Name Origin

The Family Surname: DuBois, as taken from the 1875 Reunion book by, Dr. Henry A. DuBois

Descendants of Louis and Jacques du Bois.

We have met here to commemorate our descent from two noble and pious men, who, more than two hundred years ago, fled from persecution in their native land, and found an asylum in this place, then a wilderness.

Peeled and stripped, for conscience sake, in the old world, they brought with them to this new world but few earthly possessions; but they came rich in a pure faith, and endowed with indomitable courage and energy to maintain it.

This precious legacy they have bequeathed to numerous posterity of the seventh and eighth generations; and though few of them may have achieved much worldly distinction, I have yet to learn the name of that one who, by dishonor, or by dishonesty, has sullied his family patronymic. Other members of the family have undertaken to portray the lives of these two pious refugees, especially of Louis, the older brother — to describe their hardships and trials in the wilderness, their progress from poverty to comparative wealth, the influence which they exerted on the community which sprang up around them on both sides of the Hudson, the general characteristics of the race and the dispersion of their numerous descendants and their settlement in other parts.

To my brother has been assigned the task of giving the history of the du Bois family in France and Holland. I propose to make the name itself the theme of this short address. “What’s in a name?” Juliet asked, and Romeo might have answered with great truth, “A great deal, since a name separates us.” So we also may reply, a great deal, since a name unites us all as kindred in America, and allies us to a very ancient and noble stock in Europe. This point I will now proceed to prove.

Ancient family surnames, which have been transmitted unaltered from generation to generation, indicate with great certainty a common origin on the part of all these who have rightfully inherited such ANCIENT surnames.

The family name, which these two refugees bore is a peculiar one, and is probably the most ancient name now extant. Written in the form in which they and their predecessors, for six hundred years, invariably wrote it. vis : with a small “d” and a capital “B” it was an incontestable badge of noble extraction, though the possessor, by adverse circumstances, might have been degraded from rank into the lower levels of society. Abjuring the Romish faith would be inevitably visited with such degradation, and the name erased from the parish and family records.

There are several instances on record of some of this name who. After degradation, had been restored, and, as the record expresses it, “rehabilites en noblesse.” I have not the ability, if I had the wish, to trace the descent of these pious men from “loins enthroned or rulers of the earth” for they have a far higher heraldry in the skies;

But a few remarks in regard to the antiquity of this family name wall, I trust, prove interesting to those who have inherited it.

According to Pere Anselme, de Laignes and other learned genealogists, there were at first no fixed family names in Europe outside of the nobility. After the year 1339, wealthy families, not noble, assumed and transmitted family names derived from lands acquired or inherited.

Among industrial classes of society, fixed surnames did not exist till long afterwards. These are of comparatively recent origin, and were first assumed as indicative of parentage or occupation, such as Johnson, Peterson, Nicholson, Thompson, etc., or Mason, Carpenter, Tailor, Clover, Wainwright, Baker, Brewer, etc., ad infinitum. Such names are still in process of formation, especially amongst the Teutonic race landing on our shores.

But all the ancient family surnames which can be traced back prior to the year one thousand two hundred, are, according to the above authors, of noble origin.

Previous to the year 900, no fixed family surnames existed In France, even amongst the nobles. At this time barons and knights held their lands as revocable gifts from sovereign princes. secular or ecclesiastical. But after 987, they began to acquire possession of their lands in hereditary fee, paying only feudal service to their suzerains. At this time, therefore, these barons and knights first began to transmit their family names, as well as their lands, to their posterity, and the name of an estate, inherited or acquired by marriage, was generally affixed to the original surname to distinguish the different branches of the same family.

Of these ancient patronymics, probably the most ancient one which has descended unchanged to this time, is that of “duBois.”

After consulting all the oldest genealogical authors and books of heraldry in the ancient Bibliotheque du Roi (now Bibliotheque Nationale), at Paris, I found but one name which is now extant of equal antiquity.*** This is the name of “Pierrepont.” which, like that of “duBois”, has come down for many centuries to the present time unaltered in a single letter.

The origin of both these ancient family surnames was derived from hereditary office. Pere Anselme and Dufourny, in the eighth folio volume of their great work, entitled “Maison Royale de France”, at pages 865 to 869, speak of the family “duBois” as the “Grand Masters of the Forests of France,” and of the family “Pierrepont” as the “Grand Masters of the Waters of France.”

The above authors attribute a common origin to both these ancient families, to wit: from Macquaire duBois , Count de Roussy. in 1110,whose ancestor built the Castle de Roussy in 948, and added this title to his patronymic. Macqisaire’s son was Hugh de Roussy, surnamed “le Cholet, ‘ whose fourth son, not succeeding to the titles, perpetuated the line under the title of “Seigneurs duBois de Marne,” for fifteen generations. when Guillaume duBois, in 1484, took the title of de Roussy. The great-grandson of Hughes duBois perpetuated the line of the “Seigneures de Pierrepont” for twelve generations. when both branches, according to this record, took the name of de Roussy.

The Castle of de Roussy was situated In Artois, where some suppose the name of “duBois” to have originated. Other genealogical authors trace the origin of this family name to that part of France anciently called Neustria, a part of which was afterwards known as Normandy. It evidently existed there as an old name before the Norwegian Rollo, with his band of Norman followers, invaded that ancient province of France, and became the first duke of Normandy.

M. de Saint Allais, in his “Nobillare de France,” speaks of this name as that of one of the most ancient of the noble families of Normandy. He traces one of its branches, namely, that of “duBois duBais,” from 1066 (at which time it was an old family), down to the present century, by regular descent from father to son, the original patronymic being unchanged throughout. All the authors on historic genealogy concur in mentioning this surname as belonging to very ancient families in other parts of France, especially in Artois, Flanders and Brittany; but all bearing this patronymic are suppose to have had a common origin.

During my recent sojourn in Paris, I visited the Viscount de Magny, the present head or the Heraldic College of France, and had several conversations and some correspondence with him. He said to me: “Your family name. ‘duBois’, is one of the very oldest in France, and has more extensive marriage connections than any other.” He writes: “I have some three hundred manuscript documents in regard to it.” It is divided, according to him, into five principal branches, which exist in different parts of France, In Flanders, and even in England, but all these branches are traceable (he thinks) to a common origin in Normandy.

A few words in regard to the orthography of this ancient name will be appropriate and interesting to those who bear it. In many hundred instances In which I have examined this name In various hooks of heraldry, I have never but In one instance found it written otherwise than with a small “d” and with a capital “B,” thus, “duBois.” The exception was in the case of a woman incidentally mentioned, and the reason not explained.

The prefix to a family name of “de,” “de la,” or of “du,” which is a contraction of “de le,” is universally admitted in France to be a badge of noble extraction.

While living in France, forty years ago. I made the acquaintance of M. Dumas, a near relative of the author. One day he said to me. “Do you sign your name with a large ‘B’ or a small ‘b’?” I told him that my father and all his predecessors invariably signed their names with a capital B, but that I wrote it indifferently both ways, as I supposed it was the same name. He replied. “You are quite mistaken. If you have the right to sign your name with a large ‘B.’ you belong to an ancient French family, of which there are now but few representatives.” “But,” he added, “there are great numbers in the south and middle of France who write this name with a small ‘b’ and who are of an entirely different origin.

These were probably the descendants of the enfranchised peasantry or serfs who, in migrating to other parts, took the name of their feudal lords, but without the badge which indicated noble extraction, as this, in France, would have been a penal offence on their part, Thus the talented but infamous Cardinal Dubois never dared to write his name with a capital ‘B’, for during his day there were many powerful branches of the noble family ‘duBois’ jealous of their hereditary patronymic, who would have immediately impleaded him before the parliament of France, and have convicted him of imposture.”

Louis and Jacques duBois were the first who brought this ancient name to the new world, and they wrote it as it was invariably written six hundred years previously, with a small “d” and a capital “B.”

At the present time their direct lineal descendants exist in the seventh and eighth generation. All these descendants have always signed their names with a capital “B.” after the example of their respective progenitors. but they should also have written the prefix “du,” as they wrote it, and not with a capital ” D.”

It is very desirable that all the descendants of Louis and Jacques duBois should maintain their family patronymic intact as a badge of their common origin. and wrote it in the same way that their forefathers did. this would not necessitate the change of a single letter, but simply a return to the ancient usage of writing the first letter of the prefix “du” with a small “d.”

This uniformity in writing the name I strenuously advocate, not only as an indication of descent from these two noble champions of Protestantism who first brought it to this country, but also as a distinction from French citizens now settling in our midst, whose names, though apparently similar, are essentially different, and who are of a different lineage, and also of a different and adverse faith

I am no advocate for nobiliary titles, still less for nobiliary privileges. Such pretensions are inconsistent with the simplicity of the republican institutions bequeathed to us by our revolutionary fathers. Still more abhorrent would they be to the prevailing ochlocratic spirit of the present day, which has superseded our old republican principles, and is fast degrading, if not destroying, all that our forefathers esteemed virtuous and respectable. But to every right-minded man it must be a subject of just and honest pride to be descended from a long line of pious ancestors In this country, even though he should be reproached for claiming descent from a noble stock in Europe.

Fellow-kinsmen, the time is fast approaching when we will be called upon to maintain those principles of civil and religious liberty which our forefathers planted in this country, and which are now menaced by the same foe which persecuted them.

Rome has at this day, and in this country, far more political and spiritual power than she has in any country in Europe, and more than she had in France under Louis XIV, when she drove our ancestors from their native land. She then sought to obtain her ends by the aid of a royal despot: she now finds a more powerful ally in demagogism, which is and always has been the bane of all free institutions.

In the Impending struggle for an unimpaired national life which looms up in the near future, I predict that all the descendants of the two noble Huguenot refugees. Louis and Jacques duBois, will be found battling on the side of patriotism, intelligence and religious freedom, against ignorance, superstition and demagogism upheld by the subtle craft and wily politics of Rome.

Among the earliest and very best settlers of this country, the Huguenots stand foremost as a race. Wherever they settled, north or south, they have ever been noted as virtuous and useful citizens, honorable men. and fearless upholders of civil and religious liberty. Of these Huguenots, one of the most ancient families is that of “duBois ?’ For more than two hundred years they have maintained in this country their family name unsullied.

Let us, therefore, fellow-kinsmen, reverence our American progenitors, Louis and Jacques, not for their claims to ancient lineage in the old world, but for the piety, courage and honorable principles which they have transmitted to their descendants in the new world.


* This gentleman, residing at New Haven Conn., is Doctor of Medicine and of Laws ( not a practicing physician). He is known as the author of several reviews, chiefly on subjects of science as bearing upon religion, which have been highly commended, both in America and England. His house is doubly Huguenot, as he married into the Jay family. He is brother of Cornelius and George W., already mentioned.

** Of this well-known citizen of Ulster, president of the Ellenville Bank, we shall have repeated occasion to speak. [EDS]

***Dr. Schenck has traced his to the eighth century. (EDS)

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