WDYTYA closed out the season with Melissa Etheridge. The opening voice-over tells us that she will dig into her French roots and learn about a family shaken by scandal, a turbulent relationship touched by tragedy, and a young adventurer who prospered in Colonial America. Etheridge herself is a Grammy-winning, multiple-platinum singer with a celebrated career. Her best known songs are "Come to My Window" and "I'm the Only One." Her twelfth album, recently released, is This Is M.E., and she won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007 for "I Need to Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth. She lives in Los Angeles with her wife, Linda Wallem, and four children from her previous relationships.
Etheridge tells us that she was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1961; her parents are Elizabeth Williamson and John Dewey Etheridge. She was very close to her father, who died at the age of 60, when Etheridge was 30 years old. He grew up in a small town outside of St. Louis, Missouri, in a family of migrant farmers. From nothing he created something, improving his lot in life to where he had a two-car garage and a house, living the American dream. The price of achieving that dream was that the family didn't talk about what was required to get there.
Etheridge's mother did some family history research at some point in the past on her father's side of the family and had learned that his mother's line came from Québec. Etheridge's first large concert was at a convention center in Québec, so she thinks it might be something in her blood (I hope she wasn't serious). Because she and her father were so close, she wants to learn more about that part of his family and maybe bring a little bit of him back to share with her children.
Apparently basing her search on her mother's research (I hope she did a good job!), Etheridge begins her journey in Québec City. She meets historian Jennifer J. Davis (of the University of Oklahoma), whom she has asked to look for anything connected to her French-Canadian ancestors (not asking for much, is she?) at the Québec National Archives. She has brought with her a family tree printout from her mother's research 15 years ago; it looks like it came from a very old version of Family Tree Maker, so it's impressive that Mom has kept it all these years.
We see only parts of the tree, and only the direct line of Janis ancestors is discussed. First is her paternal grandmother, Golda Martha Janis, born February 8, 1901 in Wayne County, Missouri, died April 1982 in St. Louis, Missouri. Golda's father was James Felix Janis, born 1868 in St. Francis County, Missouri, died 1957 in Missouri. His father was Jewell R. Janis, born 1844 in Missouri, who married Martha, born 1849 in Missouri. Jewell's father was Pierre Antoine Janis, born October 27, 1809, died July 29, 1883. Pierre's father was Jean Baptiste Janis, born 1759 in Randolph County, Illinois, died 1836 in St. Genevieve, Missouri; he married Marie Reine Barbeau, born 1781 in Randolph County, Illinois. Jean's father was Nicholas Janis, born January 7, 1720 in Québec, Canada; he married Marie Louise LaSource. Lastly, Nicholas' father — Etheridge's 6th-great-grandfather — was François Janis, born 1676 in France; he married Simone Brussant. (A couple of other names on the tree appeared on screen. Above Jewell's name was Sarah Loving, born 1787 in North Carolina, died October 21, 1871 in Jefferson County, Illinois. Above Jean Baptiste was Polly Stroop, born 1757, died in St. Clair, Alabama.) This was similar to Bill Paxton, in that the celebrity already had a good deal of information about the family history.
Etheridge deduces that since Nicholas was born in 1720 in Québec, François was probably there also, and therefore it's a good place to start her research. Davis says they should start with the census, which has pretty good data. She takes out a book for the 1716 census of Québec (Recensement de la ville de Québec pour 1716, available freely online, so Etheridge could have looked this up at home). In the index, Etheridge finds Janis on what she says is page 401, but is actually family #401. On finding the family in the book, she begins to butcher the French (for which she apologizes, but which unfortunately continues throughout the episode). François was an aubergiste, which Davis explains was an innkeeper. His wife was Simonne Brousseau (mispronounced horribly), which Etheridge realizes is her 6th-great-grandmother. They had children named Charlotte, Antoine, Thérèse, Jacques, François, and Marie Aimé. Etheridge comments that Nicholas wasn't there but realizes it's because he wasn't born until 1720. The fact that the family had a servant is not mentioned.
|Recensement de la ville de Québec pour 1716, page 50|
François had brought a case against a Jean Debreuil, accusing him of seducing and impregnating François' daughter Charlotte under false promises of marriage. The case was heard in the ecclesiastical court, not a civil court. The Catholic church was dominant in Québec. Davis says, "I believe we have a translation," which was probably a good thing, because it was painful to hear Etheridge trying (and failing miserably) to pronounce French. (Sorry, I was a French major in college.)
The case, dated October 19, 1724 (which date I could not find anywhere on the pages online), states that Debreuil, the son of the royal notary, a government position, courted Charlotte under the pretext of marrying her. Charlotte was about 15–16 years old. The suit was essentially asking for Debreuil to marry Charlotte or pay up. (Not brought up is that the actual documents state that François was the chef de cuisine for the general, which doesn't sound like a slouch position.) Etheridge and Davis discuss the fact that Charlotte's parents (actually only her father) are speaking for her and there's no way of knowing what she herself wants. She is the center of the case but is the only one who doesn't speak.
The narrator pops in with a comment that in 18th-century France, women were the property of their fathers until marriage. Losing one's virginity could put the family's reputation at risk.
In the court documents, Debreuil called Charlotte a streetwalker, which means he made that statement in court before the bishop. Davis says this could have affected the reputation of François' inn, which he wouldn't want to have the reputation of a brothel. (But since the documents say he was the chef de cuisine of the general, was he even still an innkeeper?) The end result was that Debreuil was fined 20 livres, about what a skilled artisan might earn in a week, payable to the poor of the Hôtel Dieu. The fine was going to the hospital or to poor relief, not to the family. Debreuil was held responsible only for not following through on the promise of marriage. So the settlement provided no income or marriage to poor pregnant Charlotte.
From the church suit we move to a civil suit, dated January 5, 1725. François was again suing Jean Debreuil, this time for seduction of Charlotte and theft of her virginity. Debreuil had effectively stolen the Janis family's ability to contract an advantageous marriage for their daughter. François argued that it was a capital crime, meriting a death sentence (that might be a bit of an overstatement). Davis says she doesn't know how the suit ended; there are no more documents after that. (What an anticlimax!)
Davis does have another document to share, however. This one is a marriage contract dated September 15, 1726 (I can't find it through the archives search), for Jean Etienne Debreuil and Marie Charlotte Janis. About the only thing Debreuil brought to the marriage was the clothes on his back; he may have been disinherited by his family. No mention was made of the child. Etheridge wants to know if this means they actually were married. Davis says she should go to Ancestry.com and check their records (9:17 into the episode). Etheridge finds the October 25, 1726 marriage, and François was even a witness. (I recognized the record immediately as being from the Drouin Collection. I have no idea how they managed to find it the way that Etheridge searched, but I eventually found it myself another way. The image I found looks worse than the one I saw on TV, though.)
Because François was a witness, Etheridge wonders if her family was supportive or if they were simply telling her what to do. At that point, she actually brought more to the marriage than Debreuil did, so there might even have been some love between the two of them. But what about the child that started all this? Davis tells Etheridge she should look at the parish registry records at Notre Dame Basilica and offers to meet her there the next morning.
In the interlude Etheridge talks about how moved she is that Charlotte's father defended her in court. She is certain that her own father would have done the same for her. (The father-daughter dynamic explains why the show spent so much time researching a collateral line, which is unusual for them.) She wonders whether Charlotte was really in love and what happened to the child — did it survive? Was the child the only reason for the marriage? What was Charlotte's relationship with Debreuil?
The next day, as promised, Etheridge meets Davis at Notre Dame Basilica in some sort of side room. On a table is a book. Davis tells Etheridge that the priest has asked them to wear gloves (the infamous conservator gloves) because the documents are delicate. The book is a chronological list of baptisms in the parish. On April 29, 1725, Anne Françoise, daughter of Jean Debreuil and Charlotte Janis, was baptized. So when the ecclesiastical suit was started, Charlotte was about three months pregnant. The next record Davis goes to is the burial of little Anne Françoise on May 6, 1725, saying she was buried eight days after she was born (so the baptism must have been the day after her birth). (I found Anne Françoise's baptismal record on Ancestry but not the burial. It should be in the Drouin Collection; maybe it's because Ancestry's index is that pathetic?) The surprise here is that the marriage was a year and a half later, so the pregnancy couldn't have been the reason. Maybe Debreuil actually did love Charlotte! Maybe his family had prevented the marriage the first time.
Etheridge asks if there's anything more about Charlotte. Davis says that she died on June 14, 1733 at 26 years of age. The records don't show the cause of death, but a smallpox epidemic was going on at the time, and about ten percent of the population died due to the disease, so that's the most likely reason. (I also couldn't find Charlotte's burial record on Ancestry.)
After discussing Charlotte's death, the subject suddenly reverts back to Etheridge's ancestor, Nicholas, who was about 13 years old when his sister died. Davis said she could not find anything in the parish records for Nicholas as an adult (although showing the baptism of her ancestor apparently wasn't important, that record I managed to find on Ancestry), which indicated he had probably left Québec by that point. Etheridge brings out the family tree her mother had created, which shows that Nicholas' son, Jean Baptiste Janis, was born in 1759 in Randolph County, Illinois. Davis says that Randolph County will almost certainly have more records on Nicholas, because Kaskaskia (which is a city in the county, but she doesn't say that) was a social hub and economic trading center. It sounded like a huge leap to me, but of course I hadn't read the script.
And the next stop on Etheridge's research tour is indeed Randolph County, Illinois, specifically Chester. She heads to the county archive-museum, housed in the courthouse addition built in 1864, to meet historian Alexandre Dubé (a specialist in early French North America from Washington University in St. Louis). And of course, she has asked him to look for any documents he can find on Nicholas. In the museum, they look in an old-fashioned card catalog (I miss them!). Not only are there several Janises, Nicholas has three cards with lots of references. The name also appears as Janisse (which would give the same pronunciation in English as the name has in French with the original spelling).
Before following up on any of the references from the card catalog, Dubé shows Etheridge a 1740's map indicating that Kaskaskia was a large territory in the Midwest. (I could find no online reference for Kaskaskia other than for the city in Illinois, not even in the David Rumsey map collection; the closest thing I found to the territory shown on the map was Illinois Country.) Québec is at the top of the map. They trace Nicholas' journey to the Randolph County area, following the Great Lakes and then down the Ohio River.
The narrator explains that in the first half of the 18th century Kaskaskia was a strategic trading hub in New France, which spanned territory from Hudson Bay all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Then we finally get to a document, for which Dubé fortuitously has a translation ready. Dated September 26, 1747, it relates to a business partnership between Nicholas and a man named André Roy and was witnessed by a notary. Roy apparently was ill, and the document was "just in case" something happened to him. (See the end of this post for the text of the translation.) As Dubé and Etheridge are talking through the translation, Etheridge asks what the word "voyageur" means, and Dubé explains that while literally it translates to "traveler", in this context is means a long-distance trader. (So why didn't they actually translate the word in the translation? Just to give Dubé a chance to explain?) They were working in the fur trade. As a voyageur, Nicholas had some experience and skills under his belt. He would have known what types of items could be traded with the Indians, who supplied the fur pelts.
From the items listed in the contract, Nicholas and Roy appeared to have had some sort of store. Many things listed were quality trade items, and they seemed to have been pretty successful. Etheridge reads "idem" as "item" for "one idem old with diamonds", and Dubé does not correct her; it most likely meant the same type of item as had previously just been mentioned, so it was a pair of diamond buckles, not just a generic old "item" with diamonds. Nicholas was doing very well at 27 years old. To learn more about him and his family, Dubé recommends that Etheridge look at parish records from Immaculate Conception, the parish for Kaskaskia.
As she leaves Chester to head to the next stop on her discovery tour, Etheridge talks about how much she loves the adventure she is having. She knows more now about what Nicholas was doing in the area, and he had a great business. But did he have any family? Etheridge's father grew up near this area, and learning about her family is breathing life into the history she has here.
After talking about it so much, Etheridge is now finally in Kaskaskia itself, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. John Reda, a historian of Colonial America, is there to greet her. They are going to see if parish records shed any light on the family life of Nicholas. Reda shows her an entry, but of course she "can't read the fancy French", so another translation is nearby. On April 27, 1751, Nicolas Jannice (Etheridge does notice the different spelling), son of the late François Jannice and Simone Brussant, married Marie-Louise Taumur, the daughter of Mr. Jean-Baptiste Taumur dit LaSource, a former officer with the militia, and Marie Françoise Rivart. (We saw Marie-Louise's name on the family tree created by Etheridge's mother, with the maiden name LaSource. "Dit" names among French-Canadians are a fascinating subject.) Somehow, the discussion segues from the marriage to how things would be crazy soon due to the British and the upcoming war.
The narrator explains that in 1754 the Seven Years' War would begin, pitting the British against the French in a fight to control the land in North America (in the United States the conflict is commonly called the French and Indian War). After their defeat in 1763 (yes, I know that makes it 9 years, but the 100 Years' War actually lasted 116 years, so these things aren't very precise), the French lost all their land east of the Mississippi River.
Reda points out that after 1763, the Mississippi River became an international boundary, separating Spanish territory to the west and British to the east. Because he was on the east side of the river, Nicholas was now a British subject. He owned a substantial amount of property, but this was a volatile period.
To learn what might have happened to Nicholas during the American Revolution, Reda says he thought of George Rogers Clark, the general who led British forces into Kaskaskia in 1778, and the diary of John Todd, the civil commandant of the area after Clark captured it. Todd's diary shows that on May 14, 1779, Nicholas was made the captain of the 1st Company for the District of Kaskaskia (not mentioned is that "Batiste" Janis, probably Jean-Baptiste Janis, Etheridge's 4th-great-grandfather, was made an ensign on the same day). Nicholas was not a young man — Etheridge says he was about 59 years old (another celebrity who likes to track ages) — and Reda agrees, saying that he was not going to fight but would serve as a liaison and an administrator. He became one of the leading figures collaborating with the Americans. This was not easy, though, because they were fighting a war for the survival of their new country.
|The John-Todd Papers and John Todd Record-Book,|
Part III, Early Illinois, page 164
Reda picks it up from there, saying that with the war over, there came a push for westward expansion. Americans were coming into the Kaskaskia area in large numbers. What would Nicholas do for himself and his family? Would he move again? Reda says he likely would go to Spanish Louisiana, across the river, but doesn't give any reason why (the only thing I could come up with is "because we found him in records there", but maybe an actual, legitimate reason was cut in editing).
He then produces a census of the Spanish territory which enumerated immigrants coming from the United States during December 1, 1787–December 1789. Nicholas ("Nicolas") Janis is indeed on the list; his household consisted of nineteen people, fifteen of whom were slaves.
|Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1945,|
Volume III (Pt. II), page 290
Always wanting more, Etheridge asks Reda how she can find what happened after that. He tells her she should go to Sainte Genevieve, where she should be able to find records for Nicholas for the late 1780's.
Leaving Kaskaskia, Etheridge is still disturbed over the revelation that her ancestor owned slaves. She had never felt that slavery was part of her father's side of the family, and it has really thrown her. Learning it was part of her family's past just four or five (actually seven) generations ago is eye-opening for her.
As Etheridge drives to the Sainte Genevieve County courthouse, about 15 miles from Kaskaskia, she says she has asked local historian Robert J. Mueller to help her find out what happened in Nicholas' final days. (How does she know she's going to learn about his final days? I thought they didn't tell the celebrities ahead of time what was coming up. Hmmm . . . .) Mueller says he has a couple of documents to share with her. He has her put on conservator gloves to handle the 220-year-old paper.
On the document we see, Etheridge recognizes Nicholas' signature at the bottom. A second signature is from François Janis. The document is a deed dated April 20, 1796, by which Nicholas Sr. was giving his property to his son François. Etheridge surmises that François was named for his grandfather, and Mueller agrees. After nine years in Spanish Louisiana, Nicholas was giving his son a house, barn, stable, garden, and orchard. Nicholas was then about 76 years old. Mueller says that François was going to take care of Nicholas as he got older, but we weren't shown anything in the document about that.
We don't see any other document (so much for "a couple" and poor continuity editing), but Mueller says he has one more surprise for Etheridge: The house that Nicholas deeded to François is still there. It is the oldest in Sainte Genevieve, and some people believe it to be the oldest house in Missouri. Mueller adds that he can arrange with the owner of the house (possibly Hilliard and Bonnie Goldman?) for Etheridge to see it. She is obviously thrilled.
Leaving the courthouse, Etheridge seems somewhat in awe that four generations of her family helped build this part of America. She feels as though she belongs, especially since her father was born a hundred miles from where she is. She had believed that her father's family was always poor, but now she knows they were wealthy in the past, not just monetarily but with history.
The house is a big, old, wood building with a porch running the length of the front. Etheridge walks around and through it, musing about her ancestors. She used to joke about her heritage being just poor white people forever, but she can't do that now. Nicholas had so much prosperity, but four generations later (really six) her father was in complete poverty, so wealth just comes and goes. Now she is successful, so maybe that will last for a while. She thinks again about how François stood up for Charlotte, because the father-daughter relationship is so important to her (even though she says the mother defended Charlotte also, of which there was no evidence), and she's looking forward to sharing all of this with her own children.
|Janis House (Janis-Ziegler House or Green Tree Tavern;|
site of first Masonic lodge west of the Mississippi River (slide 3);
and house used in Under These Same Stars: The Celadon Affair)
As promised, here is the text of the translation of the contract between Nicholas Janis and André Roy, or at least as much of it as I could work out:
Settlement of the partnership in case of death of André Roy or Nicolas Janisse, 26 September 2747
Today, I the undersigned notary, in presence of the undersigned witnesses, went at the request of André Roy, dangerously ill at Joseph Brassau's place, and Nicolas Janisse, partner and voyageur to the Illinois country with the said André Roy, who, considering the said illness, wanted to put their affairs in order in case God wants to take the said André Roy from this world. . . . They have asked Joseph Brasseau, Jacques Gaudefroy, and Louis Trudeau to please transport themselves along, with the said notary to the house of Widow Jean Baptiste Girard where the said partners hold shop [I]n order to draw up in writing the effects belonging to the said partnership as well as the money, pelts, and other movables, household linens, clothing, of their said partnership that they have mentioned to me in the following manner
Firstly, two pairs of buckles, one large for shoes and one for garter, one idem old with diamonds, one pair Spanish buttons marked with needlework, all in silver
Item - each a capot of cadis [wool cap], half new
Item - each a strongbox
Item - three quarts of limbourg in two pieces
Item - a bottle trunk of twelve bottles of a pint each
Item - each their gun
Item - A stoneware jar of six to seven pots
Item - 108 pounds of gunpowder
Item - a vest and velour breeches, used with gold buttons
Item - a two-point blanket of white wool
Item - a set of goat hair buttons for a complete suit and 19 skeins of goat hair
Item - an old cloth jacket
Item - a silver goblet and one of glass
Item - nine men's shirts trimmed good and bad
Item - one pair of breeches and a jacket of cotton dimity
Item - a cotton jacket embroidered in wool
Item - five pairs of silk stockings, good and bad
Item - two pairs of wool stocking
Item - two hair purses
Item - two pounds seven skeins of Rennes thread
Item - one and a half dozen fixed blade knives
Item - 165 pounds of beaver
Item - five and a half pounds of deer skins used
Item - a bear skin
Item - 20 pounds of beaver
Item - 50 pounds of plate lead
Item - 59 1/2 pounds of game shot
Item - five pairs of military shoes
Item - two iron molds for bullets
Item - a covered stockpot of around four pots in [cut off]
Item - two idem of which one is half new and the cover(?) of tin
Item - around 400 pounds of brown sugar
Item - 39 pounds of tobacco in carrot
Item - one tierçon of 56 pots of brandy
Item - a barrel of vin d'orange
Item - the sum of 226 livres in Spanish dollars and [cut off]
Item - the sum of 717 livres 15 5 deniers
Item - 130 livres owed [cut off]
This was another episode where I found a transcript online, so if you want to read pretty close to the verbatim conversations, you can.