Blue Jeans and My French Ancestry

Like most Americans, I have always been drawn to jeans. Old Levi Strauss knew a good deal when he bought up the sails from the abandoned ships in the San Francisco harbor. The almost indestructible sail cloth originated in the French city of Nimes. Therefore, cloth from Nimes or de Nimes quickly became the Americanized denims.

Nimes is located on the edge of the mountainous region know as the Cevennes in south-central France. Cevennes derives from the Gaulish Cebenna, which was Latinized by Julius Caesar to Cevenna. This rugged area today is part of a French national park and the wilderness region des Monts d’Ardeche. The Gaulish tribe, Volcae Arecomici, met and eventually were incorporated into the Roman world by Caesar around 50 BC. However, like hill people in most cultures, these Gauls were amazingly persistent in doing things their own way. They will continue to be thorn in the side of the political leadership for the next couple of millennia.

OK, what is the connection with me? Obviously, my name is French and I enjoy wine (particularly Rhone varietals). The actual connections with my French heritage have been slowly accumulating. We have known that we carry genetic markers unique to Languedoc in southern France. In our travels to this region I felt some strange affinity with the people. Maybe it was the berets, the enjoyment of boule or pétanque, or their relatively diminutive statue where all of my 5’8″ makes me look ready for their basketball team.

In our travels, we encounter French people who ask if my family is from the south. Until recently, I would just have to shrug. As retirement loomed my interest in genealogy increased. The original family Frenchman was George LaPorte who immigrated to the American colonies in time to marry a Scottish gal, Mary McCaslin in 1769. Marriage was possible to a Presbyterian because he was a Huguenot, a French Calvinist. He served in the Maryland Militia and was rewarded with a land grant in western Maryland after the Revolution. He settles in eastern Ohio near Cadiz. It appears that he was born in 1747 in Normandy or Alsace-Lorraine.

So where is the connection with Languedoc besides genetics and intuition? I decided to explore the Huguenot connection. My reading revealed that the region around Cevennes was a center of Huguenots activity. Very briefly, the Huguenots were followers of the teaching of John Calvin, who from his safe perch in Geneva, inspired his fellow French to challenge the dominant Catholic Church. After the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day and the war and the Three Henry’s, Henry IV granted limited toleration to the Huguenots. When his grandson,Louis XIV insisted that everyone see religion his way and revoked the toleration edict, all hell broke loose. Huguenots who refused the Catholic Mass were sent to the galleys while women were locked up and pastors hung. The hill folks in the Cevennes were not going to go with program.

In 1702, “The Children of God” as they called themselves or the Camisards as others knew them began to resist. The name derives from their common blouse, the camisole, which was their only uniform in a time when soldiers were dressed to kill. The authorities of the church and state quickly set out to round them up. John Laporte, a veteran soldier, raised his voice, “Brethren, why depart into the land of the stranger? Have we not a country of our own, the country of our fathers? It is, you say, a country of slavery and death! Well! Free it! And deliver your oppressed brethren. Never say, ‘What can we do? We are few in number, and without arms!’ The God of armies shall be our strength….Better die by the sword than by the rack or the gallows” John Laporte was from the village of Massoubeyran, near Anduze. John was a small farmer and cattle-breeder. In the late 19th Century, the family house contained a secret retreat called the “Cahette de Roland” contains the family Bible and an old halbert weapon. The relics continue to be protected by the locals. Roland will take over the leadership of the revolt after his Uncle John is killed. Evidently the Laporte family bred Protestant ministers. The revolt will last until 1715 when the sixty thousand troops of the king managed to defeat the few hill folks. With Louis’s death, the persecutions tapered off and by the French Revolution the Huguenots were on the road to recovery in this region.

What does this have to do with me? Maybe not much, although the possibility of having a “William Wallace” like ancestor is romantic and certainly enticing. What is certain is that I have little information about why George Laporte was born in the north of France in 1747. Perhaps his family was part of the Huguenot diaspora that resulted in the widespread emigration of Huguenots to the Americas and Africa in the 18th Century. Perhaps there is no connection between the Laporte’s of Normandy and those of Languedoc. Genetics argue for a connection as do scarcity of the last name in the north compared to the south.

We are three weeks away from embarking on our big adventure. Our French portion of the trip begins in Le Puy en Velay which is just north do the Cevennes region. We will retrace the pilgrim’s route from Le Puy though the same mountain range as that of Laporte hill people. I hope I can avoid a Chevy Chase scene. In the mean time I will get busy focusing on French ancestry from the Cevennes region.

So the jeans link is weak but of some interest. There is a museum, Musee du Desert, in the birthplace of Roland Laporte. We have adjusted our plans a bit and will visit there before departing from Le Puy.

One thought on “Blue Jeans and My French Ancestry

  1. Very interesting. Never knew the origin of denim. Also quite impressive, your fierce forebear! Thanks for letting me be part of this adventure.

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