Francois Napoleon Bernier (1861 – 1918)
Francois Napoleon Bernier — called “Nap” or “Napoleon,” like his son — was born in Matane, P.Q., Canada, on 8 Nov 1861. He’s kind of a mystery man for many reasons. He’s one of several children born to an interesting couple, Susan Cote (born 1845) and Joseph Bernier (born 1820).
According to the stories, Susan (also spelled Suzanne) was a headstrong child who wanted to marry the richest man in town… so she did. The problem was, he was at sea a lot, and… well, there are questions about the parentage of Susan’s children.
Apparently, when Joseph died, Susan and her children were basically run out of town without a cent. Most went to Fall River, MA, where they lived in a boarding house and worked in the mills. So, I’m not sure what the real story was, but Susan definitely went from being the wife of the richest man in her Canadian town… to severe poverty and a difficult life in Massachusetts, as a widow.
But, getting back to Francois Napoleon Bernier, my great-grandfather: According to my grandmother (Francois’ daughter-in-law), when he was young, he was sent to live with the Indians and lumberjacks. There, he worked as a cook, and mingled with the Indians.
According to my grandmother, her father-in-law lived at Perce Rock… or with the Nez Perce Indians. I do know that he had a secret box — it had a hidden opening — and, inside it, he had a handmade book. It was very simple, and I’m sure he made it himself.
In that book, he had what he said was the Chinook alphabet and a bunch of Chinook words. (Chinook Indians were well-known as traders who mixed well among the various Indian nations. According to the stories, Joseph Bernier hired several Indians to act as translators for trading expeditions.)
The box also included some glass beads and some leather work. (I recall it being a very soft leather, smooth and the color of butterscotch, with beads embroidered on it.)
Unfortunately, when my grandfather (Napoleon Mark Bernier) died, my grandmother was so distraught, she had St. Vincent de Paul haul away everything that might remind her of my grandfather… including the little box made by his father.
But, the story doesn’t end there.
According to my mother, there’s a secret to our ancestry. It involves Francois actually being the son of an Indian, which is why — at age 8 — he was sent to live with them. It also explained why Francois’ wife was frantic if my mother was out in the sun. Mum (my mother) said that it was something about how her skin might turn dark and she’d look like an Indian.
Whether there’s any truth to that… well, it’d take a DNA test to be sure. I’m not sure if DNA tests can differentiate between Indian nations; that would be key, since our ancestors also include “Marie Therese, a Mic-Mac” on the Bernier line… maybe. (That’s another issue. If Joseph Bernier wasn’t the father of Francois Napoleon Bernier, my further research into the Bernier line was kind of pointless.)
However, my grandfather (Napoleon Mark Bernier) looked remarkably like Ollicut, brother of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. That’s Ollicut in the picture on the right. So, Mum seemed pretty happy to think we have Nez Perce ancestry.
And, of course, there’s still more to the colorful life of Francois Napoleon Bernier.
Francois, called “Pup” by my mother, worked as a plasterer… applying stucco and plaster to homes and other buildings. He had a successful business, Napoleon Bernier & Son.
Pup hired a bunch of his mother’s relatives to work for him. They’re the Crispo family. (When my grandfather took over the business, I guess he wasn’t as polite as the Crispos had in mind. From what I heard from our cousin, Bella Crispo, it was kind of a “you can’t quit, you’re fired” situation. After that… well, I didn’t even know we had Crispo cousins until I was in my 30s.)
In addition, Pup invested in real estate, and owned a few houses on his street. Generally, they were two-family homes. Pup’s brother-in-law (Pup’s wife’s brother), Mark DeCoste, lived upstairs in the house where Pup lived. I’m not sure which house was where my mother was born, but it was on the same street, in a house owned by Pup.
Pup was ill in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. He died later, in Geneva, Ontario Co., NY, on 23 Sep 1918. My grandmother didn’t like to talk about that. It was clearly a closed subject.
In later years, when I was researching our family history, I found the Geneva street address and saw that the tenant had been Martha something-or-other. My mother said that Pup had been visiting his wife’s sister, Martha. Martha was — according to my grandmother — a rather wild woman. I think Martha left her husband or something. (That was scandalous, back then.) So, my mother had the idea that Pup’s death at Martha’s apartment was… a little indiscreet. But really, we haven’t a clue. In photos, Pup looked pretty conservative, so I’m not sure what to think.