Of Chestnuts and Troubadours

From Recueil des poésies des troubadours, contenant leurs vies, a 14th century collection of poems from the troubadour tradition. Here, the troubadour Perdigon, the son of a fisherman, is seen playing his fiddle. The word troubadour is derived from the Occitan trobador. The troubadour tradition arose in Occitania in the 11th century.

In the course of researching my Chastain family, I’ve stumbled upon an excellent online dictionary of French surnames.

The entry for Chastang translates roughly to the following:

Worn in the Cantal, Corrèze and Lozère, it is a toponym evoking the chestnut tree (Occitan “castanh”). Variants or similar forms: Chastain, Chastaing, Chastaingt, Chastan, Chastand, Chastant, names all encountered in the northern part of the Occitan domain, from the Dordogne to the Drôme.

The Drôme, the area mentioned at the end of the entry, is where Vesc, ancestral village of the Chastains, is located. Chastain is a toponym, a type of surname derived from a feature in the local environment, typically near where the person who was given the surname lived. In the case of Chastain, the name would have been given to someone who lived near a prominent chestnut tree.

Occitan, mentioned in the entry, is a Romance language still spoken in the south of France. This was the language of the medieval troubadours and, centuries ago, was widely known even outside of France. Like any other language, Occitan has several dialects. A feature of the Vivaro-Alpin dialect, spoken in northern parts of southern France, such as the Drôme, is a soft ‘ch’ sound instead of a hard ‘c’. This would seem to explain the evolution of the Latin word for chestnut, castanea, with its hard ‘c’, to chastain and its variants, with their soft ‘ch’, in French (like the ‘ch’ in champagne i.e. an English ‘sh’ sound).

The dialects of the Occitan region. The Department of Drôme is labeled with a 26. This area is part of the region that speaks the Vivaro-Alpin dialect. (Map from Dictionnaire Des Noms De Familles Et Noms De Lieux Du Midi De La France by Jacques Astor.)

A map displaying differences in pronunciation by area. The Latin castanea became castanh in Occitan. Then, in the region where Vesc resides, castanh became chastanh and, eventually, mutated into the variations chastain, chastan, and chastaing, just to name a few. Eventually, chastain made its way into the English language as chestnut. (Map from Dictionnaire Des Noms De Familles Et Noms De Lieux Du Midi De La France by Jacques Astor.)

Switching gears, another resource that’s been helpful in my research is this Dictionary of Middle French. In the course of translating historical documents, I often give this a try if the translation into Modern French isn’t making sense. It’s clarified quite a few passages that were previously impenetrable.

Finally, moving even further into the past, the Etymological Dictionary of Old French is another fascinating resource. (I think I was a linguist in another life). It details different spellings of words in Old French and, citing original medieval texts, gives examples of each spelling variant. This dictionary led me to an old 12th century manuscript titled Liber de simplici medicina. In it, a reference is made to miel chastain, a cold remedy consisting of honey infused with a bitter chestnut flour.

I’m tickled to see my surname, spelled exactly how it is today, in a text that’s over eight hundred years old. The word chastain, having evolved into other forms, hasn’t been a part of the French language for centuries, making my surname, Chastain, a fossilized record of an ancient, extinct word.

Occitania in southern France (Author: Jiròni B.)

Earl of Exeter

George Washington at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.1

When starting research on a new family, the first thing I typically do is ask the family what they already know. Often, there are documents, pictures, oral histories, and stories that contain glimpses of the family’s past. Next, I look at the meaning and origin of the surname, which often provides further insight. Once I have a firm grasp on this information, in order to get the lay of the land of existing research, I take a gander online to see what others have already found. Someone else may have already done the work.

However, especially when no sources are cited, I never accept as fact what I find. Instead, I use this information, along with what I gathered in the above steps, as a starting point for my own research. If, on the rare occasion, someone does actually cite sources, then I double-check them, and, if they’re legit, I praise the genealogy gods. This is a rare thing.

Impatient and overeager descendants too often force together pieces of information that don’t fit. Then other impatient and overeager descendants copy this information without question. These erroneous family trees spread quickly.

Be wary. Be skeptical. Be careful. Or you’ll end up with a miraculous family tree where men father children ten years after shuffling off this mortal coil.

For the Kings of Erie County, Pennsylvania, the discussion thread found here is typical of what I’ve consistently found online. Everyone seems to trace the family back to an Earl King of Exeter, Rhode Island in the mid to late 1700s. (Note: this is not the same Earl King who married Persiana Brown in North East, Erie County, Pennsylvania. If the Earl in question is, in fact, the ancestor of the Kings of Erie County, he would be the other Earl King’s grandfather.)

The earliest record I’ve found for Earl King is for his marriage to Content Richmond in 1768 in Exeter. Just below the lines that record Earl and Content is the marriage of Stephen King to Dorcas Watson in 1789. Stephen, it is claimed by most online family trees, is the son of this Earl King and the father of the Earl King who we find married to Persiana Brown a few decades later in North East, Pennsylvania.

Record for the marriage of Earl King to Content Richmond, daughter of Stephen Richmond, and the marriage of Stephen King to Dorcas Watson. It appears Earl was originally from South Kingston. 2

The next mention of Earl King I can find is in the book Rhode Island in the Continental Congress.3 A digital copy is available here. Rhode Island was the only colony to hold a referendum on the proposed Constitution of the United States. Rhode Islanders, including Earl King and his father-in-law, Stephen Richmond, voted decisively to reject it.4 The vote was 2,708 to 237.

Earl King can also be found in Exeter on the first United States Census taken in 1790.

Earl King in Exeter, Rhode Island on the 1790 United States Census.5

And, with that, we must, for now, say goodbye to Earl of Exeter. I’ve already spent too much time on him. We’re not even certain he is the ancestor of the Kings of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Time is better spent by starting from the present, working with what we know for certain, and slowly making our way to each preceding generation. Once we make it back far enough, perhaps we’ll bump into him again. If so, we’ll already know a bit about him.

Beach Pond in Exeter, Rhode Island.6

Sources:
1 Stearns, Junius Brutus. Washington at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. 1856, oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA.
2 Rhode Island, Vital Extracts, 1636-1899.
3 Staples, William R. Rhode Island in the Continental Congress. Edited by Reuben Aldridge Guild, Providence Press Company, 1870.
4 Wood, Gordon S. “The Great American Argument.” New Republic, 30 Dec. 2010.
5 United States Census. Year: 1790; Census Place: Exeter, Washington, Rhode Island; Series: M637; Roll: 10; Page: 142; Image: 87; Family History Library Film: 0568150
6 Munro, W.H. Picturesque Rhode Island. J.A. & R.A. Reid Publishers, 1881.

The King Family

King Henry I of England. Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259), from BL MS Cotton Claudius D. vi, f.9, showing Henry I of England enthroned. Held and digitised by the British Library.

From the Dictionary of American Family Surnames:

English and Scottish: nickname from Middle English king, Old English cyning ‘king’ (originally merely a tribal leader, from Old English cyn(n) ‘tribe’, ‘race’ + the Germanic suffix -ing). The word was already used as a byname before the Norman Conquest, and the nickname was common in the Middle Ages, being used to refer to someone who conducted himself in a kingly manner, or one who had played the part of a king in a pageant, or one who had won the title in a tournament. In other cases it may actually have referred to someone who served in the king’s household…

The specific King family I’m researching can be traced back to the 1750s in Rhode Island before the trail grows cold. Based on the surname, location (New England), and their marriages with, exclusively, members of other English families, it can be safely assumed that the Kings originally came from England. They migrated west to Erie County, Pennsylvania in the early 1800s, settling in the Greenfield, Harborcreek, North East area.

My goal, which will be extremely difficult (and very likely impossible), is to discover their town of origin in England. I’ll be writing about the family and the documents that I find along the way, which will be a fun undertaking regardless of whether I can trace them back to England.

Hugo the Huguenot



Here is a neat Kickstarter project by Jennifer Bruntil, an employee of Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York. New Paltz was originally settled by Huguenots in the 17th century, and, in an attempt to get children more involved and interested in this history, Jennifer has a written a children’s book. This is a wonderful idea. I’ll be picking up a copy for my own little Huguenot.