Avoyelles group to tour ancestors’ hometowns in France
Approximately 300 years ago, many of the forefathers of Avoyelles Parish families boarded ships in France and set sail for a new home in a strange land. They were among the first colonial families of Louisiana.
Many were glad to see their homeland in their rearview mirror, as it were. Many may not have had much choice in their relocation.
Cathy Lemoine Sturgell has partnered with David Campbell and Stephen Ambrose Tours and organized a “home coming” of sorts for about 35 Avoyelleans to visit the place their ancestors called home and the important locales that played pivotal roles in their families’ history.
“I’ve never been to France and I am excited to be going,” Sturgell said. “I feel like I’m going home. I really do.” There are only a few spaces left on the 10-day 300th anniversary trip, but Sturgell said there are already discussions underway for a second tour.
Many of Avoyelles’ families came from France between 1718 and 1721, Sturgell said.
The tour will take place from April 15-25.
One highlight will be a visit to La Salpêtrière in Paris, which has ties to the Bordelon ancestry. It is now the site of one of Europe’s largest hospital complexes, but was an infamous prison, insane asylum, arsenal and gunpowder factory in the 17th Century.
It was established by Louis XIV, the namesake of Louisiana.
Following one of the most egregious atrocities of the French Revolution -- the 1792 storming of Salpêtrière resulting in the rape of hundreds of women inmates and the murder of at least 35 -- the site ceased being used as an asylum/prison/poor house and became the largest brothel in Europe.
Many French colonists in the 1600s and early 1700s began their journey to New France through this site as paupers or petty criminals who were involuntarily paired with hardened convicts and sent to the French territories in the New World. Anne Roland was among the young women who were sent from here to
Louisiana where she met her husband, Gabriel Bordelon and where they became became the ancestors of thousands of Avoyelleans and most of the
current French Creole population of Avoyelles today.
The word is French for saltpeter, a key ingredient in gunpowder.
Pitié-Salpêtrière is now famous as the hospital where Princess Diana died after her tragic auto accident in August 1997.
Sturgell said the ports of La Havre, Lorient/Port Louis and La Rochelle were the key ports from which the colonist sailed and are on the tour.
Sturgell said a majority of those in this migration were part of Scottish economist John Law’s agreement to provide 6,000 settlers and 3,000 slaves to France’s colonies along the Mississippi River. Many were employees of Laws’ Compagnie des Indes.
The tour will visit the museum of the Compagnie des Indes at Port Louis.
“We're hoping that they can show us some of the original contracts that were signed by the employees of the company who migrated to Louisiana,” Sturgell said.
Sturgell said the tour has been granted access to most of the “ancestor” churches in the towns they will be visiting.
“Almost all requests to have churches opened for us or to have someone meet us at a church have been met with enthusiasm from the French citizens.” Sturgell said. “Several people have stated that they find it fascinating that we're retracing the steps of our ancestors.”
She said she holds out hope that members of the group will be able to meet a few distant relatives, but that is not certain. There may also be some media coverage of the group’s visit, she added.
“In some instances, we expect to see and touch the baptismal font from which our ancestor was baptized 300 to 400 years ago and we think this will be a powerful moment,” she said. “Almost all of these churches are hundreds of years old and most were built on the ruins of churches which were built much earlier.” Ancestors of Avoyelles families such as Bordelon, Couvillon, Mayeux, Lacour, Lemoine, Moreau, were baptized in these churches. A proclamation from the Avoyelles Parish Police Jury will be presented to each town in France, according to Jury President Kirby Roy.
In addition to the 17th and 18th Century sites, the group will also spend a day at the Normandy beaches where Allied forces landed on D-Day to start the final offensive to defeat Nazi Germany.
This day will include visits to memorials and the American cemetery.
One of the hotels where the group will be staying is the 900-year-old Fontrvraud-L’Abbaye in the Loire Valley.
12th Century English King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son King Richard the Lionheart are buried there.
Fun fact: Richard, one of England’s most famous rulers, did not speak the English of his subjects and spoke only French. The English of his day was closer to German than today’s English.
The group will also visit the Château de Chinon, an 11th Century castle on the banks of the Vienne River in the Loire Valley.
To inquire about this trip or the planned second tour, email Sturgell at cathysturgell@ yahoo.com.