The French Connection (from the region of Artois)

An Opinion from a French Cousin

Father Gerard Robitaillie, Acting Pastor of Saint Amand Parish, Bailleul, France

The first issue of the Robitailleries newsletter was of great interest to me. But my day-to-day responsibilities are so heavy that they leave me no time for leisure. Finally, I find myself with a free evening, so I have time to share a few reflections with you.

1) First, my thoughts on the origin of the name.

I think that the hypothesis that the family name is of Italian origin is unlikely. It must be an Artesian name (i.e. from the Artois region). This is where the Robitailles emigrated from, some for Canada, as in the case of your ancestors, and others for Flanders, as my ancestors did. The most distant of my ancestors that I am aware of, JEAN ROBITAILLIE, who lived about 25 km from here, had to have been born around 1685. It is possible that he was a cousin or a nephew of the four brothers who established themselves in New France in 1670.

You will undoubtedly object that, in making this claim, I am confusing the Robitailles with the Robitaillies. However, I am persuaded that originally they were the same name and the same family. During the 1950s while I was making some modest research efforts in the civic registry to put together at least a part of the family tree, I learned that the clerks in those days (many of whom were priests because the churches maintained baptismal records; there were no civic records of births) wrote ROBETAILLE – ROBITAILLIE – ROBITAILLE depending upon what they thought they heard from the mouths of the persons making the declaration.

My ancestor, JEAN ROBITAILLIE, had 10 children. One of his children had his family name spelled one way; the second, in another; and the third, in yet another. Yet, what struck me, was that it each case where there was a person's signature (not too often, since in those days few people knew how to write) the name was always written as ROBITAILLIE.

Now, you know that there is a rule of linguistics that says the longer spellings of words are more ancient that the shorter forms. Language evolves along the path of least resistance: complicated and irregular forms are often replaced by simpler forms and by those that easier to pronounce.

In our case, the original spelling of the family name must have been ROBITAILLIE, but it was often shortened to ROBITAILLE. I had a colleague, Father Daniel ROBITAILLE, whose ancestors must have been relatives of mine. And, in my region of the country, there are ROBITAILLIEs, ROBITAILLEs, and even ROBITALs. The shorter forms have become permanent.

2) As to the meaning of the family name, I am still perplexed.

I have been told on several occasions that the family name might have been derived from ROBIN (a thief) in the language of the Middle Ages and that ROBE-TAILLE might have designated someone who "cut (taillait)," that is to say "pursued" or "caught" thieves. This derivation does not seem to be very well founded.

I have more faith in the derivation proposed by some genealogists that my cousin consulted. They said,

  • ROB: a fellow called ROBERT or ROBART, a German name
  • TAILLE or TAILLIE: a stand of unharvested trees, a fallow woods
  • ROBITAILLE or ROBITAILLIE: the woods belonging to Robert.

The entire northern region of France had been invaded long ago by the Franks and there are many family names of Germanic origin in the area, names of people and of places.

So there you have the bits of information I can give you, given the modest scope of the research I have been able to carry out.

I hope that this information will be of interest to you and I thank you again for your letter. Please accept my best wishes to you as a member of your "family."

The Italian Connection

From Robitaglie to C'est du chinois...

which is, as we all know, ROBITAILLE in ancient Chinese characters.

Gérald Robitaille, Orsay, France

Here it is in modern characters:

Encore du chinois...

However, before discussing ROBITAILLE in Chinese and before we learn of other purely theoretical speculations about the origins of our name, let me make a few assertions of fact. It is flattering for us to wish to believe that the Italians would have invented a word especially for our French name, one that accorded with their scheme of pronunciation; but, unfortunately not! ROBITAGLIE, which is pronounced ROBITAILLE, had existed for a long time. If we had produced a Michelangelo or a Leonardo da Vinci, I'd like to believe that the Italians would have "Italianized" our family name. Once again, unfortunately not.

In my research of our origins, it was ROBITAILLIEs from the Midi who first contacted me and who were kind enough to put me in touch with ROBITAILLIEs from the north, and their documents had the name spelled as ROBITAILLIE.

Even more important, there are many ROBITAGLIEs in the area around Florence. It must be a very old name for a tradesman that meant someone who was a cutter of material or marble. Even if we haven't (yet) produced a Michelangelo, our ancestors at least helped provide him with marble! It was during the 16th century (1510, I believe) that the ROBITAILLEs appeared in the Pas de Calais region. They do not appear earlier. In 1670, some ROBITAILLEs left for Quebec … but not for Florence, nor for Corsica, nor for the Midi region of France. Let's not reverse the order of the migrations of our large family. It is known that there was a lot of immigration of Italians into France beginning in the 16th century. From the Medicis to Mazarin, our ancestors were in good company and, in my opinion, despite the clear reservations of some of us. I am proud that my ancestors may have been Italians who were first "Frenchified" and then "Quebecified." There are also many who were Canadianized or Americanized—Robatcy, Rowbetie, Rubbertie, etc.—and I say the more, the merrier. That makes us a real international family. Today let's allow everyone the right to go where they wish and the right to be whomever they wish, without losing our mutual understanding of one another.

I have promised myself a trip to Florence so I can delve into this further. I have heard that a ROBITAGLIE accompanied Marco Polo to China! I wonder if he left any descendants. How would one know?

The Basque Connection

Could we be of Basque extraction?

By C.M. Robitaille, pastor of Saint Edward the Confessor Parish, Willowdale, Ontario

If I had more time, I would make a more concerted effort to examine the possibility that the Robitaille family is of Basque origin.

On two separate occasions, two Spanish priests, on meeting me for the first time, immediately said to me, "Robitaille! Basque, pure Basque."

On another occasion, a good lady from France, on learning my name, said that I was certainly Basque, both by name and physiognomy.

On yet another occasion, while visiting California and entering a restaurant which called itself a Basque restaurant, and whose customers came directly from the Basque region of Spain, I said to them:

"Is the name Robitaille of Basque origin?
Is the name fairly common among the Basques?
Is it the most common name?
What is the most common name?

Here's another example of something that could give one the desire to pursue research on this subject, not an undersea treasure, but a treasure trove of information. Geoffrey H. Farmer, from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, tells the story of Mrs. Selma Huxley Barham. While she was visiting Red Bay in Newfoundland, Mrs. Barham noticed that pieces of tile she found on the beach oddly resembled the red tiles used in Basque country. She later found, in the archives of the ancient University of Onate, a small Basque city, the will of a certain Joanes de Echaniz who had died aboard a ship in Red Bay.

This discovery led to the confirmation of Red Bay as a New World site used by the Basques in the 16th century, to the discovery of the galleon San Juan, and to the establishment of a national historic site.

If the Basque insurance archives are sufficiently comprehensive to include mention of a shipwreck in Red Bay, Newfoundland, might it be possible to find the name Robitaille in those archives?

From what your organization has published to date, the history of the Robitailles from Hesdin dates only from the return to France of one of our ancestors' brothers. Where were they before 1650?

Editor's Note: According to the ASP, the Basques were not the only ones to have come to North America before many others. They could also have been the oldest inhabitants of Europe. It has been known for some time that the language of the Basque people, whose territory spans France and Spain, were unique in their origins: they are the only inhabitants of Europe who were not of Indo-European origin. Genetic analysis shows that their DNA is found only in a few neighboring populations. What this means is not only that their origins are different from those of their neighbors, but also that they were more successful at resisting the intermixing of races that has been the lot of Europe for thousands of years.