A Bear Named Napoleon

It’s official. We broke a record for the coldest temperatures in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Low temperatures were in the mid-teens in most of the area for the past two nights. With icy roads, staying home was just about the only option most of us had. My little house is on piers. Combined low temperatures and wind were too much for the heater. During the worst of the storm, the heater could only push my house into the upper 50s inside.

Well, it’s almost over. Temperatures tonight will be bearable, hovering just below freezing. After that things will warm up to a more moderate level.

What does that have to do with bears and Napoleon? Nothing. But it’s worth noting it’s been wicked cold here just like in most of North America for the past few days.

Ursin Napolean Matherne.jpg
Ursin Napoleon Matherne

Now, on to Napoleon and bears. A few weeks ago, I wrapped up a photo/essay book about my father’s family. Probably the most intriguing ancestor in the book was Ursin Napoleon Matherne, my great- grandfather. Ursin is a derivative of Ursa, which means bear in Latin. And yes, his middle name was Napoleon.

Ursin’s life spanned the 19th and 20th century. He was born shortly after the Civil War ended, and he died as the Great Depression took hold of the country.

Ursin Napoleon Matherne was a conqueror of hearts, not nations. Ursin had many lovers, and many sons and daughters, too. He was officially married only once, to my great-grandmother, Clinda.

However he had lovers before her and afterward. He even seduced his wife’s sister during his marriage. She had his child, a boy who would forever live with a cloud over his head due to his father’s bearish ways.

His last lover was an Indian woman. She loved him fiercely, and he died with her. When he died, she cried over his body, and scarcely could bear it when the rightful, legitimate sons came to take his body away in a horse-drawn cart.

A bear when it’s angry can be fearsome. Ursin was fearsome in his love. His love, that had no regard for law or fidelity, wounded all who were close to him.

Irene Matherne school.jpg
Schoolchildren in front of Matherne School, cerca 1925.

In between ravaging hearts, Ursin Napoleon also found time to be quite successful. He started life as a hunter, selling hides to his uncle in New Orleans. When he died, he owned enough land to be measured in square miles, not just mere acres. He founded a school and a graveyard. He was a charter member of one of the sole Protestant churches in the region.

Church, you say? Yes. Ursin returned to his wife and sought forgiveness in the church over and over in his lifetime. One of his closest friends and confidantes was the pastor and founder of the Bayou Blue Methodist Church, in the midst of the community he lived. My mother tells me that the old folks used to recount that Ursin, when he was repentant, prayed most eloquently. Despite his faults, he managed to also be somewhat of a pillar of their little community.

matherne cemetery
My eventual resting place

I am a descendant of Ursin Napoleon Matherne. I was christened in the church he helped establish. One day, I will be buried in the cemetery he founded. And when the spirit moves, I can pray quite eloquently.

This essay concludes the family series. If you’re interested in this occasional series, find the tab marked family above to read the posts about the Matherne family.

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2017 Favorites

 

I put together just a few of my favorite photographs from 2017. Some are places I visited this year. I have a few from Nicaragua, Honduras, Florida and Mississippi.  Some are from ’round here in Louisiana.

In the spirit of Advent, i.e. waiting for good things to come, I will share good stuff happening here and far.

  1. The political crisis in Honduras is not over, but by and large the country is relatively calm. Protests are centered in the big cities.  A consensus in forming in the national and international arena to hold a new election. A new election without the usual corruption and ballot stuffing would be welcomed by the Hondura people. I applaud them, not for violent demonstrations, but for the will to see a change in the status quo of corrupt elections.
  2. In January I visited Honduras, the first time I went back there since I moved to the US over 3 years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing old friends. My humble little project is prospering and increasing in it scope and effectiveness in helping children in poverty. Soon, they will move into a large new building.
  3. I moved into a smaller and cuter house than I had before. You can view it in the pictures below. I love my little cottage. I have good neighbors, mostly squirrels, rabbits and birds, although my human neighbors are nice, too.
  4. I enjoyed my trip to Nicaragua last month. As we wait during the advent season in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, I am encouraged by the people I met in Nicaragua who are working for a better society there. They are waiting, too, but actively waiting, for good things to come.
  5. My mother finally gave up driving. She’s mostly blind, but she was stubbornly hanging on to the car keys. After an accident (no one hurt thank God!) she was dropped from her insurance company. She conceded. We all are grateful.

What’s happening in your life that’s good? Share if you like.

 

 

Dead ducks quack

This tale is part of an occasional series on my father’s family. 

ducks and dadDid you know that you can make a dead duck quack? If you press on the chest, a duck will quack. When I was a little girl, I used to help my father with dressing ducks after he returned from a shoot. My job was simple: pull the feathers off. My dad took care of the heads, feet and splitting of the carcasses. Mama’s job was to make gumbo or jambalaya with the end product.

I don’t recall being disgusted by this process. In fact, it was enjoyable. I remember the beautiful mallards, wood and poule d’eau ducks that daddy brought home in a bulging,  brown sack. I never went on the hunt. I wasn’t disallowed. I never had the desire to shoot ducks. No, my job was to wait for dad to come home with a big sack bulging with freshly killed ducks.

When daddy came home from a hunt, he carefully laid out his kill. He usually wanted a picture of his trophies. Most times, he hunted with his father or an older brother. The men would stand  or kneel with the ducks, posing  for the camera.

Then came the fun part. A few presses to the chest before beginning was the best part. The ducks moved reflexively to the touch, letting out a good quack with a push on the chest. After a few good quacks, I set to work, pulling feathers. We didn’t keep the feathers, although I know some people used them to make bedding. I sometimes kept a few feathers as souvenirs but truth be told, the feathers had sharp ends. After a few days, I generally discarded my trophies.

My father was not a learned man.  He graduated from high school with some difficulty due to an undiagnosed spelling and writing problem that today would be labeled as dyslexia. After high school, he attended  trade school to be a diesel mechanic. Whatever his deficits were in learning and schooling, he was an expert teacher.

I learned a lot from my dad. Even something as trivial as cleaning ducks, my father turned it into a learning experience. I learned about the different types of feathers on the body of a duck, the differing types of ducks, which ducks were prized and which were not. I learned what the limits were as set by the state of Louisiana.

My dad made a simple task like this quite fun. Instead of being repulsed by the dead animals or being put out since he often needed help during Saturday morning cartoon time, I enjoyed helping him. I probably did a terrible job when I was very young, but I cannot recall one time being corrected severely or made to feel inferior. However badly I did the job, my dad found room to coach me how to do it a little better next time. Except for an occasional reprimand when I became distracted by making the ducks quack, I can’t recall any negativity.

If my dad were alive, he would be 85 this month on Christmas Eve. He would be greatly surprised that I consider him to be a good teacher, given his lack of credentials. Yet, I do. He taught me quite a bit about any number of subjects, whether it was dressing ducks, motor repairs, or getting along with people. That’s not something to quack about.

Thanks Dad.

 

Love is Funny, Slick, and Shrewd

 

Love is funny, slick, and shrewd.

robert martinI found this phrase in a document written by my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather, Robert Martin, was a pastor. He founded a Methodist church in the late 1800s in south Louisiana. Preachers aren’t known for writing about romantic love.

Robert wrote up an account of his uncle’s life. The uncle’s life was tragic, full of failed romance, messed-up married life, and not a few illegitimate offspring.

He ends the sad story by stating that one should only marry “for true love.” Somehow it doesn’t fit the image of a circuit-riding Methodist preacher to end a story with that phrase. He doesn’t look the romantic type, either. But, what do I know?

 

Red, White, and Black

oak tree and houseI have been digging around in the scrubby underbrush of my family tree. I am hoping to squeeze a book about my family out of a few stories I have heard as well as a few details that I can glean from my research. Now, there’s all kinds of things I already know about my ancestors, such as I know there were quite a bit of cousins marrying cousins in the not-so-distance past. I know that my forebears were participants in the Civil War, on the Confederate side. I know some of them were church founders and circuit-riding preachers.

Last week, I  bumped into  something that I had overlooked years ago when I started researching my family tree. The first Matherne in North America in the early 1700s had 3 slaves. From what the slim evidence I can find, it’s possible Johann Matern (spelling changed through the years)  received slaves as a gift from the same company that sponsored his passage to Louisiana from Europe. The negroes may have been just a loan. His trip, you see was financed by a banker who supposedly received early profits rendered by the German pioneers. However the company went bankrupt in a few short years in a rather significant historical and spectacular way.*

I don’t know if Johann’s slaves were his own property, or they were supplied, much like my father had a “company car” in the 1960s.  They may have come with the job. All I know is a census in 1728 said he had 3 slaves and 3 sons, and a few cows and pigs, too.

The next mention of slaves in my family tree was in regard to  Johann’s grandson, Jacques. Jacques bought a Negro boy, aged 11,  named Theodore in 1771. The purchase price was  200 dollars.  That would be about 5,000 dollars in today’s currency. I don’t see any more records of sales or purchases of slaves in my background while poking about the website, Ancestry. However I am impatient. I am not searching slave records myself. I just borrowed from other family’s records about the slaves.

I know that my ancestors, from my dad and mom’s side of the family, fought for the Confederacy. No slave or servants are listed as attendants on either side. Then, after the Civil War, my ancestor Ursin Matherne, told my mother’s family’s people that he was a descendant of a family of hunters. Somewhere along the way,  slaves and farming seemed to have disappeared from the family lineage.

Ursin Napolean Matherne was friendly with the native American population in the South Louisiana.  Friendly is just one way to describe Ursin’s relationships with American Indians.  More on Ursin’s relationships with the natives in another post.

For today, I just want to think about what it meant to own other human beings. My family owned slaves. They fought for the Confederacy. Somehow, I pictured them as pure and poor, and of course, being too morally upright to own slaves.

Until a few years ago, I would have considered these actions as not relevant to me or current events today. Yet, it’s not ancient history. These people, my ancestors, lived only a few hundred years ago. To my dismay, white superiority is an idea that has not been relegated to the dust bin of history as it should be.

Whether it’s marching in Charlottesville or trolls on the internet surmising that our past president, a black man, embodies the spirit of the AntiChrist, my contemporaries are bringing back old stereotypes and myths based on skin color. I am ashamed of that kind of southern culture. It has no place in my heart or in my thinking.

Slavery didn’t help my ancestors in the long run to have better lives. The early experiments with slavery by my family didn’t last. I can’t see how human bondage could lead to happiness or lasting contentment, no matter the short term goal in finances or farming. Nor do I see the value in worthless arguments about skin color today.

*Story of John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

A Good Worker Who Deserves Some Negroes

1728 Johann Adam Matern, of Rosenheim, Upper Alsace. 26 years old. Weaver. A good worker who deserves some negroes. Three pigs.

Thus reads the roll in or around 1728, describing my forebear, the first Matern/Matherne who came to the New World with several hundred Germans as pioneers.

I don’t know why he was considered worthy of owning other human beings. Yet so the record reads.* A few years later, in 1731, Johann has increased his holdings. By then, he acquired 3 sons, 3 negroes and 7 cows.

He got his Negroes. I suppose that’s a sign of success. Just like you and I might be proud to have a new car or a house with no mortgage, Johann was the proud owner of 3 negroes. I hope my readers are not incensed beyond reason. It was a sign of the times.

I am rather proud that he’s described as being a good worker, not so much as a man who owned other people

*THE SETTLEMENT OF THE GERMAN COAST OF LOUISIANA AND THE CREOLES OF GERMAN DESCENT. John Henno Deilor

A Weaver’s Tale

This post is the second in an occasional series about my father’s family. 

Two hundred and ninety-six years ago, Johann Matern, my ancestor, came to Louisiana from Germany. A great number of Germans had come by ship under the direction of John Law, a Scottish speculator and banker. Many died aboard the ship. The survivors realized quickly that John Law’s promises were nearly worthless: no funds, no slaves nor easy living awaiting the pioneers.

The group proposed to farm an area a bit southwest of New Orleans. They provided food for the soldiers and government officials in the city. The pioneers formed small villages in what became known to the French-speaking population of New Orleans as Des Allemands. These sturdy Germans flourished despite the many difficulties of pioneering in a subtropical climate. 

Let’s get back to my 6th great-grandfather, Johann. He was from the upper region of Alsace-Lorraine, a place that over centuries changed from French to German hands over and again. Maybe Johann left to escape the strain of competing powers fighting over his homeland. I don’t know. I do know he was probably bilingual, speaking German and French. map alsace lorraine

Johann was 26 years old when he came to the New World. He had a wife, Regina, an infant son, and Regina’s two sisters listed as members of his household. Johann listed his occupation as a weaver. The little band of Germans had no use for someone to spin thread into cloth. They needed to build houses, grow food and establish a community.

Johann cleared his land to grow rice and corn and raise pigs. If he entertained any images of wealth in the New World, his hopes would were dashed. The man was awarded 8 arpents (6-7 acres) of land. Maybe he entertained his growing family which would reach six children with stories of Rumpelstiltskin, the folktale about an imp who spun gold out of straw. At any rate, Louisiana had no gold. Or silver. Or even pleasant weather.

German Coast
The Matern farm was located within the village of Hoffen. The area is near the present day town of Destrehan on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River.

At the age of forty-one, Johann died. What killed him? We don’t know. I do know his house didn’t die with him. He had six children at his death. His name, Matern, later becoming Matherne, has become a well-known surname in South Louisiana. In the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. James, Lafourche and Terrebonne, the name Matherne is part of the landscape.

There are over 3,000 people in the area who share the name, Matherne. In my neck of the woods where I grew up, the Matherne name loomed large. A school and a graveyard bore the name. They were farmers, hunters, and ranchers. Some were angels, starting a new Protestant church, founding members of banks and such. Others were devils, with stories that some would rather not be told.

I will tell some of the stories of the people called Matherne.