There we were in Vesc, the ancestral village of the Chastains in southeastern France, with, besides my wife and I, not a Chastain to be found. Instead, we found Chastans. Lots and lots of Chastans. Chastan was inscribed on a World War I memorial near the mayor’s office. A multitude of Chastans were buried in the cemetery next to the ruins of St. Pierre’s. A few miles outside the village was a Chastan lumberyard. A friendly baker in nearby Dieulefit knew of a piano teacher who was a Chastan. As we talked with her, she asked several customers if they knew of any Chastains. They didn’t, but they knew plenty of Chastans. I was confused. Where had the ‘i’ gone? Were the Chastans and Chastains the same? I wanted to believe that they were. At just one letter off, it seemed obvious, but I didn’t want to make that assumption without evidence.
Overall, our trip to France had been a huge success, but, in this one matter, I was disappointed. I had been expecting to find at least a few Chastains still in their ancestral village, but they had vanished completely. I was eager to discover what had happened. Once we returned home, I took a closer look at the records. Below are a few examples of what I found in the Vesc Parish records in the Drôme Departmental Archives in Valence, France.
The first two records are for the births of two brothers—Pierre Chastain (not my earliest known ancestor) and Jean Isaie Chastan. Pierre was born in 1738 to parents Jean Pierre Chastain and Marguerite Gueyle. Jean Isaie was born in 1760 to the same parents. Pierre was born as a Chastain while Jean Isaie was born “Chastan”.
The next two records are for Marguerite Chastain. She married Pierre Gueyle in 1737 as a Chastain, but, when she died in 1761, she was a Chastan.
The final two records are for Claude Chastain. When he married Catherine Roussin in 1753, he was a Chastain. Claude died in 1815 as a Chastan.
These are just three examples of this switch in the spelling of the surname. There are countless others. The Chastains and Chastans of Vesc were, in fact, the same. At some point in the mid-18th century, for unknown reasons, perhaps for no reason in particular, the ‘i’ was dropped from the name.
In the 1600s, and probably much earlier, Chastain was one of the most common surnames found in Vesc. Pierre Chastain, my earliest known ancestor, along with a few of his family members, fled to Germany in 1686 to escape religious persecution. They were the only Chastain family to do so. All of the others remained in Vesc. They were either Catholic or they were Protestants who didn’t have the resources necessary to flee or they simply chose to stay and face the persecution.
In Germany, our family retained the original spelling of the name and brought it to America. However, in Vesc, the name had completely disappeared by the 19th century. It had evolved into Chastan. And so all of the numerous Chastans I had discovered in and around Vesc, living and dead, they are almost certainly long lost cousins.