Friday, March 22, 2013

My French Connection

The Mystery

Julia Montaudevert
I remember asking my mother what nationality our family was when I was growing up. She replied that we were mostly Scotch and Irish, with a smidgen of English and French. "French?" I asked. "Yes," she replied, "Julia Montaudevert, the wife of Captain James Lawrence, was French, but that's all we know about her." 

By the time of her death in 2000, my mother had become an accomplished genealogist, but had never been able to discover anything more about Julia. Her ancestry remained a mystery. 

With the advent of the internet, I tried to find out more via Google. A search for Julia would result in accounts of her marriage to James Lawrence, with one sentence about her father. Never stating his name, some sources said that Julia was the daughter of a French sea captain who was lost off the Scilly Islands. Some said that she was the daughter of a respectable French merchant of New York City. What was his name, I wondered, and was he a merchant or a sea captain?


In the fall of 2012, I took a class about the internet resources now available for genealogy researchers and discovered Find A GraveI searched it with the surname Montaudevert, and found Sarah Montaudevert, buried in Newport, Rhode Island. Knowing that Julia lived in Newport for many years after the death of her husband in the War of 1812, and reasoning that Montaudevert is not a very common name, it seemed logical to me that Sarah must be Julia's mother. So, as a first step, I requested the management of the memorial. In thanking the person who transferred it to me, I added a note asking if he knew anything about the family. He didn't, but our comments were preserved on my profile page. My next step was to request a photo of Sarah's gravestone. 

In the meantime, I began to search Genealogy Bank, another website I'd learned about in my class, that specializes in newspaper mentions. I found several ads in various New York City papers for James Montaudevert, who was selling luxury items from ships that had recently arrived at the city's ports. The ads started in 1785 and continued throughout 1786. Could this be Julia's father, the "respectable French merchant"?

Shortly after my Find A Grave post, I received an email from Antoine: "I'm writing to you from France. I saw the web-pages about Julia Montaudevert Lawrence (1788-1865) and her mother Sarah Montaudevert (1757-1851) on Find A Grave. These persons are linked with my family."

Amazed and elated, I emailed Antoine back, who generously shared a virtual gold mine with me: 
"I think that Sarah Montaudevert was born "Sarah Wilson" and she married, by 1784, in New-York, Jacques Marie RIPAUD de MONTAUDEVERT who:
 - was born on february 28th 1754 in Saffré (France),  
 - died in a shipwreck in Penzance Bay (England) on February 11th 1791 
They had 4 (or more) children:
 - Marie (born 1785) who married Edward Noël COX, 
 - Sara (born 1786),
 - Juliette (or Julia) (born 1788) who married James LAWRENCE ("Don't give up the ship !"),
 - Jacques Louis (born 1790) who was registered as dealer in New-York ; 105 Greenwich Street."

Jacques Marie Ripaud de Montaudevert?  Was he James Montaudevert? 

Google told me that the French Jacques is usually translated into English as James. And Antoine explained:

"Montaudevert comes from the name of a small place in the village of Lusanger in Brittany (France). His family was named RIPAUD until the 18th century, then the father of your Jacques added "de Montaudevert" to his family name to indicate where he was from ... and also to have a family name which looks like a noble's...So "Ripaud de Montaudevert" became his family name." 

So, yes, Jacques and James were the same person.

Street sign in the village of Lusanger, France

More Clues

Thanks to Antoine, I now knew the names of Julia's father and mother, as well as her father's ancestry. Because of the newspaper ad, I knew why some sources stated that James was a merchant. Per Antoine's information, he died in a shipwreck in the Bay of Penzance. Could this be why some sources say that he was lost off the Scilly Islands? And the reason why he's not buried with Sarah at Newport?

Again, I turned to Google, this time searching with first names. I found a tantalizing 'snippet' of a letter written by Sarah to "mon cher pere" in a French book from the archives of the island nation of Reunion. The names and birth dates of "mes enfants", or my children, matched what Antoine had sent me. What else could this letter tell me? Might it explain what happened to James?

Snippet from Google search

Some books found on Google are entirely online, but this one wasn't. I was able to request it from Duke University via an inter library loan with the help of Mary, the head librarian at the Moss Memorial Library in Hayesville, NC.

I received it a couple of months later, opening it with anticipation and finding that it contained the Feildel Archives32 documents  from the archives of James' great-uncle, Louis Feildel. All were letters written by James' brother, and Antoine's ancestor, Francois Fidele Ripaud de Montaudevert. The only exception was Sarah's letter. Using my iPhone app, Genius Scan, I scanned all the documents before returning the book to the library. 

Unable to read French, I asked my good friends Gill and Gigi, Quebec natives, for help. The combination of the archaic French and Francois' poor writing presented quite a challenge. But Gill was up to the task, and before long had translated all 32 documents into English. 


Indeed, Sarah's letter explained James' cruel fate in detail:

"New York, August 3, 1791
My dear and honored father,
It is with the most extreme sorrow and a heart oppressed by bitterness that I feel obliged to inform you of the irreparable loss that I and my poor children have suffered with the death of my lovable, tender and affectionate husband who was an indulgent father to our children...knowing the Spanish language resulted in a great advantage...therefore he formed a business plan with Mr. Camo (Camac in another letter), a Barcelona merchant whom he met during the course of his business. Consequently he had two ships built, loaded them and sent them to the consignment of the latter in Barcelona, who after being in possession of the two ships and their cargoes, held them without making any such an embarrassing situation, we sent one of our friends, Mr. Divoux in Spain, to finish with Mr. Camo, who appealed to the tribunal of the Supreme Court of Madrid and put himself under the protection of a prominent of that Court and found a way to escape my husband sadly decided to go to Spain by himself to obtain justice and while passing by, to render his attachment, duties and gratitude to his beloved father in France.  John Wilson, my brother, having the commandment of a beautiful ship in destination for Hull offered him a passage, promising to drop him off when passing by Douvres (Dover). On January 8 they sailed, had extremely bad weather and were forced to throw overboard part of the cargo.  On February 11, they encountered a French ship and agreed to stay close together, but a short time later both of them got lost in the Bay of Penzance. By this accident I was afflicted by the most terrible blow that was ever brought to me. I cannot express my sense of annihilation...what supported me a little in my affliction, was to learn that my brother along with some part of the crew were saved with great difficulty, and that the body of my dear husband was found and honorably put down in a cemetery...My dear and honored father it is with the greatest regret that I reflect on the distance between us, as only your counsel could bring me some consolation. Your grandchildren… oh think of them, give them your counsel and your blessing...I am my dear father, your affectionate daughter. Sarah Montaudevert. The names and ages of my children are as follows: Marie, born June 30 1785; Sara, born November 1786; Juliette, born July 17 1788; Jacques-Louis, born April 18 1790." 
With a note from the "translator", Francois Martel. 

What I feared was now confirmed. James may not have been the captain, but he was lost off the Scilly Islands, which are in the Bay of Penzance. He wasn't buried with Sarah because he was buried in an unknown cemetery. 

The Rest of the Story

Adding to the tragedy is the fact that by the time that Sarah wrote her letter, her father-in-law, Jacques Louis Ripaud de Montaudevert, was also dead, having passed away on May 12, 1791. This was revealed in a letter that Francois wrote to one of his sisters in France: "We have learned by the letter of May twelve...the sad news of our dear father's death..."

Francois' letter to his sister. "Couetou" is an extension of Montaudevert

Sarah's tombstone

If she was 94 when she died in 1851, she must have been about 34 when James died in 1791, yet, her tombstone tells us that she kept his memory alive for 60 years. 

Note: the initials J.L.R. should be J.M.R., Jacques Marie Ripaud de Montaudevert

Julia's ancestry is no longer a mystery. Now I have new mysteries to solve: Sarah Wilson's ancestry, why James was considered a sea captain and the location of his grave. Such is the way of genealogy, I've found, solve one mystery, and another pops up in its place. But who doesn't love a good mystery?

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