I’ve always had a keen interest in history. In my earliest days of family history research—as with most genealogists—it was all about dates. Dates of birth, death, marriage, etc. But as the years went on, I merged the dates I’d collected with a historical timeline of events in human history, and I began to see my family as part of that, as more than facts on a chart.
Born in Canada, my mother was French-Canadian. The records kept by Catholic churches are phenomenal, and I can date my mother’s lines back to the founders of New France (early Canada) and even further back to France itself. Focusing on adding stories to the branches of my tree can be a challenge as most family stories are passed down orally. But with perseverance, I read The Ursulines of Quebec, From Their Establishment Until Our Days, Volume 1 (a little light reading!) looking for any recognizable names and came upon a story about Anne Baillargeon, my eighth great aunt.
Historical notes explain that tensions were high in New France between European settlers and the Iroquois in 1660: ‘“The Iroquois, situated along the Huron and the Isle d’Orléans, had massacred several French families and taken several prisoners. One of these captives was Anne Baillargeon, a nine-year-old girl. She was taken to their lands and remained nearly nine years. She learned the customs of these savages, and she resolved to spend the rest of her life with them. When Marquis de Tracy (a French military commander) required the Iroquois to surrender all the French that they were holding captive, she withdrew into the woods, fearing to return to her country. Although she thought she was safely hidden, a nun appeared to her and threatened to punish her if she did not return with the French. This new fear prompted her to leave the woods and join the other captives that had been freed. Upon her return, Marquis de Tracy paid tuition for her to resume the path of Catholic religion and values and be readjusted in the French way of life at the Ursuline convent in Quebec. Upon arriving, she saw a painting of the former head of the convent, Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph (who had died in 1652) and cried: “Ah! There she is! She is this one I was talking about (apparently the vision in the woods), and she had the same habit.” - from letters of Mother Mary of the Incarnation to the Ursulines de Tours.
I was thrilled to find a story about an ancestor but realized this story survived so many years because of her vision in the woods. Without that, this wonderful piece of history would be lost to time and her descendants. “It only takes three generations to lose a piece of oral family history,” says Aaron Holt of the National Archives, which explains why we know very little about the personal lives of our great-grandparents.
Each of us have stories we tell, stories we’ve been told, and stories we may not share openly but should be recorded. During this last month of 2022, join me in fleshing out facts with human and history by asking the question, “What stories can I share for my descendants to find?”
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a National Genealogical Society member, Association of Professional Genealogists member, and freelance writer. She is also President and Board Chairman of the Niagara County Genealogical Society. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.