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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

History and Genealogy: The French Princess Legend – And Legacy

By Joanne Polizzi Mansfield
©2019. All rights reserved.

This story starts out sounding like a mystery novel. A woman becomes interested in her husband’s family history. She finds a mysterious letter among old unlabeled photos and newspaper obituaries of unknown people.

The letter, written in 1905 to “Cousin Nelson” in Chautauqua County, Western New York, looks to be from a family member in Colorado, encouraging keeping family records for future generations. There is a list of names and a story of “your family” that lived in Connecticut and Canada.

For many years there has been a legend about a "French Princess" that married into the family; that she hid in a barrel of hemp for an unknown reason. She was hiding from something-some trouble, danger, possible kidnapping? One version was that she was escaping to the United States and doing so, hid in a barrel. It was a dramatic and romantic story in the family and a mystery! The letter to Cousin Nelson tells the story, adds names and dates and provides details that can be used for research. How could this story possibly relate to a farm family in a quiet corner of New York? What could this history mean to descendants many generations later?

Before the advent of the internet, another cousin collected family information and history. There was a paper trail of letters, phone calls and trips to libraries and historical societies around the country. There was a genealogy of names, dates, and sources, but nothing about the ‘French Princess”. Some details were identified, and names added. Over the years, with technological advancements, historical accounts and research have been more available, accurate and pertinent.

And although the letter gave details and names to the story, what we couldn’t find was the absolute connections giving names and identity to the suspected ancestors.

The letter identifies our “French Princess” as an Acadian exile deported to Connecticut in 1755. The story is told simply in the letter. The larger story is of the heartbreaking raid by the British of the present day Canadian Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, known as Acadia. The Expulsion (1755–1764) occurred during the French and Indian War.

The letter writers are the great-grandsons of our “Princess” named Sybil:

"Sybil Cheravay was born in Nova Scotia (Acadia) A.D. 1742-4 of French parentage. In the autumn of 1755, several thousands of the French residents of that country were taken prisoners by English and Colonial forces under the command of Col. Winslow (of the colonies) and "by order of the King," placed on shipboard and distributed among the colonies of America. The family of Filmer or Philemon Cheravay was among those deported. His wife was named Sybil. A tradition exists that a son or brother of Philemon escaped capture as he was on a hunting expedition.

The names of the children of Philemon and Sybil were Filmer, Joseph, and Sybil. The children were separated from their parents and taken off in another ship. The parents and children did not meet again in several years. (Sybil often told how parents and children prayed, and wept as the ships sailed away.) The parents were put on shore at some southern port or colony.

Sybil and her two brothers were brought to New Haven on the "Good Ship Boston" and with other refugees placed in the custody of the authorities. Four hundred were allotted to come by Gov. Lawrence and were distributed among towns of that colony according to their lists by the Geul Assemble convened January 21, 1756. The share that fell to Woodbury, Connecticut, was nine. Among them were the Cheravay children.

The select men were directed to "find accommodations for them at some distance from settlements (towns) and take care to keep them at some suitable employment."

Sybil at this time "almost a grown girl" was placed in the care of a Mrs. Stiles who tried to find a home for Sybil. She took her to Kent, Connecticut, and finally left her at a good place near Litchfield with a Colonel or Captain Harrison.

The parents finally obtained a "Permit" from the authorities to travel through the colonies in search of their children and "all select men and others in authority were directed to give them necessary aid and shelter."

Filmer (or Philemon) and Joseph were found in Woodbury and Sybil in South Farms, Conn. (now Morris) Sybil it seems wished to remain in her new home and as the time for the departure of her parents drew near, hid in the attic in a barrel of top tow. All search being fruitless the parents went away without a goodbye. The parents were well supplied with money "have gold and silver in bags." Before their departure from their home in Acadia, Sybil said she was with her father when he buried almost a half a bushel of silver and gold in the garden by the side of a big rock.

The supposition is that he returned for his treasure and afterward with his wife he went to Hispaniola and bought land and soon they both are said to have died, and as they left no heirs in that country it fell to the government of Hispaniola.

Sybil was married to Capt. Thomas Harrison Sept. 17, 1764, they had four children. Thomas, Roswell, Asahel and Mary Ann. Although a Roman Catholic by birth she, Sybil joined the Congregational Church, was illiterate but the ability to repeat hymns and portions of the Bible indicated a wonderful memory. At an advanced age she "broke off snuff taking-said she made bad work with it.” She was blind at this time. After her 80th birthday, she spent a lot of time thread and gave her children each a "hank" for a remembrance.

In the last hours of her life in the wanderings of her mind, she was amid the scenes of her childhood talking in French and counting her beads in imagination.

She died in 1836-buried in Morris Connecticut, and on her tombstone, her age is given as 80 years."

So the story emerges. One of the four children, a daughter, marries an ancestor of our family and eventually, Sybil’s grandson migrates to Western New York. Sybil is our many times' great-grandmother. reveals more Cheravay family in New York and western states. The internet allows us to research the names of exiled families. We subscribe to Acadian newsletters, ask questions in forums, continue investigating the details of deportations to the colonies. We pronounce the names in English and French, seeking pronunciation and spelling variations. We do not find Sybil’s family.

Time for genealogy research ebbs and flows with our everyday life and commitments. We add names and places here and there but are no closer to finding the family we are seeking. Fast forward to the present. Our research takes a turn with public family trees, ancestry DNA, and unlimited access to information via the internet. An inquiry from an user shares a 1991 New England magazine article about an Acadian family in 1757 traveling to Connecticut searching for their children. They were separated in the great expulsion. The article describes a similar story to our legend, identifies family names and cites sources.

There was Sybil and her story! Although exact details are not the same, the similarities appear to relate to us. The names are different, possibly anglicized. The “French Princess” is not in the published article, and neither is hiding in a barrel of hemp. But she was living in Litchfield, Connecticut and she did marry Thomas Harrison in 1764. Her parents did come looking for her and her brother, and neither of them wanted to return to their family. Her parents did go to Santo Domingo and died there. All of this is supported by the research of Stephen White, a genealogist at the Centre d’études Acadiennes at the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada.

Our Acadian “French Princess” ancestor has been found, identified and secured a place in our family history. Genealogy weaves the family through history from France to Canada, Connecticut to Western New York. Her name is Girouard, not Cheravay. We have a name, a family and another research plan. We’ve provided Sybil’s descendants a proud legacy. Genealogy and history can read like a novel.

For further information please research "Expulsion of the Acadians"

About the author: Joanne Polizzi Mansfield is a trustee and genealogy researcher for the Chautauqua County Historical Society. She is a retired educator addicted to genealogy puzzles.


Diana Ross McCain. “The Acadians.” Connecticut Magazine, January 1991, pp 51-53.

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