Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

The French in Lee County, Illinois

By Oliver L. Gehant

The French in Lee County are to be found in nearly all the walks of life and scattered throughout the entire twenty-two townships. To the writer, however, it appears that the heaviest settlement is in Viola and Brooklyn townships, at West Brooklyn, and in the vicinity bordering that town. At least one-half of Brooklyn enterprise is due to the French descendants, and especially in the west half of the township they, with the Germans, constitute the majority of the population. We also find the French in Lee Center on the west and in Wyoming on the east. Quite a settlement is located in May Township, a goodly number in Ashton, as well as scattering numbers in Dixon, South Dixon, Amboy, Harmon, East Grove, Bradford and Alto townships.

Our subject being a little too broad on account of our meager knowledge of the French inhabitants throughout the entire county and not having the opportunity to learn more of those living out of the range of our acquaintance, we shall attempt only to center our history upon the French in our own township and its adjoin-ing communities. We must therefore ask the indulgence of our readers in overlooking any errors we might make or any omissions which might occur. Let us assure you that they shall not be intentional, but owing to lack of information.

The early arrivals from France landed at Lee Center Township about the year 1853. Benjamin Leepy, a shoemaker, located at Lee Center and followed his profession for a number of years. The others were farmers in the persons of Claude Gehant and Ferdinando Py who took up their homes in Bradford Township. Two years later, in 1855, a party of sixteen left their native land for America and all settled in the vicinity of Bradford. The party included John Bazel Henry and wife with their two sons, Constant and Leopold. Constant had been married in France and was accompanied by his wife. Others in the party were Mr. and Mrs. John Bresson and their children, Delphine, Polite and Delphan ; Mr. and Mrs. Edward Antoine and their three months old baby boy; Constant Barlow; Blaze Fraescheau and Modest Gehant. They landed at New York and started westward immediately, stopping at Franklin Grove upon reaching Lee County. From here they made their selection of homes in Bradford Township and for a few years the entire sixteen were located in the same parish. On January 13, 1858, two of the party were married, Delphine Bresson and Leopold Henry. This was one of the earliest French marriages taking place in the county and was solemnized at Amboy. The young couple made their home in Bradford Township for a time and then removed to Shelby County where they remained for ten years. After their return to this county they located in Viola Township on the farm which became known as the old homestead. About ten years ago they retired from the farm and located in West Brooklyn. To this union ten children were born, six of whom are still living and residing in the county. They are Lydia (Montavon), Amel, Eugene, Delphan (deceased), Edward, Josephine, Francis (deceased), Mary (Gehant), Francis Faley (deceased), and Charles (deceased).

Constant Henry had been a soldier in France before coming to this country and had served seven years in Africa defending the French flag. He also saw service in Algeria and Egypt. There were ninety-six in the party when the soldiers left the mother county for Africa, and only six of them returned home. The climate of the desert and the guns of the natives were terrible for any but a native to withstand. His stories of soldier life in Africa can yet be remembered by our older inhabitants. His family were all born in Lee County. They are Delia (Lawrence), Victorine (Jeanblanc), Jennie (Larkin), and Mary (Terhune). Delia and Victorine, after their marriages, moved to Iowa and are located at Eagle Grove and Fort Dodge. The other two children are still residing in the eastern part of the county.

In the year 1857 Mr. and Mrs. Laurent Gehant, Sr., and two daughters, Judith (now Mrs. Joseph E. Henry of Dixon) and Leona (first wife of Joseph Chaon and now deceased) , arrived at Lee Center and here the husband and father found employment in the Clapp stone quarries for a couple of years. With his family, which now consisted of Judith, Leona, and Frank J., and accompanied by Constant and Leopold Henry and their families, he moved to Shelby County where they resided for ten years. All removed to Lee County in the spring of 1868, where Mr. Gehant continued to reside until his death at the ripe age of seventy-eight years. His other children, part of them born in Shelby County, were Laurent, Jr., Henry P., Andrew, Sarah (Jeanblanc), and Melenda (Edwards).

In 1857 Prances Barlow and her daughter, Caroline, and the Antoines Clarice, Mary, Euphamia, Moses, Edward, and their father, settled here. The French migrations to Lee County seemed to cease about this time and we hear of no more until about 1867.

During this time many of these people were intermarrying. Delphan Bresson married Clarice Antoine while his brother, Polite, took for his wife Caroline Barlow. Delphan settled in Viola where he continued to reside until his death, a number of years ago. He is survived by his widow and two sons, Henry and Alfred, both of Minnesota, and one daughter Mary, wife of August Gehant.

Polite Bresson, like his brother, was a successful farmer of Viola Township up to the time of his death. His family surviving him are his aged widow and eight children, namely: Faley, Amel, Frank, Edward, Charles, Lydia (Berscheid), Amelia (Monta-von) , and Mary (July). Another son, Modest, died a few years ago. All are highly respected citizens of this county and numbered among Viola's leading inhabitants. Amel Bresson is a graduate of Valparaiso University, at Valparaiso, Ind.

Modest Gehant went to Ohio for his wife, marrying Olympia Chaon. They settled north of West Brooklyn and there reared a large family. They are: Xavier, August, Joseph, Modest, Prank, Adolph, Izedore, Louis, Josephine (Henry, deceased), Leona (Henry), Margarette (Henry), Mary (Oester), and Susan (Auchstetter). It was due to this marriage that the Chaons, Xavier and his wife, Josephine, soon afterward came westward and settled near their daughter. Besides Mrs. Modest Gehant, they had four sons, August (deceased), Amadia, Joseph, and Charles (deceased)., Amadia Chaon did not live here long after attaining his majority and, as we shall see later, is located in the western part of our country. Joseph, alone, together with his family are residents of the county at this time.

Claude Gehant, who came in 1853, was married three times, his first wife being a French girl from LaSalle County. To this union was born one son, namely Henry P., of Chicago. His second wife was Mary Antoine, and the third Mrs. Mary Py, widow of Sylvan Py, who will be remembered as the son of Ferdinando Py. Sylvan Py met his death at the age of thirty-three years through wounds sustained in a runaway accident. As the husband of Mary Antoine, Claude Gehant had three children, Frank D., Euphamia (Jeanguenat, deceased), and Arthur. By his union with Mrs. Mary Py, he had six children, as follows: Clementine (McCrea), Edward, Louise (Faltz), Victoria (Bittner), Margarette (Bieschke), and Josephine (deceased). The Py children at the time of the marriage of their mother to Mr. Gehant, were Joseph (deceased), Eugene, Eliza (Gehant), Mary (Faltz), and Adella (Prank).

Euphamia Antoine, who was married to Morris July, was the mother of two sons, Albin and Leon. Mack July, twin brother of Morris, and their brother Joseph followed Morris to this county. Mack was married twice, his first wife being Felica Biescha, while his second was Mary Tillion. They raised a large family. These marriages account for the family name found throughout the county today. The Julys migrated here from Ohio after the Civil war and have since continued to reside here. Morris July distinguished himself very ably as a private in the war, and can tell many tales of the hardships and occurrences of that terrible time.

Benjamin Leepy, after discontinuing his shoe shop at Lee Center, took up the farm life on a nearby farm and prospered for a number of years. Mr. and Mrs. Leepy were the parents of eight children, four girls and four boys, Ludina, Melenda, Addie, Artena, Theodore, Jerome, Edward and Lucian. After her husband's death Mrs. Leepy married August Barlow, himself a widower. His first wife had been Adell Py, the only daughter of Ferdinando Py, and to whom had been born ten named children, Sylvan, Edward, Victor, Amel, Leon, Adolph, Lydia, Clementine (deceased), Adeline and Nettie.

Mr. and Mrs. Edward Antoine raised six children, including Julius, who crossed the Atlantic with his parents when but three months old. Mrs. Antoine died leaving this family in charge of their father, who afterwards married a second time. To this union six children were born, Edward, George, Henry, Frank, Isaac and Addie.

Gradually one by one the French gathered at Lee Center, and in addition to those already named we find in one community Mr. and Mrs. Charles Jeanblanc, Mr. and Mrs. Maximan Aubert, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Breschon, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Bresehon, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Biescha, Mr. and Mrs. Moses Antoine, Louis Champlan, Nicholas Schoeffle, Jerry Tondreau, Justin and Edward Tebeau, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Petit, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Simon and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Lawrence. Charles Jeanblanc's family consisted of three sons, Alexander, Constant and Abell. The Aubert family included three children, Leon, Benjamin and Josephine. Joseph Breschon had two sons, Charles and Joseph. Alexander Biescha was the father of two boys and two girls, namely, Frank, Alexander, Mary and Felica. Moses Antoine was married twice, his children by his first wife being Albert, Addie and Lucian. By his second wife they were James and Lizzie. Louis Champlan married Julia Henry, Nicholas Schoeffle married her sister Margarette, while Jerry Tondreau married a third sister, Leona. Justin Tebeau took for his wife Mary Montavon, a French woman from Switzerland. His brother Edward married Lydia Barlow. The last eight families moved to Iowa, where their descendents are still to be found.

Francis Henry landed at New Orleans in 1867 and settled at Joliet, Ill., where his wife died soon after the establishment of the new home. Her death left the husband with ten children, some of whom were of very tender age. The family consisted of four boys and six girls, as follows: Joseph, Victor, Amel, Edward, Cathryn (Barlow), Margurette (Schoeffel), Leona (Tondreau), Julia (Champlan), Mary (Mertens), Josephine (Coty).

Joseph, the eldest son, saw service in the rebel army during the Civil war, while his brother Victor fought in the Union ranks, the two brothers taking part in several important engagements between the Blue and the Grey. Both were wounded in battle and each accused the other of firing the shot that marked the two for life. Joseph was not a rebel from choice, but being engaged in business south of the Mason and Dixie line at the outbreak of the Civil war, was given his choice between service in the Confederate army or confinement in the Andersonville prison. He chose the former and was made captain of his company, he being the only man in the company able to read orders, and served in the rebel ranks till wounded, when he returned to Lee County. After the war he served as an Indian scout for Uncle Sam in company with Buffalo Bill on the western plains. Victor, after his honorable discharge from the Union army, returned to Lee County and was joined by his brother Joseph, who in partnership engaged in farming for some years in Bradford Township. Their bachelor home was a favorite place during the long winter nights, where the neighbors would assemble to listen to the brothers campfire tales of war times or ''on the trail of the Indians'' of the western plains. Edward, another brother, after reaching his majority, settled in eastern Nebraska. Joseph E. Henry, better known as Squire Henry, settled in Bradford Township where he owns a 360-acre farm. He was honored by his fellow townsmen with the important office of justice of the peace for more than twenty years. After retiring from the farm he took up his residence at West Brooklyn, and about two years ago moved to Dixon. The Squire married Judith Gehant, and to this union five children were born, Leona (Jean-guenat), Edna, Laura (Wiser), Laurent and Amel (deceased). The latter was an instructor in St. Martin's College of Lacy, Washington, at the time of his death. Joseph E. Henry of Dixon and his sister Catherine Bernardin of Amboy, together with their children, are the only members of the Francis Henry family still residing in Lee County. Constant Barlow, who had been here since 1855, became the husband of Cathryn Henry, and to this union five children were born, Theodore, Alfred, Constant, Cathryn and Tena.

Constant Favre and wife, together with their two sons and two daughters, Lewis, Delphan, Gustin and Olympia, came here from Southern Ohio and settled in May Township about the year 1868. The older Favres have been dead for many years. Louis, the oldest son, still resides in May Township, and is recognized as one of the largest land owners in that part of the county. Delphan, the younger son, sold out his real estate possessions in Lee County some ten years ago and removed to Southern Minnesota, where it is reported he controls a large acreage of choice land. Gustin (Aubert), the older daughter, is still a resident of May, residing on the old Aubert homestead near the Lewis Favre estate. Olympia (Henry) has been dead for a number of years. Victor Henry, husband of Olympia, married a second time, and then removed to Kankakee, but their three daughters continued to reside in Lee County. Frank Deville and Remy Arnould came to the vicinity of Ashton about 1867, and today we still find their descendents in the county. Mr. Deville's family consisted of four girls and one son, the latter dying years ago. The girl's names are Victorine, Clara, Mary and Euphamia. Mr. Arnould was the father of three boys, Julius of Viola, Vincent of Dixon and Edward of Ashton.

Eugene Vincent, who had settled at Somonauk in DeKalb County upon his arrival in Illinois from his native land, came to our county in 1867. He was the first of this family to arrive here. He settled in Viola Township and continued to farm until about fifteen years ago when he and his wife located in West Brooklyn. His family are Joseph, Ernest, Modest, Amel and Mary. His wife was Clementine Diloisy. Her brother Joseph is best known in the county, having resided in various parts for many years. One of the Diloisy girls married Charles Applegreen, while still another became Mrs. Maggie Jerrard. The fifth member of the family, Batiste Diloisy, was but little known here.

Joseph Vincent, Sr., came to our county a little later than his brother Eugene, but even then, not until after his son Joseph and daughter Mary had crossed the Atlantic and located here. There were still two others of the Vincent family who journeyed to our country and settled here, they being Josephine and Mary, who became the wives of Prosper Gander and August Chaon. Their father, whose name also was Joseph, never settled here, but did, however, spend a few months visiting with his daughters after their marriage. Prosper Gander arrived here from Pennsylvania, where he had stopped upon reaching American soil.

Joseph Bernardin left France about 1854 and settled with the French in Ohio. About 1870 he too followed the others to Lee County and remained a resident here until his death, at Amboy, a few years ago. He was married twice, his children by his first wife being Henry, Charles, and Mary (Arnold). His second wife was the widow of Constant Barlow and to this union were born three children, Julius, Louise (Schroer), and Peter.

These individuals and families seem to include all the early French settlers in that part of Lee County covered by our subject, and it is due to these pioneers that we find the French descendants so prominently located in this county today.

There are the Henrys, Gehants, Bressons, Bernardins, and Vincents in and near West Brooklyn; the Arnoulds at Ashton; the Favres in Maytown; the Barlows, Antoines and Devilles at Amboy, all bearing the names of their ancestors direct from France. Many other French names are to be heard throughout the county and in some way or other a goodly number of these are related to those first pioneer settlers but have since lost the family name through marriage to others of the French nationality who have come from other states or have come from the old country in later years.

Perhaps the largest families of the French nationality to be found in Lee County are the Henrys and the Gehants. As large as these families are we have them nearly all in one community and prospering with their other French brethren. The Henrys are divided into three distinct families, each family coming from ancestors who are not related to each other. John Bazel Henry, who came in 1855, was not related to Francis Henry, who came in 1867. Neither were these two related to August Henry who settled in Ohio and continued to live there until his death. His son Alexander journeyed to our county within the last ten years and has continued to reside here ever since. Mrs. Sylvan Py was also a sister of Alexander, but, of course, her descendants do not bear the name of Henry. This name perhaps has a distinction not often boasted of by others in this respect, for in Lee County and even in the same village are to be found persons bearing the family name of ''Henry'' and three of them, neighbors, are not related in any way.

The early Frenchmen adapted themselves to the ways of the new world and applied themselves in such a manner as to become real industrious, a trait which is found in our present generation and so characteristic in their everyday life. We might say the greater portion of the French to be found in Lee County, are farmers. A goodly number are found located in the villages following some mercantile pursuit and we are certain to find the rest of them continuing in some trade or profession, working out their livelihood. Some are politically inclined and have been very prominent in both our great parties during recent years. A son of Laurent Gehant, who arrived in America as we have seen in 1857, was elected to the General Assembly by the people of the thirty-fifth district in 1906 and served his people in such a way as to bring great credit to himself and his nationality. This person is Henry F. Gehant of West Brooklyn, and is one who is well known throughout the county today. He is the pioneer banker of the country town, opening the bank bearing his name in 1897 at West Brooklyn. This institution he has built up from year to year until now we find it one of the most important of its kind in that portion of the county. It has a capital of $25,000 and deposits ranging from $150,000 to $200,000. Besides doing a general banking business its insurance department issues policies covering all the leading forms of insurance and deals in real estate and farm loans. This institution is perhaps one of the most successful of those started through French capital and enterprise, and stands as a monument to the staunch character of those early Frenchmen as well as a monument to its founder. Mr, Gehant's two sons, Oliver L. and Henry W., are cashier and assistant cashier, respectively, of the bank. F. D. Gehant, a cousin of the founder, acted as cashier for a number of years, but retired from the banking business early in 1912, and is now engaged in the hardware and implement business in West Brooklyn. We have already seen that F. D. Gehant is a son of Claude Gehant, who was numbered among the very first of the French to settle in the county. His other brothers are located in various parts of the state, one of them, Arthur, still residing on the old homestead in Bradford. Besides Henry F. Gehant, Laurent Gehant has three sons and two daughters residing in or near West Brooklyn, namely, Frank J., Laurent, Andrew, Mrs. Sarah Jeanblanc, and Mrs. Melenda Edwards. Their daughter Leona, who accompanied her parents from France, died some thirty-five years ago, then being the wife of Joseph Chaon, another descendent of the early French arrivals. Most of Modest Gehant's children are still in the vicinity of West Brooklyn and are actively engaged in farming or have retired from the hard work and content themselves in supervising their farms. August Gehant, one of the sons, has been a prominent citizen of Viola Township for many years. Like many of the others before him he married another descendant of those early Frenchmen, his wife being a granddaughter of John Bresson who arrived here in 1855, and constituted one of the party of sixteen coming together that year. Other Gehants to select wives who are descended from those early pioneer settlers were Henry F., who married a granddaughter of Ferdinando Py, Frank J., who married Victoria Henry, Laurent, who married Mary Henry, Prank D., who married a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Leopold Henry or a granddaughter of John Bazel Henry.

The descendents of the Henry family are represented in the business calendar of Brooklyn Township by Edward E. Henry, a son of Leopold Henry, who conducts a garage and is proprietor of a dram shop in West Brooklyn. He has two brothers residing in the vicinity who support the family name, Amel and Eugene, and a number of sisters, all of whom are married, but who still make this county their home. The Bernardins too are sharing the retail business burdens of West Brooklyn, for Julius and Henry are engaged in the implement and lumber business. Julius has Theodore Barlow as his partner in the implement business. He too is a descendent of those early Frenchmen. Another of the nationality prominent in business in West Brooklyn is Prosper Gander, who came from France in later years and after stopping for a time in Pennsylvania. As related previously, Mr. Gander is the husband of Josephine Vincent, and they have one daughter. He is a mason contractor and very successfully conducts his chosen profession. The Vincents are all farmers with the exception of Eugene and Joseph, Sr., who have retired within the past fifteen years. We still find the wives of Delphan and Polite Bresson in Viola Township in the midst of their sons and daughters, where they have continued to till the soil throughout all these years. Like the Vincents we find the Chaons still continuing the farm life and only in a few instances have the older members of the families retired and are living in town. Joseph Chaon and wife, he having been married a second time, reside in West Brooklyn. His brother Charles died a number of years ago, but is survived by his German wife and their children. A brother, Amadia Chaon, moved to Nebraska many years ago, while still another brother, August Chaon, died at his home in Viola. His family have since left the county and located in the Northwest.

The French language in this county is gradually, but surely, losing its identity. Through fifty years association with neighbors of every nationality the younger generation have lost all affection for the tongue of their ancestors and content themselves with the English language alone. Intermarriage has resulted in depleting the thoroughly French population by one-half, and it is safe to make the prediction that ere fifty years more have passed very few of the original French descendents will be recognizable in Lee County.

Perhaps the nationality being most intermingled with the French is the German. Many of Irish descent are also marrying into the French families so that in a few years more we will find our people to be not French, nor German, nor Irish, but descendants of a French and German marriage or an Irish and French marriage. Many from Switzerland too have migrated to our county and become identified with the local Frenchmen on account of speaking the same language. Chief among the Swiss we find the Wisers, the Bauers, and the Montavons, located here. Many would call them French, not knowing their original birthplace, and on account of their close semblance to the French are not distinguishable from them. The patriotic American spirit seizes every Frenchman soon after his arrival in this country, and a Frenchman is an American regardless of his language when once he becomes settled on this side of the Atlantic.

It isn't French history that Frenchmen strive to create in America, although the Frenchman has been an important factor in American history making from the very beginning. The ancestors of some of the early French settlers in Lee County left their native land with General Lafayette and shed their life blood for American independence and for patriotic love of the struggling colonists in their fight for freedom from English tyranny. One need but to read the early history of America to ascertain the debt of gratitude its citizens owe to the French race. Every individual aims to contribute his part to that great American history which every day, year after year, amazes the world and makes this nation the great leader of nations and draws to our flag the respect of every people in every clime. Let us not mourn the disappearance of the Frenchmen in Lee County, but feel glad to realize that they have mingled with those of every nationality to make a new history. Let us revere them for it and close with that deep sensitiveness within our breast that we owe to every patriotic and progressive American citizen for such they have, long years past, become and are today sharing their portion with the others of our great American people.

Lee County History


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