The first chapter in the history of the CORMIER family in America begins with an act of seeming irrationality that makes the rest of the story possible. In the spring of 1644, during the first year of the reign of the boy king Louis XIV, a 34-year-old charpentier de navire, his wife, and two sons, one of them still an infant, left their native city of La Rochelle, France, to seek their fortune in the New World. They set sail aboard the Le Petit Saint-Pierre for Fort Saint-Pierre on Cape Breton Island in the colony of Acadia, bound as servants to Louis Tuffet, commander of the fort.01
La Rochelle was a prosperous Atlantic port at the time, its troubles in the terrible Wars of Religion long behind it. Trading vessels from all over the world could be found in its magnificent harbor, as could the smaller ships of the fishermen who crossed the Atlantic every spring to fill their nets in the teeming banks off the coast of North America. Certainly there was plenty of work in La Rochelle for a ship’s carpenter or for anyone associated with the maritime trades. So why did this ship’s carpenter leave the city of his birth and venture with his family to a struggling colony across a wide and dangerous ocean, to a colony which in its 40-year existence had seen more hardship and strife than happiness and prosperity?
This ship’s carpenter left no diary or cache of letters to give us an answer to this question. He was illiterate and thus unable to leave us his story even if he had wanted to. The best we can do to understand his motivation and why the CORMIER family came to America is to review the history of the place into which he cast his fortunes, the place we now call Nova Scotia but which he and his fellow Frenchmen called l’Acadie. [. . . ]
It was into this maelstrom of violence and intrigue that Robert CORMIER appeared with his family on Cape Breton Island in the spring of 1644.
That the island on which he settled was named after the ancient French region of Brittany was entirely appropriate for a CORMIER. The family name our ship’s carpenter took with him to North America appears to be an ancient one in Brittany. The word "cormier" in French refers to the sorb apple tree, "a tree of very hard wood," one source avers.29 Writes another researcher of the family’s history: "In a search of the records … with the President of the Saint Malo (France) Historical Society, the Very Reverend Canon Descottes, has shed new light on our CORMIER ancestors, indicating that our forefathers hailed from the province of Brittany, and more specifically from the Department of Ile et Velaine, France, and most probably from the town of Saint Aubin du CORMIER, according to the conclusion of the Very Reverend Canon. The record states that the town was founded in the early Middle Ages by a Sieur Saint Malo Becheral les Aubin du CORMIER. Evidently, the name with time, was shortened to du CORMIER and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to just plain CORMIER. Thus, as the good Canon pointed out, we are descendants of French nobility, our ancestors having been granted that large tract of land known today as Saint Aubin-du-CORMIER in 1225 by Louis IX, better known as St. Louis."30
"The first CORMIERs were lords of Courneuve (Brittany) and la Vieuville (Brittany)" and may have been knighted as early as 1225, the same source goes on. "It can be concluded from the records that some of the CORMIER clan lived in Saint Malo in the 15th and 16th centuries, namely one Richard CORMIER, Sieur de Perron, who was captain of a vessel; one Francois, Sieur de Bellevant, an outstanding Malouin who was commander of of [sic] the illustrious frigate "Saint Malo" and a certain Thomas Olivier CORMIER, a well known citizen of Saint Malo. The name CORMIER is still quite prominent in the Department of ile et Vilaine, also in the Department of the Loire particularly in the towns of Saint Servan sur Mer and Saint Aubin du CORMIER."31
Another source claims that Nicolas CORMIER served as a district attorney in Rennes, the ancient capital of Brittany, and attained the status of a nobleman in the late 1300s.32 "A certain YvesCORMIER was secretary of King Louis in 1584. He was succeeded in the same position by his son Pierre," says another source.33
Like most medieval families whose members claimed nobility, the CORMIERs boasted a family coat of arms: a wide gold chevron surrounded by three silver crescents surmounting a shield of red.34
The ancestors of the CORMIERs probably were Cymric Celts of the ancient region known as Armorica. They fought and were defeated by Julius Caesar and his Roman legions in the first century B.C.E. They stubbornly refused to be Romanized, however, and maintained their ancient traditions. In the fifth and sixth centuries, after the fall of Rome, Britons (Celtic natives of Great Britain) took refuge in the northwestern part of Armorica, fleeing from the Germanic invaders of their island. These Britons were Christians and gradually converted the Armorican Celts to their faith. Armorica came to be called Bretagne, or Brittany, after these British refugees. Although most of the Bretons became devout western Christians, they refused to be conquered by earthly kingdoms. Charlemagne and his army of Franks defeated them in the late eighth century, but they eventually won their independence from Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald. Brittany became a dukedom in the tenth century and remained virtually independent of France throughout the Middle Ages. Aubin du CORMIER was the site of a battle fought in 1488 between the Bretons and the French.35 Not until 1532 did this stronghold of Celtic culture become a formal part of the Kingdom of France.36
Sometime probably in the late Middle Ages, for reasons lost to history, one or more CORMIERs left their ancient homeland and ventured south into the region of Aunis. Though their ancestors may have been noblemen, the fact of their migration gives a clue that these CORMIERs probably were of a lower social status. Some of them drifted inevitably to the port of La Rochelle. At least one of them took up the trade of carpenter.37
Robert CORMIER was born in La Rochelle in 1610, the son of Abraham CORMIER, who was born in Dieppe, Normandy, in 1585, and Catherine LeMayne of LaRochelle.38 Robert may have taken up the trade of his father. At the age of 24, in 1634, he married Marie Piraude in La Rochelle. Their son Thomas was born there two years later. In 1643 they had another son, Jean.
Later in that year or early in the next year, Robert and Marie made the fateful decision that wrote a new chapter in the history of the CORMIER family. A careful reading of the document thatRobert "signed" in a notary’s office in La Rochelle in early January 1644 may give us a clue as to why they left their homeland and ventured to Acadia.
Personally established Noble man M. Andre Tuffet, Parliamentary Lawyer occupying the Presidential seat of this city, Honorables Auger, Ducaharin and Dominique de Chevery, merchants living in this city (La Rochelle, France) on one part and Robert CORMIER, carpenter and Marie Paraude, his wife, and ThomasCORMIER, their son, living in this city forming the other or second part. The said parties of their own free will have made and passed between them the following: It is to be understood that the said CORMIER, Piraude, his said wife, and their said son shall be bound as they have promised to embark the first request of Sirs Tuffet, Descharin and de Chevery upon the boat known as the Little St. Pierre (Peter) of whom Pierre Poiliau is Master, to said Cape Breton Island in the Country of New France and to work for the said Sirs Tuffet, Ducharin and de Chevery in his trade as carpenter and the other chores they shall be commanded to perform by Sir Louis Tuffet of Ft. St. Pierre on the said Island towards those ends shall be obliged to obey and follow entirely those orders during a lapse of the next three consecutive years, which shall begin the day they embark and shall terminate the day they embark for their return, the said three years having ended and this for the sake of the sum of one hundred and twenty three pounds for each year, for the first of the said years the said Sir Tuffet, Ducharin and de Chevery have presently paid in advance the sum of (?) the balance shall be paid to them or to their order one month after the return of the said ship, deductions shall me made of what ever received on the said Island and it is accorded and expressly convened that the cases be that the said CORMIER and his said wife disobey or have rebelled against Sir Tuffet’s clerk or other governing bodies, they shall be deprived of theire wages and liable for all fixed expenses, damages and interest between the said parties, for the carrying out of the present agreement the parties of the second part have obligated to one another their present and future belongings and likewise the said CORMIER his person to serve-prison for royal coins and have ? (etc.) judged and condemned (etc.) Signed and sealed in the undersigned notary’s study in La Rochelle before noon the eighth day of January, one thousand six hundred and fourty four before Francois Moreau, practioner and Martin de Hanagillaque, clerk, living in this city. The said CORMIER and his said wife declare not able to write.39
Two and a half months later, perhaps on the eve of their departure for Acadia, the CORMIERs signed a codicil to their indenture that revealed another detail of the make up of their family.
On the twenty-sixth day of March, one thousand six hundred and fourty four, it has been convened between the said parties Robert CORMIER and his said wife shall be allowed to bring with them to the Island of Cape Breton their twenty-month old son, who shall be nourished and cared for on the said island without he be entitled to claim any salary. The said CORMIER declared not able to sign. X.40
But, again, we must ask the nagging question: Why did this humble carpenter and his wife agree to sign an indenture with the hard-pressed associates of Nicolas Denys and venture to a colony noted mostly for its failures and now plagued by civil conflict? Was he ignorant of the almost decade-long struggle between his new seigneurs and the Sieur d’Aulnay? Did he do it for the money—123 French pounds per year—because he was frightfully in debt? Had he committed a crime and sought to escape a prison sentence by signing an indenture and serving his nation’s interests in Acadia?41 Perhaps Robert’s skill as a master carpenter caught the attention of Denys’s associates and they recruited our ancestor to help construct Fort Saint-Pierre and to build new ships for the Denys enterprises there.42
No matter, there he was, boarding the Petite Saint-Pierre with his wife and two young sons. Soon he was pursuing his craft at Fort Saint-Pierre, where he no doubt found plenty of work in the frontier post. Luckily for him that place was on the periphery of the internecine struggle raging in Acadia.
When his contract expired, Robert CORMIER was free to return to La Rochelle. But this apparently he did not do. In 1650, he and Marie and son Thomas, now 14, and perhaps Jean, who would have been 7, settled near Port Royal, where they probably took up farming in the growing community of colonists there. For reasons we can only guess, these first CORMIERs in America chose to remain in this brave New World and pursue their destiny as Acadians.43