Gesundheit: A little linguistic legacy

If you are several generations removed from immigrant ancestors, you may find yourself longing — as I did — for some lingering evidence of a heritage connection within your own family.

Tissues. My family’s use of the word “gesundheit” when someone sneezed was likely passed down from my maternal German immigrant ancestors. By: Chris Costes

My advice is to pay careful attention, because — as I discovered with my maternal German ancestors — the evidence you seek might be found in the most unlikely place.

My German heritage comes from my maternal grandmother Elizabeth Christina Stoutner — who eloped with Anthony [Di Lorenzo] Laurence, the Italian-American boy next door in Gloversville, Fulton County, N.Y.

My mom — their oldest daughter — grew up near both my grandparents’ families, with many reminders of her ethnic roots.

Where were my ethnic clues?

But off my mom went to college. Then there was a career move, marriage to my dad, children and more moves — so by the time I was growing up in the suburbs of Binghamton, Broome County, N.Y., we were an assimilated, Baby Boom family living several hours’ drive from our nearest relatives.

I envied my friends who had closer ties to their immigrant heritage — as I enjoyed perogies and kolachkis with my Eastern European friend up the block or watched a school friend’s Italian grandmother lay handmade pasta to dry over the backs of her kitchen chairs.

Alas, there were few ethnic clues in the basic meat-and-potatoes dinner my family sat down to most evenings. But then someone would sneeze, and we would all say, “Gesundheit!” — and presto, there was my first heritage hint.

A healthful heritage hint

Gesundheit means “health” in German, but I never gave this much thought as a child. It was just something our family said. Not until at school, when I heard others say “bless you,” did I realize that not everyone said gesundheit.

Many years passed before I delved into why — and many more years still until I seriously researched my German heritage and made the connection to this salutation.

It turns out the word gesundheit arrived here with early German immigrants — like my ancestors, who came to these shores in the mid 1800s — then proliferated through the general population as German immigration picked up.

“Used to wish good health to a person who has just sneezed,” according to, the word’s frequency of use over the decades is depicted by an online n-gram graph.

Who would have imagined that as my German-American ancestors sneezed down through the  generations, they would pass along the hearty response “Gesundheit!” as a little linguistic legacy from one generation to the next?

Or that their healthful German salutation would be passed from my immigrant Mimm, Stoutner, Albeitz and Edel great, great grandparents to their children, then to my maternal grandmother, my mom and me?

Such a small ancestral bequest — but one I am reminded of whenever I hear someone sneeze!

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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A Charboneau by any other surname variant

Any genealogy researcher will tell you that having an unusual surname can be a bonus when combing through records in search of ancestors — and I was sure my Charboneau surname fit into this category.

By: Karyn Christner
The letter C.  Charboneau is a unique enough surname that it should be easy to identify in record searches — if it were not for those pesky surname variants! By: Karyn Christner

“How do you say your last name, Molly?” my teachers would ask each year — hesitating over the printed sheet when they called roll on the first day of school.

“SHAR-buh-no,” I would reply, which is how my family pronounces it.

My childhood friend Betty Ann’s dad said Charboneau sounded like “shrapnel” to him — which morphed into “shrabnel” and soon enough I was known as Shrab over at their house.

Because it’s a tricky surname for those with no French background, I usually have to spell Charboneau in full when leaving a phone message or calling anywhere that requires account verification.

My younger siblings got so fed up with this, they frequently substituted an easy-to-spell “pizza name” — such as Clark — when ordering a delivery.

An endless stream of variants

So, when it came time to look for my great, great grandfather Laurent Charbonneau in the federal and New York State census returns, I figured it should be easy enough.

Surely, our unique surname (give or take an “n”) would pop right up in genealogy indexes and record searches — and be quicker to pinpoint than a more frequently-occurring moniker.

Well, was I ever wrong! I had no idea there could be so many variants of the Charboneau surname.

Seeking every census

Laurent immigrated to New York State from Québec in the early 1850s — last appearing in the Canadian census with his family of origin in 1851/52 — so I hope to track him through all the U.S. and New York State censuses after his arrival.

Here are the five surname varients I have found so far (and notice his given name varies, too!):

  • Sharbono — My ancestor appears as Laurence Sharbono in the 1870 U.S. census for Boonville, Oneida County, N.Y.
  • Charbonno — He is listed as Laurence Charbonno  in the 1875 New York State census for Boonville, Oneida County, N.Y.
  • Sherbenon — An 1880 New York State census manuscript schedule in the Utica, N.Y. public library shows his name as Lawrence Sherbenon.
  • Shavanaugh  The 1880 U.S. census of Lyonsdale, Lewis County, N.Y. enumerated Laurent’s brother — Louis Desiré Charbonneau — as Desiré Shavanaugh.
  • Charbono —  The 1900 U.S. census for Forestport, Oneida County, N.Y. lists my great, great grandfather as Lawrence Charbono.

So that just leaves New York State censuses for 1855, 1865 and 1892 and federal censuses for 1860 and 1880 to search — and now I have a whole bunch of Charboneau name variants to choose from.

Wish me luck, and please stop back for more on this as the search progresses.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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1881: Elise (Charbonneau) Payment’s blended family

Sixth and last in a series about the younger sister of my French-Canadian ancestor Laurent Charbonneau, who emigrated from Québec to New York State around 1852.
Quebec children at play (date unknown). When they married in 1872, Elise Charbonneau had a daughter and Alderic Payment three sons from their first marriages. By 1881, they had added four more sons and a daughter to their blended family of eleven — a baby boom that surely brought Elise’s schoolteacher skills into play. Photo: Library and Archives of Canada.

When they married in 1872, Elise Charbonneau had a daughter and Alderic Payment three sons from their first marriages.

By 1881, they had added four more sons and a daughter to their blended family of eleven — a baby boom that surely required the helping hands of the older children and likely also brought Elise’s schoolteacher skills into play.

Not only that, but the Payment family had relocated from the Island of Montréal to Notre Dame de Bonsecours in Ottawa (County) — located in the Outaouais region of Québec, north of the Ottawa River, about 70 miles west of their former home.

The 1881 Canadian census for Notre Dame de Bonsecours lists the Payment family with the surname variant Pément and provides a snapshot of their bustling household as excerpted in the table below.

1881 Canadian Census – Notre Dame de Bonsecours, Ottawa (County), Québec, Canada – Page 6, House 34, Family 37 – Source: Library and Archives of Canada

Person Name Sex Age  Occupation
6 Alderic Pément M 42  Cultivateur [Farmer/grower]
7 Elise Pément F 43
8 Louis Pément M 19  Menuisier [Carpenter/Joiner]
9 Joseph Pément M 17  Sous-Cultivateur [Sub-farmer/grower]
10 Alderic Pément M 16
11 Armand Pément M 8  In school
12 Emerie Pément M 5
13 Edouard Pément M 3
14 Ernest Pément M 10/12  Born in July
16 Eliza Bouchard F 22
17 O. Elmina Pément F 7

Such an interesting family — a blend of several families rolled into one. The oldest child is Elise’s daughter Eliza Bouchard, 22 — the only surviving child from her first marriage to the late Olivier Bouchard.

Teenagers Louis, 19, Joseph, 17, and Alderic, 16, are next in line — the three sons of Alderic Payment with his late first wife Marie Olympe Anger.

So daughter Elmina, 7, and sons Armand, 8, Emerie, 5, Eduoard, 3 and Ernest, 10 months would appear to be the children born to Elise (Charbonneau), 43, and Alderic Payment, 42, after their 1872 marriage.

Happier times for Elise Charbonneau

When I began writing about my great, great grandaunt Elise Charbonneau — younger sister of my great, great grandfather Laurent Charbonneau — I kept wondering how her life would turn out.

Losing three children and her first husband in the space of two years was a potentially overwhelming experience for a young woman not yet 30. How would she move on from such a devastating tragedy?

But Elise appears to have mustered an inner strength and looked to the future — becoming a primary school teacher and moving away from her family of origin with her daughter Eliza, then meeting and marrying Alderic Payment, a widower with three sons.

So here at last we find Elise (Charbonneau) Payment in 1881 experiencing happier times in the Quebec countryside on a family farm with a house full of children of all ages — almost is if she had created, with Alderic, her own personal classroom in which to impart the wisdom her life had taught her.

Truly a remarkable woman and one I am proud to have in my family tree!

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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Growing family trees one leaf at a time