Names lost in Vermont, Part 18: Valley and Soulia


OLD HABITS: SISTER Vallee and George Valley, 2002, on the 50th anniversary of her final profession as a nun.

Whether in spelling or speech, losing an accent often becomes part of assimilating to a new culture. In previous installments of “Lost Names,” we have seen that some French-Canadian immigrants may not have been aware of how written versions of their names were garbled or misspelled. In the case of Alfred Vallée/Valley (1882–1954), grandfather of George Valley of Pittsford, he deliberately chose an anglicized version of his surname to appear “less ethnic.”  Born in Dixville, Québec, about 20 miles north of Island Pond, Vermont, to impoverished migrant farm laborers, Alfred crossed the border at least half a dozen times with his parents before settling in Montréal for a job with the Canadian-Pacific Railway. He married at the age of 21 to Catherine Blais and likely would have stayed in Canada until bootlegging caught up with him and cost a job. On May 15, 1913, Alfred Vallée, wife Catherine, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and their five children immigrated to Newport, Vermont. (Two of their children died in infancy.)

SISTER VALLEE IN her habit, 1959. Photos provided by the author

After a dismal failure eking out a living as a farmer in Jay, Vermont, Alfred moved to South Burlington, where he began working for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.  When he made his primary declaration for U.S. citizenship in 1925, he signed his named as Alfred Vallée, but in his naturalization oath, several years later, he wrote his name as Alfred Valley. That is by no means the end of this family’s story shedding accent marks. Alfred and Catherine’s thirteenth child, Rita, born in 1927, chose to become a nun at the Fanny Allen Hospital in Colchester. The hospital had been founded in 1894 by a religious order from Montréal, the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, better known as the Sisters of Fanny Allen, after Ethan Allen’s daughter, Frances Allen (1784–1819) who converted to Catholicism and joined their convent. Before the Catholic Church made sweeping changes as part of Vatican II, the sisters were semi-cloistered, hardly ever leaving the hospital and convent grounds, and as a sign of their worldly renunciation, their wimples extended to the top of their eyes. Unlike many other orders of nuns who chose new names in religious life, these Sisters did not change their family names. 

When Rita Valley applied for admission, Mother Superior Albina Roy said in French, “That is no way to spell your name.” Back came the -eé surname ending instead of -ey! Consequently, Sister Vallée, who eventually became the administrator of the hospital, alone of her Vermont siblings, reverted to the French spelling of her name. 

SOULIE’RE GRAVE. THE carver used an apostrophe instead of an “accent grave” in the French name.

Thirty years ago, as part of my wider search to document George’s family, I consulted the vital record card files then housed in Montpelier. Combing through the alphabetized records, first with the Vallée spelling and then Valley, I was vexed by not being able to find the marriage of George’s parents, George Valley and Germaine Lavallée, married in Winooski, on 10 October 1938. Did the priest not send his local marriage certificate to the state? Not until after the death of George’s mother in 2001 did this mystery reach a solution. We found a small Metropolitan Life Insurance burial policy for under the name of Germaine Vallie! Since American typewriters did not possess the key for an “accent aigu” [é], it was transcribed as the letter i—enough to thwart my alphabetical search. Thus, the Vermont state copy for the record for marriage of George’s parents recorded the name Vallie. 

Another example of an accent-mark problem surfaced with the gravestone in Pittsford’s St. Alphonsus Cemetery of “Francis Soulie’re.” A second-generation American, Francis and his family went most of the time by the name Soulia, a phonetic version of their French name Soulière/Sullière, with an “accent grave” [è] over the first e. Born in Pittsford but baptized at “the French Church in Rutland” [Immaculate Heart of Mary], Frank “Pete” Soulia had to use the church record as documentation of his birth in the absence of a town certificate. Upon his death, the gravestone carver did not know what to do with the accent grave [è], so he rendered it as an apostrophe! His descendants today in greater Pittsford include Soulias and two branches of the Eugair family.

JOSEPH SOULIA’S STONE in Pittsford’s Evergreen cemetery.

Not far from the “Souli’ere” stone is the obelisk to Francis’s father, Joseph Soulia, born in Peru, New York. His obituary in The Rutland Herald cites his distinction as Pittsford’s last surviving soldier of the “War of Rebellion.” He served and reenlisted in Company B, 7th Vermont Infantry for a term of four years, one month, and 25 days. Joseph died in Burlington, on 11 June 1926, at the DeGoesbriand Hospital, run by the Sisters of Fanny Allen. The informant on his death certificate did not know the name of Joseph’s parents—a knowledge gap now rectified.

Joseph’s parents, André Sullière (1802–1884) and Julie Brousseau (1808–1889), married at St. Hyacinthe, Québec, on 26 September 1826. They had six children born in Canada and five more born in Clinton County, New York after 1838, making “Andrew Soulia,” paterfamilias of the many Soulia families on both sides of Lake Champlain. Their second son, Christopher Soulia (1828–1917) also served in the Civil War. Christopher’s son Abram Soulia (1854–1929) moved to Rutland. Among his many living descendants whom I know: Harley A. Soulia of North Chittenden and Helen (Soulia) McKinlay, Pittsford’s Town Clerk.

How often I have heard the question, “Does spelling count?” The Valley or Soulia Americanized names would not take us directly to their 17th century Québec ancestors from France, Jean Vallée dit Lavallée, and Nicolas Sullière dit Tranchemontagne.   

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