Who Was Mitchell Spry?

On January 11, 1871 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Amelia Trotochaud, daughter of Pierre and Angeline Trotochaud of Benton County, was married to Mitchell Spry of Benton County by Father P.M. Stukenkemper. This according to official county records, which also indicated that Pierre and Angeline served as witnesses.  The History of Stearns County, Vol. I indicates that Fr. Stukenkemper was the priest who built the church of the Immaculate Conception in St. Cloud in 1868. That church stood near the location of the present Cathedral in St. Cloud.

So began the Spry family in Minnesota. Our family has long known that Mitchell Spry was born as Michel Surprenant in Canada, but changed his name when he came to the US. Other than this fact, our family knew very little about Mitchell. This has been my main motivation in researching our family history: where did the Sprys come from?

Fortunately, French Canadian genealogy is well documented through the records of Catholic parishes in Quebec, which go back to the 17th century.  The Surprenant name can be traced back to 1678, when Jacques Surprenant, who came to Canada as a French soldier, married Jeanne Denote, who came to Canada in 1665. Jeanne Denote was part of the filles du roi (Daughters of the King), young women, many orphaned, who were recruited and sponsored by King Louis XIV to help settle French Canada. The Surprenants settled in the Monteregie region of Quebec, located south of Montreal and north of Lake Champlain.

Michel Surprenant was born on December 9, 1840 to Joseph Surprenant and Marie Flavie Monet and baptized the same day at St-Edouard de Napierville church, a photo of which is shown here: http://www.leseglisesdemonquartier.com/1465.html. Michel was the fifth of seven surviving children of Joseph and Flavie. Joseph passed away in 1847.

The US Census of 1850 finds the widowed Flavie and her children living in Mooers, New York, which is located just south of the Canadian border. Julien, the oldest son, is listed as a sawyer, and was likely supporting the family. This area of New York state had historically been an area where Canadian refugees from the Revolutionary War were resettled.

The next record I could find for Mitchell (Michel) in the US Census was in 1870, in Benton County, Minnesota. I could find no other record for him in the US for the intervening 20 years, although I did find at least one other Michel Surprenant who was older. I was curious as to his whereabouts during these years and wondered whether he went back to Canada to avoid being drafted into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, I went through some information my mom had compiled about the Sprys and came across a letter from a man named Houde who claimed that Michel Surprenant had a son named Felix by a woman named Leocadie Brunelle. I checked Canadian genealogy records and came across the baptismal record for Felix, which was dated May 2, 1858. Michel and Leocadie were listed as his parents. He was baptized at a church called Ste.-Melanie d’Ailleboust in a village called Acton Vale located in the same region of Quebec where Michel Surprenant was born. Michel would have been 17 years old at the time and Leocadie age 30. Mr. Houde also has several other siblings to Felix listed in his family tree on ancestry.com.

A search of the 1861 Canadian census finds Michel Surprenant living in Acton Vale. Here he is listed in a household with the following:

Benonie Brunelle, farmer, age 61, male, married 1815

Marie D. Brunelle, age 56, female, married 1815

Benonie Brunelle, age 20, male, married 1860

Leocadie B. Surprenant, age 31, female

Felix Surprenant, age 2, male

Ser(aphine) F. Brunelle, age 19, female, married 1860

Flavie Surprenant, age 40, female

Delima Surprenant, age 1, female (deceased)

Francois Brunelle, age 27, male, married 1850.

Church records indicate that Benonie and Marie were Leocadie’s parents and the younger Benonie and Francois were her brothers. This would confirm Mr. Houde’s claim that Michel Surprenant had a family in Canada.

Interestingly, the census does not list Michel and Leocadie as married. Felix’s baptismal record also points to something unusual about this relationship. Most of the baptismal records, which typically were recorded in same format using the same terms for each, indicate the baby is the product of a “legitime mariage”. This means the church recognizes the parents’ marriage, most likely because they were married in the church.  In Felix’s case the record does not include the word “legitime”. This may mean Michel and Leocadie claimed to be married, but had no proof or were not married in the church.

Michel’s mother and sister were both named Flavie, but the age of the woman listed in the 1861 Canadian census does not match: Michel’s mother would have been 51 and his sister, 30. The woman is not listed as a widow. While the age of a person is often inaccurate in censuses, in this case the ages of the others listed all jibe with their baptismal records. Also, I’ve come across possible evidence that Michel’s mother remarried in New York around 1851. Is it possible this is a different Michel Surprenant, someone other than our ancestor? According to church records there was one other Michel Surprenant baptized at St-Edouard between 1830 and 1845, and two others baptized elsewhere in that time period.

But assuming this is our ancestor, what became of his family and why did he leave? I have been unable to find any trace of Leocadie in Canada beyond 1861. The Canadian census records for subsequent years show the Brunelle family but Leocadie is not listed among them. And what of the other children Mr. Houde claims she had by Michel? I can find no baptismal records for them. Mr. Houde has found a record of a “Mary Suppry” (Leocadie’s first name was Marie) widowed, living with her daughter Delia in Marathon, Wisconsin in the 1880 census. I believe Mr. Houde is assuming Delima listed in the 1861 Canadian census is Delia. But a close examination of the census record reveals that Delima died in 1860, which undermines Mr. Houde’s claim. On the other hand, the same 1880 US census record Mr. Houde found lists “Fill Suppry” also residing with Delia and her family. This could be Felix.

In the 1900 US census records, which find Felix and his family in Taylor County, Wisconsin, he uses the name Surprenant. In the 1905 state census and in all subsequent records, he went by Felix Surprise. The last record for him is the 1940 US census, which lists him as a boarder along with two of his sons in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Mr. Houde’s family tree indicates he died in 1945.

It seems unlikely that Felix Surprise and Mitchell Spry met or corresponded as adults. According the 1880 census record his mother claimed her husband was dead, so Felix would have had no reason to seek him out. Given that our family was not previously aware of Leocadie and Felix, it is unlikely that Mitchell Spry ever talked about them.

If Mitchell Spry had a family in Canada before coming to Minnesota, we may never know why he left them. Was he in some kind of trouble? Or did he just want out of the marriage (if there was a marriage)? Was changing his name part of getting a fresh start? How should we as his descendants feel about this?

Until now, the Sprys did not know the story of where we came from. As far as I know, we have no stories about great-great grandpa Mitchell. Come to think of it, our family is not good at sharing the stories of our lives. Maybe Mitchell wanted it that way.