Sorting Saturday: Separating Truth from Tradition in Family History

My grandmother and her cousin told the story of their French immigrant grandfather, Victor Meslin (1843-1932), as it had been told to them by Victor’s daughters.  The story was that Victor had run away from home at the age of eleven, stowed away in a ship, and arrived all alone in America.  He somehow ended up in Missouri, where he served the United States in the Civil War and earned his U.S. citizenship.  Family tradition holds that when he married Louise Johnson he was 30 years old, she only thirteen.  Louise’s father, a medical doctor, thereupon disowned Louise – not because she’d eloped at such a tender age, nor because she’d married a foreigner.  The reason her family shunned her, as my grandmother understood it, was because Victor was a Yankee.

Victor Meslin-2 small V Meslin

Family tradition has it that Victor’s ancestral surname was neither Mesborn, the name that appears on his military records and gravestone, nor Meslin, the name he used after the Civil War.  But none of the Meslin grandchildren remembered his “real” name.  My grandmother believed that Victor’s surname was incorrect on his military records, that numerous letters were sent to the government to correct the mistake, but that the letters were ignored and the error was inscribed on his gravestone.

“He Stowed Away on a Ship, His Name Was Changed When He Arrived”

Victor’s Civil War pension file provided plenty of details about my ancestor’s military service, as well as his life after the war.  There are, indeed, letters from Victor in the file claiming that his last name was Meslin, not Mesborn.  A note in the file written by an employee of the Pension Bureau mentions a handwritten birth record that Victor submitted (the actual birth record is not in the file; evidently it was returned to Victor).  This note states that the request to change the name on Victor’s records from Mesborn to Meslin should not be allowed because the surnames of the children on the birth record were neither Mesborn nor Meslin – but the note does not state what that surname actually was.

MESLIN Victor & Louise Golden Anniversary Joplin Globe 29 Oct 1932Victor

The story of Victor coming to America as a stowaway is not reported in the pension file.  However, another pension file was found for one “Enriette Barbier,” mother of deceased soldier Francis Meslin who enlisted at Perry County, Missouri.  Census research did not reveal a connection between Victor Mesborn and Francis Meslin, nor between Victor and the Barbier family of Perry County (“Enrietta Cola” married Claude H. N. Barbier, in Perry County, on 19 August 1855).  However, one document in Mrs. Barbier’s file was a letter from her son Francis Meslin, written in French, in which he mentions the name “Victor.”  That letter spurred me to continue looking for a connection between my ancestor, Victor, and this Francis Meslin.

FrancisMeslin11Sept1862_p01 crop_Victorquote

In his pension application, Victor stated his place of birth was Salins-les-Bains, Department Jura, France.  Through the LDS Family History Library, I obtained and searched microfilmed birth records from Salins-les-Bains and located a birth record for Victor MEZALAINE, born 30 January 1843.  His mother was Jeanne Henriette Colin (French pronunciation would sound something like “Co-lah”), wife of Michel Louis Mezalaine.  Further research into the birth registry of Salins-les-Bains revealed that Jeanne Henriette was the mother of nine children, eight of whom (including one Francois Xavier “Francis” Mezalaine/Meslin) would later emigrate to the United States.  She was the same “Enrietta” who married Claude Barbier in 1855.  (Catholic baptism, marriage and burial records maintained by Saint Mary’s of the Barrens Church in Perryville, Missouri, which were later translated and published by the Perry County Historical Society, provided crucial details about this group of Nineteenth-Century French immigrants).

So although Victor does not appear with the family of his mother in the 1860 or 1870 census, it is clear that his mother and many of his siblings emigrated from France around the same time that he did.  But could he have traveled separately, as a stowaway?

MESLIN Old England

The family tradition of Victor stowing away in a ship was finally refuted when we found a passenger list, showing “Jeanne Melin” and her children crossing on the ship Old England from Le Havre, France, arriving in New Orleans on 21 October 1852.  There is a “Victor,” age eleven, on this list.  Several of Victor’s siblings are also named on the list, including his sister Marie Camille, who would later marry fellow Old England passenger Jean Claude “Red” Meunier/Moonier.

“She was Disowned for Eloping with a Yankee, at the Age of Thirteen”

The tradition that Louise was only thirteen years old when she married Victor appears to be valid.  Her death certificate gives 26 August 1859 as her date of birth, and census research identified her as one year old in the 1860 census, making her just two months past her thirteenth birthday on the date of her marriage in 1872.

But her father, Elijah Johnson, could not have “disowned” her for marrying Victor, as her father had died in 1864 (his estate was probated in Cape Girardeau County).  What happened to Louise’s mother and two young sisters after her father’s death?  A marriage record for Mary Angeline Johnson to Ransom Warren, on 13 Mar 1867, was recorded in Stoddard County, Missouri.  In the 1870 census of Johnson County, Illinois, “Leweza” Johnson, age 12, along with her sisters Caroline Johnson, age 10, and Jane Johnson, age 9, are found in the household of Ransom and Mary Warren.  After locating the Warren family in the 1880 and 1900 censuses, and connecting up with descendants of Louise’s sisters, I confirmed that this Mary Warren was Louise’s mother.

It was perhaps Louise’s step-father, Ransom Warren, then, who “disowned” or at least reproached Louise for marrying a Yankee.  Confederate service records show that a man named Ransom Warren had served in Jeffers’ Regiment of the Missouri Cavalry, a Confederate organization.  Warren’s obituary stated that he was a member of “R. E. Lee camp 158, U.C.V.”, a Confederate Veterans’ organization.  (Fort Worth Star Telegram, 4 May 1908).

It would seem that family stories and traditions, passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, are seldom entirely trustworthy.  Yet they may contain nuggets of truth, clues worth investigating, leads worth following.  The statement that Victor stowed away on a ship, and had come to the United States completely on his own, was shown to be false.  But other details of the Meslin family tradition – even surprising ones, like Louise’s age at her marriage – were supported through research.  Studying this family has taught me to question everything, to assume nothing, and to never stop documenting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s