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  • Writer's pictureTom Vachet

The Story of My Fathers, Part II

Following my father William Francois Vachet’s return from WWII he married Kathryn Diaster Silvers, born into an English and Irish family of Tennessee coal miners and moonshiners. They had fled a Tennessee mountaintop home following an incident where her grandfather and another man had an argument over a whiskey still resulting in a gunfight. The man lost his life, and her grandfather lost an eye. Following that incident, the family had packed up wagons pulled by mules and made their way to the coal fields of Southern Indiana. My mother lost her father at age seven to a mine accident. She, with her mother and an older sister, moved in with her grandparents. They slept on a rough-hewn board floor, and my mother often went to school barefoot as they were very poor.

My paternal grandparents, Thomas, and Elva, kept French customs and spoke French to each other in their home, but never publicly. None of their children spoke a second language, and in fact they were explicitly forbidden to speak French. I grew up just one block away from their home.

We were Catholic, and so I attended St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, built in the early 1800s, three blocks away. Across the street from the church was St. Frances Xavier Grade School, a four-classroom school also built in the early 1800s. On the same block was Central Catholic High School, an all-boys institution which I also attended. Around us in the neighborhood were families who attended both our church and my school; Richardville, Cardinal, Brouillette, Richard, Godere, Dejean, Pelletier, etc. Adjacent the Catholic Church was an ancient French and Indian Cemetery. And then there were two large structures similar to what you might see in Washington, DC, the George Rogers Clark Memorial, and the Abraham Lincoln Bridge which crossed the nearby Wabash River.

I was aware of the historical significance of The Memorial, as it was on the site of an old fort where an important battle had taken place during the Revolutionary War. The bridge was built on the site of an ancient Buffalo Trace, where Abraham Lincoln, with his family, had crossed the river on his way from Kentucky to Illinois Country. Through my life as a child, and into adulthood, I was never taught, nor ever told the significance of my grandparent’s use of the French language, the history of my town, or how we, and nearly all our close friends and neighbors, fit into that history in a significant way. In truth, I never, ever, even considered any of it. Not until many years later.

My grandfather's stepbrother had worked in two professions, one with the US Navy, and a second with the US Forestry Service. His wife had worked as a schoolteacher. Upon retirement they moved back to my home town. Both had a hobby of researching family genealogy. They traveled across the United States, pouring through court files, cemeteries, and church records. His father was a second husband to my paternal grandmother, Mary Estelle Vachet and stepfather to my grandfather, Thomas Jean Pierre Vachet. He had determined to track down the family histories of both fathers.

By the time he passed away he had amassed records for approximately 300 of my ancestors, all in a cardboard box, on paper. My father held onto them for some time but did nothing with them. When I was in my late thirties, he gave them to me in hopes I could, or would, continue the work. The challenge was first I had no interest, and second, I had no time. I was busy in an executive career that took me from coast to coast and throughout many foreign countries. But where I went, so went the box. Until four years ago.

I had turned 67 and retired but wasn’t eager to hit golf balls or lay on the beach. Throughout my life I have been a voracious reader. I also had developed a mastery of technology early on and was very adept at leveraging it for research purposes. So, I unsealed the box and began to go through the reams of documents. The deeper I went, the more curious I became. I bought genealogical software to help in the organization of all the information I was reading and cataloguing. And I became smitten with the entire process, spending four to six hours per day on the effort, and quickly began to add to the pile. Within two years I had nearly 20,000 individuals included in my database. I also had been piecing the puzzle of an incredible story contained in the documents.

Those included were my immediate family, but also my many “cousins” who surrounded us, and who were nearly exclusively of French descent. In fact, that neighborhood I grew up in was once known as Frenchtown. And the land where my grandparents lived was once part of an early 1700s Land Grant. So, on a whim I considered I should write and publish a book about my family and that small town I once knew nothing about. In February 2022, my published work, “The Vanishing French of Olde Poste Vincennes” was accepted into The Library of Congress.

The work continues every day. I now have 37,754 individuals spanning today’s date back to Rollo, the Viking who conquered France in 870 AD. But I also have ancestors who landed with Champlain to establish Quebec in New France in 1617, ones who were passengers on the Mayflower in 1620, landing at Plymouth Rock, and another who crossed the English Channel with William the First to defeat the British at the Battle at Hastings in 1066. There were so many others.

“The Stories of My Fathers” is my blog containing stories of those whose lives have been resurrected by my research. I hope those who read them will be entertained.

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