The Father of Southwest Louisiana Genealogy
I first heard the name Hébert not long after beginning my new role as the Genealogy Librarian. A group of researchers traveled from Sacramento, braving the summer heat and Bay Area traffic as they embarked on a mission to trace their family history in the Sutro Library. Their objective: To research in the Louisiana section of the Genealogy Collection and, more specifically, to consult the Southwest Louisiana Records compiled and edited by the Reverend Donald J. Hébert.
Unbeknownst to me, it would not be the last time I would witness the awe and reverence expressed with the mere mention of the name Hébert. Since that moment, now over a year ago, I must have heard, thought, and said his name a thousand times, as I began my own journey to learn more about this holy figure within the genealogy community. Along the way, I learned that Sutro Library was one of the few libraries on the West Coast to hold this invaluable, albeit incomplete, set, and for years – possibly decades – researchers have been coming to the Sutro Library to view these treasured volumes all while expressing their hopes for us to one day complete the set. Well, that day has finally come.
This 52 volume set contains information meticulously extracted from Southwest Louisiana church and courthouse records spanning two centuries, 1750s – 1950s, and covering thirteen parishes: Acadia, Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Evangeline, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, and Vermillion. Occupying three shelves, the set is arranged chronologically with corrections and/or supplements found in later volumes. The abstracts include information on births, marriages, baptisms, deaths, and succession. Researchers can also find parish histories, cattle brands, maps, tombstone inscriptions, court transcripts, and photocopies of original documents throughout the set.
As a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Dr. Hébert was able to gain access to Catholic Church records. His original intent was to create a guide to the church and civil records of Southwest Louisiana enabling researchers to contact archives for complete information. Hébert was not alone on his pilgrimage. This endeavor required help from others including his secretary who transcribed the tapes Hébert recorded as he read each record, some so fragile they turned to dust in his hands. He also enlisted help from students who copied, indexed, and arranged the transcriptions into volumes.
All of the volumes are extraordinary resources that contain utterly unique information; however, the one volume worth noting is Volume 33. Not only was it the last volume we needed to complete the Sutro Library set, but it also contains abstractions of the “Records of Blacks (1765 – 1886)”. This is not the only volume that holds information needed to trace African American ancestry. Prior to the Civil War, the priests kept separate registers for whites and blacks, and these records were known to be accidentally intermixed into the wrong registers. Because of this, it is important to look throughout the set and not just at sections specifically related to these types of records. Volume 33 also contains an index of the sections found within volumes 1 – 33. For example, if researchers wanted to find out what else the set had on tracing African American ancestry, they will find a listing for “Introduction to Black Genealogy” located in Volume 2 which provides more details on the different parishes and their records.
Other tips for using this record set include:
- As with most resources, it is imperative to read the introduction. This is provided in most of the volumes, but not all of them, especially those published posthumously.
- Original records were written in French or Spanish so it is important to search for variations of the name. Inside each volume, the names are arranged alphabetically by the name’s translation. Some entries may even include the original name used in the record. A name variation table is provided at the beginning of Volume 1 and may prove useful for later volumes.
- Revisions of volume 1 (labeled as 1a and 1b) and volume 2 (labeled as 2a, 2b, and 2c) now have every name indexes whereas before researchers had to go through each section of each volume to find their ancestors. These revisions also provide more information eliminating the need for researchers to contact local archives.
- When looking at marriage records, remember to look up the names of BOTH the bride AND the groom as there may be vital details provided in one entry that are not found in the other.
- Lastly, make sure to check later volumes for corrections and supplements to earlier ones. While Hébert is considered an authoritative voice for Louisiana genealogy, even he admitted to making mistakes in the process of compiling his work.
By the time of his death on February 22, 2000, Hébert had published 96 titles. Sutro Library holds 55 titles authored by Hébert. Southwest Louisiana Records volume 42 was the last one of the set that he himself published. Claitor’s Law Books and Publishing Division released the remaining five volumes, already compiled by Hébert prior to his death. The publishing house is still looking for a priest who will continue Hébert’s noble crusade.
One dedicated “Sutronian” (a researcher who frequents the Sutro Library) makes weekly trips to our reading room and is often found in front of one of our computers with a few of these volumes spread open beside her. After a long wait, we finally received our last volume and had it waiting at our reference desk upon her next visit. Her reaction was one full of joy and serves as a wonderful reminder of why I am a librarian.
It has been over 18 years since his death, and his absence in the genealogy community is still felt. What once took family historians and scholars years to research, now only takes a matter of hours thanks to the selfless work of Dr. Donald J. Hébert.
“I hope that the material found in these many volumes will be a source that guide other researchers to appreciate what our ancestors have left us—a documentation of their activities that reveals to us our connection with past generations.”
~Dr. Donald J. Hébert
Sutro Library is now the only library west of Salt Lake City to have a complete set of the Southwest Louisiana Records ensuring that Hébert’s wish is continuously fulfilled as researchers refer to these treasures bound in dark blue book cloth and etched with gold empowering them to connect with generations of the past.
Thank you to the California State Library Foundation for completing this set!
Access Note: These volumes can only be accessed within a branch of the California State Library. They are not eligible for InterLibrary Loan; however, upon request, they can be sent to the Sacramento location of the California State Library, if it is more convenient for a researcher to view them there. Sutro Library can also send scans in answer to known-item inquiries or provide look-ups on a case-by-case basis.
Related resources available through the Sutro Library:
- Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans by Earl C. Woods; Charles E. Nolan; and Dorenda Dupont, volumes 1 – 19 *Same access restrictions as stated above.
- Ancestry.com’s Southwest Louisiana, Death Index (1840 – 1906) created from the Southwest Louisiana Records and provides indexes of records for 7 out of the 13 parishes within Southwest Louisiana.
Genealogy & Local History Librarian