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The LATOURELLES and the LEGEND

My grandfather William seldom wore anything other than his work-day overalls. But he was the greatest gentleman that I have ever known. His mother called him her “Sweet William,” and he was a truly beautiful man, inside and out. Whatever the circumstance, he treated everyone, young or old, of any origin or race, with the deepest courtesy and respect.

The last name of my adored grandfather was Latterell. His father’s father had been born in Quebec, moved from Canada to the United States, and changed their Latourelle surname to Latterell. William’s parents were Nelson and Marceline, and they were born in Minnesota. When their family was mostly grown, they moved to Washington State.

In a time when a good share of the young died of accident or disease, Nelson and Marceline Latterell raised thirteen children, plus a goodly number of their grandchildren, to a healthy adulthood. This was before the hygienic effects of handwashing were understood, and before penicillin. I remember that my grandfather claimed to know about the medicinal benefits of plants; he never went to a doctor. Perhaps his parents were the same. I would like to have known my great grandparents, but they were gone by the time I was born.

William’s generation was the first, after nearly a dozen, to marry and live outside a French-speaking community. In America, they married a variety of spouses, none of whom was French. William married Emma, who was of English and Scotch/Irish background. A rather fragile woman, she was the eldest of her siblings and was overworked after her mother died in childbirth. Emma and William had been married for several years when a concerned doctor suggested the couple move out west, where the air was presumed to be cleaner and healthier for Emma’s lungs.

My mother Myrtle was Willliam and Emma’s third child. Before Will learned a trade (his friends and relatives taught him) and managed to earn some money, my mother was perpetually hungry. During a good share of her childhood, she survived on potatoes, bread, and, whenever they were lucky enough to have a cow, butter. Dessert was often potatoes fried on the top of the iron stove. I remember that when my adored mother was in her nineties and near the end of her life, she still fancied and relished potatoes.

Meals at her grandparents’ house seemed, by comparison, formal and opulent. Lunch and dinner were served on the enormous dining table that had come by train from Minnesota with the Latterell family, a table large enough to accommodate all of Nelson and Marceline’s children, their grandchildren, and any visitors. My mother said her elegant grandmother Marceline always wore a frilly white apron and a matching bandeau hat. The tablecloth and napkins were white, the napkin holders were silver, and Marceline’s meals were invariably delicious. Sometimes they were accompanied by the cherry wine that she made from her fruit trees. After the meal, the dishes were washed and the door to the dining room was locked. This elaborate eating ritual impressed my mother. She also told me about a tasty pot of soup composed from leftovers that was always available on the back of Marceline’s stove. Even when it wasn’t mealtime, Marceline would sometimes give my hungry mother a sample.

Mother never thought of her childhood circumstances as impoverished, however. To her, it was just the way things were. Indeed, she cherished them and liked to remember being held on her father’s lap while he told stories, wonderful stories. Before he began to work for money, Will had the leisure to make up stories. My mother felt sorry that her younger siblings had missed this priceless time with their father.

By the time the next four children arrived (a pair of twins died), my grandfather had become known for the high quality of his work and the family didn’t want for money. He always said he built houses that would last forever. I suspect he couldn’t imagine working any other way.

My mother assured me that it was great fun to grow up among so many cousins. A very physical child, she loved to run and spent most of her days running and climbing trees with her boy cousins. Whenever she visited her French-speaking grandparents, however, she seldom understood what they were saying. Despite this difficulty, her Latterell relatives always struck her as extraordinary.

And perhaps she was right.

My mother always wanted to be like her father’s amazing sisters; they could do anything, she said: roof, build, or repair a house; sew anything—they sewed Will’s wife’s wedding dress in a day; start a successful business. In the early twentieth century, women’s elaborate hats were considered high fashion. Two of Will’s do-anything sisters visited the city long enough to check out a few hat examples, buy some material, and returned to town to open a store.

My mother loved to talk about her father. Once, she said, he went to work in the Spokane Indian area and vanished for several months. His wife Emma ran out of money and had to ask for credit at the nearby grocery. Emma was a proud woman and this humiliation was something she never forgot, particularly as, when Will returned, he said that no one of his family should ever suppose they were better than an Indian.

My mother was named Myrtle Neoma Latterell by her father. “Myrtle” was likely chosen in gratitude for little Myrtle, the daughter of the cousin who taught Will how to lay bricks. William’s first two children were blonde; Mother had dark hair and dark eyes. She suspected that her name Neoma was inspired by one of the Spokane Indian women her father had known and liked.

When I was a child of seven or so, my grandfather seemed to consider me a valid person; he pleased me so by talking to me like I was a grownup. He explained that, like his father before him, he was a hunter, a fiddler, and a storyteller, pursuits that I later came to understand were of significant value during the frontier life. By the time I was in my teens, he had quit hunting and begun to work as a mason and a carpenter. With his earnings he bought three acres in the Spokane Valley, intending to farm. During the Great Depression, farms were one way to be assured of something to eat. There he built a charming two-story house of the round river stone that was readily available.

I visited him many years later, when he was dying and flat on his back. Still pleasantly sociable and witty, he had a series of amusing stories about the robin family outside his window.

My sisters and I grew up hearing innumerable stories about our beloved mother’s childhood. We adored our grandfather, we were proud of being late Latourelles, and we became lifetime Francophiles. Mother gave all her female children one French name; my middle name is Jacqueline. I did the same; my daughter Leslie’s middle name is Suzanne. In her twenties, my little sister Marceline lived in Paris for five years and left only when she couldn’t find lasting paid employment. In our sixties, all four of us—Marceline, Carol, Joan Yvonne, and Nancy—spent an August in Paris and stayed in a Marais flat. We would have done it again if Joan, our financial benefactor, had lived a bit longer. I made another trip to France to spend time with my totally funny and very dear friend Michele, a well-known photographer who had spent her younger years as a Paris music-hall musician/comedienne.

Our family was delighted when, after her second divorce, my sister Nancy changed her last name to Latourelle. Not Latterell but the more authentically French Latourelle; her surname was Latourelle for decades. We both loved horses and, in our sixties, we went twice to see Caballia, a wonderful circus with dozens of beautiful trick horses. The second time we went, we asked to see the manager, Normand Latourelle—all Latourelles and LaTourelle derivatives, such as Latterell, Latour, etc., are somehow related. The encounter was no disappointment. He was a gracious and gentle man, rather like my grandfather, and also a notable showman. I have read that he was one of the early founders of the exceptional Cirque de Soleil, which is based in Montreal, Quebec.

One of the charms of our French connection is our presumed tie to Madame Dubarry. We grew up believing we were related to the beautiful courtesan. Her son was said to have escaped to Canada after his mother was beheaded (in 1793) and to have joined the family DuBord. Thereafter, our lineage was known as the Dubord dit LaTourelles. According to my sources, the name LaTourelle comes from a diminutive of the Old French word for “watchtower,” which suggests royalty. At least, that is the gist of the story.

When my sisters and I were children, there was a cosmetic line called Dubarry. It was founded in 1903 and was the first skincare brand in the United States. The advertisements featured the beautiful Madame Dubarry on the products. My sisters and I were proud to be related to such an icon.

In her sixties, my mother found her passion. She spent her days, and many of her nights, ferreting out Latourelle births and deaths and recording our family genealogy. She has challenged the story of our Dubarry-Latourelle heritage. To my surprise, I found her name, Myrtle Latterell Davis, online (on Bing—and how I wish she were still alive to see it). She and Dr. Joseph J. Latterell in Minnesota could find no evidence of Madame DuBarry’s son when researching Canadian records. My mother thought that the idea of a royal heritage likely came from “les filles du roi,” the girls who came to Canada in the 1600s to marry the many French soldiers who had been sent to protect the controversial territory claimed by France. Called “daughters of the king,” their dowries were paid out of the royal exchequer. This, however, was part of an earlier period of history (1663-1675) and nearly a century before Madame DuBarry was born (1743).

My mother eventually published a genealogy of her paternal grandparents, whose full names were Isaiah Nelson Latterell and Marceline Raymond Latterell, that itemizes their descendants and lineage. As a child, she hadn’t finished grade school because she had to work; as an adult, she was so happy writing letters, looking things up, copying, typing, and carrying a briefcase like her college-educated daughters. We would drive her to the post office and to the many places where genealogical records are stored, drop her off, and pick her up later. She would be so excited and so full of information about people we didn’t know.

This all began when my father had a stroke. (He recovered.) She said she would now need something to fill her days. She and my father—he was always ready to travel—took a train to eastern Canada and to Minnesota, where she finally met many of the people with whom she had been corresponding. On her return, she assured me that they were all, every one of the Latterells, a delight.

She also went by herself to Latourell Falls, which is on the Columbia River and adjoining the ghost town of Latourell. Both were named for Joseph “Frenchy” Latourell, who had immigrated to Oregon in the 1850s and who, according to family gossip, married a Native American woman. He became the postmaster. The town, the Falls, the railroad station, and the local prairie were all named Latourell. He had eight children. People came from Portland by steamboat and the family entertained them with songs, dancing, musical instruments, and food. But that had been some time ago. When my mother paid their descendants a visit in the late 1980s, the Oregon Latourells, she admitted, weren’t very welcoming.

Some Latterells continue to believe that Alexis Dubord dit Latourelle was Madame Dubarry’s son with King Louis XV of France. In this story, and despite the Montreal birth record which has Alexis born in Montreal in 1786, he was born in France in 1771 and fled to Canada. According to historical evidence, Alexis’s first son, Cozack Latterell (1803-1855) immigrated to the United States. Cozack died young, at age 46, and his wife Maria-Sophia moved to Minnesota. Cozack and Maria-Sophia were my mother’s great grandparents.

So what can be the truth of this story? Could Madame DuBarry have had a son with Louis XV? Was that why she moved to England? She could also have had a child, of course, with others, a lover or her husband. She was not of royal blood. She was a commoner named Marie Jeanne Becu and was exquisitely lovely, reputedly sweet-natured, but apparently not too smart or she wouldn’t have returned to Paris when she did.

Could one of the DuBord families have adopted DuBarry’s son? Is that the reason for LaTourelle in the family name? (At that time, last names usually referred to professions or locations.) Is there some measure of truth to this ancient story? I don’t know! The evidence of DNA might help.





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