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Letter to the Editor
by Brant Chaisson
Louisiana


Many of the Chiassons/Chaissons and their friends and families who are readers of your paper may be interested to learn that the name Chiasson/Chaisson is not French, it is Swiss as I discovered through a genealogical study and subsequent visit to the town of Chiasso, Switzerland where the name began, perhaps as early as 2,000 years ago.

Having been born and raised in South Louisiana in the mid-50ís where most people at the time were/are of French/Acadian origin, it was taken for granted that the name Chiasson or Chaisson was French. In high school, I casually asked the French teacher if he had an idea of what the name meant, but he could not tell me. I looked at maps of France and could not find any town with a name even similar to it. In the early 1980ís, I happened to watch a "B" Charles Bronson movie. Although I didnít remember the name, some have told me it was probably "Love and Bullets", filmed in Switzerland. In one scene, Bronson is shown stepping from the train in Chiasso, Switzerland. That definitely piqued my curiosity, but I thought that perhaps this was from French people settling in Switzerland, thus giving the town this French name. It wasnít until a few years ago that I read the website of David Chiasson in Nova Scotia, Canada, who had done a ten-year-long exhaustive genealogical study, and traced the name back to that area, circumstantially but strongly concluding that the name is Swiss, not French.

Chiasso (pronounced in the region as "Kee-YASS-oh") is a small town in the southern Swiss Alps just on the border of northern Italy. Although the first written records of the place date to 1127, AD, archeological digs in the area show inhabitants from at least 1,500 BC. Chiasso became an official town in 1416 and officially a part of Switzerland in 1521. In the ancient language of the region, which was probably Romansh (a dialect of the language of the Roman Empire which is still spoken by some there), the word Ďchiassoí likely meant "passageway" "mountain pass" or "portal". This makes sense as Chiasso is situated at the foot of a strategic pass or portal through the Alps, and the City of Chiasso crest, which has been in existence since at least the 1500ís shows a small open doorway surmounted by a rampant lion clutching the letter "C". So, Chiasso has been called the "doorway" through the Alps since at least the 1500ís and possibly back to the days of the Roman Empire.

This "chiasso/passageway" meaning has further support from the fact that in the oldest parts of some of the towns in northern Italy where the ancient language was Romansh and/or Lombard, there are small alleyways and passageways, most no more than six or eight feet wide that are called chiasso. Example: "Chiasso di Baroncelli", which means "Passageway of Baroncelli" is a narrow and delightful passageway that runs alongside the famous Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, Italy, for about 100 yards from the piazza to the river.

So, how did the name "Chiasson/Chaisson" come to be in the United States and Canada? David Chiasson recounts as how during the time of the Roman Empire, the fertile plains of southern France at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains produced much-needed crops, especially prized lavender flowers used for dye and perfumes. As with most other crops, the growing season proceeds at a leisurely pace, but harvest time requires a large amount of manual labor with only a small amount of time to get everything harvested, packed and shipped. Annually at harvest time, growers would depend on the mountain-dwellers to descend on the valleys to help with the lucrative harvest. Entire families would go, and according to other historical sources, since a single pound of lavender blossoms equaled a monthís wages, this was a very profitable excursion.

Most people at that time only had one name, so they may have been known for where they were from as, for example: "John, from the forest" or from their home place, such as: "Martin, from the chiasso" similar to "Jesus of Nazareth" "Robin of Sherwood" or "Helen of Troy". Later, in the same way that people from America are called "American" or people from Acadia were called "Acadian" so too, it is probable the French farmers referred to folks from the chiasso as: "Chiasson". And so the word "Chiasson" as a family last name began in southern France but of definite Swiss origins.

Genealogical studies show the first recorded Chiasson to set foot in the new world was a young man named Guyon Denis Chiasson, who arrived in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1664 sailing from La Rochelle, France. It is likely that 90% or more of Chiassons and Chaissons in all of North America can trace their lineage back to him. The variation of the name spelling happened in the early 1700ís in a small church parish in rural Canada, at a time when most people were illiterate except for the parish priest. In this instance, the "I" and the "A" was accidentally transposed on a marriage certificate and thus the variation of the name "Chaisson" began. But it is all the same family tree.

As a major rail/vehicle/freight/traffic hub and border crossing into Switzerland, modern Chiasso is not primarily a Ďtouristí town, but it is well worth a visit by any Chiasson or Chaisson interested in seeing the ancestral home and that area. A look at any website showing satellite photos, such as Google Earth, will show the huge railway yard dominating the town. Situated between the breathtaking St. Gotthard valley and the town of Lugano, Switzerland, to the north, and the picturesque town of Como, Italy, and Lake Como to the south, it is a good spring-point for both. And the hillsides in the suburbs just west of Chiasso produce some really fine wines! If youíre interested in railroads and trains, I was told that if you observe the large rail yard in Chiasso long enough, itís probable that youíll see just about every type of locomotive running among Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy.

How to get there: www.mendrisiottotourism.ch

The town of Chiasso has a website: www.chiasso.ch