Names Lost in Vermont, Part 19: Wisell and Welcome


Five Wisell brothers all bore decidedly Yankee names: Clayton (1879–1964), Otis (1882–1949), Thaddeus (1888–1967), Fordyce (1889–1975), and Noble (1895–1969). Neither their first nor last names give a clue as to their heritage. Second generation Vermonters, they were the sons of Charles Wisell (1851–1921) and Lucy Welcome (1854–1933). Fordyce and Thaddeus worked for a time at the Brandon Training School. A small stone at the northern edge of St. Mary’s Cemetery marks the final resting place of Fordyce and his wife Nellie. Raised Protestant like his brothers, Fordyce chose to be baptized as a Catholic when he was 23 and later married Nellie Walsh at St. John’s Church in Castleton.

CLAYTON, NOBLE, AND Thaddeus Wisell, 1957. Family photos provided courtesy of Dottie (Wisell) Wheeler, former Assistant Town Clerk of Pittsford and granddaughter of Noble Wisell.

In the days when an Orwell correspondent sent news of social visits and parties to The Rutland Herald, the column occasionally featured snippets when the Wisell brothers, their wives, and children visited the farm where their parents, Charles and Lucy, had moved in 1882 from Shoreham. Charles Wisell was the third child of Québec-born Joseph Wisell and his wife Mary Sears. They were married in the Shoreham Congregational Church on December 15, 1846. A Protestant marriage, of course, would have resulted in de facto ex-communication from the Catholic Church. One page from Shoreham’s 1850 census reveals that two of Joseph’s brothers, Peter and Oliver Wisell, had also made their homes there. 

WISELL IN 1850 census, Shoreham.

Joseph, Pierre, and Olivier, three of the fourteen children of Pierre Loisel and Marie Josephte Demers, were baptized in Marieville, Québec, on the east side of the Richelieu River. In making the trek of about 100 miles to Shoreham, they left their original name behind them. Many Wisell families today live throughout New England, the spelling and pronunciation coming from hearing the French as Lwa-zell. 

When Charles Wisell died on November 21, 1921, his funeral service was held from his home, with a Masonic burial service from the Mount Independence Lodge, of which he was a member. His fraternal affiliations represent yet another step in forging a new American identity, and that ethos is undoubtedly reflected in the unusual names Charles and Lucy chose for their sons. 

CHARLES WISELL AT farm, holding grandsons.

Now, let us turn our attention to Charles’s wife, Lucy Welcome. She was born in Hinesburg in 1854 to French-Canadian immigrant Levi Welcome, who certainly was not born Welcome.  Rev. Israel Keach, a Baptist minister, married her parents, Levi Welcome and Minerva Sears, in Addison, on February 26, 1843. They had three daughters born before the 1850 census: Julia, Mary, and Amelia, their only children to be baptized as Catholics. Julia and Mary were baptized in Williston on the same day in 1847, with their father identified as Levi Welcome. Four years later, Amelia was baptized by a French priest at St. Joseph’s in Burlington, her name recorded as Appoline Bienvenue, daughter of Olivier Bienvenue! Once again, a French Catholic record disclosed the true name.  Think of those highway signs: bienvenue in French means “welcome.” That explains the last name, but how did we get Levi? From the French pronunciation of Olivier: “Oh-leev-vee-ay.” No doubt Olivier Bienvenue wanted to become naturalized American citizen Levi Welcome.  Not finding Olivier Bienvenue in Québec took me on one more serpentine turn—Bienvenue was a dit name with Fontaine. Accordingly, I found the baptism of Olivier Fontaine dit Bienvenue, son of Louis Fontaine dit Bienvenue and Magdeleine Dancereau, on February 25, 1816, at Varennes, on the south shore of Montréal to Dancereau. Indeed, among Olivier/Levi’s brothers who stayed in Canada, one went by Fontaine the other by Bienvenue. Levi had no siblings who moved to Vermont. A few other Welcome families in Vermont were not closely related.

NELLIE (WALSH) WISELL, son Charles; Edith (Newton) Wisell, son Bobbie. At the Wisell farm in Orwell, ca. 1921.

Tragedy marked Levi’s last two years:  He gave testimony in Chittenden County Court, quoted in The Burlington Free Press on April 22, 1869,  in the arraignment of his son Henry Welcome, age 17, accused of the brutal murder of a seventy-four-year old neighbor, Perry Russell, in October 1868: “I reside in Hinesburgh; Henry Welcome is my son; he was 17 last September; Henry was born in Monkton; I have 10 other children, four of whom are older than he; my son Philip is on the ocean, and was last October. I have a daughter living with Lyman Partch in Hinesburgh and another with Wm. Partch when the murder was committed. Henry was at my house Thursday afternoon before the murder.”

CLIPPING FROM FRONT page of Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, 21 Jan. 1871.

Following Henry’s conviction, newspapers moralized on the notoriety of a teenage murderer: “But that a lad of that age, of honest and humble parentage, not reared in the slums of a great city, no graduate of the Five Points,s but born and brought up in as orderly, quiet and moral village as there is in New England or in the world should be the perpetrator of one of the most atrocious and brutal murders  known in this state, committed solely for plunder, is strange indeed.”

Levi sat through his son’s sentencing to death by hanging. As Vermont only had nine executions to that time, some debate ensued about the appropriateness of the death sentence for a teen. Nonetheless, Henry was hanged at Windsor Prison on January 20, 1871—reports of final moments and address to the crowd made headlines across the country.  Henry’s family declined to accept the body, and he is buried in the prison cemetery. Levi followed son Henry in death later that year—I think he died of a broken heart.

*Five Points was a notoriously dangerous neighborhood in New York City at the time, so named for the intersection of five streets in lower Manhattan.  The neighborhood was the setting of the 2002 film Gangs of New York by Martin Scorsese.

FORDYCE WISELL GRAVESTONE, St. Mary’s Cemetery, Brandon.
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