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Chiasson - What's In A Name?

Curiosity & Theories:

Almost from the beginning of my genealogical search I have been interested in the origin and meaning of the name Chiasson although I will admit I did not spend much time on researching it in the early years.

Prior to 1990 I was aware of a few theories regarding the possible meaning of the name. I briefly explored each theory but was never completely satisfied with any of them, each raising more questions than answers.

The first of three theories was that the name came from the word "chiasse" which supposedly meant the foam skimmed off molten metal. We know the name Chiasson does occur in the mid to late 15th century in an area of the Pyrenees near Tarbes and Lourdes. It was suggested Chiassons were quite possibly metal workers and that could very well be true regardless of the meaning of the name. We know the area described was a mining area producing iron and tin. So, the theory was possible except for one problem. I could never find that meaning in any dictionary for the word "chiasse". The first theory remained unconfirmed.

The second theory was similar in that it suggested that it might be related to the word "chaise', meaning "chair" and that the name meant "chairmaker". As I will explain later, the same problems arose with trying to prove that theory as arose in respect to the first theory.

The third theory, arising about 1990, was that the name was Swiss in origin but I was looking for a place in the wrong place. I was looking at maps trying to find clues in the Alps farther west, in or around the Swiss/French border. I could not find anything that supported the name having originated there so I stopped looking at a Swiss connection as a possibility.

The Serious Research Begins:

It was not until 2002 when two e-mails within a few weeks of each other suggested again that the name originated in Switzerland, likely in a place called Chiasso. It is pronounced "kee-A'-so", with the "A" sound the same as in the word "flat". Now I had a place name that actually existed on my maps.

It was at that time that I made a concerted effort to once and for all determine the origin and meaning of the name. Between late 2002 and early 2004 I spent a considerable amount of my time and energy researching the Swiss connection. I arranged meetings and made a lot of phone calls. I spoke to two members of the Swiss-Canadian Cultural Association in Halifax. I spoke to a lady at the Swiss Consulate in Ottawa. I spoke with everyone from linguistics experts to historians, tourism industry workers, travel agents, and people who had lived in Italy or Switzerland, who were familiar with the area. I spoke to a lot of people who either came from or knew the area. I asked a lot of questions.

I asked, "If a person was a metal worker and the name came from the word 'chiasse, which is a noun, what possible suffix(es) might be added to the root word "chiass" to make it mean 'someone who works as a metal worker'?"

I asked, "If the name referred to a person who made chairs, what possible suffix(es) might be added to "chais" to make it mean 'someone who works as a chairmaker'?" The second problem with this theory was that we knew for certain the name came from France as Chiasson, not Chaisson, which was a variation first occurring in Ile St. Jean (Prince Edward Island) in the early 1800's.

I asked, "If a person came from a place called 'Chiasso', what suffix(es) might be added to the word to make it mean 'a person who comes from Chiasso'?"

Having covered the discussion from every angle I could think of, it seemed highly unlikely that Chiasson was referring to a person of a specific trade or occupation and I concluded that it had to be referring to a person who came from a place.

I asked a lot of questions regarding how people from Chiasso could have ended up in France or, did it happen the other way around. I thought it was possible that people from France might have migrated toward Switzerland because we know that area of Switzerland has been for at least the past 12 centuries, French speaking. That is odd when you consider that no other area of that part of Italy/Switzerland was French speaking.

I pulled out my old books on the history of the latter years of the Roman Empire and other tribal people. I studied everything I could find. I ordered a few detailed topographical maps of Switzerland, Italy and France. I considered the migrations of people of various origins. Check out some of the maps in the Picture Gallery.

The Pieces Come Together:

Then I had a conversation with a Franciscan priest, born and raised in Milano, taught history, became a priest, came to Canada to do parish work here, and who knew the area well. Between what I already had and what he added, the whole picture started to come into focus. The same conclusion was also confirmed at the family reunion by two people who travelled to France and Switzerland to find out the answer to the same question ... "What's in a name?"

The area of Switzerland in which Chiasso lies is known as The Ticino. It is a roughly triangular region. The tip of The Ticino, where Chiasso is located, is at the foothills of the Alps. It is surrounded by mountains to the north and east, and to the west there is a large system of lakes and more mountains. This certainly explains why today the area culturally and linguistically more closely resembles Italy than Switzerland. But to the south/southwest, from Chiasso you wander the rolling plains toward Novara, Turin and Alessandria. From that direction one would easily arrive at the well established trade route to Provence.

Provence was and still is a very rich agricultural area. It was a well guarded jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire, providing grapes and lavender which was used in the Roman baths. Rome built a substantial aquaduct system in the region to ensure agricultural success. Ruins of the aquaducts are still very evident today.

Agriculture is an interesting industry. It requires large numbers of workers for relatively short periods of time. During parts of a typical year, life on the farm ambles along at a normal pace but when it is time for the harvest, the window of opportunity is short and great numbers of workers must be imported. It is still the same today. In fact, the first two years my father worked, he joined work parties to go to Ontario to work the harvest. He mostly picked apples.

People, even entire families, travelled from Chiasso and that general area to Provence every year to work the harvests. After the harvest they would move back again. Eventually the language and culture went with them. Migration of people happened in both directions but with increased opportunity, over time, more people migrated west and stayed in Provence and other areas of France. There was certainly more opportunity more employment in France than in Chiasso.

Conclusion:

Based on the evidence I have been able to assemble and examine, and based on all my lengthy conversations with reliable experts, I can only conclude that the name "Chiasson" simply meant "someone from Chiasso". It is that simple. And the difference in pronunciation is simply the difference between the Italian pronunciation of the name of the place, Chiasso, which has long been more Italian than Swiss in nature, and the French pronunciation of the description of the people who came from Chiasso to France. In the French language the "ch" sound is like in "champagne".

I had been told as recently as 2006 that there was a Lake Chiasso and that the name was taken from the lake. Newer information from Brant Chiasson of Louisiana, who visited the area, negates that information. Brant has written an article that once and for all settles the question, "What is the meaning of the name?" You can read his article here: article by Brant Chaisson.

More Curiosity:

Of course, anyone who really knows me knows by now that there is never an end to any study, just the beginning of the next one. We know Pierre Chiasson started out as a tenant farmer. This was during the time of the collapse of the feudal system right throughout Europe. We know he abandoned farming to work as a laborer in the naval shipyards at LaRochelle, a good career move. But ...

Could it be that Pierre's parents, grandparents, great-grandparents were also farmers? It is very possible, even quite likely.

Is it possible that Chiassons who had worked the farms in Provence could have seized the opportunity for a more stable life by taking up tenant farming in the Garonne Valley? Again, is it very possible, even quite likely.

Since the industrial revolution, people have been less likely to follow in the same trades as their parents but at one time, if you were a farmer, your son was most likely going to be a farmer and his sons ... Well, you know how it goes.

I spoke with a few people at the family reunion in Cheticamp who plan to travel to France to research and see what connections can be formally made from Pierre Chiasson backward through history. It would be entirely fascinating if we could somedays tie the lineage right back to Chiasso with hard facts on paper. It is my dream to one day go there. Dreams do not always come true but without dreams life is not worth much.