Four Wives and 24 Children: A Demographic Study

(Copyright (c) 2014 Cynthia Shenette) A couple of years ago I did a tongue-in-cheek piece on my great-grandfather, Francois Chenet (1813-1886), for the Carnival of Genealogy.  While the piece is fun it doesn't tell the whole story.

Francois is notable in my family tree in that he was a Civil War soldier, but my main fascination with him is that he had four wives and 24 children.  I wanted to know what kind of a man has four wives. And 24 children.  Not only is the number of children fascinating, but the dates and places and events in his and his wives' and children's lives tell a story about the family as a whole. Thanks to the detailed birth, marriage, and death records in the Drouin Collection, the U.S. and Canadian Censuses, and his Civil War pension file I've been able to put together a reasonably comprehensive profile of Francois and his family.

Francois was born in St. Denis in Quebec on 18 April 1813.  He married his first wife, Marie-Marguerite Charron on 3 October 1836 in St. Denis. Francois was 23 years old and Marguerite was 21.  Marguerite may have been pregnant at the time of marriage as she gave birth to their first child, Marguerite on 16 June 1837, eight and a half months after the wedding. Marguerite was 22 and Francois was 24.  Over the next 12 years Marguerite gave birth to nine more children--Justine (1839), Jean Baptiste (1840), Julienne (1841), Celina (1842), Philomene (1844), Francois (1845), Marie-Reine (1847), Marie-Vitaline (1848), and Joseph (1849)--in quick succession.

I charted out Marguerite's pregnancies from 1837 to 1849, and figured out she was pregnant for at least a portion of every year of their marriage.  The longest stretch between pregnancies was 13 months.  On three separate occasions Marguerite only had three months off between giving birth and getting pregnant again.  Life must have been hard with constantly being pregnant, having multiple children to care for and working as a farmer's wife in rural Quebec. Two of the couple's ten children (Jean Baptiste and Marie-Reine) lived less than a year.  Marguerite gave birth for the last time in November 1849.  When she died on 5 June 1850 at the age of 35 she left eight children behind, ages 12, 11, 8, 7, 6, 5, 2, and 7 months.

A year and a half after Marguerite's death Francois married his second wife, Theotiste Tetreault, on 20 January 1852. Francois was a 38 year old widower with eight children, now ages 14, 12, 10, 9, 7, 6, 3, 2.  Francois and Theotiste had four children together--Francois Xavier born 1852, Louis born 1854, Louis Napoleon born 1856 and Toussaint born 1858. Francois Xavier and Toussaint lived less than a year. Daughter Celina from Francois marriage to Marguerite died in February 1858 at the age of 15. Toussaint and his mother, Theotiste, died on the same day, 8 April 1859, perhaps during an epidemic of some sort.  Daughter Marguerite died two months later on 15 June 1859 at the age of 21.  Francois was 45 years old.

Francois didn't mourn long.  He married his third wife, Louise Dubreuil, seven months later on 8 November 1859. According to my calculations Louise was almost five months pregnant when they married.  Whether the child was Francois' or someone else's and the the marriage was one of convenience who knows.  At the time of their marriage, Louise inherited eight step-children from Francois' previous marriages--ages 20, 18, 15, 14, 11, 10, 5, and 3.  

During their marriage Francois and Louise had two children of their own, Marie-Louise born in April of 1860 and Marie born in 1864. There probably would have been more children had Francois not joined the North to fight in the Civil War.  Francois Jr., also volunteered and died of disease at the age of 19 on a Virginia battlefield in 1864. Marie-Vitaline died in 1864 at the age of 16 and Philomene died in 1866 at the age of 22.  At the time of Louise's death on 14 December 1866, there were only three surviving children out of the ten from Francois' first marriage to Marguerite. When Louise died Francois was 53 years old.

Francois married my great-grandmother, Lucie Touchette, on 18 July 1867. He was 54.  She was 19. I wonder what life circumstances would induce a 19-year-old girl to marry a widower 35 years her senior. Upon marriage Lucie became "mother" to seven step-children--Justine age 28, Julienne 26, Joseph 17, Louis 12, Napoleon, 10, Marie-Louise 7, and Marie 3.  One month after their marriage Lucie was pregnant with her first child. Victorine Lucy was born on 13 May 1867.  Over the next 13 years Lucie gave birth to eight more children--Francois Adei in 1871, Joseph Theodore Hormidas (also known as Frank, my grandfather) in 1873, Joseph in 1874, Marie-Josephine in 1876, Flavi Joseph in 1878 and Marie Delina Vedora in 1882. 

Victorine Lucy died at the age of two in 1871.  I suspect there was a ninth child that died as there was a 23 month gap between pregnancies from July 1868 to April of 1870, a 13 month gap between July 1874 and July 1875, and a 23 month gap between October of 1879 and July of 1881.  The 1900 U.S. Census corroborates this. When the enumerator asked "Mother of how many children." Lucie's response was "9," and when asked, "Number of these children living." her answer was "7."

According to his Civil War pension file Francois weighted 130 lbs. in 1884, suffered from "rheumatism" and was blind from cataracts.  It's interesting to consider when you think about the fact that he had seven children age 14 and under, including a two-year-old daughter, at the time.  Francois died at the age of 72 on 22 March 1886. Lucie was 38.  Francois left 14 children from four marriages, ranging in age from 3 to 46.* Lucie died in 1917. She outlived her husband by 31 years.

* While I have not been able to find a death record for Justine, I do know she was alive at least until 1864 when she married Louis Debreuille.  For this exercise I am going presume she lived until 1886. If you have information to the contrary please contact me, and I will be happy to consider it.

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Tombstone Tuesday: Francois Chenette, Civil War Soldier
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