Article printed in "The Valley Breeze" newspaper March 18, 2010
 

Discover your ancestors at society's library

 
First-time visitor Kathy Petersen of Smithfield, left, consults with Robert Pelland, a long-time researcher and co-author of a book about Woonsocket burials. Petersen is searching out lost relatives in hopes of compiling a scrapbook of family portraits for her children.

WOONSOCKET - Kathy Petersen of Smithfield laughs when she says everyone on her side of the family is of French Canadian descent.

Now that she's recently reconnected with cousins of the Lacroix and Beland branches, she's on a quest to put names and faces on all those aunts and uncles and grandparents she's heard about.

And that's what brought her Monday for the first time to the American French Genealogical Society in Woonsocket's downtown area.

"This is so overwhelming. So much stuff," she said of a library that numbers some 10,000 volumes of material devoted to documenting the lives of the French who settled Quebec and parts of Ontario provinces before migrating south to the United States.

She hopes to contact the family members, she said, and assemble a photo album of faces and family history for her children.

Sylvia Bartholomy, publicist and regular volunteer at the library, says the volunteer staff is accustomed to growing an entire family tree from just the few sprouts that Petersen and most others begin with.

Says Bartholomy, "The first thing we do is have them fill out a five-generation chart. They're usually stuck at a grandparent or great-grandparent and just say, 'I know they came from Canada, but I don't know where.'

"And so," says Bartholomy, "we start our story."

Millions of records posted on the Internet in the last two decades have turned genealogy into an armchair sport.

And now a new NBC-TV show, "Who Do You Think You Are," on Fridays at 8 p.m., is adding some razzle-dazzle to what's usually a rather dry endeavor spiked with occasional whoops of discovery.

Thanks to episodes like football player Emmitt Smith discovering his slavery roots to Sarah Jessica Parker learning her ancestor was accused in Salem of witchcraft, genealogical research is suddenly the in-hobby.

AFGS's French Canadian records are so uniquely complete that the society counts members from the West Coast and opens its doors to genealogists who've planned their entire summer vacation around a visit to the Woonsocket facility.

In the AFGS collection, the piece de resistance is the Drouin collection and the first stop in Bartholomy's library tour.

Gabriel Drouin, a Canadian lawyer, was so concerned about English oppression in Canadian that was pushing out the French culture that he hired a team of researchers to visit all the churches and record marriage records.

Says Bartholomy, "He believed that if people could trace their roots they'd have more pride in their heritage and would fight harder for the rights of the French Canadians in Canada.

"And he was right," said Bartholomy.

The research was a five-year effort of the mid-20th century that included every Catholic and Protestant church, Jewish synagogue and Indian mission. Rolls and rolls of microfilm recorded the names of brides and grooms, including both sets of parents.

"It was an enormous, enormous undertaking and has meant the French Canadians of today can trace their ancestors back to the first who arrived in Canada in the early 1600s. Isn't that amazing?" she asks.

The Drouin files are split into two eras, 1760-1935 and 1608-1760. They are alphabetical by the groom's name and sorted within that listing by the bride's names.

Many French Canadians trace their roots to the earliest settlers when the king of France urged his soldiers to put down roots in the cold, difficult climate where Iroquois massacres weren't uncommon by offering them land and a stipend. Later, women who without the means for a dowry, and therefore unlikely to wed, were given the chance to join the soldiers, and through the help of a convent of nuns, selected husbands who had established themselves. Called the King's Daughters, or fille du rois, it was these 800 women who bore the first French-Canadian children.

It's history stories like this that library staffers draw on to offer more than the "begats," as Bartholomy says it, of a family line.

She says the AFGS was founded in 1978 by a group who wanted to know more than just their great-grandparents' names.

Henri Leblond of Pawtucket's Le Foyer Club provided the initial space and $50 in seed money to launch the organization.

In 1990 it left Pawtucket to move to the lower level of the former Universalist Church, and members, who in 2007 purchased the massive church building, have high hopes of raising $500,000 for a French Canadian research center.

Over its three decades, the society has been collecting vital records from all the Blackstone Valley towns and cities of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, many of the New England vital records normally maintained with state archives material, marriage and death records from area churches and funeral homes. Rhode Island births, for example, date from 1853 to 1905.

Bartholomy says the Internet may get someone started on genealogy, "but you have to have access to a society to have records not available anywhere else."

Indeed. The AFGS holds the Forget file developed by Dr. Ulysses Forget who visited every city and town hall in the area to write down information on every French Canadian surname from 1850 to 1900.

"It exists no where else," Bartholomy said.

Ongoing collecting, in addition to personal family and community histories, includes clippings of obituaries from newspapers and wedding announcements.

Membership dues are $35 a year and come with access to the entire library. Spiral bound volumes may be copied by machine while bound volumes may be digitally photographed.

The library also offers a link to Ancestry.com genealogical site.

A description of the AFGS holdings, as well as contact information, is on its Web site at afgs.org .

For more information, call 765-6141.

 
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