Although many place names in Nebraska are French, the Platte River (meaning flat) for instance, the early French-speaking explorers and fur traders who named them were few in number, transitory in nature, and left little but their nomenclature to show they had been here.
It was not until the 1870's that the French came in numbers to settle permanently, most of them from French or Lower Canada. For a generation thereafter, in some communities, Canadian French was the commonly-spoken language, and French customs set the people apart from their neighbors.
The French came to the New World in the middle 1500s when Jacques Cartier was commissioned by the French government to find the Northwest Passage to China. He didn't find it, but he claimed the Gaspe peninsula and the surrounding territory for the King of France. From then on, France sent other explorers, and later on, fur traders and missionaries, and by 1600 the area was known officially as New France. French military men came to keep the peace, and the King encouraged soldiers to remain after their tours of duty were over, to populate the land, create towns, and establish a firm foothold in the new French possession.
By 1665, there were some 2,000 colonists in Quebec. To provide wives for the soldiers, the King sent boatloads of girls from the alms houses and orphanages of France; some peasant families with too many daughters and too little money for dowries sent their daughters too, to find husbands. When the girls arrived in Canada, they were boarded in dormitories until the soldiers could look them over, select their brides, and be married by the near-by priest. The King gave each couple an ox, a cow, a pair of swine, a pair of fowls, two barrels of salted meat, and eleven crowns of money, in addition to land, the amount depending on the military rank of the bridegroom.
The King also offered bounties for children, certain amounts given for those couples having ten children, and more for those who had twelve or more. Early marriages were encouraged; fathers who still had unmarried males age 20 and unmarried females age 16 around the house were fined and had to report to the authorities every six months thereafter to tell the progress of their match-making efforts. The population grew rapidly.
Although Canada became British in 1763, as a result of the treaty concluding the war known in America as the French and Indian War, the new government granted the French in Canada freedom of religion and freedom from military service, and allowed them to continue following French civil law. In 1791, following the War of Independence which separated the new United States of America from England, Great Britain enacted the Constitutional Act which provided that Upper Canada was British and Lower Canada was French, that region including the province of Quebec and the Acadian country of the Gaspe peninsula. This technical division assuaged the Tories who had fled to Ontario from the United States at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War but who did not want to be subject to French laws and customs; it also provided a bulwark for England against any effort the upstart revolutionaries south of the border might have made to extend their holdings.
In 1867, however, following the American Civil War, the British parliament passed the British North American Act uniting the two parts of Canada into the Dominion of Canada. Some Britons had sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and feared retribution from the winning Union side. England figured she'd better have a united Canada in case the Union victors wanted revenge. With all Canada now subject to British law, many French-Canadians became uneasy and began to make plans to leave. By this time Lower Canada had become over-populated anyhow, and land was expensive. It was time for a change.
Some French gravitated toward New Orleans, which was a French-speaking, French-oriented part of the United States; some of the Cajuns (Acadians) had been there since the expulsion of 1755. But one entrepreneur bought land in Christian County, Illinois, inland from the Mississippi River, named the community Assumption, and attracted large numbers of immigrants from French Canada. Many of them eventually ended up in Adams and Franklin Counties, Nebraska.
In the 1850s the Bergeron family was living in St. Gregoire, Nicolet County, Quebec. The families supported themselves by farming and the men also worked as loggers. In 1858 Pierre and Marie Deline (Provencher) Bergeron loaded their five children and their meager possessions into a wagon, left their home in St. Gregoire, crossed the St. Lawrence River and entered the United States. We do not know their reasons for leaving home and loved ones behind. It may have been the crowded conditions in Quebec, or their poor economic situation. One family tradition states that a man from Illinois came to St. Gregoire, painted a rosy picture of life in the United States and talked Pierre Bergeron into moving to Illinois to work as a share cropper. We do know that a group of about 150 French Canadians from Quebec settled at Assumption, Illinois in 1854. Perhaps the Bergerons had friends or relatives among this group. The family probably traveled by ox drawn wagon on their 1,200 mile journey to Assumption. One can imagine the hardships endured by this family consisting of five children the oldest about seven years of age.
The years in Illinois were hard ones for the French Canadians. The land was low and swampy, the climate humid. In August and September the people were always sick with what they called malaria fever. Some of the families may have owned land; but the Bergeron family share-cropped, never owning land in Illinois. In 1870 the Christian County census taker noted that all members of the Bergeron family were illiterate, unable to read or write English; however the parents were able to read and write French. All the adult males were listed as engaged in farming, even fourteen year-old Phillip, thus showing the poor economic condition of the household.
In the fall of 1873 P.Z. Gauvreau and Zavier LaBrie made a trip to Adams County to scout land for homesteads. They returned to their families in Illinois full of stories of the promised land in Nebraska. In the spring of 1874 the first five French Canadian families arrived in Adams County. They were the families of Pierre Bergeron, Xavier LaBrie, Prosper Z. Gauvreau, Joseph Guilmette and John Prince.
Among the early French-Canadians in Adams County were the LaBries--Jacques, born in St. Henri de Lauzon, Quebec, on the St. Lawrence river,; his wife Helene Halle; their children, Phero, Louis, Mary, Exalia, and Peter, born in Canada, and Frederick and Exivia, born in Illinois. (Two other children born in Illinois did not come to Nebraska). Other families who came after a sojourn in Illinois, included Prince, Gauvreau, Bergeron, Cushing, and Guilmette, all of whom were intermarried by the time of their move to Nebraska.
Some of the men drove wagons from Christian County, Illinois to Nebraska, bringing household goods and farm equipment, while the women and children came in railroad immigrant cars. The women and children of the first five families lived for five days in a railroad immigrant car after they arrived near Inland (then in Adams County) in 1874. Another legend says the families stayed in the school house at Old Inland until they could find housing. It's possible they did both.
As soon as the men arrived they filed homestead claims. Prosper Z Gauvreau, among the first of the French Canadians to arrive, bought the rights to a homestead near Glenvil, trading a team of horses he had brought from Illinois to a homesteader who was willing to move on. With the land, Gauvreau also acquired a house, which served not only the Gauvreau family but a number of others until they could get housing built.
The Elzear Paris family, his wife was Exalia LaBrie, moved to Nebraska in 1878 with their five youngsters; Exalia was sick and eager to leave the malaria-ridden country of Christian County. When they arrived in Nebraska, they stayed first with Exalia's family, the Jacques LaBries, and then with the Louis Bassetts, and finally with Fred and Caroline LaBrie until Elzear Paris could get his home completed. The families were so interrelated that their lives revolved around an extended family relationship.
The older sons of some families remained in Illinois to work and send money to the family on the prairie. Ed Gauvreau was one of those who stayed in Illinois to work. His daughter, Mary Pigeon, later reminisced: "They couldn't have stayed on the homestead without that money. The first year, 1874, they raised nothing. That was the year the grasshoppers came like a dark cloud out of the west. Within a day the fields were barren."
The French Canadians like all pioneers, endured many hardships, grasshoppers, blizzards, droughts; but for these people the greatest hardship was the lack of a Priest and an organized church. Staunch Catholics, the French Canadians looked forward to the times that Father Lechleiter of Crete, who traveled a circuit throughout south-central Nebraska, arrived to say Mass. It was always a big day in their lives, babies could be baptized, and marriages solemnized. The Old Inland school, halfway between Hastings and Harvard, was used for early church services. Mass was also said in the Jacques LaBrie home.
The first death among the French Canadians in Adams County occurred in 1875, when Joseph L. Bergeron died of the lung disease he brought with him from Assumption. His coffin was made of floor boards ripped from the not-quite-finished home of Joseph Provencher. He was buried on land owned by his uncle Joseph Provencher. The only French-Canadian owned land with clear title at the time; it seemed to be land most likely to remain in friendly hands. Later, other French Canadians were buried there; according to legend, their identities recorded on papers placed in wax-sealed glass bottles buried with the bodies.
In the Prince family, which was interrelated with the LaBries, two Princes having married two LaBries, four daughters died of tuberculosis; having contracted it from another family in the neighborhood. Later, still another family caught the disease when one of its members used the same feather tick bedding the Prince girls had slept on.
In those early years, death seemed omnipresent. At least, the childhood memories of some old-timers were obsessed with recollections of funerals. Mary Gauvreau Pigeon, who lived well into her 90s, recalled the funeral of Amelia Prince. The Mass was said on a sheet-covered dresser at the Prince home. The casket was outside the door, for the weather was hot and the body was not embalmed. Grandma Pigeon was an 8-year-old youngster at the time, but for the rest of her life she remembered the "trickle of blood at the corner of the corpse's mouth." Because embalming was not customary, funerals had to be held quickly, particularly in the summertime. Sometimes the family tried to preserve the body by packing it in ice, but water would drip from the casket as the ice melted during the service, providing a macabre note during the funeral proceedings.
Although a few of the first generation Nebraska French Canadians became businessmen--Ezra Langevin became a wholesale grocer, and Prosper Gauvreau a merchant in Hastings; Hislaire Gaudreault a merchant in Campbell--many of the early French Canadians were farmers with little or no educational training. The older children often stayed home to help parents, boys in the fields, girls in the house. Boys as young as nine years of age were responsible farm workers.
Families were large, as many as ten, fifteen, or even more children, and the various generations were close. When the senior members considered that they were of retirement age--sometimes about the age of fifty--some moved in with their children and grandchildren, the men retiring from active farm work, the women sitting in rocking chairs, shawls over their shoulders. They sometimes lived in their retirement stage for several more decades. In many ways, the French Canadians considered their children their Social Security, providing services, and a living for them in their old age. The more children, the better the security. Not all retired early, however, Mr. Gauvreau continued working in his store until he was 74 years old; the next year, in 1906, he and his wife celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary, with about one hundred family members present.
So many French Canadians settled in the Franklin County village of Campbell, just south west of Adams County, that the community was almost ethnically pure. The few Germans from Russia who settled in the bottomland north of town were considered outsiders, not part of the village. Canadian French was the every-day language, a patois so different from Parisian French as to be almost a separate language. St. Anne's was the parish church, staffed with a French-speaking priest. Many festival occasions centered around the church.
Christmas was strictly a religious day, New Year's was the most important social holiday of the year, and the day gifts were exchanged. Parties and dances were held on New Year's Eve, with everyone participating. Families within the community provided music with their fiddles and other instruments, spelling each other off during the evening so everybody could dance. Performers split the pot of pennies the non-performing ones contributed. Although few of the French Canadians had formal music training, they had native talent and a love of music.
The merrymakers went early to Mass on New Year's Day, then went home for their festivities, eating tourakeya, a meat pie well-seasoned with onion and garlic, and exchanging presents, if they had been able to provide any. In the pioneer period gifts were just little handmade items. Mary Pigeon recalled that during the depression of the 1890s she and her siblings each got just one orange on New Year's Day and how they made that orange last all day.
Other ethnic dishes included bouya, a watery pudding made of fresh milk, sugar and flour; suet pie, made with tallow, sugar or molasses, and raisins and eaten while still hot. Many of the French Canadians grew celery in their gardens. Pork was an important meat, many households salting it down and putting it in a barrel for the winter, alternating pieces of pork with layers of lard for preservation.
Weddings were joyous occasions, the celebration often lasting for two days or more. The parents arranged their children's marriages, love was to come later. Girls married as young as fifteen years of age.
Many of the French Canadians from Campbell have since left that community, some of them settling in Hastings. They grew up in a warm, expansive, family oriented milieu, inter-related to almost everybody in town, savoring simple pleasures since most of them were far from wealthy. The L'Heureau, Brouillette, Champoux, Chevalier, DeMars, Mercier, Choquette, Boudreau and Gaudreault families retained much of their French-ness, the chic and pose of the Old Country, although their roots were several hundred years and many generations separated from France.
Although many of the present-day French Canadians have married outside the ethnic group, they still retain their close family ties. The generation that remembered the French language has passed on, but their descendants still have the joie de vivre--joy of living--that is typically French.
SOURCES: This story is based on the publication Historical News Vol. 10, No. 6, June, 1977 with additions and corrections by Catherine Renschler, a descendant of Pierre Bergeron.
The Provencher Cemetery
When the Pierre Bergeron family left Christian County, Illinois in 1874, their son, Joseph, (Alicid in French) was ill with consumption, now known as tuberculosis. It was their hope that the dry climate of Nebraska would cure his disease. Unfortunately it did not, and his health gradually declined. In October, 1875, Joseph was given the last rites of the Catholic Church by Father Lechleitner of Crete during one of his visits to this area. About two weeks later, while his father, Pierre, was away chopping wood for winter fuel, Joseph died. His was the first death among the French Canadian settlers. There were no established cemeteries in their area at the time. Only one of the group, Joseph Provencher, uncle to Joseph Bergeron, had clear title to his land, the others were homesteaders. He had in March, 1875 purchased 80 acres, located in Section 2, Blaine Township, Adams County, for the sum of $425. A corner of the Provencher land was chosen for the burial site. A coffin was made by ripping up floor boards from the partially constructed Provencher home. The Bergeron family was living in a sod house at the time. Crete was many miles away and the family was unable to summon the priest for the burial service.
And so, Joseph Bergeron was laid to rest without benefit of clergy, in a homemade coffin in an unmarked grave on the vast prairie. It is difficult for us to imagine the grief and also the faith of these pioneer parents as they stood, their clothes whipped by the ever present prairie winds, praying over the grave of their beloved son. Many years later, Louisa remembered her father walking up the hill from his son's grave, tears streaming down his face, because he was forced to bury a child without religious service. Pierre Bergeron left that grave a heart broken man. As time passed others would be buried here also, and eventually Pierre Bergeron himself would be laid to rest beside his beloved son.
In 1979 the Adams County Historical Society erected a marker at the site of this pioneer cemetery, which by that time was a plowed field.
Known Burials in the Provencher Cemetery
Joseph Bergeron 1852 - 1875
Addie Gauvreau 1869 - 1878
Alvina LaBrie 1878 - 1880
Amelia Bergeron Kelsey 1858 - 1880
Alfred Pigeon 1879 - 1880
Pierre Bergeron 1819 - 1884
Marie Eloise Pigeon 1885 - 1886
James LaBrie 1887 - 1891
And Others Unknown
Also known to be buried here but not listed on the marker are Mary Lillie and Mary Rose Cushing twin daughters of William Cushing born Oct 1884 and died in 1885.
Catholic Church Records
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Crete, NE
Records begin in 1873, and cover 17 Nebraska Counties during the 1870s, including Adams.
Write to Diocesan Archive, PO Box 80328 Lincoln NE 68501
St. Cecilia's Catholic Church
301 W 7th St. Hastings NE 68901 ph (402)463-1336
Baptism, Marriage and Confirmation records begin in 1878.
Adams County Historical Society
email@example.com PO Box 102
Hastings NE 68902
Copies of St. Cecilia's Baptism, Marriage and Confirmation records 1878 - 1896
Adams County Naturalizations 1871 - 1929
Marriage License Index 1871 - 1973
Newspaper Death Index 1877-1960s
Probate index 1971-1912 later in progress
Many other resources