Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Elodie's Gift: A Family Photographic Mystery

This article is a draft at present:

Here is a photo that my great aunt, the late Elodie Bernard (married name Fontenot), gave me when I visited her around 1980.

The mystery photo.
(Author's collection)

I remember Aunt Elodie as an elderly, white-haired woman, thin and gaunt.  She seemed a stranger to me because, for whatever reason, Elodie never came to family get-togethers, whether for Christmas or Easter or what have you.  Only rarely had I heard her name mentioned, and while I have no reason to believe there was any schism that kept her apart from us, it seemed odd to me that the extended family on my father's Cajun side of my family was hardly as close as the extended family on my mother's Anglo-Saxon side of the family.  I am by no means making a sweeping implication about Cajuns: on the contrary, Cajuns, if anything, are known for the closeness of their extended families.  It just seemed odd that Elodie never showed up at our family gatherings and that I really knew nothing about her, so much so that as a child I barely knew her name, much less what she looked like.

When Aunt Elodie gave me this photo, she explained that it depicted some of our ancestors.  She explained to me that it showed my paternal great-great grandparents.  It certainly did not show my paternal great-grandparents, for my grandfather's father was the splitting image of his son and I would have recognized him instantly.  I recognized no one, however, in this image.

I remain uncertain who is shown in the image and if they are even really my relatives.  So I thought I might analyze the photograph and try to determine who these people are.

Often mistakenly called a daguerreotype (including by me), the image is actually a tintype, which the Library of Congress describes as a "Direct-image photograph . . . in which the collodion [a viscous or syrupy solution] negative supported by a dark-lacquered thin iron sheet appears as a positive image."  This process, notes the Library, was "Popular [from the] mid-1850s through 1860s" but still "in use through 1930s." (Source: Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials,, accessed 18 April 2012)

The tintype overall is in fair condition, with some chipping of the layer of collodion around the edges and some scratching and aging apparent on the image itself.  The section of the image showing the subjects, however, is in fair to good condition, with none of their faces obscured or badly damaged, though some bear scratches.

The image shows two men and two women, dressed formally, and their physical pose, with one of the women touching both men, suggests a comfortable familiarity.

The writing in ink in upper left corner of the image, which presumably identifies the subjects, has faded, but by "tweaking" it in PhotoShop I've been able (tentatively) to discern these words:

Aunt Marie
Uncle Richard
Uncle Homer

Bringing out the faded words using PhotoShop. (Click to enlarge)

Of these words, only "Uncle Homer" rings a bell with me, since my great-great grandfather was named Homer Bernard — Homer being pronounced "O-MARE" in the Cajun French manner.  I know nothing about him offhand, except that his father, Joseph Desparet Bernard, fought as a Confederate in the Civil War.  I have Homer's vital statistics somewhere in my files, however, in genealogical material I collected in high school (an interest that played a major role in directing me toward a career as a historian). I believe Homer would have been from St. Landry Parish, possibly from the town of Opelousas itself, because that is where my Bernard family has lived for many generations.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that all the common nouns written on the photo ("Aunt," "Uncle," "Grandma") are English words, not French.  Because my family spoke French as its primary if not only language in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the words must have been added later, after my family adopted English as its primary language — perhaps in the 1920s or '30s.  (My grandfather, L. V. Bernard of Opelousas, told me that he did not really learn French until he married my grandmother, Irene Bordelon of Port Barre — indicating that despite his small-town Cajun heritage he was raised speaking English, not French.  L.V. would be the grandson of the persons in the photo, if they are in fact Bernard ancestors as Elodie stated.)

I will check if Homer Bernard had a brother named Richard or a sister named Marie, or in-laws with these names.  Or could "Aunt Marie" be the wife of "Uncle Homer," and not the wife of "Uncle Richard"?  I will report back with my findings.

In the meantime, if anyone knows who these people are (all Cajuns pretty much being related to each other one way or another), please let me know. . . .

Addendum of 18 April 2012

According to my genealogical research — which, admittedly, I am unsure I entirely trust, since I conducted it as a teenager in the 1980s — my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Homer Bernard, was born 6 March 1864 in Opelousas.  He had two sisters named Marie — Marie Lelia, born 20 July 1861, and Marie Lydia, born 25 October 1868 — either one of whom could be the "Aunt Marie" in the photograph.  Homer did not have a brother named Richard, so perhaps the "Uncle Richard" in the photograph was the husband of one of these two Maries.

Homer himself was married to Louise Alma La Morandiere, who cannot be the other woman in the photo, else the person who wrote on the image would have identified her as "Aunt" (to his "Uncle") and not "Grandma."  This other woman in the photo is possibly another of Homer's sisters, either the second Marie or his sister Josephine, born 2 March 1866.

But now I am speculating too much.

Still, if I can prove that one of Homer's three sisters had a husband named Richard, it would go far toward suggesting that the persons in the tintype might indeed be my ancestors.

(My source for this genealogical data is Reverend Donald J. Hebert, Southwest Louisiana Records [Eunice, La.: Hebert Publications, 1978], multiple volumes.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Nike-Cajun Rocket: How It Got Its Name

I promised some time ago that I would discuss the origin of the Nike-Cajun rocket, used as a sounding rocket by the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and other organizations during the Cold War.

A Nike-Cajun rocket.
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration.)

As I write in my book, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People:
Cajuns have further demonstrated their ability to adapt to the modern world by pursuing high-tech careers.  A few Cajuns, for example, became veritable rocket scientists, among them J. G. Thibodaux [sic].  
Born  in a lumber camp in the Atchafalaya swamp, he helped to develop the Nike-Cajun rocket in the 1950s, whose second stage, a sounding missile used for testing the upper atmosphere, was named in honor of his ancestry.  He went on to serve as chief of the Propulsion and Power Division at Johnson Space Center, assisting NASA with the Apollo moon missions and later with the space shuttle (p. 147).
Interviewed in 1999 for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Thibodaux (full name Joseph Guy Thibodaux, Jr.) described his own origins as follows:
I was born in the Louisiana swamps. . . . I was born at the F.B. Williams Lumber Camp in the Atchafalaya swamp on the west side of Lake Verret.  It is certainly a swamp. It was a big cypress logging organization. My father worked there. 
My birthplace was registered as Napoleonville, Louisiana[,] which is twelve miles north of Thibodaux, Louisiana[,] on Louisiana Highway 1 which parallels Bayou Lafourche. . . . [W]e left there and moved to New Orleans when I was about five and I went to high school in New Orleans and later on I went to Louisiana State University.(1)
Elsewhere, Thibodaux noted, “I consider myself a Cajun[,] both on my mother’s and father’s side.”  He added, “My grandmother was an Hebert.”(2)

Logo of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics,
forerunner of NASA.

Thibodaux graduated from LSU in Chemical Engineering in 1942 and served as a U.S. Army officer from 1943 to 1946, including wartime service in Burma.  On separation from the military he went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for whom he ultimately worked.  Stationed at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory/Langley Research Center at Langley Field, Virginia, Thibodaux aided NACA first as a propulsion engineer in its Pilotless Aircraft Research Division before moving on to a number of other posts under both NACA and, beginning in 1958, newly created NASA.(3)

Logo of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It was while working for NACA that Thibodaux helped to create the Cajun rocket.  Mated to a Nike first-stage rocket, the resulting two-stage rocket was known as the "Nike-Cajun" rocket.  As I have observed elsewhere in this blog, "The name evoked a strange combination of ancient Greek mythology and rural south Louisiana folklife."(3)

According to a NASA report, Origins of NASA Names, the Nike was "a solid-propellant first stage . . . an adaptation of the Nike antiaircraft missile. . . . The name ‘Nike’ was taken from ancient Greek mythology: Nike was the winged goddess of victory. In NASA's sounding rocket program, Nike was used with Apache, Cajun, Tomahawk, Hawk, or Malemute upper stages. . . ."

A Nike-Cajun rocket preparing for liftoff, ca. 1960;
the man in the truck bed is handling the Cajun stage.
Note the NACA symbol at upper left.  (Click to enlarge)
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

As for the Cajun rocket itself, Origins of NASA Names notes:
The Cajun solid-propellant rocket stage was designed and developed under the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' Langley Laboratory (later NASA's Langley Research Center). The project's manager, Joseph G. Thibodaux, Jr., formerly of Louisiana, suggested the new motor be named "Cajun" because of the term's Louisiana associations.
The report continues, "Allen E. Williams, Director of Engineering in Thiokol Chemical Corporation's Elkton (Md.) Division, agreed to the name, and later the Elkton Division decided to continue giving its rocket motors Indian-related names."(4)

Liftoff of a Nike-Cajun rocket,
1957 (bottom) & 1958 (top).  (Click to enlarge)
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration.)

In a 1969 letter to noted science writer William R. Corliss, NASA’s Assistant Director for Flight Projects Eugene C. Draley likewise observed:
With regard to the naming of the Nike-Cajun rocket, the story [I will relate] involves [the naming of] the Cajun only.  Mr. J. G. Thibodaux, for many years Head of the Rocket Group at Langley and now Chief of the Propulsion Division at Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, was responsible for the name Cajun. 
When Langley contracted with the Thiokol Chemical Corporation in 1955 for a higher performance version of the Deacon rocket, Mr. Thibodaux, a native of the Cajun country near New Orleans, suggested the name Cajun for the new motor and Thiokol so named it.(5)
Thibodaux himself, however, remembered a slightly different version of events, "[Thiokol’s] Chief Engineer was Bryce Wilhite, also from Louisiana.  He was familiar with my Cajun background and it was his original suggestion that we name the rocket ‘Cajun.’  I agreed."(2)

Yet in a 1996 interview, however, Thibodaux gave himself partial credit for naming the rocket, observing, "We use[d] to name all the rockets that I had developed, give them a special name. One of them I named after my Cajun heritage—we—Bryce Wilhite, Thiokol’s Chief Engineer at Elkton [Maryland], also from Louisiana, and I—called it Cajun."(6)

In any event, the rocket was named for Thibodaux’s ancestry.

Envelope cover commemorating a Nike-Cajun launch, 1963.
(Author's collection)

Thibodaux was not the only Cajun to work for NASA, either directly or, through a subcontractor, indirectly.  For example, Doug Ardoin of Eunice, Louisiana, graduated in physics from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and went to work for NASA in summer 1967 on the Apollo moon missions.  Later he worked on the space shuttle program.

And my own uncle, Oscar Bernard of Opelousas, Louisiana, also graduated from USL in physics and went to work for NASA through its Boeing subcontractor.  Like Ardoin, Bernard worked on the Apollo moon missions, assisting with (among other things) the design and construction of the first stage of the mammoth Saturn V rocket.  (Interestingly, Ardoin and Bernard both performed in the 1950s as swamp pop musicians — Ardoin as lead singer and guitarist of the original Boogie Kings band and Bernard as guitarist for The Twisters, backing group for his brother, singer Rod Bernard.)

At least one other Cajun (I’m sure there must be more) worked on the U.S. space program, namely, Chief Master Sergeant Patty Dupuis of Cecilia, Louisiana, who, according to a May 2000 news report, “played a major role in the development of . . . [a defense satellite perched atop a Titan IV] rocket, which has been dubbed the Rajin’ Cajun [sic], in honor of Dupuis.”(7)  As an article by's Jim Banke noted at the time:
"The Ragin' Cajun roared off the pad, marking the return of Titan operations here," Air Force Titan launch director Lt. Col. Tony Goins said Monday, making reference to the booster's nickname. "It's a great boost for us here at the Cape to successfully place an operational satellite on orbit to support the warfighter." 
Goins and his colleagues named this Titan 4 the "Ragin' Cajun" in honor of Chief Master Sergeant Patty Dupuis, a Titan manager from Louisiana who supervised maintenance work at Launch Complex 40 and is moving on to a new assignment.(8)

1. J. G. Thibodaux, interview by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Kenneth J. Cox, 9 September 1996, Clear Lake, Texas, Space Stories: Oral Histories from the Pioneers of America's Space Program,, accessed 6 April 2012.

2. J. G. Thibodaux, [Clear Lake, Texas?], to Shane K. Bernard, [New Iberia, La.], 6 May 2000, e-mail correspondence, computer printout in the possession of the author.

3. J. G. Thibodaux biographical data sheet, NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, 7 April 1999,, accessed 6 April 2012.

4. Helen T. Wells, Susan H. Whiteley, and Carrie E. Karegeannes, Origins of NASA Names, The NASA History Series, Scientific and Technical Information Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C., 1976,, see Section V: Sounding Rockets,, accessed 6 April 2012.

5. Eugene C. Draley, [Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.?], to William R. Corliss, Glenarm, Md., 14 February 1969, TLS [copy], Records of NASA Langley Research Center, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

6. J. G. Thibodaux, interview by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Kenneth J. Cox, 10 September 1996, Clear Lake, Texas,, accessed 6 April 2012.

7. “Cajun Rocket Liftoff,” news program teletype script, 8 May 2000, photocopy in the possession of the author.

8. Jim Banke, "2000 Ragin' Cajun (Titan 4) Delivers Its Payload,", 8 May 2000, reprinted on, accessed 7 April 2012.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Middle Name or Clerical Error?: Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil and "Gaurhept"

I've noticed that many Acadian- and Cajun-related websites refer to Acadian frontiersman, guerrilla leader, and exile Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil as bearing the middle name "Gaurhept."  Even the self-policing online reference refers to Broussard as "Joseph Gaurhept Broussard" [accessed 3 April 2012].

No one knows what Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil looked like,
but I often imagine him looking somewhat like militant
abolitionist John Brown in this famous painting.

In my opinion, however, it's doubtful that Broussard actually used this name; in fact, as far as I know the name was used only once in reference to him and apparently in error.

The sole contemporary historical manuscript that refers to Broussard as "Gaurhept" is an official Louisiana colonial document dated April 8, 1765. In that document, acting provincial commandant Charles Philippe Aubry appointed Broussard "Capitaine de Milice et Commandant des Acadiens." (That is, captain of the militia and commandant of the some two-hundred Acadian exiles who settled with Broussard along the Teche.)

It is in this document that Broussard is referred to (and more than once) as "Gaurhept Broussard dit Beau Soleil."

Or maybe he looked like this?
(Source: Frederic Remington, 1880 [public domain])

But, rather than "Gaurhept" being an alternate or middle name for Joseph, the word appears to be a clerical error — a common enough occurrence in historical documents.

Evidence for this assertion is the absence of any other contemporary historical documents referring to Broussard as "Gaurhept."

Furthermore, the document in question does not even refer to Broussard as "Joseph." It calls him only "Gaurhept." The omission of Broussard's actual first name in itself suggests an error, and it is only through historical context that we know the document concerns Joseph at all and not, say, his brother Alexandre or some other, previously unknown Broussard.

I am not the only historian who regards "Gaurhept" as a mistake.

In his book Acadian Redemption: From Beausoleil Broussard to the Queen's Royal Proclamation (2004), Warren A. Perrin observes that "Beausoleil's first name was incorrectly listed [in the document] as 'Gaurhept.'" Elsewhere in the same book Perrin repeats, "In this document, Beausoleil's first name, Joseph, was improperly listed as 'Gaurhept'" (pp. 41, 147 n. 58).

Cover of Warren A. Perrin's Acadian Redemption,
showing Cajun artist Lucius Fontenot's
depiction of Broussard.

Likewise, historian Carl A. Brasseaux, author of The Founding of New Acadia, Acadian to Cajun, and "Scattered to the Wind" (among many other books), has referred to "Gaurhept" as "A clerical error — evidently an error in transcription." [Source: Carl A. Brasseaux, e-mail to the author, 2 April 2012.]

Pending any contemporary primary-source discoveries to the contrary, genealogists and others might do well to disassociate "Gaurhept" from the memory of Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil.

Addendum of 4 April 2012

Carl A. Brasseaux and genealogist Winston De Ville have both recently suggested to me that perhaps an error in transcription did not occur in 1765 (when Aubry appointed Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil a captain and commandant), but more recently.

This now seems a more likely explanation.

The original 1765 document is missing, so the next earliest known reference we have to this document is in the 1891 book Southwest Louisiana Biographical and Historical by historian William Henry Perrin (no relation to present-day historian Warren A. Perrin). In that book Perrin states that "The Broussard family traces its origin to Gaurhept Broussard dit Beausoleil." He explains the origin of the Broussard nickname "Beausoleil" ("This name was given [to] him . . . because of [his] cheerfulness. . . ."), but he does not discuss "Gaurhept" (despite the fact that it is an unusual name for an Acadian, or anyone else for that matter). Nor does Perrin associate the name "Joseph" with this "Gaurhept Broussard dit Beausoleil."

An excerpt from William Henry Perrin's
Southwest Louisiana Biographical and Historical,
with highlighted references to Gaurhept Broussard dit Beausoleil.
(Click to enlarge)

Nevertheless, Gaurhept Broussard dit Beausoleil clearly is Joseph dit Broussard dit Beausoleil, given Perrin's description of the former as a military officer, commandant, landowner, livestock breeder, and "the great ancestor from whom the whole Broussard family in Louisiana is descended."

Perrin himself, however, did not personally transcribe the source material on which he based his research and writing. Rather, it was J. O. Broussard, a Lafayette-area descendant of the original Broussard, who copied the document for Perrin, as Perrin himself notes.

Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil
as imagined by artist
Herb Roe (
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If a transcription error occurred, resulting in "Joseph" becoming "Gaurhept" (a real possibility given the sometimes bizarre calligraphy of the French and Spanish colonial era), it therefore was J. O. Broussard who likely made the error. And if it was an error, it nonetheless inspired him to name his own son "Gaurhept" — an amazing irony if such a name never previously existed.

Indeed, another piece of evidence in this matter is the fact that "Gaurhept" does not appear to have existed as a name for anyone until J. O. Broussard gave it to his son in the late nineteenth century.

I say this because if one enters the word "Gaurhept" into and searches the entire Internet, one receives about 2,250 positive responses. But if one again enters "Gaurhept" and this time instructs Google to omit all websites that also refer to the words "Broussard," "Beausoleil," "Beau Soleil," and the misspellings "Beausoliel" and "Beau Soliel," one is left with only four positive responses — and all four of these websites contain nothing but alphanumerical gobbledygook. (A similar result happens if one uses the more discriminating search engine: it returns zero positive responses.)

Another excerpt from William Henry Perrin's
Southwest Louisiana Biographical and Historical,
with highlighted references to Gaurhept Broussard dit Beausoleil.
(Click to enlarge)

In other words, in all of cyberspace (including, by the way, the massive scanned digital library known as Google Books) the word "Gaurhept" exists in a meaningful sense only in reference to the Broussard family.  Or to put it more succinctly, outside the Broussard family "Gaurhept" is not a real name; and it only became a real name inside the Broussard family when J. O. Broussard gave it to his son, based on his apparent misreading of "Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil."

Unfortunately, this theory (and that is what it is) cannot be tested at present because, as noted, the original 1765 document is missing. Unless that document — or a facsimile of it in French or Spanish colonial records — is found we may never know for certain if J. O. Broussard correctly transcribed it or mistook "Joseph" for "Gaurhept." Yet I believe we can say it's likely that the word in question was not "Gaurhept," but "Joseph," and that someone — either an eighteenth-century scribe or J. O. Broussard — made an error in writing or transcribing it.