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Hamelins of the Grondines


Written and contributed by Joseph Hamelin



In April of 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed from the seaport of Honfleur, in Normandy, on his fourth voyage of exploration -- and on the site of an Indian settlement called Stadacona, he founded Quebec.
    Among the crew were one or more Hamelins, according to family legend. In the 1800s, at least two men named Hamelin (one from Honfleur) rose to the rank of Admiral in the French navy, speaking to a sailing heritage and making the legend seem credible.

    The Hamelin family helped fund the voyage, according to the story my father Rodney told me. In return, the family supposedly was granted a tract of land at what became Grondines, 35 miles south and west of Quebec  along the St. Lawrence River, about a third of the way  to what would become  Montreal.
     Documents show, however, that the "Hamelin Seigneurie" was purchased in 1694 by Louis Hamelin, older brother of our ancestor Francois. Family legend makes poor genealogy.

    This much is certain...
    Louis and Francois Hamelin were brothers, born in St. Mathurin de la Dagueniere, a small community on the edge of Angers on the River Maine, at the confluence of the Loire, in the ancient French province of Anjou.

     It's certain, too, that they begin turning up in New France in about 1671... that they married the daughters of the seigneur (or, governor) of Grondines, a 100-square-mile settlement of rectangular farming plots  sitting elbow-to-elbow with the narrow ends  fronting on the St. Lawrence River... that Louis  bought the property from his father-in-law... and that the two brothers, and some of their children, and some of their children's children, presided for nearly 70 years  as seigneurs over Grondines,.
                                
    A number of Louis' descendants , and a few of Francois', became voyageurs -- daring Indian traders  who paddled their canoes westward to the Great Lakes through hostile forests in search or furs - some of them staying to settle and pioneer what was then the American "west."
    Francois' descendants, many of them,   migrated to St.-Philippe-de-Laprairie (south across the St. Lawrence from Montreal), became rebels under the rule  of the British, fled Quebec after the abortive rebellion of 1837-38, and settled in Northern New York, ultimately spreading to Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and elsewhere.    Today, the name is still unusual on this side of the ocean, but there are upwards of 400 families in the U.S., from Minnesota to California to Florida, and more across Canada.
    Meanwhile, fewer than 700 people live in picturesque, remote Grondines,  among them only a couple of  Hamelins.

    Grondines was a day's  carriage ride from the city of Quebec on the road to Montreal. Around 1640,  a stone  way station was constructed  for travelers to spend the night. It could house 30-40 people, and supposedly was operated continuously by Hamelins for 300 years.  As recently as 1966, Rodney Hamelin was  communicating with the Hamelin who lived there. The building is believed to have burned in the `80s.
    But it wasn't the Hamelins who built it, in all probability. At least, not our Hamelins. It wasn't until 1671 or  so that  three Hamelins  -- Nicolas,  Louis, and Francois -- first appear along the St. Lawrence in the notary records of the day. When they crossed the ocean may never be known.
    Quebec's  white population at the time is estimated at 8,415.

    Some genealogists insist that Nicolas Hamelin, father of the brothers according to the 19th-century genealogist Tanguay, was born in Quebec around 1620, and married there in 1640.   There is  argument whether Nicolas "Jr.," eldest of the three Hamelins in Quebec at that time , was in fact the father and not a brother, and that he sailed here long before 1675.
    Nicolas, whoever he was, turns up in only two documents, when he married (1682) and fathered a daughter (1683). Otherwise, nothing is known of him.
    In any event, Louis and Francois  administered the land together, fathered two interesting and diverse family lines,  and were buried beside one another in the church at Grondines. That 1713 structure was washed away in the flood of 1831.
    Louis and Francois, whatever was left of them, were washed away with it.
Louis XIV ruled France in the 1670s, when the Hamelin brothers are believed to have sailed to America. It's possible, however, that they may have been born here.


    The bigger mystery, of course, is why the Hamelins settled here in the first place.  Certainly, religious persecution had nothing to do with it. The Hamelins were Catholic, and almost everyone in French America  was from France's  Catholic majority. Protestants and Jews weren't welcome. When an emigrant's faith was in doubt, he had to reiterate baptismal and communion vows to the Bishop of Québec. The society was so Catholic that, from 1680-1700, French settlers were tithed a third of their crop to support their parish.
    No, it wasn't religion that prompted the Hamelins to get on the boat.
    France was at war with the Dutch from 1672 through 1680 - another of Louis XIV's little ventures which, collectively, would bring France close to bankruptcy and eventually lead to rebellion a century later.  But the brothers  weren't fleeing a draft. There wasn't one. France's  volunteer army was sufficient.  
    Was  the scent of adventure enough of a reason? Or did they come seeking their fortunes? Money and independence were probably at the root of it somehow - but supposedly the Hamelins had that already. Louis Hamelin had enough cash  to buy his father-in-law's seigneurie...  or was it a $1 gift? Too, the Hamelins  may have been nobles. But the French wouldn't begin beheading their nobles for more than a century.
    If you had the chance to go colonize Mars, would you go? That, essentially, was what confronted the three Hamelin brothers.
    For whatever reasons, they went.

    The family is believed to trace to the town of Hameln (spelled with no "I") in  Germany, where in 1284, according to legend, a "pied piper" led the rats  from the town, was refused payment for his services, and returned to spirit away all the children. The town is both old and real, and the piper was probably real -- more  likely, a military recruiter or a medieval cult leader whose activities were embellished in the retelling. From Hameln, across the millennia, "Hamelins" have spread in all directions.
    One, Jacques-Felix-Emmanuel, was an admiral in the French Navy and explored the west coast of Australia in 1803.  One,  Ferdinand-Alphonse, (1796-1864), was an admiral who played an important role in the Crimean War.
    Another, Marc-Andre Hamelin, is recognized by many as the world's finest concert pianist. Yet another, Bob "Hammer" Hamelin, played  big-league baseball.
    And there was freedom fighter Francois-Xavier Hamelin, hung by the British.
    Surnames, which came into use about 1,000 AD, often reflected one's hometown.   Do all "Hamelins" trace to Hameln? Possibly. Are all related? Certainly not. There was a Swedish king in the 800s named Hamelin (could he have traced back to Hameln?) -  and Vikings later sailed up France's  Loire River to raid Anjou, birthplace of the Hamelin brothers.  Could Hamelins have Viking blood? Who knows?  The Paris  phone book is filled with Hamelins. Do all have a common ancestor? Probably not.
    Most of America's  400-odd families trace to the Hamelin brothers -- but not all. Jacques  Hamelin of Normandy, for one, settled in L'Assomption with his father Nicolas in the 1740s -- marrying Marie-Barbe Suliere and founding his own line of Hamelins.  Was he related to the three brothers? That's  unknown.


    A royal connection is another possibility, through a French/British noble named Hamelin Plantagenet (1129-1202). Born in Angers ( today a city of only 140,000) in the west-central province of Anjou, he was England's  Earl of Surrey at a time when Norman France held the British throne.  His children were all British-born. He was buried at Sussex.
    His father was Geoffrey V Plantagenet, the "Count of Anjou," a French title that dated to the 900s. Geoffrey was born in Anjou, an area that included Angers and Le Mans. So was Henry   II,  Hamelin's brother, the king of England (1154-1189) whose knights slew Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.  Hamelin and Henry's maternal grandfather was England's King Henry I, who ruled from 1100 to 1135 -- and he was the son of the Norman invader of England,  William the Conqueror!
    Henry II is buried in Anjou. So is his son Richard the Lionheart.
    And from that same, relatively obscure place four centuries later, people named Hamelin emerged to sail the ocean and colonize the New World.
    Could that have been mere coincidence? Did our Hamelins  trace to Normandy, like the L'Assomption Hamelins, as one scholar suggests  - or do the Hamelins trace to blue-bloods like Hamelin Plantagenet, Henry II and William the Conqueror?
    Certainly, it's  fun to think so.
            
    The  Hamelin brothers were about 27, 21 and 12 in 1671, when Louis  first turns  up in Quebec, in the documents of the Joubin family. They may have sailed to New France together, or not, may or may not have been nobles, and may or may not have been related to the Hamelins who might have sailed with Champlain.
    But they no doubt lived well at  Angers , because they clearly were people of substance.
    We know that in 1679 , Louis (then 29) married Antoinette Aubert, 13-year-old daughter of his employer, Grondines  seigneur Jacques Aubert. Louis  was his procurer-general, or manager. By custom, Louis  named his first son after his wife's dad, not his.
    Francois first turns up at Trois Rivieres, aged 22,  in a 1681 census. In 1685 he married Antoinette's kid sister, Marie-Madeleine, then 16.  They named their first child Jacques, too.
    The brothers' children also married well, befitting their social standing. Louis' fifth son, Joseph-Marie, married the daughter  of the seigneur of nearby Chevrotier. And two of Francois' boys, Rene and Francois Jr., married daughters of Francois Dumontier, first secretary to the governor-general of the colony.
    The Hamelins were settling in nicely.
    
    The Grondines  seigneurie was originally granted to the Religious Hospitallers of the Hôtel Dieu and is properly called Saint-Charles-des-Roches, the name of the church there today. The inhabitants renamed it "Grondines" (from the verb "gronder", meaning to rumble or roar).  The signifiance of this name was explained by Gédéon de Catalogne in 1712, in a report he prepared about seigneuries.
    Its forests are rich in oak, evergreen, and maple trees. The river banks are low, making approach by boat easy. It also made it simple for the St. Lawrence to roll up into the town every so often, which would prove Grondines' doom.

    In  1671, about 30 colonists settled, including Louis Hamelin. Three years later, the settlers asked the Religious Hospitallers to build them a mill, which was completed on September 13th, 1675. The property was a source of problems for the nuns, with little financial gain, and on March 20th, 1683, they sold the seigneurie to Aubert and wife Antoinette Meunier for 3,000 pounds.
    Four years earlier, Aubert had promised Louis a dowry of 500 Tours pounds -- 200 by St.Michael's day (Sept. 29), the balance in cash or beavers within two years. In 1685, François married Marie-Madeleine with the same dowry arrangement, and by 1687 had moved from Trois Rivieres  to Grondines.
    In 1694, Jacques Aubert supposedly decided to return to France, and on Oct. 28 he sold his son-in-law Louis Hamelin half of the seigneurie for 2,500 pounds and some arrears. He gave the other half of the seigneurie to his wife (who remained ion Ew France, apparently), andtook with him at least 5000 pounds. Antoinette died in 1697, leaving 800 pounds to her husband, and dividing her half of the seigneurie between her three daughters (Antoinette, Marie-Madeleine and Marie-Anne).
    In 1702, Aubert returned, and tried to regain title to the seigneurie. He appealed to the "Intendant" and regained one-quarter of the seigneurie, the first pew in the parish church, and the title of seigneur. On June 19, 1710, he died in Grondines at age 80. The seigneurie then was ruled by Louis and François.

    The `seigneurs' were  charged by the crown with clearing and settling the North American wilderness.  
    To do this, they recruited young men in France, offering a three-year contract, fair wages, and free passage both ways. If he stayed, he was given land, generally  two football fields  wide and a mile deep fronting on the St. Lawrence.  In return, he built a house, gave the seigneur part of his crop and paid fees to hunt and fish.
    To increase the population, girls were given a dowry by the state for marrying before their 17th birthday.  Families with 10 children or more earned a bonus  that amounted to several years' wages.
    Because men outnumbered the women 3 to 1, between 1663 and 1674 the seigneurs' agents  recruited brides out of France -- single women, 774 of them, all promised a dowry  for marrying men in Quebec. The Royal treasury funded it, and thus  these recruits came to be called "filles du roi" -- the King's daughters. More than half (414) came from orphanages, where conditions were deplorable and made any risk seem worthwhile.  The large  majority of Franco-American families  trace to one or more of these women -  ours  among them. Jacques  Aubert's wife, the widow   Antoinette Meunier, was a fille du roi.
    People in Quebec have always  argued their women were Canada's prettiest, since the boats stopped there first before proceeding on to Trois Rivieres and Montreal.
    The men of Quebec had their pick!

    The  Indians in the Quebec-Montreal area were generally friendly to the French, thanks  to Champlain's  early efforts; and after 1665, when soldiers arrived  to deal with the rival Iroquois' occasional raids, Quebec itself was relatively peaceful.
    But the Indians beyond Montreal, among them Iroquois/Seneca, Renards , Natchez and Sioux, made New France's  expansion slow and difficult.

    The fur trade was the colony's reason for being, initially -- in Europe, many if not most saw New France as one vast beaver farm -- and it was essential to end the Iroquois' raids.  From 1627 to 1635, when  Champlain died, Quebec  City merely grew from 65 to 150. It wasn't until 1663, when New France's 3,000 citizens came under royal administration, that the colony saw any real growth.
    In 1665, more than a thousand of the king's regular troops were sent from France , and the following year, the seasoned Carignan-Salières regiment and a sizeable force of colonial militia marched into Mohawk country with drums beating and banners waving in a grand display of armed strength. Villages were razed and cornfields burned. In 1667 the Five Nations sued for peace.
    France began providing the settlers withanimals, seed, tools and wives. Many  soldiers remained as colonists, forming a bulwark against Iroquois attacks from the south.The population nearly tripled during this first decade of royal government.
    But immigration fell away thereafter, government aid declining as France became caught up in costly new wars in Europe.
    With the taming of the Iroquois in 1667, the French could freely travel the Ottawa or Upper St. Lawrence rivers to the Great Lakes region. Voyageurs thrust their canoe routes into the heart of the continent. In 1682, seven years after the Hamelins turn up in Quebec,  LaSalle reached the mouth of the Mississippi, giving France claim to most of the continent.
    But the English wanted beaver pelts, too. After 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company began establishing posts on the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay.  That worried the French who, in 1682 , formed their own trading company and began to drive the English from their Great Lakes posts. Meanwhile,  to the south, the Iroquois began stirring again, alarmed by the  trade  flowing to the French on the St. Lawrence, and not to their English allies along the Hudson.     
    In 1680, an Iroquois force of 700 destroyed a French-and-Indian  village in Illinois and took 200 prisoners. French counter-blows proved ineffective, including a massive attack on the Senecas and Cayugas in 1687. In 1689, 1,500 Iroquois descended on Lachine outside Montreal, burning 56 of 77 structures  and killing scores of inhabitants.
    These struggles  comprised the opening round in a mighty contest for the continent.


    The Iroquois and the British were only two of the factors stifling the growth of the colony. Quebec's winters  are snowier and colder than France's . Ships reached Quebec infrequently, and not at all from December to April when ice choked the St. Lawrence.  Animals, the British, and disease  were constant concerns.
    In 1687,  smallpox and measles killed 1,000 -  one in every 11 in the colony!
    Still, life for the working class was better than in old France, where famines in the 17th century had the common folk eating their horses. A 1699 letter by Jean Bouchard de Champigny relates:

    "Settlers who have become attached to cultivating the land and have fallen at  the right place, live quite comfortably, finding advantages that peasants do not have in  France... They are almost all along the river, where they can fish and their  house stands in the middle of the front of their property..."

    Notary records  from 1732 show that Antoinette Richard, widow of  Louis Hamelin's son Jacques , operated the town's grain-grinding windmill.  
    Many  seigneurs, the Hamelins among them, also were involved in the fur trade. Still others ran  sawmills -- by 1735 there were 50,  generating two thirds of the exports from Lower Canada. Making money was simpler, in some ways, than figuring out how to spend it.
    There weren't any Nordstroms  to run up big charge accounts. No shopping malls. No fancy cars. Not much night life outside of Quebec, and not much of it there. Life was, by necessity, simple, and the one way for man to trumpet his success was to build a bigger house. Some impressive buildings survive.
    But life along the St. Lawrence  must have tedious, even for seigneurs  -- with little to do but work too hard, drink too much, make little Hamelins, and maybe reflect on Angers.
    That could explain why so many Hamelins became "voyageurs."


    The voyageurs, or `coureurs des bois,'  were  the adventurous  traders  who paddled and hiked for  2 months  through an Iroquois-peopled wilderness  to trade with other Indians at the outposts of Michilimackinac and Detroit (at opposite ends of Lake Michigan).
    Wrote a missionary in the 1720s: "The trips they undertake, the strains they endure, the dangers to which they are exposed... all of this defies the imagination."   
    Many were the sons of seigneurs. Still other were professional woodsmen who worked under contract. Some made an occasional voyage, while others made it their lives.
    A half-dozen or more were Hamelins, who extended the family roots into Ontario, Manitoba, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin between 1700 and 1780.Seigneur Louis Hamelin sent three of his sons into the wilderness, Jacques, Louis Jr. and Charles-Joseph.  In turn, Jacques sent several of his sons westward, among them Charles-Francois and Jacques-Michel, a Montreal merchant who was buried in  Michilimackinac, a victim of the 1757 smallpox epidemic. Too,  Francois ` son Rene, and Francois  Jr,'s son Ignace, were voyageurs, and  Louis' brother-in-law, Francois  Rivard dit Montagne, was one of the colony's better-known Indian traders. Other Hamelins, like Francois Jr., traveled widely as military men.  
    In the Great Lakes region, beaver and marten were plentiful, and the Indian and French peoples there had far more need of blankets, cloth, coats, shirts and
socks than they did fur pelts - which had little values in their culture. The French settled in these remote places also wanted weapons and alcohol, commodities not to be sold to the natives by law.
    Because the Indians also wanted these things, and because the Iroquois hated the French, such voyages always were dangerous.
    To reach the Great Lakes outposts  from Montreal, civilization's jumping-off point, voyageurs  (in teams of 3 and 4) paddled up the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers to Lake Nipissing, which they crossed to the River French, which led to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. It required 30 portages, carrying canoes that weighed as much as 1,000 pounds laden with goods.
    The small groups of men were very much on their own in this hostile environment, and the Iroquois robbed and killed many for their cargoes, especially in the 1680-90 period. And  it wasn't only the Iroquois who posed a threat. In 1736, Sioux massacred a missionary and 20 Canadians.
    In 1749, a visiting Swede wrote that  "many are killed by the Natives."The voyageurs were well compensated for running such risks, but many lived on the edge, spending their money on women and wine during the lulls between voyages.
    In a society where people seldom ventured far off their own land, many thought of thevoyageurs'lives as glamorous and considered them heroes, much as athletes, singers and actors  are today. Others considered them crude and intemperate riffraff.
    But no one questioned their courage.


    Michilimackinac was the hub of the fur trade in the 1750s,  a town of several thousand Hurons, Ottawas and French, like the bar scene from "Star Wars!"
    On one voyage to this place, presumably, Jacques, brother Louis,  and their brother-in-law Francois  Rivard, then in their mid-40s,  introduced Jacques' teenaged son  Charles-Francois  to the voyaging life.  
    He was 16 in 1730 -- it could have been his  first trip -- when he took up in Michilimackinac with a Saulteux Indian woman named Marie-Athanese. He settled in Sault Ste. Marie and had four children with her before marrying her, priests being in short supply. When she died after the seventh child, he married another Saulteux named Marie-Anastasie and had three more.
    What Charles'  father thought of all this has gone unrecorded.


    Curiously,  Charles-Francois  turns up again three decades later in LaPrairie. He could he be the lynchpin in the family's migration from Grondines -- a 125-mile move, and a three-day carriage ride from those left behind.
    In 1760, at the age of 45, Charles-Francois married an 18-year-old, certifying before a notary that  his Indian wife Marie Athanese was deceased (ignoring second wife Marie-Anastasie altogether).
     In 1757, however, Marie-Athanese, the "deceased" first wife, was in Quebec, according to other notary records -- likewise remarrying, and claiming that Charles was deceased!
    Four months after marrying his child bride, Charles died.
    There's a moral here somewhere.

    In 1759, the world changed for the Hamelins and for all of New France when the British beat the French on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec in the decisive battle of the seven-year French & Indian War.
     By 1763, they controlled all of Canada.
    Perhaps Rene Hamelin, our forebear, saw what was coming when he left the nest at Grondines and moved to LaPrairie, in what are now called the Montreal "suburbs." The seigneural system was uniquely French, and couldn't last. Already, the Hamelin land at Grondines long since had been divided among Louis and Francois' sons. But it held together into the 1800s, and Hamelins still wore the title of seigneur.
    Only they weren't Hamelins anymore. Francois' four eldest sons adopted "dit" names: Laurent "Bellou,"  Rene "Laganiere,"  Francois "Grondines" and Joseph "Lacavee."  Though the Hamelin name persisted, some descendants adopted the new names in place of the old.
    Laurant, Rene and Francois, and kid brother Alexis, all were known as "seigneur of part of Grondines" according to notary records of the late 1730s - as was Joseph-Marie Hamelin dit Pagnol, son of Louis.
    But sic transit gloria. With the British victory, the Hamelins were nobodies again, like the rest of the French.


    Their numbers  weren't great, even then. From perhaps 25,000 at Francois' death in 1725,  Canada numbered  only  70,000 when the British took over 38 years later. In New England, there were 2.5 million Europeans -- 35 times as many!

    In 1776, during the American revolution, Joseph Hamelin (almost certainly  the son of Joseph Hamelin dit Lacavee, and the grandson of Francois)  captained Grondines' militia unit of 48 men battling the abortive Yankee invasion. The size of his unit tells us how small Grondines was, because  every man between 16 and 60 was required to serve.
    Joseph remains the only Hamelin in our direct line since Francois who ever served in the military - and he fought against the U.S.!    


    By that time, however, Joseph's brother Rene was sinking deep roots  into St.-Philippe-de-Laprairie, a small farming community  three days by carriage ride to the southwest, or perhaps two by boat.
    In 1762, Rene married a girl from a St.-Philippe family, Marie Therese Marguerite Riel and settled in there, south of the St. Lawrence river, near where voyageur extra ordinaire Charles-Francois had  rooted a few years earlier.
    Rene and Marie Therese had 14 children, seven of whom died in infancy. The rest gave them at least 43 grandchildren.

    This branch of the family - our branch - would linger in St.- Philippe for 78 years, a span of three generations and about as long as it dwelt in Grondines.
    Two of our forebears - Rene and his son Joseph -- are believed to rest in the town's old cemetery, which was paved over for parking in the `60s when St. Philippe built its library next to the church.
    Joseph and Joseph's son Alexis were born in St. Philippe, and as "laboreurs" the three generations raised their families and passed the years  in the shadow of great events -- first the American revolution, when Gen. Montgomery's  troops ventured right past their towns on his way to Quebec; and then the War of 1812, when the British marched south, laying siege to Plattsburgh, not 40 miles away.
    The naval battle on Lake Champlain six days  later - Sept. 11, 1814 - ended forever British designs on regaining its colony .
    In places like St.-Philippe, people began to get the idea that the British bully would quit if you stood up to him. Time didn't ease their resentment. There were any number of levels in French-Canadian society where resentment smoldered.  The divisions have endured to this day.
    The success of the French revolution, and America's, persuaded the French in Canada that rebellion could work. Some even assumed that France and the U.S. would help.
    They soon would learn otherwise.

See "The Patriot Insurrection"
Also by Joseph Hamelin