A long lost sea captain uncle and a missed nephew/grandfather

Greetings, readers. After a long hiatus from posting, I’ve decided to drop anchor on a subject that I have been bombarding anyone who was curious about genealogy — as well as those who were too polite to ask me to change the subject — for quite some time. And by doing so, it will also allow me to explore in future entries some topics about families that have been rolling around in my mental cargo hold. So, hold on to your mizzenmasts, and here goes…

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I recently learned — well, since the last time I posted something on this blog — that I am not-so-distantly related to a famous French-Canadian sea captain and arctic explorer. Yup! And who was this larger-than-life historical figure? None other than this guy:

That’s right! I have a genuine Canadian hero in my family tree!

How much of a hero, might you ask? Well, for starters, a map created during one of the explorations he lead in the early 20th-century has been used by the Canadian government in recent years to bolster it’s claim to arctic waters rich in natural resources. And he co-produced a pioneering film documentary of the Canadian arctic in 1915 that is preserved at Canada’s film archive as a national treasure. And in appreciation of his explorations on its behalf, the Canadian government named a bay in the Arctic after him and issued a commemorative stand honoring him. And he has been honored in biographies by Canadian historians and writers about once a decade since the 1950’s. And a panel of distinguished Canadian historians in the mid-1960’s included him as one of the 25 most influential people in Canada’s history (apart from its prime ministers). And this Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker was named after him:

CCGS J.E. Bernier (1967-2006)Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada Fleet additions over the last 50 years | Canadian Coast Guard

And the Maritime Museum du Quebec in his home town of L’Islet, Quebec especially honors his memory. And Wikipedia has an article about him.

Pretty cool, huh?!

What??? You aren’t impressed?

Frankly, I’m not surprised. In this age of electronic records and the Internet, most people could probably find websites supporting a claim of being related to a famous person or two. For example, you’ve probably heard news stories about how recent presidential political opponents Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are each distantly related to a gaggle of other notable U.S. political figures. And a few years ago, a celebrity genealogist announced that Madonna and Lady Gaga are ninth-cousins once-removed.

So, really, I won’t blame you for not being impressed if I claimed that Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was my fourth cousin four times removed because he shared a common ancestor (Charles Bernier, 1662-1731) with my mother’s maternal grandfather (Joseph-Zephirin Bernier, 1856-1901). And you probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if I could prove that he was my first cousin three times removed because he shared a common grandfather (Jean-Baptiste Bernier, 1786-1867) with my mother’s maternal grandmother (Marie-Josephine Bernier, 1851-1919). But would you be interested if I told you that he was the older brother of my mother’s paternal grandmother?

In other words, would it pique your interest to learn that Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, “[c]hampion of Canadian Arctic [s]overeignty” — as he is titularly described in a “meticulously researched book” by French-Canadian author Marjolaine Saint-Pierre, and translated by William Barr, Senior Research Associate of the North American Arctic Institute — was my great granduncle? If so, read on.

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As a person of importance to Canadian history, Joseph-Elzéar Bernier’s life and family has been researched and reported in a number of publications. Per the Quebec History Encyclopedia, he was born on January 1, 1852 in L’Islet, Quebec to Captain Thomas Bernier and Celinas Paradis. A search of French-Canadian Catholic Church records in the Drouin Collection using Ancestry.com supports this claim assuming a few things.

Baptism record of Marie Joseph-Elzéar Bernier,2 Jan 1852, Notre Dame de Bonsecour parish, L’Islet, Quebec.Photo: Ancestry.com

This record shows that he was baptized on January 2, 1852, apparently the day after he was born. It also identifies the first part of his given name as “Marie”, which was not used in subsequent church records, nor, it seems, by Joseph-Elzéar as an adult. Lastly, the priest who recorded this baptism slightly misspelled part of his given name (“Eléaxar” versus “Elzéar”).

While other records not shown here confirm that Thomas Bernier is the full name of Joseph-Elzéar’s father, his mother’s full name, Henriette Célina Paradis, is identified in both her birth record (not shown here) and the record of her marriage a little over a year before the birth of her now-famous son.

Marriage record of Thomas Bernier and Henrietta Célina Paradis,19 Nov 1950, St. Roch parish, Quebec.Photo: Ancestry.com

This name for Joseph-Elzéar’s mother agrees with Ms. Saint-Pierre’s name for his mother per her biography of the good captain, hereafter referred to J.E.B.: Champion. This fact, as well as my corroboration of most of Joseph-Elzéar’s immediate and extended family reported in J.E.B.: Champion using Ancestry.com, speaks highly of the research by Madgelaine Bourget, the genealogist Ms. Saint-Pierre relied upon to identify Joseph-Elzear’s extended family tree. Madame Bourget’s research, however, somehow missed a personally relevant member of that family tree. Namely, the youngest son of Joseph-Elzéar’s only sister, my paternal grandfather: George Henry Boisjoly.

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Since my youth, I can readily recall my mother frequently regaling all comers with the claim that she was only a few generations descended from “famous Bernier sea captains.” While I occasionally mentioned this family folklore in passing at social settings, I only seriously investigated these claims after catching the genealogy bug about a year ago while researching my mother’s potential familial relationship with a famous engineer with the same last name. And when I later extended my genealogical research to include more of her ancestors, I was shocked to learn how closely I was related to Joseph-Elzéar Bernier.

Furthermore, because my mother had discussed parents’ relatives in the memoir she composed in the last decade of her life, I was able to compare her accounts of her Bernier ancestors with other’s accounts and records. Sources like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org provided snapshots of information to establish lineages of potentially related Berniers from the past, and Ms. Saint-Pierre’s biography of Joseph-Elzéar provided valuable tidbits that flesh out the story of these relations.

Starting with my mother’s memoir, the prologue immediately identifies which of her parents were likely related to famous Bernier sea captains.

As a young girl, I was exposed to many stories of forbears by Grandmother Boisjoly, Dad, and Mom. Grandmother had many of these incidents in a little green book which was later lost but its fascination are recorded in memory to this day. Curiosity about my heritage has been a fascinating quest in youth sparked by the many stories I have heard…

Also included in her little green book were many other tidbits of information regarding other distant relatives. One was an explorer who visited the far reaches of the Bering Sea. Due to his explorations, there is an island named after him, Bernier Island, located in the arctic North, and is recorded in Canadian history books. Another was the tale of a young Eskimo boy who lived with my father in Montreal for two years, as well as many other interesting experiences. The value of the little book was irreplaceable, I believe, for future generations.

My father was quite a talker and added many of his personal experiences. His forbears lives were unusual and included interesting journeys to far off lands. For the most part their lives as sea captains lent itself to a multitude of happenings. Mom and I also spent many hours discussing her childhood experiences. They were not as dynamic as Dads but also held great interest for me.

With this beginning, the next step was to identify the Bernier ancestors and relatives of my mother’s father. Sure enough, I didn’t have look far for a start.

Dad’s parents, George Boisjoly and Henrietta Bernier, were from all accounts as different as night and day.

With the next passage, the genealogical trail to a famous Bernier sea captain gets red hot.

Henrietta’s father … Thomas … was a sea captain, and one of five brothers, all captains. He was a stern and harsh man and anyone unlucky enough to displease him suffered the consequences. As a youngster, Henrietta and her mother, Celina, would accompany her husband on voyages all over the world, sometimes away for a couple of years.

Do these parents sound familiar? They should. The parents of Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, the famous polar explorer had the same names. Also, J.E.B.: Champion the provides ample discussion of the sea-captaining brood that Joseph-Elzéar’s grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Bernier, spawned from his loins and fatherly guidance. Ms. Saint-Pierre also reports that Captain Thomas Bernier, like my mother’s self-reported great grandfather, was a stern and demanding sea captain and father. Under his father Thomas’ stern guidance, Joseph-Elzéar rose on merit from cabin boy at age 14 to captain his own ship by age 17.

What about my mother’s report of Henrietta and her mother traveling with her father “on voyages all over the world”? Quite frankly, this account seemed at first to me like an embellishment of events that might have arisen somewhere between the memory of her elderly grandmother when told to her adoring granddaughter and the recollections of my elderly mother many years removed from those sessions. Compounding my concern was failing to find any account in J.E.B.: Champion of Thomas Bernier taking his wife and young daughter with him on any of this trips. But because the primary focus of that book is his son Joseph-Elzéar’s life and adventures, the lack of such stories in that book does not mean they did not happen. Nonetheless, it appears to have been a common practice by the middle of the 19th-century for the captains of New England whaling ships to take their families with them on longer voyages. And as my great-grandmother Henrietta lived during that period, it is quite possible that she traveled with her father Thomas on his longer voyages.

* * *

What about evidence in the Drouin Collection of a “Henrietta” being born to Joseph-Elzéar’s parents? Here’s a snapshot of the specific entry for that parish:

Baptism record of Marie Henriette Émilie Bernier,1 Apr 1859, Notre Dame de Bonsecour parish, L’Islet, Quebec.Photo: Ancestry.com

Translating from French, the full record mentions how Marie-Henriette-Émilie Bernier was baptized on April 1, 1859, to the parents of the same name as Joseph-Elzéar (Thomas Bernier, sea captain, and Célina Paradis) and in the same parish (Notre Dame de Bonsecour, L’Islet, Quebec) that Joseph-Elzéar was baptized in about seven years earlier. Absent the “Marie” and “Émilie” portions of her given name, and anglicizing the spelling of “Henriette” results in the same pre-marital name as my mother’s Grandmother Boisjoly: Henrietta Bernier.

Despite this evidence, it is possible that this younger sister of Joseph-Elzéar could have married someone other than a “George Boisjoly”. What do other accounts or records suggest?

First, J.E.B.: Champion mirrors what my mother mentions in her memoir: Henriette Bernier married George Boisjoly.

Henriette-Emilie Bernier-Boisjoly, Joseph Elzéar’s only sister. (Photo courtesy of “Joseph Elzéar Bernier: Champion of Canadian Arctic Sovereignty”, by Marjolaine Saint-Pierre, Translated by William Barr, 2009, p. 41, and Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec: BANQ, P188 D1 P33)

Second, Ms. Saint-Pierre identifies George Boisjoly’s deceased first wife as Marie Cymodomé Fournier, and his parents as Moïse Boisjoly and Marie-Des-Anges Pruneau. The following marriage record from the Drouin Collection supports part of this claim.

Partial of marriage record of George Boisjoly and Marie-Emilie-Henriette Bernier,11 May 1881, St. Sauveur parish, Quebec city, Quebec.Photo: Ancestry.com

The translated text of this record mentions that on May 11, 1881, George Boisjoly, widower (“veuf”) of Marie Cymodoceé Fournier, and Marie-Emilie-Henriette Bernier, the adult daughter (“fille majeure”) of Thomas Bernier, master mariner (“capitaine au long cours”), were married. Of only minor concern is the transposition of Henriette’s given names: “Marie-Emilie-Henriette” versus “Marie-Henriette-Emilie”. A bit more worrisome are that George’s parents are not identified, the bride’s mother is identified as “Émilie Paradis”, not Célina Paradis, and the bride’s parents seem to be from a different parish (St. Sauvert, city of Quebec) than Joseph-Elzéar’s parents’ (Notre Dame de Bonsecour, L’Islet).

Despite these concerns, other genealogy records and a closer examination of this marriage record suggests that Joseph-Elzéar’s sister Henriette did indeed marry the George Boisjoly mentioned in Ms. Saint-Pierre’s book.

First, the Drouin Collection’s September 23, 1874 marriage record of George Boisjoly and Marie Cymodoceé Fournier, not shown here, identify George’s parents as mentioned above. Second, a search of Ancestry.com records does not turn up evidence of a marriage between a Thomas Bernier and a Émilie Paradis from this period of time, nor of such a couple giving birth to or living with a daughter of this name. Third, Célina Paradis had an older sister named Émilie who had married Thomas Bernier’s older brother Jean-Baptiste. Fourth, George and Henriette’s marriage record mentions that the archbishop of Quebec (“archevêque du Quebec”) granted (“accordeé”) this couple some kind of exemption (“la dispense”) for them to be married in this parish. Together, these facts suggest that some unknown issues prevented George and Henrietta from marrying in her parent’s home parish, and that Célina’s sister Émilie acted as the mother of the bride for this ceremony.

Furthermore, information from the 1901 Census of Canada supports my mother’s claim that her grandmother Henrietta’s mother’s given name was Célina, and the details of this record are consistent with accounts of the latter years of both Thomas Bernier and Célina Paradis’ lives. In J.E.B.: Champion, Ms. Saint-Pierre mentions that Joseph-Elzéar’s mother probably lived with him and Rose after Thomas passed away in the early 1893, which makes sense given that she lived next door to her son and daughter-in-law at the time. Ms. Saint-Pierre also mentions that Célina was living in Quebec by 1897, per the record of the sale of her husband’s former house in L’Islet. by 1901, however, Célina had moved to Montréal to live with her daughter Henriette, son-in-law George Boisjoly and their young children, as shown by the following 1901 Census of Canada record segment.

Household members of George and Henriette Boisjoly, St. Laurent district, Montreal, Quebec, 1901 Census of Canada.Photo: Ancestry.com

This portion of the census record identifies a Célina Bernier residing as the mother (“Mere”) of the family of George and Henriette Boisjoli. As discussed in an early entry about my mother’s ancestors, “Boisjoli” is a variant of the French-Canadian “Boisjoly” surname. Because the mother in this house has a different surname than male head of the family (“Chef”), we can safely surmise that the maiden name (Bernier) of the wife (“Épouse”), Henriette, is that of the mother, Célina, shown in this record.

Consistent with this record, Ms. Saint-Pierre reports that Célina Paradis died in Montreal a few years later. Furthermore, a record from the 1911 Census of Canada, not shown here for brevity, identifies the same family absent “Célina Bernier” still living in Montreal, consistent with Joseph-Elzéar’s mother passing away five years earlier. Finally, the birth date reported for Célina Bernier in the 1901 Census record (July 12, 1832) is consistent with not shown here for brevity, of the baptism date of Joseph-Elzéar’s mother per the Drouin Collection records (August 3, 1832).

Together, this collection of evidence strongly supports that the Henriette Bernier-Boisjoly identified in the 1901 and 1911 census records was the younger sister of Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. With that assertion, we can now explore the evidence regarding Henriette Bernier-Boisjoly’s children.

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According to J.E.B.: Champion, Joseph-Elzéar’s sister Henriette had four children: Alice, Albert, Arthur, and Eugene. Both the census records above and my mother’s memoir suggest that Henriette Bernier-Boisjoly had at least one more child, a son named George. Which further accounts and records fully identify as my mother’s father, George Henry Boisjoly.

First, note that the youngest child of George and Henriette Boisjoly in the 1901 census record is identified as “George H”. If we include the four children mentioned by Ms. Saint-Pierre, this puts the number of children in this family at five. A corresponding passage in my mother’s memoir suggests there might have been two more members of this family.

[Grandfather Boisjoly] and Dad had some very good times together, hiking in the forest, bird watching, fishing, and exploring the wild nature about them. Dad was the youngest of seven and they had a chance to really get to know one another.

Frankly, we cannot be sure whether this passage refers to seven children or seven household members. Counting the parents, her father was the “youngest of seven” in the family. Alternately, this figure is consistent with the number of children that her grandfather Boisjoly appears to have had from both of his marriages. As discussed above, George Boisjoly had been married previously to Marie-Cymodoceé Fournier. My research of the Drouin Collection records turned up two children by this couple: Marie Émilie Cymodoceé (baptized on August 24, 1875, St-Roch parish, Quebec) and Joseph George Eugene (baptized on May 13, 1877, St-Roch parish, Quebec). Sadly, I also found burial records for these children within a few months of their baptisms.

Does my mother’s memoir mention any of the other children of her Grandmother Boisjoly that mirrors those reported in J.E.B.: Champion? Yes, but only two of them.

First, she mentions Alice.

On this trip to Canada, only Dad, Grandmother, and I went and stayed with Aunt Alice, Dad’s oldest sister, and her husband, George, in Terrebonne…

This is one of many stories I remember about Aunt Alice and her saintly husband George Corriveux.

With a slight difference in spelling (“Corriveux” versus “Corriveau”), this husband of my mother’s “Aunt Alice” matches what is reported by Ms. Saint-Pierre for Joseph-Elzéar’s niece Alice. It is also close in spelling to a formal variation of the Corriveau surname, Corrivaux, that has recognized in the history of that surname. And since these names have similar pronunciations in her parent’s native tongue, her version of her Aunt Alice’s married name is reasonably consistent with what is reported for Joseph-Elzéar’s niece Alice by Ms. Saint-Pierre.

Next, she mentions Albert.

Uncle Albert, Dads’ older brother, was a very kind-hearted soft-spoken man, who had married a beautiful lady, Luce. They had two children David and Albertine.

Ms. Saint-Pierre mentions that Henriette’s son Arthur married a woman named Luce Tremblay. My research confirms that Henriette had a son named Arthur, who was 2 years old in 1892 per the New York State Census, but later census records suggest that he passed away while still a youth. Instead, census and business directory records support my mother’s claim about her Uncle Albert mentioned above.

For example, here is the baptism record of Albert and Luce Tremblay’s son named Joseph George David Roland Boisjoli in 1910.

Baptism record of Joseph George David Roland Boisjoly,28 April 1910, St-Henri parish, Montreal, Quebec.Photo: Ancestry.com

That this son went by the first name “David” can be confirmed in various census and city directory records that I have found researching this family but won’t discuss in detail here for brevity. Such records also verify my mother’s claim that her Albert Boisjoly and wife Luce Tremblay, identified as “Lucy Boisjoly” in U.S. records, also had a daughter named Albertine. Overall, these facts suggest that my mother’s recorded recollections of her father’s siblings appear historically accurate and that her father was the nephew of the Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier.

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Is there more evidence to support the claim that my mother’s father was a nephew of Joseph-Elzéar Bernier? Remember that 1901 census record that showed Célina [Paradis]-Bernier living in Montreal with her daughter Henriette’s family? Well, here it is again:

Household members of George and Henriette Boisjoly,St. Laurent district, Montreal, Quebec, 1901 Census of Canada.Photo: Ancestry.com

You may notice that two of Joseph-Elzéar’s nephews mentioned in J.E.B.: Champion, Albert and Eugene, are present in this family. But the youngest son of this family is the mirrored by the following passage from my mother’s memoir:

Dad was the youngest of seven…

This 1901 census record provides evidence to support this claim. The youngest child of this family is a boy (“Fils”) named George H. Boisjoli, age 7. Additionally, the portion of this census record immediately to the right of what is shown above mentions that George H. Boisjoli was born in the United States (“E.U.” is the abbreviation for the French spelling, “Etats-Unis”).

Additional details of record of George and Henriette Boisjoly household,St. Laurent district, Montreal, Quebec, 1901 Census of Canada.Photo: Ancestry.com

It also indicates when this family moved back to Canada (1896). I say “back to Canada” because the column indicating that the children were born in the United States (“E.U.”) show that the parents were born in Canada per the default marks. That is consistent with the marriage record of George and Henrietta in St. Sauvert, Quebec in 1881 as discussed above. It is also consistent with the record of Albert’s baptism in a French-Canadian parish, also omitted for brevity, that occurred shortly after his birth date indicated on this census record.

If this family moved from the U.S. to Canada in 1896, where exactly was George H. Boisjoly born? Again quoting my mother’s memoir:

[My father] was born in Schenectady, New York, on September 20, 1893.

This claim is supported by three other sources. First, there is the 1942 draft registration record of a “George Henry Boisjoly”, who was born in the location on the date my mother mentioned.

1942 US World War II draft registration card for George Henry Boisjoly.Photo: Ancestry.com

A small concern, though, is that her father’s birth date (September 30, 1893) doesn’t exactly match the birth date given for “George H Boisjoly” in the 1901 census record (September 11, 1893). Because the census record date would have been provided by his parents, and is only nine days before the one my grandfather indicated on his draft card, my grandfather probably just mistook his baptism date for his birth date. Why so? First, a nine day time span is within the time period for a baptism per official Catholic Church policy. Second, before modern record-keeping systems, people who were baptized as infants frequently mistook those two important dates in their early lives. Especially if they were devout Catholics, as the following passages from my mother’s memoir convey.

Prior to Christmas, my parents stressed Jesus, his birth, his mother Mary, and Joseph his father. In looking back, I realize the depth of the Catholic background we were exposed to. The emphasis was not dictatorial only reminders of our Lord God, his love and our response. With these simple yet ardent practices, my faith had a chance to grow…

This writing has taken a turn I had never thought about, my initiation and excellent Catholic background within the family. Again a tribute to my parents for the practical and wonderful training they provided me.

Notably, my mother neglected to mention her father’s middle name in her memoir, possibly because she had a record of it elsewhere. But she did mention his wife’s name and where she lived, both of which match the information on the draft card shown above.

Before my birth, naturally, my parents met, fell madly in love, courted, and were married in St. Mary’s Church on June 22, 1923. Initially, Dad came to Willimantic with his mother to visit [a cousin]. From letters and conversations about their courtship, they visited as often as possible and love letters filled the gaps. I have some torrid letters written to a tall blue-eyed lady, Maryanna, from George;

A small discrepancy, but not fatal to the theme of this discussion, is that my maternal grandmother’s name here is not spelled exactly the way George Henry Boisjoly identified his wife on his draft card (“Marione” or “Mariane”). The second of the two interpretations of grandfather’s handwriting is closer to how her name appears on her baptism record (“Marie Anne”), which I omit for brevity.

Finally, a few more sources corroborate the likely birth location of Joseph-Elzéar’s Bernier’s youngest nephew by his sister Henriette as the same as my maternal grandfather. First, the 1892 New York State Census, not shown here, identifies a Boisjoly family with husband George, wife Henrietta Boisjoly, and three sons, Albert, Eugene and Arthur living in Schenectady County (in the city of Rotterdam). Second, per J.E.B.: Champion, Thomas Bernier’s will, which was drawn up a month before he passed away on November 16, 1893, indicated that his daughter Henriette-Émilie lived with her husband George in Schenectady, New York. Absent daughter Alice, this family is identical to Henriette-Émilie Bernier-Boisjoly’s per J.E.B.: Champion. This puts Joseph-Elzéar’s sister’s family living in Schenectady a year before my grandfather was born, and about a month after he was born in that locale per his draft board and census records discussed above.

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Are you convinced yet that I am a great grand nephew of Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, champion of Canadian arctic sovereignty? If you aren’t, well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. At a minimum, you would probably admit that the evidence presented here is pretty intriguing. And hopefully that intriguing story has brought you to the part of this article that is much more important to me. And that is remembering and honoring people who had a positive impact on my life or the lives of people I care about. And to honor part of the memory of the person who gave me life — my mother, who did her best in her own way to guide me to be the person I would later become — I would like to close this post with a toast to my maternal grandfather and Captain Joseph-Elzéar’s “missed” nephew: George Henry Boisjoly.

You see, this grandfather is missed because he wasn’t mentioned as a nephew of Captain Bernier’s in the most exhaustive biography about the good captain to date. And he is missed because one of my brothers still shares stories of the good times he had with “Pépère” (a French term of affection for a grandfather) while growing up. And he was missed per the great affection my mother expressed having for him throughout her life, as my siblings and I can attest to. And based on the following passage from my mother’s memoir, George Henry Boisjoly was most likely missed after his passing from cancer in 1953 by most who personally knew him all those years ago:

He was always fascinated with the good in life and people, and his demeanor showed his good humor.

George Henry Boisjoly (1893-1953)Photo: Corine H. Gadarowski family archive

And he was missed because he passed away before I had a chance to enjoy his loving grandfatherly way of being.

So, yes, Pépère, here’s to you: captain of many shared voyages with those you loved in the journey of life. Because I am happy to know that I am not so distantly related to someone so well-remembered by those who traveled with you on those voyages.

The Tightwire Guy

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