What’s in the Boisjoly family name? A mystery and some history

About a month ago, I read a news story in The Huffington Post precipitated by the recent death of Roger Boisjoly, the engineer whose warning about the space shuttle booster rocket O-rings went unneeded by his bosses at Morton Thiokol and NASA Shuttle program managers the evening before the tragic and preventable 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster. Little did I know that reading that story would spur me to (a) dive into researching my genealogy, (b) discover a “lost” relative on my mother’s side of the family, (c) learn that I am not-so-distantly related to a French-Canadian hero, (d) discover and connect with “lost” relatives on my father’s side of the family, (e) reconnect with known family and relatives that I had not talked with a very long time, and (f) gain additional perspective on the familial influence of my lifelong struggle with pride and ego. If that sounds like a lot to attribute to a news about the death of someone I have only known about through the media, read on.

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Truth be told, interested readers and potential identity thieves, my mother and Roger Boisjoly shared the same last name from their respective fathers. While I had known about the Morton Thiokol engineers who had been ignored by space shuttle mission schedule-obsessed NASA administrators for decades, I wasn’t aware of any of their last names (surnames) until reading of Roger’s passing last month. And because Roger and my mother were both born in the same US state (Massachusetts) when there weren’t very many Boisjolys residing in the US (before World War II), let alone in the same state. (A search of Ancestry.com records of the US Census shows only six and 30 folks with this surname living in Massachusetts in 1920 and 1930, respectively.) And when I saw how much my mother and Roger Boisjoly looked alike, I started thinking that she might have been closely related to that famously ignored person.

Don’t believe me? Check out the AP photo of Roger in his obituary in The Telegraph, then compare their features yourself with these side-by-side unretouched pics of Roger (using that AP photo) and my mother (from a photo of mine) in their respective later years:

Roger and Corine: Long lost Boisjoly cousins?

When I saw the photo of Roger in that Telegraph article, the inspective downward gaze that my mother often had immediately came to mind. When growing up, I had seen that gaze countless times — when we played cards, after handing her something to read, and even watching her inspect her plate during meals. Heck! Absent the 20-year age difference between them in these photos, Roger’s cleft chin, slightly less prominent nostrils, and more hair, one could easily mistake them for siblings!

Spurred on by the combination of these factors, I searched online for more evidence of a potential relation between a public titan for integrity, Roger Boisjoly, and the private titan of a personality who was my mother, Corine Henrietta Gadarowski née Boisjoly. I soon found online a news article containing an interview of Roger’s surviving brother and sister-in-law published by a local paper operating in Roger’s home town. When I read the following statements attributed to those folks in that article, I was struck by how similar they sounded to what my parents, and especially my mother, had worked to instill in me:

“He did exactly what my parents raised him to do,” Ronald Boisjoly said about Roger’s efforts to shed light on the truth during the investigation.

“He would not back down from what he believed in,” said Ronald’s wife, Claudette.

With the combination of the commonness of family name, birth place, physical appearance, and our respective parents’ core values floating in my mind, I felt compelled after a few days to reach out to Roger’s surviving bother Ronald to explore whether we might be long-lost relatives.

While Ronald Boisjoly’s contact info wasn’t freely available online, the Lowell Sun article that quoted Ronald (which is now only available for a fee) included the local reporter’s email address (if you skipped reading the link above to the blurb of that article, you should be able to see it here.) With these facts in hand, I quickly composed a message to that reporter to ask her to contact Ronald on my behalf. But as the cursor on my laptop screen was floating above the “Send” button of my email program, I decided instead to research further our respective genealogies with the expectation of bolstering the case that Ronald and I were closely related.

That was about a month ago. And I am very glad that I thought twice before firing off an email message to that reporter. Because we are not. Related, I mean. At least not closely as far as I can tell, and definitely not through a common Boisjoly ancestor. At least not in any way that I have convincingly identified for myself. Read on to learn why.

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After a quick search of the Web, I settled on trying Ancestry.com for a two-week trial period to investigate the genealogies of my mom and her potential cousin Roger. Over the next week or so, I worked feverishly to establish an evidentiary trail of a common Boisjoly ancestor using objective documentation that could be found on that site, as well as some likely reliable online genealogy sources. This work period included three sessions in which I worked through the night and into the next evening, tracking and reviewing details from these sources to confirm or refute a supposed relations between many long-ago Boisjoly-related folks. This often included closely viewing and reviewing high resolution images of handwritten records of births, marriages, residences, burials, etc. that can be retrieved through Ancestry.com, some dating back to the 1600’s. Here is one that was relatively easy to read:

1911 Census of Canada – Maisonneuve, Quebec

Zooming in on the text from various sections of the image above, one can easily make out the names of my mother’s father and paternal grandparents, the years they were born, and their ages at the time of this census:

Detail of 1911 Census of Canada record – George Boisjoly and family

And while this record of the earlier marriage of that couple requires translation from French (for example, using Google Translate after transcribing), the handwriting is relatively easy to decipher:

Partial of Marriage Record – George Boisjoly & Marie-Emilie Henriette Bernier, 11 May 1881

The poor quality of the image captured of the record of the marriage of two of my likely ancestors in 1799, partially shown here, leaves much to the imagination:

Partial of Marriage Record – Louis-Joseph Lienard dit Durbois & Marie Genevieve Hardy, 5 Aug 1799

Despite cases like this, alternative sources of information, including other records with related information and other online sources that likely contain reliable information about those long-ago folks (such as FamilySearch.org, which is sponsored by the LDS, and Genealogy of Canada, which is a genealogy site maintained by genealogy experts and augmented by data from hoards of genealogy buffs) provided enough corroborating information to identify all of the patrilineal ancestors of my mother and Roger Boisjoly going back to those who emigrated from the old country, France, in the 1600’s. And those ancestors were different people from different families.

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As I mentioned above, I’ve concluded that my mom and Roger did not share a common Boisjoly ancestor. But there is more to this story. While Roger and my mom had identical surnames, that fact is merely an artifact of their separate patrilineal ancestors coming to the New World, and either they or their descendants eventually referring to themselves as “Boisjoly”s to reflect living in the rural settings of New France. In fact, at least five major family groups with roots in North America that currently refer to themselves as Boisjoly/Boisjoli/Boisjolie are descended from completely different families from France. For example, my mother’s Boisjoly family descended from Sébastian Liénard, born in 1628 in Saint-Mihiel, Meuse, France in 1628 and arrived in Quebec City, New France in 1664/1665, while Roger’s Boisjoly family descended from Jean Griveau/Griveault, who was born in La Rochelle, Aunis, France in 1665, and first appears in New France records in Montreal in 1686.

Why do descendants from different families from France end up with same surname in the New World? Until governmental record keeping on individuals was based on numbers, surnames often reflected various aspect of person’s family or personal history, e.g. parentage, profession, place of birth, and/or place of residence, that helped to distinguish them from others with similar names. The evolution of the Liénard French surname to the Boisjoly American surname provides a ready example of the transformations of surnames for many Americans of French-Canadian heritage

When first colonized by Europeans, New France was heavily forested, requiring backbreaking work to clear the land for farming. Sébastien Liénard was an immigrant who acquired and work such land near Quebec in 1685. To reflect this, he likely added “dit Durbois” to his name, where “dit” means “called” and “Durbois” like meant tough woods”. A few generations later, one of his descendants, an established farmer in the community, replaced “Durbois” with “Boisjolie”, which likely means “pretty woods” Because official records in French-Canada were often recorded based on how the official believed a name should be spelled, the Boisjolie portion of the surname also appears in a number of variants, such as “Boisjoli” and “Boisjoly”. A few generations after that, the “Liénard dit” part of the surname was dropped altogether. By the time my mother’s father was born in the US, in upstate New York, his surname was firmly spelled as “Boisjoly”.

So, what about Roger Boisjoly’s surname history? The records shows a similar name-augmentation and substitution for Jean Griveau and his descendants, but he augmented his directly with a version of “dit Boisjoly” after he emigrated to New France.

With all that said, was my research of this matter sufficiently thorough? It’s hard to objectively say, but I am now pretty sure that my mother and Roger Boisjoly aren’t related through their Boisjoly ancestors. And I say this even though I had posted a comment on The Huffington Post mentioning how the photo of Roger Boisjoly in the Telegraph…

“as well as some other details I found when researching his family’s records has convinced me that he probably was a first- or second-cousin of my biological [mother].”

With that hasty public proclamation hanging over me, and a desire to be related to such a lauded public figure, I was spurred on to find convincing evidence of my relation to such a publicly hailed, yet tragically ignored, champion for integrity in business and government affairs. So, you can imagine how much I would have liked to have found evidence in those records of such a familial relation. And when the evidence appeared promising but sketchy, I had to check myself a few times while examining details of evidence to not falsely convince myself of a patrilineal relation between their families. I am just glad that I had not offered up on a stronger opinion, if that could have even been possible, in that public comment regarding that supposed familial relation.

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So what of the the similar features that Roger shared with my mother? Is that just a coincidence? Probably not. New France was settled by about 2500 original French immigrants, mostly during the 1600’s, who collectively through the generations spawned about 8.5 million descendants in Canada and about two million more in the rest of the world, mostly in the US. Like most peoples before the advent of the automobile and mass communication, but also due to cultural competition with the English who dominated their government after the French and Indian War, French-Canadians overwhelmingly tended to marry within their religion (Roman Catholic) and ethnic group. In fact, my mother, a second-generation French Canadian-American, was quite the rebel in her day (the 1940’s) for marrying someone who was not of French heritage (albeit he was Catholic, so she wasn’t as much of a rebel as some in her generation). As such, it is entirely likely that my mother and Roger Boisjoly were related through one or more common French-Canadian ancestors even though they were not related through a common Boisjoli/Boisjoly ancestor.

With that in mind, I don’t think it worthwhile at this time to contact Roger Boisjoly’s surviving brother Ronald, as I am sure that he has better things to do then discuss our respective family histories even though we may be distantly related, and of which I have yet to find evidence. Heck! With the very large families that my birth-control-abhoring Roman Catholic French-Canadian ancestors tended to have, I’d probably need to be dialing and chatting non-stop in all of my spare time for a year or so to touch base with all of my relatives through our common ancestors from those generations. Instead, I will just send a mass “Bonjour!” shout-out here to all of my French-Canadian relatives from my mother’s side of the family who reside en Province de Québec.

That being said, I am planning to contact, some day, a Roger Boisjoli that I am most likely related to through a descendent of Sébastien Liénard dit Durbois. And here is a curiously related fact: “Boisjoli” also translates to “daphne”, which is the name of a family of flowering and aromatic evergreen shrubs, such as one shown here:

Daphne philippi

And that Roger Boisjoli operates with his wife a greenhouse business, Les Serres Boisjoli, which is affiliated with a network of greenhouse operators called Des Jardiniers Passionnés, on the very land that our common long-ago New World family surname progenitor, Sébastien Liénard dit Durbois, obtained and settled on over 300 years ago! So, here is a shout-out to that “Boisjoly” relative:

Bonjour, Roger!

Because we definitely share a passion for something.

A delicate beauty from my garden a few years ago

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So, what about the similarity of values that were strongly instilled by the respective parents of the engineer Roger Boisjoly and my mother? It is entirely possible that it may be due to both of them being raised as Roman Catholics, but more likely it is just this: most parents in most religions and cultures around the world try to teach their children to do what is right. It just happens to be the case that Roger took that training a lot more closely to heart than most people, including myself for many years of my life. Why else would his message of speaking truth-to-power and ethical behavior ring true for so many people regardless of their heritage?

Don’t believe me? A Google Search of “Roger Boisjoly” and “Challenger” just returned 67 pages of unique hits. And check out the honors and awards bestowed on Roger by those in government, industry, and science per his résumé at the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research.

So, after this considerable research of my mother and Roger Boisjoly’s genealogy, what is my take on the matter of family and relation? In a very important way, all who believe in “doing the right thing” in our world are related to each other, if not by the commonness of their family lines, by the commonness of that essential value. At least, that is what I believe. And if you believe the same thing, then I consider us related in a way that transcends the significance of biological familial relations. Because we are of the same family of thought about such values. And that for me is what is important for us to pass down to our respective children.

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At the beginning of this entry, I mentioned a number of things that resulted from my being inspired by the possibility of being related to the well-known engineer and spokesman for ethics, Roger Boisjoly. While I only managed to discuss two of those items in this entry — diving into researching my genealogy, and discovering a “lost” relative on my mother’s side of the family — doing the rest of them justice will require separate entries, as this one is already a bit long. If reading about them sounds like it might interest you, check back here periodically, as I plan to endeavor to make some more blogging bread from the wheat that I have been able to separate from the chaff of my personal and familial past.

Until then and always, keep well.

The Tightwire Guy

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