Julienne and Cyprien Belleque pose with daughters Malvina and Josephine in the mid-1870s. Julienne would die in a fire at age 48, leaving Cyprien bereft and older children in the large family to look after one another.
Julienne and Cyprien Belleque pose with daughters Malvina and Josephine in the mid-1870s. Julienne would die in a fire at age 48, leaving Cyprien bereft and older children in the large family to look after one another.

Editor’s note: There are many family lines traced from pioneer fur trapper Pierre Belleque. This story explores one of them.

One of Oregon’s oldest Catholic families has weathered travails, fostered the faith and expanded for two centuries. The Belleques, many of whom still live near historic French Prairie, have integrated the voyageur’s drive to explore with an Indigenous rootedness in the land.

“I can’t imagine the hardships people went through,” said Brian Belleque, 59, part of a sixth generation of Pierre Belleque’s descendants in Oregon. “They came out here and survived in rough climates and tough territory. The Holy Spirit guided them for sure.”

Voyageur turned farmer

Pierre Belleque was born in the village of L’Assomption near Montreal in 1797. In 1819, he signed on with a fur trading business, and began making monthslong trips westward by canoe, riverboat and horseback, trapping beavers and bringing back pelts.

No one knows precisely why Pierre went to work in the frontier, but many French Canadian families had seen their local prospects diminished after the British took control of Quebec in the 1760s.

Pierre was known as a mild and honest man and by 1828 earned a promotion to captain of a canoe. In 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company assigned him to the “Columbia District,” which included what is now Oregon.

In 1832, he left the company to settle along the Willamette River on French Prairie with his common law wife, Genevieve St. Martin. Genevieve, born about 1814, was the daughter of Joseph St. Martin, an early fur trapper, and a Chinook woman.

Pierre and Genevieve claimed 640 acres of rich land apparently offered by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The acreage, between what is now Newberg and St. Paul, was dotted with oak savannah and included an old fur trading post which became the couple’s home.

Other families —French Canadians, members of local tribes and people of mixed heritage — started farming French Prairie. Many were cousins and easily formed a community.

Hunger for Catholicism

The former fur trappers, though Catholic, took their families to pray with Methodist missionaries near Salem but soon appealed to the bishop in what is now Winnipeg to send Catholic priests. The letters, sent over a course of four years, express increasing desperation. The couples wanted their marriages blessed and their children baptized and educated in the Catholic faith. The writers, including Pierre, feared that without priests, Catholic beliefs could not be passed down and another form of Christianity might just have to do.

Finally, in 1838, two priests arrived from Quebec. Pierre was one of the French Prairie men who paddled north to Fort Vancouver to greet Fathers Francis Blanchet and Modeste Demers. By the start of 1839, the Willamette Valley delegation carried the two priests by canoe south to St. Paul. On Jan. 6, Father Blanchet celebrated a Mass in a small log chapel the settlers had built. It was the first time the Eucharist was celebrated in Oregon. On Jan. 21, Father Blanchet convalidated the marriage of Pierre and Genevieve.

Christine Belleque Welch, a sixth generation descendant, admires the religious tenacity of her ancestors.

“The French Canadians really hungered for spirituality and being able to practice their faith,” said Welch, 69, who lives in Keizer and attends Sacred Heart-St. Louis Parish in Gervais and St. Louis. “They went to Jason Lee’s Methodist mission but recognized it wasn’t enough for them. They wanted the sacraments. They wanted their children baptized in the church.”

This photo from 1910 shows the house Pierre and Genevieve Belleque lived in starting in the 1830s near Champoeg. The family left the building, an old trading post, in about 1870. It was used for storage until it burned down not long after the photo was taken.

Farming and more adventure

A U.S. Navy survey of the Oregon Territory in the late 1830s documented that Pierre owned two houses, nine horses and 28 hogs. He harvested 700 bushels of wheat in a year. He also signed a petition asking two neighbors to halt construction of a distillery. By the mid-1840s, there were Catholic schools at St. Paul, with the Belleque children enrolled.

Missionaries and travelers to the area described the French Canadian-native households as industrious and clannish yet freely generous.

The families tended to be loyal to the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company and hesitant about extending American influence in the area. Reports vary, but it is likely that in 1843 at the famed Champoeg meetings, Pierre was a maverick and voted in favor of a provisional American government in Oregon. His name is absent from the memorial at Champoeg, a source of irritation for his descendants.

Pierre retained a thirst for adventure. So, like many Oregon settlers, he sought to support his family by going to the California gold fields. But tragedy struck in 1849. He contracted an illness, probably yellow fever, and died on a ship coming home from the south. The patriarch of the Belleques was buried at sea near the mouth of the Columbia River.

More sorrow

Genevieve remarried and was a French Prairie matriarch. She appears in a Protestant missionary’s memoir, saving the lost man and his wife from hunger by offering a recently shot duck.

Genevieve became godmother to many children. She and Pierre had had seven children of their own; Cyprien was the youngest, only a baby when his father died.

Some of Pierre’s sons went back to Canada for a time in the 1870s to fight in a movement of Métis — people of mixed native and French heritage — called the Red River Rebellion. The campaign failed to establish a Métis nation separate from Canada but did create the province of Manitoba. Family believe Cyprien, who was tall and who played the fiddle, was one of the fighters.

In 1873, back in Oregon, he married Julienne Bergevin, who also had French Canadian and native heritage. The couple had 13 children. But sorrow came to the Belleques again in 1901 as Julienne was killed in a kitchen fire at age 48. Her children had tried to pull her burning clothing away from her with no success. Cyprien was so distraught at losing the love of his life that he withdrew to a tent to live alone for a time. The older children cared for the younger.

Near break with Catholicism

Frank, born in 1880, was Cyprien’s second oldest son. He and wife Maggie, wed in 1903, had four young children when Cyprien came to live with them. In 1914, at the time of Cyprien’s death, the children were between 4 and 9. Frank and Maggie had their hands full caring for two generations on Frank’s pay as a hop farm laborer.

Still, the couple found time to be generous to their parish, St. Louis in the French Prairie village of St. Louis. Maggie was an expert tatter and created a beautiful border on an altar cloth that was donated to the church. The cloth was used for decades. Years later, when it was about to be tossed out, a parishioner who knew its connection to the Belleques rescued it. That near act of disrespect is symbolic of Frank and Maggie’s stormy relationship with the parish.

In the early 1920s or so, Frank and Maggie had the priest from St. Louis over for dinner. The clergyman noted that the pair had purchased new curtains. Not long after, he was in the pulpit delivering an appeal for donations. He said that parishioners might need to sacrifice for the good of the parish, suggesting they may need to forgo, for example, new curtains.

The insult was too much for Frank and Maggie, who possibly had additional reasons for being fed up. They drifted from faith practice. But the break must not have been total. Their 50th wedding anniversary was covered in the Catholic Sentinel in 1953. Also, the couple are buried in the St. Louis Church cemetery.

‘Provider of stability’

Though the earliest settlers married Indigenous women, as time went on, a bias developed in Oregon against people with native blood. On top of that, Welch thinks, the culture of the mixed families was gentle and unassuming, meaning they sometimes got taken advantage of. Even speaking French became a stigma; Maggie urged her children to use English. She sent her boys to Chemawa Indian School, a government institution that sought to have native children assimilate.

Frank and Maggie’s son Albert, born in 1905, was the first in his family to marry someone who was neither Catholic nor a blend of French Canadian and native. Albert, a farm laborer, wed a Protestant woman named Edith who attended a Lutheran church.

Loved ones recall that Albert acted Catholic at the many family baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals at St. Louis or Sacred Heart.

“Albert was a hard worker and a provider of stability and security in the wider family,” the Rev. Lyle Belleque, a North Dakota Lutheran pastor born in Salem in 1963, said of his grandfather. Albert was affectionate and thought his grandchildren could do no wrong.

“He was a humble man and all who knew him considered him to be a very good man,” said Welch, one of his many granddaughters.

At the end of his life, Albert received the last rites from a Catholic priest — in Latin. Those who witnessed it said Albert’s face lit up with joy at the prayers.

James, Elmer and Albert Belleque pose in their Chemawa Indian School uniforms around 1918. Their mother had urged them to speak English, avoiding the French and Chinook languages also used in the home. 

Catholicism reaffirmed

Albert and Edith’s son Ron was not baptized Catholic. But when Ron fell in love, a new influence was added to the family and reaffirmed a strong Catholic line. German Catholics from Iowa and Minnesota had moved to Gervais at the start of the 20th century. From that community came Mary Grassman, who would become Ron Belleques’s high school sweetheart. They wed and soon after, Ron embraced the Catholic faith of his forbears.

Ron died in a car accident in 1962, leaving 30-year-old Mary with nine children. By 1965 Mary wed a fellow St. Louis parishioner and local farmer named Carl Nibler, also with deep German Catholic roots. The family of 11 soon became 12. Mary continued to be strong in faith, helping start the adoration chapel at Sacred Heart Church in Gervais in 2001.

And so, in a meandering way, the Catholic faith was passed down without a break among this particular group of Belleques. Mary Nibler would die in 2017 at age 87, and her children are mostly active Catholics.

Albert and Edith Belleque pose with sons Lester, Frank and Ron in about 1940. Albert was a farm laborer and much loved by his descendants.

Involved in the faith

Brian, a son of Ron and Mary, is currently chairman of the pastoral council at Sacred Heart-St. Louis Parish. Retired after almost 40 years with the state department of corrections, he also serves on the St. Louis Cemetery Committee and is active in the Knights of Columbus.

“I am proud to be part of a family who have been Oregonians for eight generations,” he said.

The Belleque line of Pierre-Cyprien-Frank-Albert-Ron accounts for 75 Belleques at present, many living in French Prairie. There have been more than 200 Belleque baptisms, first Communions, confirmations and weddings near the land Pierre and Genevieve settled 189 years ago.

Belleques were instrumental in starting Holy Family Academy, founded in 1993 on French Prairie.

Other Belleques attended Blanchet School, named after the first priest and archbishop in Oregon. There was a Belleque in Blanchet’s pioneering class of 2001, the first group that attend both the middle and high school.

There is a Catholic priest among the broader Belleques. Father Tom Belleque, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Vancouver, Washington, is the great-grandson of Augustine Belleque, Frank’s older brother. Father Belleque served as Catholic chaplain for the Seattle Seahawks.

Ron Belleque and Mary Grassman pose on their wedding day in 1950 at St. Louis Church on French Prairie. In the background is an altar cloth tatted by Ron’s grandmother Maggie and donated to the church, sometime between 1905 and 1925. The family roots are strong at the parishes in St. Louis and Gervais.  

Strong young Catholics

Welch is concerned that some in the younger generations are stepping away from the faith tradition that has sustained the family. But there is a bright side, too.

Dozens are strong young local Catholics, including the four sons of Kent and Susan Belleque. Tony Beyer — a grandson of Ron and Mary — is pursuing priesthood.

Kurt — a son of Ron and Mary — and his wife, also named Mary, sent three daughters to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. All spent time studying in Europe and were able to visit Rome, Assisi, Lourdes and Medjugorje. They now work for Catholic organizations, teach in Catholic school, serve in parish leadership, volunteer with Catholic charitable groups and teach catechism.

Kurt and Mary’s daughter Leah, one of the youngest in the Belleques’ seventh generation, is a student at Chesterton Academy, a classical Catholic school in the Willamette Valley. She is a member of the pro-life club and student council and is on the leadership team for youth ministry at St. Edward Parish in Keizer. Leah recently attended the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis.

Two forces

It’s an injustice of history that family lore tends to follow the surname, and so, the men. Many of the Belleques believe the women’s stories are just as inspiring, including women living today. Two daughters of Ron and Mary Belleque — Welch and Laura Beyer — are Benedictine Oblates who live monastic principles in the world. In 2007, a squad of young Belleques led the Blanchet School softball team deep into the 3A state tournament with heroics at bat.

Brian, Kurt, Kent, Mark and Jack Belleque — sixth generation descendants of Pierre and Genevieve Belleque — pose in the mid-1990s. “I can’t imagine the hardships people went through,” Brian said of his ancestors. 

Brian said his family’s strength and values comes from the mix of men and women, and not just on the Belleque side. Through marriage, for example, many different nationalities and Northwest Indigenous tribes became part of the clan.

In one way, the Belleques can be described by “two forces” embodied in Pierre and Genevieve in the 1830s, said Joshua Belleque, a 34-year-old history teacher at Westview High School in outer Northwest Portland. A seventh-generation descendant of the couple, Joshua observes that the French Canadian adventurous urge melded with the Indigenous embrace of nature and a particular place. For the French Prairie descendants, mostly farmers, the latter obviously has the edge.

Joshua, a graduate of Blanchet School and Oregon State University, is proud to be a Belleque. A long family history within the bounds of Oregon is rare. “You can travel to Fort Vancouver and Champoeg,” Joshua said, “and feel — ‘My family was part of those things.’”

Some of the Belleque clan pose in August 2019 during the wedding of Rene Belleque and Kyle Irwin. Pictured is just one branch of descendants of Pierre and Genevieve Belleque, who settled on French Prairie in 1832.