“The Rocheleaus” is told in three parts:
Part One covers the arrival of Francois and Joseph Rochereau dit Lesperance of Beauport, Quebec, in the mid-1700s, making them among the first settlers in French Detroit.
Part Two covers the Rocheleaus working for Father Potier and marrying into the Pilet family — just one of several odd coincidences in this family history.
Part Three is action-packed, including the Rocheleau’s marital link to a family that got a little too close to Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, and Rocheleau ancestors who served (or avoiding serving?) on the British side of the War of 1812.
“ Those who shall be so happy as to inhabit that noble country cannot but remember with gratitude the men who have discovered the way by venturing to sail upon an unknown lake for about one hundred leagues.”
— Father Louis Hennepin, after visiting the Detroit River region in 1679
“Would not the hearts of today’s inhabitants overflow with gratitude also for the pioneer settlers of the eighteenth century who transformed that noble wilderness into fruitful fields, if only that story were known?”
— Reverend Ernest J. Lajeunesse, Assumption University, Windsor, 1960
Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, whenever I asked my parents or grandparents about our ancestry, I was told only that both sides were from Canada — my Mom’s family came from just across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, while the Mills originated in Wales before also settling in Ontario. That was all they had for me on the topic, and it was, frankly, too boring to repeat to anyone. Not that I expected to learn I was descended from the Mayflower or some hero of the American Revolution, but I had hoped at least for something like a Great Migration story at Ellis Island.
As it turned out, the real story of my ancestors is much more interesting. Not from my father’s family, which is from Scotland, not Wales, and has a fairly conventional history. The better stuff is on my mother’s side, among the descendants of her father’s family, the Rocheleaus.
There is a reason the Rocheleau family’s known history never seemed to escape Windsor. You would need to dial back to the mid-18th century before you found an ancestor who lived anywhere else — and to the early 1700s to find our original Rocheleau immigrant to North America. My mother’s ancestors, it turns out, were among the first French settlers of Fort Detroit.
Thus they lived during the fur trade era alongside numerous native tribes — in fact, Indians granted the first Rocheleaus their plots of land on the south shore of the Detroit River. Through five generations of birth, marriage and death, they took part in the early building of the settlement, lived through the French and Indian war and were a little too close to Pontiac’s rebellion against the British in 1763 — two significant battles took place on the farm where my fifth great-grandmother had been raised. Later ancestors had a front-row seat at the battle of River Canard, which produced the first British casualty in the War of 1812. When my great-grandfather, bookkeeper George Rocheleau, crossed the river to emigrate to the United States in 1913, he left behind 170 years of Rocheleau pioneers living in Ontario’s oldest settlement.
The stories below draw from many original and secondary sources, but my research started on Ancestry.com, which offers access to an enormous trove of Canadian records. The two most reliable sources are the “Genealogical Dictionary of Canadian Families (Tanguay Collection), 1608–1890,” while, most importantly, photocopies of baptism, marriage and death records come from the Drouin Collection, the largest single repository of Catholic Church records from parishes in Canada and the United States. Fortunately, the Catholics are Mormon-like in the genealogical record-keeping department. Also extremely helpful was a collection of primary source documents called “The Windsor Border Region, Canada’s Southernmost Frontier,” by Assumption College French professor and Rev. Ernest J. Lajeunesse (1960).
Two young brothers, Francois (1718–1797) and Joseph (1725–1806) Rochereau dit Lesperance of Beauport, Quebec, were among the first French settlers around Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit in the mid-1700s. King Louis XIV started sending people to the outskirts of New France during that period to shore up the fur trade amid rising British influence in the region.
We don’t know exactly when they arrived, but we do know younger brother Joseph, 28, in 1754 married 18-year-old Catherine Pilet (yes, later spelled Pillette, more on that below). One year later, Francois (1718–1797), at 36, married 16-year-old Marie-Josephe Meloche, from a family that was somewhat prominent around the fort at the time (much more on that later as well). Both couples were married at St. Anne’s church, inside the stockade of the fort.
Their father, Jean-Baptise Rochereau dit Lesperance (1679–1757), was born in Bordeaux, France, the only son of Bernard Rochereau (I call him Bernie the Elder) and Marguerite Durand. By all appearances, Jean-Baptiste is the original North American Rocheleau immigrant — although his parents likely migrated to be with their son in Beauport, Quebec (they attended his wedding in Charlesbourg, Quebec, and both parents died in Beauport). So, the basic lineage from my grandfather, Bernie Rochereau (1911–1997), to Bernie the Elder, goes like this: Bernie’s father was George (1872–1943), his grandfather was Jacques (1839–1917), his great-grandfather was Michael (1800–1872), and his great-great grandfather was Pierre (1770–1842). Pierre’s father, Francois, our original settler, was therefore our Bernie’s third great grandfather, son of Jean Baptiste and grandson of Bernard from Bordeaux.
Two things about names — You’ll note that, while Bernard in France just went by Rochereau, his son and grandsons added “dit Lesperance” to the end of their names. The Quebec and Montreal colonists, in what was then called New France, were fond of adding “dit”–English for “said,” or “who is called” — to their family names to make themselves sound distinguished in the New World, where there were no feudal land titles. The names often reflected where they were from, but were also sometimes based on a characteristic. “L’Esperance” means hope. Hence, Francois and Joseph were known in their community by the last name “Lesperance” as much as “Rochereau.” Also, keep in mind that few were literate, other than clergy or nobility, so the spellings of names was often phonetic. Hence, Rochereau became Rocheleau, but was also spelled Rochelot in some church registries.
Information about the earliest Rochereaus is scant. We don’t know for certain when Bernard was born, nor when he died — Tanguay and Drouin only cite him as the husband of Marguerite Durand (1683–1743) and father of Jean Baptiste, and say he was born in Bordeaux, France. We know he emigrated to Quebec because Bernard and Marguerite are cited as the parents in the Charlesbourg, Quebec marriage registry of Jean Baptiste when he wed Elisabeth Dery (1693–1757) in 1712.
Tanguay includes the following entry for Jean-Baptiste Rochereau:
The Drouin record, from the church in Charlesbourg, confirms the details of the marriage of Jean Baptiste and Elisabeth Dery.
Amazingly, on the second page of the entry you can see the signatures of Jean Baptiste and Elisabeth Dery (lower right).
According to Tanguay, Jean Baptiste and Elisabeth Dery had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Around the 1740s, their sons Francois and Joseph opted to leave Beauport, Quebec, for the western frontier of Fort Pontchartrain along the Detroit River.