The Phantom Frenchman

Playwright George Bernard Shaw famously lamented that because of the chaotic traditions of English pronunciation, g-h-o-t-i was a perfectly acceptable way of spelling “fish,” by pronouncing “gh” as it sounds in “rough,” taking the “o” from “women,” and “ti” as it’s heard in the middle of “nation.”  Shaw may be famous for saying it, and he might have agreed with the idea that English spelling could use an overhaul,  but no one has been able to pin it on him.  The much-quoted example of nonsensical pronunciation does not appear in any of his writings.  It seems that the English may be in the habit of adding weight to a scornful observation by attributing it to Shaw, the way we make an American witticism seem twice as humorous by pasting it behind the phrase “It was  Mark Twain who once said…”      

I thought of Shaw and that thing he didn’t say, as I tried to track down Julian Changreau, the Frenchman with a Sioux wife who were pioneers in the Black Vermillion valley, where Thomas Lovewell lived from 1856 to 1858.  The story of the kidnapping and murder of Changreau's sister-in-law appears in several historical retrospectives, the earliest published about a quarter of a century after the event.  There can be little doubt that the tale is factual, at least in broad outline, since several settlers who were the Frenchman's neighbors in the 1850’s remained in Marshall County during the decades when the first histories of the county were being written.  However, Changreau’s trail grows cold after his departure from Marshall County.  His name is listed among the names of other fur traders in the Rocky Mountains and in Nebraska before he brought to his family to Kansas in 1853, but even in those accounts there are almost no details about him.

What’s more, a search for his name in contemporary newspapers yields no hits at all.  He does not appear in any federal census, and there are no Army records for him.  In fact, the family name “Changreau” is evidently quite rare in America.  That’s what set me to wondering if it really was his name.

In the 1857 Marshall County census of eligible voters he’s called “J. Shangrow.”  His neighbor Louis Tremble’s name is rendered as “L. Tromelly.”  Both spellings are probably good phonetic approximations of how the men pronounced their names.  But, as I started going through files before writing my previous entry, “There’s No Place Like Irving," I could not remember how in the world I knew that Changreau’s first name was Julian.  History writers always refer to him simply as “Changreau.”  Luckily, my friend Barb Gray cautioned me never to throw anything away.  Digging into the 1858 Marshall County census, I was surprised to see both of the former fur traders still hanging around their claims along the Black Vermillion River when Daniel Auld conducted his tally of eligible voters in February.  They are listed as “Julian Ghangraw,” and “Louis Trombly.”  Back when I first saw that census, because of the odd spelling of his neighbor's last name, it was only after “Trombly” caught my eye that I realized who the other man had to be.

That initial “G” in Julian's family name could be an important clue.  I've begun to suspect that instead of a Frenchman named “Changreau," I should have been looking for someone named “Gingras," a fairly common French Canadian surname pronounced “Shang-raw.”  Thanks to an 1850 census of Oregon Territory, I may have him in my sights.  Or maybe not.  At the very least, in 1850 a 38-year-old named Julien Gingras was bunking with a farm family in Marion County, which was also home to a trader named Louis Tremble.  In the same county or one adjoining it are the pair’s known associates, McClosky and Laroque, or at least their namesakes.

After 1858, that lead also dries up, although there are still many more people named Gingras than Changreau.  So, Julian Gingras, or Shangrow or Changreau or whatever your name is, I’ll keep looking, and I will find you, you French phantom, no matter how many different ways your name can be spelled.


© Dale Switzer 2023