The Legend of the Count de Latourrette
by John E. La Tourette,President Emeritus, Northern Illinois University
Note: This is an English version of the article published in French in the April 2007, Bulletin No 41, of the Center for the Study of Bearnais Protestantism at the University of Pau, France. In this version, there are some minor variations from the article in French and some author notes are added to explain the context to the English reader who is not familiar with the subject or Osse-en-Aspe, France (then, Osse, Bearn) from which Jean Latourrette left in September 1685 to accompany Pastor Pierre Peiret and his family to safety. Pastor Peiret and Latourrette arrived in New York in October 1687 on the English ship Robert from London and established the French Temple of New York, L’Eglise Francaise du St. Esprit, in 1688. Jean Latourrette, as a master carpenter, played a major role in the construction of the wooden temple on Marketfield Street in what is now lower Manhattan.
Prior to publication, this article was reviewed by the director and council of the center.
Many tales are told in America about the origins of Jean Latourrette, who left Osse, Bearn (Osse-en-Aspe) as a cadet in 1685. (1) Some of his American descendants speculate he was a single male member of the Rhode Island Colony, established in the fall of 1686 by French Protestant refugees, but abandoned by 1690. Others believe he came from England with the Mercereau family of Moeze, Saintonge, later marrying the daughter Marie in the French Church of New York on July 16, 1693. (Author’s note: In France, a cadet is an unmarried, younger son)
The most interesting and persistent legend, carried down more than 320 years to today by some descendants, describes him as a count who fled from a castle with his countess to avoid religious persecution, when word of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes reached his village. Searching for a Latourrette castle in France and, having recently found a Count de La Tourette in the Rhone Valley, these descendants seek to establish this family’s relationship to Jean and the Latourrette family of Osse.
The author’s article, La Famille Latourette, XVIe-XX siecles, explains that Jean, as a cadet (unmarried second son of David Latourrette), fled Osse with Pastor Pierre Peiret and his family in 1685. (2) Jean was from a prominent Protestant family of Osse, holding at the time the title abbe laique, with the rights of the property of the Abbaye de Gayrosse (Medieval maison-forte, still found in Osse). Abbe laique was a title attached to the land, but not one of noble family blood lineage. (Author’s note: Under the Fors de Bearn, property was passed to the oldest son. In this case, Jacob, 1650-1711, was the oldest son. Jean’s birth is assumed to be 1651.)
The name Latourrette is indigenous to Bearn and traces back there hundreds of years before 1685. (3) Except for the coincidental similarity with a family name from Vernoux-en-Vivarais in the Rhone Valley, spelled with one “r”, there is no relationship. Yet the count legend persists as a fantasy among some descendants in America.
How and why did this legend begin? One obvious explanation is the lack of knowledge among Jean’s descendants about the history, geography, language and customs of Bearn, in particular, and France, in general. This is clearly evident in the histories of the Latourrette family in America as written by Lyman E. Latourette, Latourette Annals in America, and by Mrs. Verna A. Hill Jacob, The LaTourette Family: A Compilation. (4) Both of these histories repeat the count legend and present an altered, misleading version of Jean Latourrette’s and Marie Mercereau’s marriage ceremony as recorded in French on July 16, 1693 by Pastor Pierre Peiret. Also, they have the wrong location for Osse, Bearn. What they describe is the location of Osses, a Basque village, about 50 kms from Bayonne and Biarritz. They both note that the village they describe is 3 miles (5 kms) north of the Spanish border. (5) The count legend and the wrong location of Osse have caused American descendants to descend on Osses to locate the Latourrette castle. One even claims to have located it! The following statement is a verbatim copy of a posting on the Latourette Family Genealogy Forum, dated July 8, 1999:
For the Family Forum, see http://genforum.genealogy.com/latourettehttp://genforum.genealogy.com/latourette
and in particular the posting
(Author’s note: These references appear as footnote 3, p. 2 of the French version.)
which clearly indicates the author was visiting Osses and does not know that “Osse-en-Bearn” has been known as Osse-en-Aspe since the introduction of the French postal code in the 19th century.
“hi cousin: i went to france twice to research, and took pictures of the old La tourette castle which sits on top of a beautiful hill overlooks osse-en-bearn, only a few miles from the northern spanish border in the pyrenee mountains. the old homestead in now in ruins, and the villagers stated that it was once owned by a count and countess who were forced to flee because they were protestant.”
Others, who have posted messages on the Latourette Family Forum (noted above), say they have found the Latourrette castle in France, but when questioned, refuse to identify its’ location. The mysterious castle, not identified on the Family Forum, may be the one discussed at the end of this article.
After the French Revolution, an opportunity was presented to the descendants of French Protestants, who had fled religious persecution, to gain French citizenship and recover lost property. This factor may have created or influenced the persistence of the count legend. As one descendant observes in 1913, “The vast estates awaiting the heirs of the LaTourettes is persistent (in the legend), and many of the early documents bearing on the family history have been gathered by lawyers for the purpose of securing this mythical estate.” (6)
Even today, to many American Latourrettes the appeal of the count legend is the romantic fantasy that they are descendants from French nobility. If these descendants would ever visit the real Osse (now Osse-en-Aspe), they would quickly determine that there is (was) no Latourrette castle there. They would also learn that the Fors de Bearn, the rules which historically governed society in the Aspe valley, created a system in which the heads of the major families (les bonnes maisons) governed the villages. In other words, there was no dominant family of prestigious nobility governing Osse in 1685. (Author’s note: This is the wording suggested by Professor Philippe Chareyre, the director of the Center for the Study of Bearnais Protestantism.)
The count fable appears in two books published in the 19th century: Mrs. Martha N. Lamb, History of the City of New York, and M. Charles Weiss, History of the French Protestant Refugees from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to Our Own Days. (7) These are the versions of the fable published a century later by Lyman E. Latourette and Mrs. Jacob, cited above, except for the note by Lyman that Weiss refers to Henri de La Tourette and Lamb to Count de la Tourette. Although both authors link the story to Jean Latourrette, no explanation is given as to how “Henri” becomes “Jean”, and neither author cites a source!
The author searched to locate a source for the count legend. It appears to be in a two volume work by Hannah F. Lee, The Huguenots in France and America. (8) In the Preface to Volume 1 (p. xv), one finds a more complete version of the story, which is quoted below. Lee notes that this story came to her as a letter written after 1841, when the volume was delayed after apparently going to the editor/publisher and before it was published in 1843. However, again there is no citation as to the author of the letter. The Lee volumes appeared in print in 1843, the Weiss work in English in 1854 (French version in 1853), and Lamb’s history in 1877. Thus, the Lee version predates both the Weiss and Lamb volumes and may be the first time the story appears in print.
“I give the following quotation from a letter which I have recently received from a lineal descendent of the Huguenots.
‘My great-great grandfather was a native of La Vendee, and had there an estate on which he lived, and from which his family took the name, La Tourette. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, several Huguenot families in his neighborhood endured great persecution, and Henri de la Tourette was warned, that he was soon to be molested, any attempt at flight would be discovered, and only serve to hasten his condemnation. To avoid suspicion, he gave a large entertainment to which all the neighboring families were invited, and while the guests were assembled in the house, he left it with his wife, reached the seacoast, which was not far off, and made his escape on board a vessel bound to Charlestown. The ship was cast away on Staten Island, or, being in distress, was obliged to put in there, and there my great-grandmother, Marie de la Tourette, was born. A branch of the family still exists in France, which has adhered to Catholicism. The only female member of it is the Superior of a Convent, and the head of it, the Marquis de la Tourette, who is, or lately was, prefet of Aix-la-Chapelle. The chateau of La Tourette is still standing, but I do not know whether it is possession of the family. A few years since, one of the descendants, the Comte Eugene de la Tourette, came over from France in the hope of obtaining the family Bible, which Henri brought over in his flight. It contained the register of the births and descents (sic- descendants) of the family, which, had it been in our possession, would have enabled us Huguenot descendants to claim property which was confiscated at the time of the persecution. The Bible, however, had been long since given to a family who had removed to Germany, and could not be traced.’ “
This is another case of sloppy research in an attempt to justify a tale without substance. It should be noted that Aix-en-Chapelle is Aachen in Germany. During Napoleon's occupation of the Roer (Rur), in which Aachen is located, from 1801 to 1814, there was a Prefet named Jean Charles Francois Ladoucette from 1809 to 1814. Ladoucette is similar to Latourette, but there was no Prefet named Latourette at Aix-en-Chapelle or Aachen.
(Author’s note: The reference to the Prefet Ladoucette is in:
Perhaps, someone read “t” for the “d” and “r” for the “c” in a handwritten version of the name Ladoucette. This flaw in the tale may explain why the author goes on to focus on how a Bible may have disappeared back into Germany, based on the faulty identification of a branch of the family in Aix-en-Chapelle or Aachen, Germany. It is clear that the author had no understanding of the hundred or more years of persecution that led up to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, describing it as if it were an event that suddenly descended on the Huguenots.
It is likely from the reference to “Marie de la Tourette” as a great-grandmother that this tale was written by a member of the Broome family. Marie, daughter to Jean Latourette and Marie Mercereau born September 23, 1693, was married to a Samuel Broome. John, a son of this marriage, was a Lt Governor of New York and Broome County in New York was named after him.
At some time, there may have been a Count Henri de la Tourette, and some descendant of his may have once come to America, but Jean Latourette came to New York in 1687 as a single male. Although he later moved to Staten Island, he certainly wasn’t cast away there on a ship in distress. In fact, his route to America with Pastor Peiret was through Frankfurt, Rotterdam and London. His marriage in the French Church of New York on July 16, 1693, is preserved in the church records and recorded as a first marriage to Marie Mercereau. His first four children, including the above mentioned “Marie de la Tourette,” were born in New York, not on Staten Island, and baptized in Peiret’s church, as shown by entries in the church records. (9)Again, this story suggests a fantasy: a search for estates and wealth left behind and a romantic wish for nobility, perhaps, in recent years, based on an assumed relationship with the Count de La Tourette, identified above.
By 1853, the count story in Lee’s book found its way back to France, without attribution to its source, in the original French publication of Weiss’ book, cited above. A century later, the fable is still known by Madame Marie Candau in Osse-en-Aspe. Madame Candau’s version of the tale is associated with an aide to Henry IV, who promulgated the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The name of Count Henri de La tourette is mentioned in a letter from Madame Candau to Mrs. Jacob in 1954 as a General of the Royal Guard to Henry IV. The story told by Madame Candau is similar to that cited by Lee, Lamb and Weiss.
“This Count left France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes because he was to have been arrested, and after having given a festival he disappeared and left, taking his wife, jewels and his Bible. No one knows where he found refuge, perhaps in America, perhaps in the North countries. It is, however, certain that he existed since someone in America had an exact description of his coat of arms several years ago.” (10)
This tale, like the one already cited above, which, somehow, without any evidence or rationale, substitutes Jean Latourrette for Henri de La tourette, has serious inaccuracies. This count would have to have lived well over a hundred years to have reached an age to be a General of Henry IV’s Royal Guard and still be alive in 1685 when the Edict of Nantes was revoked. Henry IV was assassinated in 1610. So if this count was even a young general of 30 at the time of the assassination in 1610, he would have been 105 in 1685.
How can one account for the persistence of this legend, which turns out to be merely a fable? Stories and family traditions that are passed from generation to generation over 150 to 200 years are subject to error, reinterpretation and embellishment. They may also be subject to romantic interpretation, as Weiss suggests by describing the story of the flight as “almost the reality of romance.” Frequently these tales evolve from a few known facts about the subject which then are fantasized into a story. In this count/countess tale, the facts which are correct include the person’s lineage back to Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau. It is also true that Jean and Marie moved from New York City to Staten Island sometime around 1698.From the Mercereau family history, there is never the claim made that Marie and Jean were married earlier in France, only that Jean may have come from England with the family. In addition, in the various sources that mention Jean Latourrette and the Mercereau family coming to or being in New York, it is never indicated anyone was cast away on Staten Island.
The department of Vendee did not exist at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The area at that time was essentially the old province of Poitou, which historically had a substantial Huguenot population. The Mercereau family was from another old province, Saintonge.The Mercereau family history shows both of Marie’s parents were from Moeze, Saintonge, with birth dates for her father Jean (John) ca 1627 and her mother Elizabeth Dubois in 1643. Marie was born and baptized in Moeze in 1670. (11)
Jean Latourrette came from Osse in the old province of Bearn. The Latourrette genealogy can be traced back to at least 1510 (Jean-Luc Bilhou-Nabera’s Latourrette genealogy), and it is clear that the Latourrettes inhabited Osse from the time that Gassiot Latourrette began his ministry in the Aspe Valley as early as 1563. (12) Other evidence suggests that the Latourrette family name was originally Bearnais, tracing back to the 11th century. Thus, neither family was from La Vendee, or after the French Revolution, the department of Vendee.
The conclusion reached here is the Count legend has no substance. The question which must be addressed is why it has persisted down to today in the lore of Jean Latourrette’s descendants. The most logical explanation is that it allowed Jean’s descendants to account for his being in America and how he came eventually to Staten Island. As suggested by Weiss, it is a romantic tale that captured people’s imagination in the middle of the 19th century. Later it became a symbol for the deprivations Huguenot refugees suffered as they were forced to leave France. What more compelling a story could one envisage than a young count and countess being forced to leave their castle and wealth behind to flee in the night to a ship waiting nearby and then to be cast up on Staten Island, with only the clothes on their backs and the family Bible? The story represents in a symbolic way the tale of many who fled France. This particular story seems to have taken on a life of its own in terms of Huguenot lore in America, extending well beyond Jean’s descendants. One finds even as late as the 1930s the tale being reenacted in church services and pageants. The following is an example from a memorial and pageant on June 28, 1931, at the Church of the Huguenots on Staten Island, commemorating the 270th anniversary of the first permanent Huguenot settlement on Staten Island in 1661. (13)
“Part I, Act I- Scene 2
Of those who went from France and crossed the sea
To work with God and found a nation true,
Whose banner should exult in every storm
As Freedom’s sign and symbol to the world,
With stars of hope to light the coming days,
Of these I tell-and summon them to come.
A man and wife, whose home and lands were fair,
With spoil of ancient wealth and harvests rich-
The LaTourettes, with name and fame secure-
Have found a Book which shows the soul its God;
And reading gladly all its living truth
Have yielded heart and fortune to the Cause.
And now they garnish viands for a feast,
They bid their friends and neighbors come,
The castle’s lighted, and the feast is spread,
And noble words are spoken, brave and fair.
To-night they choose! ‘Tis home and friends or faith.
(Theme music—leading up to scene of feast,- renunciation, departure, flight.)
(The Latourettes, husband and wife, quietly rise from the table, go out thru the hallways, fling down jewels and finery, wrap cloaks about them, and pass out into the night. Horses’ hoofs are heard, as they begin their perilous journey to the coast, and so to America.)
And thus they went, by hidden woodlands ways
Thru rock-hedged passes, to the lonely coast,
Where lonely boats were riding on the crested sea.
And thus they fled forever from the joys of France,
To lonely lands of freedom far away.
(Psalm of courage and trust, dying in the distance)
If the writers of these stories had ever seen the modest village of Osse and the Abbaye de Gayrosse, they would have immediately known that no castle had ever existed there. If they understood the governance system created in Osse by the Fors de Bearn, they would have known that it would be highly unlikely that nobility existed there in 1685. Finally, if they knew the history and language of Bearn and the origin of family names indigenous to the region, they could understand that two somewhat similar names found today in France, one with a double ”r” and the other with a single “r” may not have a common origin.(Bearnais is still spoken by many older adults in Osse. The pastoral play, “Spectacle Deambulatoire”, performed as part of the 200th anniversary celebration in August 2005, included a significant role for the language and many “Chant Bearnais” and “Danses Bearaises”.)
A village story told to the author involves American descendents who, over the years, have found the real Osse and asked about the Latourrette castle. They were told there never had been a castle in Osse. When the visitors insisted there must be at least the ruins of a castle, villagers would point to the north in the general directions of Montagne Castet (Castle Mountain), which overlooks the village, and say “it must be up there somewhere.” (Author’s Note: Castle Mountain takes its’ name from the shape of the mountain which looks like the outline of a fortress. Because of the nature of its rock structure and the absence of any source of water, nothing has ever been built upon it.)
Yet, the fantasy lives on among some American descendants.
Recently the author received a report of a visit of a group of 15 Latourrette descendants to the ruins of the
Chateau de Latourette near Vernoux-en-Vivarais, southwest
of Valence, in June of 2002. The report describes the
visit and meetings with the Count Gonzagne La Tourette, who
lives in a section of the ruins that has been restored.
In the report, the Count indicated the family has always
been Catholic and that a section of the castle had been used to imprison Protestants in 1671. Except for the romantic fantasy of being descendants of nobility, one would think that this group would seriously question whether they had found the roots of Jean Latourrette’s family. This is especially the case when Vernoux-en-Vivarais is far from both La Vendee and Osse.
Enthralled with the count fable and without a careful search of its origins, it appears that some members of this group of descendants installed the shield (blason in French) of the Catholic family of Vernoux-en-Vivarais in the French Church of New York about 30 years ago. See the accompanying picture of the shield and its installation, and the description of the shield which hangs in New York to represent the Huguenot Latourrettes of Osse!
It is ironic that this group is proud of their “discovery” and the correspondence they have had with the Count, and yet not one of them accepted the invitation to come to Osse, “le berceau” (the cradle) of the Latourrette family, for the 200th anniversary celebration of the Temple Bethel in August 2005. If they had, the truth might have destroyed their fantasy!
(Author’s note: Mr. Frederic Pauzat of Paris and Osse, related to the Latourrettes, contacted many of the Latourrette descendants around the world encouraging them to attend the 200th anniversary in August of 2005. From his mailing list, shared with the author, it is clear members of the group cited above received his correspondence. The only descendants of Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau, from the marriage of July 16, 1693, to attend were the author and his son Marc.)
(1) Historically the name was spelled Latourrette in Osse-en-Aspe. See, for example, Alfred Cadier, Le Bearn Protestant (2003), throughout the chapter, "Organisation Interieure de L'Eglise d'Osse (1665-1685)," pp. 137-184,and Acts of the Consistory at Osse, 1665-85. Signatures of Jean Latourrette with a double "r" are reproduced from the original records of the French Church of New York in the author's article "La Famille Latourette, XVIe-XXe siecles," Bulletin No 38, Centre d'Etude du Protestantisme Bearnais (CEPB), December 2005, p. 20.
Variations in the spelling of the name by descendants in America are Latourette, LaTourette, La Tourette and, in a few cases, the original form of Latourrette.
(2) "La Famille Latourette, XVIe-XXe siecles," Bulletin 38, pp.17-20.
(3) Several sources indicate that Gassiot was born in Osse about 1540. See Philippe Chareyre, "Nouvelles Recherches sur Le Protestantisme a Osse-en-Aspe," Bulletin No 38, Centre d'Etude du Protestantisme Bearnais (CEPB), December 2005.
(4) Lyman's Latourette Annals was privately published in 1954 and is available from the Higginson Book Company, Salem,MA. Mrs. Jacob’s Compilation was privately published in 1965 and is available from the Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, IN.
(5) The corrupted marriage record to support the Count fable of a prior marriage is found in both Lyman's Annals and Mrs. Jacob's Compilation. For example, see Lyman, p. 19. For the incorrect location of Osse, see Lyman, p. 18.
(6) J. F. Keve, The History of the Keve Family, privately published in 1913, pp.7-8.
(7) Lamb, History of the City of New York (three volumes, 1877),Vol.II, p.383 and Weiss, History of the French Protestant Refugees from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to Our Own Deys (full title as translated from French in two volumes, 1854), Vol.II, p. 316.
(8)The Huguenots in France and America (originally published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1843), p. xv.
(9) Exact copies of the marriage and baptism entries in French are found in Rev. Alfred V. Wittmeyer, editor, Registers of the Births, Merriages, and Deaths of the Eglise Francoise a la Nouvelle York, from 1688 to 1804, 1886, pp. 29-30, p.33, p. 43, p.56 and p. 69.
(10) Mrs. Jacob reproduced and circulated to American Latourrette descendants the 1954-55 correspondance from Madame Marie Candau who was living in the Cavendish house of Osse. Madame Candau passed away in 1955.
(11) See the Mercereau Webpage by George E. Sawyer,
(12) Chareyre, "Nouvelles Recherches sur Le Protestantisme a Osse-en-Aspe," p. 2; Cadier, Le Bearn, pp. 83-8; and Osse Temple records.
(13) The Huguenot, Volume 1, Number 5, November 1931, p. 9.