While sitting on the front steps of a very modest home in the small Cajun community of Church Point in Louisiana, Nolan Lavergne talked to his son about the happiness and hardships of growing up on a tenant farm in rural St. Landry Parish. His son was a rookie high school American History teacher who asked a seemingly simple question: "Who was your grandfather?" The father did not know.
"Well, Daddy, I'm going to find out for you," said the son.
Thus began a fourteen-year-long project culminating in Lives of Quiet Desperation, a look at the ancestry of Gary M. Lavergne, a Louisianian of French descent. In addition to a substantial genealogy with over 1,200 names, Lavergne includes a series of concise essays placing generations in historical context. Special treatment is given to the forces that helped to determine the migrations of various groups of French-speaking people, and the pioneers who helped to build new worlds in Canada and French Louisiana. Particular emphasis is placed upon defining and describing the differences between Cajuns, Creoles, and other Louisiana French cultures.
The vast majority of the ancestors were simple, poor, tenant farmers with large cohesive families. the uncommon were pioneers of note. they all faced considerable odds and led lives of quiet desperation.
EXPANDING NEW FRANCE: The Lavergnes Move South to New Orleans and West to Opelousas
From Lives of Quiet Desperation by Gary M. Lavergne
Shortly after the French founded Quebec in 1608, their explorers and fur traders pushed westward along the Great Lakes area. The chief activity of the French was the fur trade conducted by the coureurs de bois or the "runners of the woods." The Governor of New France, Louis de Buade Frontenac (1620-1698), showed a preference for fur trading activities over the establishment of farming communities. The expansion of New France was thus merely an attempt to expand the scope of the lucrative fur trade and to extend French dominance in the New World. It was Pierre Esprit Radisson who first heard of a great river which ran southward toward the Gulf of Mexico; within the next few years the French had explored the upper portions of that "great river."
Much of the early exploration of the Great Lakes area had been undertaken by the Jesuits in the course of their missionary work among the North American Indians. It is a testament to their influence that the first "Mississippi" recorded in a document was found in the diary of Father Claude Jean Allouez (1622-89). He and another priest set out to explore the great river, but were never to find it. Another testament to the influence of the Jesuits in the New World was the fact that New France's new Governor, Louis Frontenac, arrived in Canada with secret orders to curb the influence of the Jesuits. It was Frontenac who asked Louis Joliet (1646-1700), a fur trapper and experienced boatsman, and Father Jacques Marquette (1637-75), the Jesuit successor to Father Allouez, to explore the Mississippi River. Frontenac hoped that the expedition would show that the Mississippi River was an artery from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. Should the river empty into the Pacific, a water route to the Orient would have been found, greatly enhancing the value of Canada and French-dominated areas of the New World.
It was in October, 1672, that Joliet and his party left Quebec to meet Marquette. By May 1673, Joliet, Marquette and five others set out in two canoes. The Indians told the party bizarre stories of the river and its environs in an attempt to discourage further explorations. It was on 17 June 1673 that the party first saw the Mississippi near the confluence of the Wisconsin River. They canoed down the Mississippi to present-day Memphis, Tennessee, at the mouth of the Arkansas River. At that location, in July 1673, the party held a conference and concluded that the Mississippi drained into the Gulf of Mexico, not the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, fears of hostile Spaniards and Indians convinced the party to turn around and head back to Canada. In September, 1673, they arrived in present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they spent the winter. In the Spring of 1674, Joliet returned to Quebec and reported to Frontenac that the lower Mississippi Valley had better soil for farming and a much milder and better climate. Marquette never had the opportunity to report to Frontenac; he died on 19 May 1675 on his way to Canada.
It was during this time period that Louis Lavergne, presumably having just arrived in the New World, met and married Marie Anne Simon, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Hubert Simon. Their marriage on 26 May 1675 was held during a period of uncertainty and unrest for the struggling village of Quebec. Indeed, New France lingered on the verge of absolute disaster. As a stone mason by trade, Louis Lavergne's services were certainly in demand, both for reasons of military defense and civilian housing. The settlement was small enough so that it seems certain that Louis would have known, or at least have been familiar with the characters involved in the location of and subsequent exploration of the Mississippi River. Louis and Marie Anne Simon set up house in 1675 and raised a family in Quebec until 1687, when Louis died at the age of 40. He left behind a 27-year-old widow with six small children: Marie Anne, age 10; Pierre, age 8; Louis, age 6; Phillippe, age 4; Marie Angelique, age 2; and Marie Louise, age 1.
As a resident of Quebec City, Louis Lavergne would most likely have been familiar with a fellow resident named Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. La Salle arrived in New France in 1667, right about the same time as Louis Lavergne. In 1673 Governor Frontenac sent La Salle to France to report to French Finance Minister Colbert on the status of New France. (See "Quebec City: The Emergence of Louis Lavergne"). He returned to Canada two years later (1675) with a grant of nobility only to return to France (1677) with a request of the King for ships and settlers for the lower Mississippi River Valley. In order to make his case before the King, La Salle told of rich mines and the prospect of mass conversions of Indians to Christianity--both shear fabrications. By 14 July 1678, La Salle left France and reached Quebec two months later.
La Salle made plans to explore the lower Mississippi. His ambitions were plain enough; he wanted to get rich. The drive to explore the lower Mississippi was intensified by a book written by Joliet about his and Marquette's excursion. After reading the book La Salle entertained dreams of an empire along the Mississippi. He and Governor Frontenac were very good friends insofar as they shared many of the same selfish ambitions. And so it was with Frontenac's support that La Salle embarked on his famous trip to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Before embarking, La Salle enlisted the aid of another explorer of note, Henri de Tonti. Tonti was an Italian whose right hand had been nearly severed by an exploding grenade during a battle against the Spanish. Instead of waiting for medical assistance, he cut off his own hand, which was later replaced by an iron limb. He was commonly referred to as Bras-de-fer, or "Iron Hand." La Salle and Tonti started down the Mississippi River in early 1682 with fifty-four Frenchmen and Indians, including thirteen Indian women and children. Unlike Joliet and Marquette, who suspected that the Indians of the lower Mississippi Valley would be more hostile, La Salle found that they were friendlier. On 6 April 1682, the party reached the "Head of Passes" or the northern tip of the Mississippi Delta in present-day Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. They then split into three groups: one headed by Tonti, another by a Dautray, and the third by La Salle himself who descended the river via the Southwest Pass. On 9 April 1682, La Salle saw the Gulf of Mexico and took possession of the country by erecting a large wooden cross in the ground. On it was inscribed: "Louis the Great, King of France and Navarre, reigns, April 9, 1682." He claimed all lands drained by the Mississippi River for France. (This was easily the largest land claim in the history of the world, as the Mississippi drains most of the North American continent). Additionally, he named the area "Louisiane," meaning "the land of Louis."
Upon returning to New France, La Salle was to learn that his friend, Governor Frontenac, had been replaced by a bitter enemy, La Barre. La Barre accused La Salle of wanting to be King and seized several forts along the upper Mississippi that had been under the control of La Salle. La Salle then returned to France (1683) and appealed directly to the King for the return of the forts and for a chance to colonize the lower Mississippi Valley. Upon returning, La Salle had to maintain the fiction of peaceful colonization and the necessity of offsetting the expansion of New Spain. He embellished his falsehoods by claiming to know of Spanish silver mines in the area and proposed an elaborate scheme of establishing a fort about 170 miles upstream from the mouth of the river. La Salle asked for 200 men and a year of supplies; he got somewhat more. The King wrote to La Barre and ordered the return of the forts to La Salle. La Salle got four ships and 300 colonists to attempt to colonize the lower Mississippi. They departed in 1684.
Almost from the beginning, the voyage faced disaster. The commander of the ships, Commander Beaujeu, was suspicious of La Salle and from the start their relations were strained, at best. The attempt to reach the Mississippi via the Gulf of Mexico failed as the ships missed the mouth of the river and sailed instead westward to Matagorda Bay in Texas. There La Salle established a settlement called Fort St. Louis. After months of hardships the realization that he had led many innocent people to an agonizing death resulted in LaSalle's murder at the hands of his own men. The Spaniards later found out about La Salle's settlements and destroyed them. And so, for the time being both France and Spain lay claim to Louisiana, which would belong to whomever would settle there first.
After the death of La Salle, France seemed to forget about Louisiana, but there were leaders from both Canada and France who continued to call for the immediate settlement of the lower Mississippi River Valley. The French decision to finally move on the prospect of settling Louisiana came about more as a perceived need to offset the influence of the Spanish and British in the New World than a recognition of the inherent value of Louisiana as a territorial possession. Secret agents in the employ of King Louis XIV discovered that the British were planning to establish a settlement in Louisiana. The Count de Pontchartrain, an important government official in France, realized that he had to take immediate action. After a series of conferences with French and Canadian leaders, two possible methods of settling Louisiana were considered:
1. colonists could either be sent down the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes region under the leadership of a man like Tonti who knew the country, or
2. they could be sent by ship directly from France.
A concerted effort was made to appoint an experienced naval commander with leadership qualities to head the expedition. After considering many Frenchmen and Canadians, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville was chosen.
Iberville was destined to become the "Founder of Louisiana." He seemed to be the ideal choice to begin the colonization of the lower Mississippi River valley. Born and reared in Canada, Iberville had an active childhood. He joined the French Navy while still a teenager and was later to become a fleet commander, winning stunning victories over the British in Hudson Bay and off the coast of New Foundland. The combination of his Canadian roots, naval background, and experience with the British made his selection obvious.
Upon arriving at Mobile Bay, Iberville's ships anchored off Ship Island. The next day, 13 February 1699, Iberville and his younger brother, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur d'Bienville, rowed to the mainland and visited the Biloxi Indians. Shortly afterwards, Iberville, Bienville, and about fifty other men set off in two large boats and two canoes in search of what La Salle was unable to find, the mouth of the Mississippi River. The low, marshy, irregular coast along with unfavorable winds and thick fog and storms made progress northward almost insufferably slow. Late one afternoon the party rounded a small cape; the wind drove them toward a series of jutting crags of land surrounding calmer waters. On 2 March 1699, Iberville was to write:
As I neared the rocks, I perceived that there was a river. I passed between two of the rocks in twelve feet of water, the sea very heavy. ...I found the water sweet and with a very great current."
The "rocks" were really mud-covered logs. The river was the Mississippi. The party started up the river on the very next day. On the fourth day Iberville reached a village of Bayougoula Indians who offered to guide them up the river. He was certain he was on the Mississippi when the Bayougoulas presented him with a fourteen-year-old letter Tonti had written to La Salle offering assistance in establishing a colony. (La Salle had missed the mouth of the river and was to meet his demise with his settlement at Matagorda Bay in Texas).
Iberville was to continue his historic journey by traveling northward past a village of the Mongoulacha Indians, passing the site of the present-day capital of Louisiana. He saw a red pole with the heads of fish and bear attached to it; he called the site "Baton Rouge" or "red stick." After being entertained by the Indians, the Iberville Party started back for Ship Island. Iberville and Bienville parted at Bayou Manchac. Iberville returned via Bayou Manchac, the Amite River, and Lakes Maurepas, Ponchartrain, and Borgne; Bienville continued down the Mississippi to its mouth then turned northward toward Ship and Cat Islands. The two brothers arrived at Cat Island within a few hours of one another.
By 1 May 1699, Iberville and his men had completed the construction of a small fort on the eastern side of Biloxi Bay. They called the settlement Fort Maurepas, after the Prime Minsiter of France. The fort was garrisoned by about seventy men with six months provisions. On 4 May 1699, Iberville set sail for France to get new colonists and additional supplies. In rediscovering the mouth of the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico, and setting up Fort Maurepas, Iberville sowed the seed that was to become French Louisiana.
The early years of the Louisiana colonies were very difficult for the settlers for a number of reasons. First, the majority of the Canadians were coureurs de bois who did not like to engage in agricultural pursuits. Secondly, most of the colonists from France preferred to explore the region in a vain search for La Salle's "gold and silver mines." The absence of women for marrying and home-building also led to some discontentment. The fact that no crops were grown during the first year correctly suggests that the original cashe of supplies brought over from France was being rapidly depleted. In 1702, Iberville moved most of the settlers to Dauphin Island and shortly afterwards built another settlement on the the west side of Mobile Bay. Iberville was to write to the French government that there was a need for "honest tillers of the earth" not explorers and fortune seekers. Unlike many other French leaders, Iberville saw the need to establish agriculture as the colony's chief means of livelihood. His service to Louisiana was interrupted by yet another war with England, which would require his services as a naval commander. Iberville would later die of yellow fever in Cuba in 1706.
Louisiana was to grow slowly and painfully under French rule. Louis Lavergne II, the son of Louis of Quebec, immigrated to Louisiana in the early 1700s. The earliest confirmation of his location there is his marriage to Elizabeth Tommelin on 4 July 1725 in New Orleans. Her father, Pierre Tommelin, was a carpenter who lived in New Orleans on Chartres street with a new wife and several negro slaves. There is evidence to suggest that Louis Lavergne II was a resident of Louisiana well before his marriage to Elizabeth Tommelin, which is to say that he probably was an actor in the very founding of the Louisiana colony. First, Louis married Elizabeth at the age of 44. Marriage at that age may or may not suggest that he lived for a period of time in areas not inhabited by European or Canadian women as the first Louisiana pioneers did. Secondly, he is referred to in Conrad's Louisiana's First Families and in Deville's New Orleans French as an inhabitant of Paskagoula River. Unlike their parents, Louis Lavergne and Elizabeth Tomelin were farmers. Many of the farms along the Gulf Coast in the area now known as the Gold Coast of Mississippi and Alabama predated the founding of New Orleans. In October, 1726, he requested negro slaves from "The Company." The Company was The Company of the West, a business venture of the Royal Bank of France under the Director-Generalship of John Law, the son of a wealthy Scottish Merchant. The fate of Louis and Elizabeth Tommelin after the request for slaves is not known. They probably died in obscurity and were buried in the Paskagoula area in the mid-1700s. They were the parents of at least three children (see page 71), one of whom was yet another Louis Lavergne, who was to leave the Gulf Coast area for the prairies of southwest Louisiana.
Louis Lavergne III most likely grew up on his parent's homestead in the Paskagoula area of present-day Mississippi. The exact date of his birth is not known; it was either shortly after the marriage of his parents in 1725, or sometime after 1732. In either case, he was at least 20 years older than his bride, Marie Anne La Case, when they married circa 1777. The first written documentation of their union is the baptismal record of their child, Marie Eugenie, who was born on 7 October 1778. The ecclesiastical event is part of the St. Louis Church archives in New Orleans, establishing the presence of the Lavergnes in the New Orleans area in 1778. The next primary document to establish the location of the Lavergne family is the baptismal record of another infant, Eugene, who was born on 1 October 1790 and christened in Opelousas. And so it is certain that the family of Louis Lavergne and Marie Anne LaCase moved from the Paskagoula area to the Opelousas area between 1778-1790.
The migration of Louis Lavergne and Marie Anne LaCase and their family from the Paskagoula to the Opelousas area was probably prompted by the events of the area between the time of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) from 1756-63, and the American Revolution from 1776-83. Shortly after the Seven Years War the Mobile area had been ceded to the British. On that occasion several of the Creole families of the area migrated to a developing post at Attakapas, but the Lavergnes were not one of them. It was a treeless prairie that could be settled easily. Spanish Governor Philippe Aubry encouraged migration to the area to exploit the rich grasslands conducive to ranching. Aubry was to write that "since the cession of Mobile, we are entirely without cattle." The need to supply New Orleans with meat hastened the westward migration of Creole and Acadian families to Acadiana. Louis Lavergne III was undoubtedly displaced as a result of this episode, but the fact remains that he was still in the New Orleans area as late as 1778.
A more probable explanation of Louis' movement to Acadiana is the American Revolution itself. Louisiana's Spanish Governor Bernardo de Galvez actively supported the American cause against the British even before Spain formally declared war against England in May of 1779. There is no question but that Louis Lavergne was a Louisiana subject who provided patriotic support. (He is listed as such by the Daughters of the American Revolution). Military confrontations between the Spaniards and French against the British along the Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast, where Louis was reared, made life exceedingly dangerous there. Louis and Marie LaCase were married by that time and had at least one, more probably two infants to care for. Thus, it is more than likely, even probable, that the young family decided to head for the prairies of the Attakapas, and the Opelousas area to take advantage of the ease of setting up a homestead, the demand for meat in the New Orleans market, and to avoid the ravages of yet another war with the British.
The arrival of Louis Lavergne and Marie Anne LaCase to the Opelousas area began a history of astonishing procreation. Almost all Lavergnes of the area will trace their lineage to this single, incredible couple. Some Lavergnes, but relatively few, would leave the Opelousas area during the next two hundred years.