Here is a photographic exercise for you.
Augustin, the gentleman pictured here, never worked for the Blonger brothers, never drank with them, was never swindled by them, never took a bribe from them or investigated them. In his entire life he probably never heard their names once and he almost certainly never met any of them. But he is important to the story. Take a few moments to examine the photograph.
He looks strangely familiar, doesn’t he? The sad eyes, the prominent nose, the sloping shoulders and round belly. Does he remind you of anyone?
Augustin lived his life as a farmer near the tiny town of Saint-Polycarpe in southern Quebec. He’s not famous, except maybe within his family for fathering 11 children and living to the age of 97. But he may be in a book someday. He is Augustin Bélanger — uncle of the Famous Blonger Bros.
We have no photo of his brother Simon, patriarch of the Blonger family, but the fact that we now have a photo of Augustin signals the end of a very long search for Simon’s parents. Work toward that end has been on and off (mostly off) for more than 40 years. But once the story of the Blongers attracted our attention in 2003, fleshing out their ancestry became a primary goal.
We have speculated about Simon’s French-Canadian origins before on this website. Multiple sources indicated that Simon was born in Canada around 1810, but that was all we had to go on. We assumed that his name was originally spelled Bélanger. But there was no record of his marriage, nor birth records for any of his children. We could have made an educated guess and connected our family tree to one of several potential Simon Bélangers living in Canada during that time period and no one would have been the wiser. But we wanted solid evidence.
I’ll spare you the details of how the slowly accumulating DNA evidence — pieced together from fourth and fifth and sixth cousins — helped us fill in the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. I’ll just say that without DNA testing and the huge database of tests and testers now in place, we would never have been able to make that last link between the Simon we have known for so long — the husband of Judith Kennedy and father of 13 Blonger children — and the infant found in the baptismal records of Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu: Simon Bélanger, born December 30, 1814, the son of Antoine Bélanger and his wife Marie Elisabeth Coderre Lacaillade.
Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu is a farm community on the banks of Richelieu River near Montreal. We don’t know how long Simon worked the land there, but sometime before 1836 he left Quebec and headed south. We imagine him as a voyageur, laying a canoe in the river and paddling the 60 miles upstream to Lake Champlain, crossing into the United States after two or three days’ journey. But whether he traveled by canoe, by oxcart, or by foot, Simon ended up in northern Vermont, first in the town of Georgia and then Swanton, where he raised a family. Perhaps with his migration he had followed his father’s example. Antoine’s decision to leave his ancestral home in the northern village of L’Islet and make his way southward put Simon in position to make that life-altering move to America.
At L’Islet the Bélangers were one of the founding families of New France. There the immigrant François Bélanger, who had crossed the Atlantic in 1634 with a small group of settlers from Normandy, was in 1677 made seigneur of an 18-square-mile tract on the shore of the St. Laurence River. Once a simple mason, now “lord of the manor” of Bonsecours, François administered its affairs, renting long-lot parcels to other settlers, operating a grist mill, and receiving part of their harvest and their labor for his efforts.
Generations of cultivateurs followed. Louis Bélanger was born at L’Islet in 1652, as was his son Pierre in 1700, and Pierre’s son Jean-Gabriel in 1736. The first two were also titled seigneur. But by the time Antoine was born in 1775, the land may have been become too crowded to support a fifth generation of Bélangers.
Antoine was prolific, fathering eight children by his first wife at L’Islet before heading south toward Montreal. He remarried at La Présentation, to Marie Elisabeth (Isabelle), who bore Simon, Augustin, young Isabelle, and then in 1820 an infant son, whom she followed into death five days later, just 23 years of age. Antoine carried on, marrying once again and returning to L’Islet to father one more child. He died sometime between 1839 and 1842. Curiously, his passing was not recorded in the church books of Quebec, perhaps indicating that he followed his son to the United States.
There is more to Simon’s family tree than the six ancestors we have mentioned. Much more. The record keeping system of the Catholic Church in Quebec was remarkably robust. It allowed us to fill Simon’s tree in every line out to four generations and in most lines out to six generations or more. Surprisingly, even though the French-Canadian population is characterized by long-term endogamy, none of Simon’s nearly 200 identifiable ancestors appears on the tree more than once.
With one mystery solved, another remains: the ancestry of Judith Kennedy, mother of the Blonger Bros., raised in an Irish nunnery, immigrant in the 1830s. DNA has allowed us to make some progress there recently, but that story must wait for another day.
Many thanks to the genealogists in the family: Pam Cote, my sixth cousin, for shaking her own family tree, which includes Bélangers in three separate lines, and suggesting that Simon of St-Denis-sur-Richelieu was the most likely candidate; and Louise Lalonde McDonald, fourth cousin once removed and a descendant of Augustin, for posting his photo on Ancestry and giving us permission to repost it here. Thanks also to Jim Belanger, a descendant of early settler Nicolas Bélanger, who may or may not be François’s son, for his excellent summary of François’s life on the Bélanger Family Site. And to several distant cousins hither and yon: you may never read this blog post, but the contribution of your DNA was essential in cracking this case.
As I note this important milestone in our research, I would like to remember two family members who contributed immensely to our research, both of whom passed away during my long hiatus from this site.
In 2003, the very first person to answer my request for help in a genealogy.com forum, 18 days after my discovery of Lou Blonger’s criminal past, was Carolyn Conrad Salsman. Carolyn was the Belonger family genealogist, collecting photographs, obituaries, and copies of vital records long before Ancestry provided instant access. Carolyn knew a lot about the descendants of Michael Belonger, but like apparently everyone else in the family knew nothing about the fate of his brothers, who left Wisconsin for the Wild West. Like us, she was astounded by the details of their lives and eager to learn more. One document Carolyn provided was especially intriguing: we called it the Armstrong Account. In it, Joe Blonger spins tall tales about his life — many of which later proved to be true. Carolyn and I talked on the phone many times, but despite living less than 100 miles apart we never met in person, much to my regret. I had not heard from Carolyn for a few years when she died in 2013. She would have loved knowing about her Bélanger ancestry.
Joe Swinbank was not a genealogist, and I don’t remember exactly how we ended up corresponding. But as a descendant of Mary Catherine, little sister of the Blonger Bros., he was interested in their story and provided a single document of enormous value: a transcription of the Swinbank family Bible that contained vital information (names, dates, and places) for Simon Belonger and his children. Joe died in 2010 and his daughter Barbara wrote to let me know soon afterward, but my posts had already become infrequent and his passing was not noted here at the time.
To Carolyn, my second cousin once removed, and Joe, my second cousin twice removed, you have my eternal gratitude, and may you both rest in peace.
— SJ – 7/17/2019