They Wouldn’t Allow Us to Use Daddy’s Last Name: A Family Historian’s Curiosity Leads to Revolutionary Results

They Wouldn’t Allow Us to Use Daddy’s Last Name: A Family Historian’s Curiosity Leads to Revolutionary Results

Bayou Talk Newspaper
Volume 25, Number 7 (July 2013)
pages 1-8

Anita R. Paul

Most family history researchers know that surnames are an important key to finding ancestors. They also know that names can often lead to dead ends due to misspellings and other misinformation. For Michael N. Henderson, a retired Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, the spelling of a family surname sparked his curiosity and eventually led to a nearly 30-year journey to uncover a hidden truth about his Louisiana roots.

“It all began when I was a kid,” recalls Henderson, a native of Algiers—a neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana—who now lives near Atlanta, Georgia. “I asked my mom why her mother’s maiden name was spelled Mathieu instead of Matthew.” She credited it to the family being Louisiana Creole and simply chose to spell the surname that way. Fortunately for Henderson, that answer did not satisfy him, so he sought a more suitable explanation. In the midst of his searching, which became a hobby and eventually an obsession during much of his naval career, he uncovered one fact after another about his family’s history and soon became the family historian, a role that did not always meet with genuine excitement from his relatives.

“When you start digging into the past, some family members get nervous. They’re afraid you might uncover some deep, dark secret that’s been buried for generations,” Henderson explains. Others, mostly those of the younger generation, simply shrugged off Henderson’s many attempts to share his findings. “My nieces and nephews have never been keen on listening to my ancestral stories, except, of course, when the time came for a school project.”

As his genealogy research continued, a conversation with a distant cousin opened a genealogical can of worms that caused Henderson to delve deeply into the unique three-tiered social structure of French and Spanish colonial Louisiana. He studied the Code Noir (Black Code) that regulated relationships between Europeans, Native American and African enslaved people, and the distinct class of free people of color…

…Uncovering this relationship revealed the answer to a haunting statement that had been in Henderson’s family for generations: “They wouldn’t allow us to use Daddy’s last name.” As Henderson discovered, Agnes assumed the first name of her French consort, Mathieu, as her own surname and passed it on to their mixed-race children and the generations following. This answered the question about the spelling of Henderson’s maternal grandmother’s surname and consequently exposed the answer to the generations-long lament about not being able to use “Daddy’s last name.”…

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