Tucked into the rolling green hills of central Pennsylvania and off the beaten path is a small town not promoting tourism, and where for years the inhabitants spoke their own language.
Frenchville (Clearfield County) history is simple, but interesting. In the 1820s, a Paris merchant — Mssr. Zavron — accepted the land as a payment for a debt. Frenchmen in Alsace, Normandy and Picardy were given the opportunity to purchase land at $1 an acre, or purchase 50 acres and receive 12 acres free.
It has been suggested that many men, faced with conscription, accepted the offer. They arrived in the ports of Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia and trekked the distance on foot along the Susquehanna Valley.
The men farmed, mined, lumbered, or worked on the railroad. Isolated in this strange new land, they stuck together and spoke their native French. Thus, the French language stayed pure for a few generations. It was called Frenchville French.
If they ventured out, the men used minimal English that they picked up, and later for objects such as radio, telephone, television, unknown in their language.
The first church, St. Mary of the Assumption, was established in 1840. Masses were in Latin, so it wasn’t unusual that early Roman Catholic priests assigned there were named Leahy, Loughran or Flanagan. In 1846, the town was assigned a French pastor, John Baptist Berbigier, who stayed 34 years.
Currently, Frenchville is 99 percent Caucasian and 24 percent Catholic. In 2000, the population was 629 and of those 182 were of French descent.
Time silenced the French-speaking village. At the turn of the 20th century, Pennsylvania law made it mandatory that education was in English. Two generations battled with teachers to maintain their French, but World War I and II, the Industrial Revolution, and later television, defeated them.
In the early 1990s I visited Frenchville and St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery, also called Frenchville Cemetery. I was surrounded by tombstones bearing names such as Valimont, Roussey, Liegey, Plubell, Picard, Chanet, Dumonts, and many more.
Looking out over the peaceful valley, I wanted to step back in time to when I would not have understood their conversations. It is sad to see traditions die.
Check findagrave.com for burial names in the St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery.
“Genealogy is not only names and dates; it is also the history of the time and place of our ancestors.”