite Jette and her husband Adolphe followed a complex path that led to the relative assimilation of their descendants into dominant Euro-American society by the time of Marguerite's death in the early 1900s.
Although Marguerite Jette's experience did not make it into the standard history books, the contours of her family's history are part of a much larger continental story. The centuries-long process of Euro-American colonization necessarily involved ethnic intermixing in all of the contact zones where Natives and coloniz ers met and interacted. In recent decades, scholars have begun to explore the ways bi-cultural family and community histories complicate and deepen North American history-what Gary Nash has called "the hidden history of mestizo America." (3) Historians studying the West have underscored the intermediary position occupied by mixed-bloods in the fur-trade economy from the late 1700s through the early 1800s. By the late 1800s, the decline of the fur trade, the great Anglo-American westward migrations, and regimes of racial exclusion effectively marginalized these bi-cultural communities. The majority of those in the United States were faced with the choice of joining their Native kinfolk on Indian reservations, "passing" into the dominant Anglo-American culture, or perhaps, for a small number, migrating to Canada or more remote areas. (4)
Recent studies on bi-cultural families and communities from Cherokee Territory to the Great Lakes and from the Missouri country to the Pacific Northwest suggest that those who assimilated into the dominant Anglo-American society--becoming "white" in the process--tended to down play, if not deny, their Native background. (5) Given the force of racial bigotry and the episodes of racial violence in the American West, an outward (or apparent) acculturation into Anglo-American society was one of several strategies employed by bi-cultural families as they adapted to large-scale socio-economic changes over the course of the nineteenth century. (6) The French-Indian families in the frontier regions of the West were thus not unlike ethnic immigrants in the East who actively devised family strategies as they responded to life and work conditions in the urban industrial environment. (7)
This essay follows the historical trajectory of one Oregon family of French-Indian ancestry that assimilated into mainstream society over the course of four generations--the author's own family. I have taken a multi-layered approach in tracing the experience of the Jettes. First, I reconstruct one narrative from the existing documentary record. I then examine the record of family memory through interviews with family elders recorded in the 1990s. After exploring how history and memory intersect, especially in relation to my own experience as an observer-participant, I connect this microhistory to regional and national historical events and developments. (8)
In pursuing this project, I have discovered that although my family of French-Indian origin had more or less assimilated by the fourth and fifth generations, the process of acculturation was neither simple nor straightforward. Rather, several generations experienced a complex historical trajectory that has echoed, however lightly, down through the decades. This echo is preserved in the family's generational memory--a kind of palimpsest that carries not only erasures but also a fragmentary "counter memory" to what might be considered the more celebratory "official memory" of the Anglo-American colonization of the Pacific Northwest. (9) This counter memory suggests socio-economic mobility and struggle, racial exclusion and prejudice, and perhaps most important, the costs of assimilation into the dominant Anglo-American culture. While this case study is not representative of all families with French-Indian origins, it is suggestive of a larger experience that has been obscured by the more dominant Anglo-American discourses in the Pacific Northwest history. (10) Given the relative absence of the "hidden history of mestizo" in the collective memory of "pioneer" Oregon, documenting the experience of this family of French-Canadian and Native ancestry is an important first step.
MARGUERITE JETTE'S DOCUMENTED family history in the Pacific Northwest begins one spring morning in 1827, when her maternal grandfather Joseph Rochbrune pushed off from the rapids at Lachine, Quebec, and embarked on the long overland voyage that would take him to the Pacific Northwest. The son of farmers (habitants), Joseph had been born in Rigaud, Quebec, in 1805, and at the age of twenty-two, he signed an engagement contract to work as a voyageur for the HBC. (11) As Philip Goldring has pointed out, the decision to work in the fur trade during the 1800s was the result of personal, social, cultural, and economic factors. (12) Personal motivations may have been local difficulties (financial or judicial), political discontent, or a thirst for adventure. Rochbrune's home county of Vaudreil was traditionally one of the most important suppliers of laborers for the fur trade when the HBC combined with the North West Company in 1821. (13) As a young man from a relatively large family, he may simply have sought a brighter future. The engagement contract he signed with the HBC guaranteed him a yearly salary for three years with the possibility of re-enlistment. (14)
Rochbrune departed Lachine with the HBC brigade in late April or early May, following the winter thaw, and arrived at Fort Vancouver in the Oregon Country (then designated the Columbia Department) in the fall of 1827. Aside from the last few years of his employment with the HBC, when he served as a trapper with the Snake Party, his only other known assignment was for 1830 and 1831, when he was stationed at Fort Nez Perces (later Fort Walla Walla) in present-day southeastern Washington State. (15) There, Joseph met a Native woman who became his wife. Lisette, as she is known in the Catholic Church registers, was "Walla Walla by nation." (16)
On Joseph's retirement from the HBC in 1839, Joseph, Lisette, and their children settled with several other French-Indian families living in the Cowlitz Prairie, thirty-five miles north of Fort Vancouver. Two years later, the family migrated to the larger settlement of French Prairie in the Willamette Valley. (17) There, they joined other French-Indian families who had colonized fertile prairie lands that had earlier comprised the territory of the Ahantchuyuk Kalapuyans. Joseph and Lisette remained together for some twenty years, until Lisette's death in the early 1850s. Aside from a series of references in the local Catholic Church records and county land records, the couple left limited traces of their presence in the Willamette Valley. He did not file a land claim with either the Oregon Provisional Government during the 1840s or with the U.S. federal government during the 1850s. Joseph Rochbrune and his second wife, Marguerite Souliere, had two children together and lived in French Prairie through the early 1870s, but there appear to have been no Rochbrunes residing in the area by 1881. (18)
In the late 1840s, the Rochbrunes' eldest daughter, the teenaged Celeste, met Stanislaus "Tanis" Liard, a retired French-Canadian voyageur and widower originally from St. Jacques, Quebec. He and his brother Francois-Xavier Liard had signed their initial contracts with the HBC in the winter of 1832-1833 and were sent directly to the Columbia Department. After fourteen years in the employment of the company, principally in present-day British Columbia, the brothers, their Native wives, and their children settled in French-Prairie in 1846. (19) In 1849, a year after the deaths of his first wife Nancy Okanagan and his son Francois, Tanis Liard married Celeste Rochbrune, who was then about fifteen years old. By 1850, Francois-Xavier had apparently died and Tanis was in possession of the land his brother had originally claimed with the Oregon Provisional Government in 1847. (20) Following the passage of the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, Tanis filed the necessary paperwork to secure a federally approved land claim: an application, a land survey, and his naturalization papers making him a U.S. citizen. Two of the oldest and most influential members of the French-Indian community, Etienne Lucier and Louis Labonte, attested to the residency and character of Tanis Liard. (21) The only child of Tanis Liard and Celeste Rochbrune, Marguerite Liard, was born on the family's dona tion land claim near St. Paul, Oregon, in 1851. In March 1852, some fourteen months after Marguerite's birth, Tanis died at the age of thirty-seven. His widow, Celeste Rochbrune, was then eighteen years old.
Although Celeste Rochbrune found herself in a difficult position, several factors ensured the young widow would remain on the family farm. Having filed the paperwork for the federal donation land claim, Tanis Liard-though unlettered like the majority of his French-Canadian countrymen--left another crucial document to provide for his family. On December 29, 1851, he was "au lit malade" (sick in bed) when he dictated a will in French. (22) It is clear from the text of the will that Tanis was a man facing the likelihood of his death. The purpose of the document was not only to "put his affairs in order" but also to "ensure a future for Celeste Laroque his wife." This concern for his young wife was likely motivated by affection as well as a sense of duty, for Tanis wished to ensure Celeste a "future for the good care that she has given him and continues to give him." (23)
Tanis bequeathed one half of his movable property, immovable property, and animals to Celeste and the other half to his daughter Marguerite. He also instructed Celeste "to take his horse Blou, the cow, the bed, bedding, two suitcases, a table, the kitchenware, all the dishes, all the wheat in the barn and the pigs belonging to his wife for the support of herself and his child." The dictation of his will set in motion a series of events that prevented the loss of the land claim. In April 1852, the executors of Tanis Liard's estate, David Mongrain and Louis Bergevin, renounced their position and called on Narcisse Cornoyer--a leading figure in the French Prairie community--to act as sole executor. He was duly appointed to the post. (24) It appears Cornoyer's wife Mary Sophie Bellique had known Celeste Rochbrune when the two were children in French Prairie. (25)
Cornoyer began the process of paying Tanis Liard's debts in May 1852. The probate court selected Etienne Lucier, Louis Bergevin, and Firmin Lebrun to make an appraisal of Tanis Liard's estate, which they valued at $2,243.76. This included the land claim, worth $2,000, and the family's personal property. A sale was held and much of the family's movable property and chattel was sold. Almost every item was sold for more than the appraised value, and the important items (such as farm equipment and animals) were sold for considerably more. The buyers were nineteen of Tanis Liard's neighbors, and the sale netted $467.56. By 1854, Cornoyer had paid off Tanis Liard's debts, totalling $624.11, which included probate costs, taxes, doctor's bills for Liard's illness, general merchandise accounts, promissory notes for cash, the land survey, and money due local resident Etienne Peltier for labor and goods. (26) Cornoyer apparently paid the difference of $156.55, and there is no indication he was ever reimbursed.
What emerges from the papers on the settlement of Tanis Liard's estate is the portrait of a family that was cash poor but rich in community ties. Cornoyer's role as executor of the Liard estate was ultimately a boon for the widow Celeste Rochbrune and her infant daughter. Cornoyer was appointed the legal guardian of Marguerite Liard, and he ensured the family debts were paid without the loss of the donation land claim and then completed the application process with the federal government. (27) In 1866, Celeste Rochbrune used the new Oregon's Married Women's Property Register to register Tanis Liard's land claim in her own name. (28) The federal land office finally issued the official certificate for the claim to the heirs of Tanis Liard two years later.
THE EXPERIENCE OF the Liard brothers and their families suggests a number of patterns for the French-Indian community in the Willamette Valley during the 1840s and 1850s. When the French Canadians retired, they claimed fertile lands in French Prairie, but they had limited resources to invest and provide for their families. Theirs was a cash poor, somewhat precarious, barter economy, and as a result, they had to depend on friends, neighbors, and merchants for credit, cash, and labor. Sickness, death, or some other ill fortune could result in severe economic hardship. Both Liard and Cornoyer used the Donation Land Claim Act and the legal system to protect the interests of Liard's widow and infant daughter. The support of the local French-speaking community, especially the educated members, allowed Celeste Rochbrune to pay off the family debts and retain the homestead. Her next task was to find a new breadwinner to ensure a stable future for herself and her daughter. Celeste did just that, marrying eleven months after Tanis's death. Her second husband, Honore Picard, age twenty-six, was French Canadian, a choice consistent with long-standing family marriage patterns. Rochbrune and Picard eventually had eleven children, nine of whom survived infancy, and lived together on the original Tanis Liard donation land claim until Celeste's death in childbirth at the age of forty-two, in 1876. (29)
Marguerite Liard was a teenager living in French Prairie in the late 1860s, when, like her mother before her, she …