What Happened to Caroline Mercier

I have thought over the years about the tribal people from Grand Ronde who have disappeared from the tribe. In essays, I have written about some of the reasons for people leaving the tribe. The reservation at the turn of the 20th century was developing into a set of Native farms as people took advantage of their new Indian allotments, granted in 1889 (1891 for off-reservation allotments). The allotments came on the heels of some 40 years of poverty, neglect, and loss for the people at the reservation. The change began in the 1870s with the informal allotments, and some families were able to make a go of it and prospered, others remained impoverished living in multifamily houses in extreme poverty. By 1891 260 Grand Ronde people gained allotments, men, women, and children. But in the allotment act, there were no specific allowances for allotting people after the initial allotment. So those tribal people born after 1889 did not get allotments except in rare instances.

The remainder of the tribal lands were then packaged by the Indian agents as surplus lands to the sold in a public offering. The newspaper report of this public offering in 1905 and thereabouts, suggested that there was something wrong, something perhaps illegal about the way that most timber companies were able to snag all of the excess lands, and few individuals received lands. But by 1907 all of the surplus lands were gone, sold mainly to timber companies. These logging companies then spent a good 13 years planning their entry into the Coast range, laying small gauge tracks to efficiently haul logs out of the range. There they developed the many logging towns which we known today.

The Grand Ronde reservation changed significantly in the 20 years after the allotments were assigned. Most people developed farms and while the farms produced little food, they did what they could to produce hay, run some cattle, horses, and most had hogs and chickens, just enough to feed themselves and their families with few profits. The soils in most of the Grand Ronde valley were not good enough to sustain commercial food grain crops annually so hay was the most common crop. Most families would plant their hay in the spring, then travel into the Willamette Valley to harvest crops from various American farmers. Grand Ronde people normally traveled to Independence, Salem, and Wheatland for much of their migrant agricultural work. In the later summer, most families would return to their allotments to harvest the hay.

However, once their children of the Grand Ronde people grew up, especially those who had missed the allotment period, there was no land for them to acquire as an allotment. They could not even inherit the allotted land, should their parents die, because the federal government decided to sell the land of people who had died without proving up on it in the 20 years period, and simply divvy up the money among the descendants. They either had the choice of marrying an allotted member, remaining on their family’s farm, or leave the reservation to find work elsewhere. These children on the Reservation were shown to have attended and graduated from the Grand Ronde Industrial and Vocational School and many left the school with skills and education that they could not use on the reservation. Therefore, many chose to instead integrate into the cities of the Willamette Valley, normally marrying outside of the tribe and remaining outside of the reservation their whole lives. They may return to the family homestead for events, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July, or birthdays, but lived in Salem or Portland.

Many of these people who left the reservation lost all association with their families and were not included on tribal membership lists. The annual Federal Indian reservation censuses became the de-facto tribal membership lists until the tribe took control of the rolls in 1936 under Reorganization. In about 1909, Indian agents began taking people off the annual census, as I have detailed in a previous essay. By 1916 the census was restored to counting all tribal people, even if their fee-simple (former allotment) lands were technically not reservation lands and so they technically no longer lived on the reservation.  In the intervening years, many people who were not detailed on the census were lost from the tribe.

Jasper Luce (Siletz) and Mary Petit Mercier Luce on the Siletz river. When Mary Left Francis she had an Indian marriage with Jasper

The story now turns to the life of Caroline Mercier. She was born on the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1893, just two years after the people at Grand Ronde were allotted land. She was born to Francis Mercier and Mary Petit Mercier. Francis was a Belgian man who came to Grand Ronde to become an assistant to his uncle, Reverend Adrien Croquet. Croquet returned to Belgium in the 1880s and Francis stayed on, married to a Clackamas Chinookan native woman of a prominent family. the Petits. Francis and Mary remained on the reservation for a few years, previous to the allotment, then left the reservation, reportedly moving to Sheridan, Oregon. As a non-native, Francis could legally move his family in this fashion. The family reappears again on the reservation when Mary and her previously born children gain Indian allotments.  Caroline is born two years later.

Federal Indian Census records and Federal census records show that Caroline lived in the family household until she was at least sixteen.

Mercier household in 1893, Caroline is 1 year old. Francis is not noted because he is not a native.
Mercier household in 1906, they have had two other children, Eloise and Francis, two daughters, Caroline is 13.
Transcription of the Federal Census of 1910, detailing Francis and Mary Mercier Family, Caroline is 16, her older brothers have moved out and have their own families now (Familysearch.com)
1916 Federal Indian Census, Mary and Francis Mercier are now empty nesters, all their children survived and moved out, there is no record of Caroline on the reservation at this time

There is now some mystery of what happened to Caroline. She does not appear on the 1916 census of people on the reservation. She is never again listed on a federal Indian census. I was recently contacted by a family genealogist who was searching her DOWNER family ancestry. She asked,

“Through Ancestory.com, I discovered (her husband’s) great-grandfather Joseph L. Downer married Carrie Mercier (b. abt 1893, in Grande Ronde). Carrie was the daughter of Francis (Frank) Mercier and Mary Petit. 
 According to US Census and the 1913 marriage certificates, they were living in Portland, Oregon, but married in Clarke County, Washington. The 1920 Census, they were living in Portland with Carrie’s sister, Francis Mercier. After 1920, absolutely nothing is pulling up. I’ve contacted the State of Washington, Oregon, genealogical societies, libraries, Clark County Courthouse, and the Grande Ronde Tribal Council. Sadly nothing has turned up. I have no idea what happened to Carrie. I do know that Joe remarried, twice. But as far as divorce records or death certificates, nothing is coming up. 
Do you have any insight on the mystery of Carrie Mercier-Downer?” (Personal Communication)
A few weeks later, I did have a few minutes and began searching for her.  I found that she did not appear in any censuses from Grand Ronde, and even though these censuses sometimes list off-reservation members, like Francis Mercier, the daughter who lived in Portland. So the mystery did deepen, and Ancestry did not have the information as the researcher had hit a wall for the past 6 years of searching. I decided to try a different genealogy site, a newer free site, Familysearch.com and after a few minutes found what happened to Caroline.
This record came up
Name: Caroline C. Mercier Brautlacht
Maiden Name: Mercier
Event Type: Burial
Event Date: 1923
Event Place: Portland, Multnomah, Oregon, United States of America
Photograph Included: N
Death Date: 08 May 1923
Affiliate Record Identifier: 150693510
Cemetery: Lincoln Memorial Park

She died on May 8th, 1923. The record from her husband at the time, Richard Brautlacht shows he died the same day. I thought then that this is suspicious and something happened, like a car crash, or a capsized boat, but the truth is more tragic than that.

Caroline, in a fit of jealousy, shot Richard twice at the breakfast table, then shot herself.  Our researcher was able to find the Oregonian newspaper article about the tragedy.

Wife Slays Mate Then Ends Life
Murder enacted because of Jealousy

… Describes Agony

Breakfast table chosen to snuff… careers made stormy… throughout two years

with a pistol lifted from the folds of her house dress, Mrs. Robert C. Brautlacht, 25 shot and killed her … husband yesterday morning just before 8 o’clock, and then .. a bullet into her own body to … the death that came five minutes later. Over the breakfast table … home at 784 Sandy Boulevard.. did it, when a resolve that had been in her brain for six months … in a head and was not put … by the smiling eyes of her husband across the table over his …..

… jealousy, and one found to …  led to the deed, po-…, when they read a … and painfully-written note… prepared the night before in which Mrs. Brautlacht set the reasons for what she was … do. She said that rather than give up her pleasure-loving … whom she characterized as … neither “heart, conscience, … self-respect, or anything… goes to make a man.” and …. very sure that her heart .. “last to be broken.” she … resort to murder and suicide. … and friends, shocked by … in which the couple, whom… considered so happy, had … insisted that all her statements came from an overwrought ….

… Fern, druggist, living but … away, heard the shots and found Mrs. Brautlacht unconscious … a wound in her head, heaped … lifeless body of her husband. … seemed to embrace him. … died before aid was had. … had risen from the … appeared , and staggered to … room. there the bodies….

…(read the rest as you can)

Caroline settled their affairs and simply said Goodbye. The rest of the article is like an obituary, listing their surviving family and that her parents who reside in Grand Ronde, and that the family is said to be relatives of Cardinal Mercier of Belgium. Cardinal Mercier in this period was a heroic figure in the world, the Cardinal of the Belgian archdiocese who had publicaly spoken out about the imperial practices of Germany in Belgium during the recently ended WWI.

Caroline’s previous husband, Joseph Downer, had grown up in Oklahoma, and there is little information about their marriage. Our researcher said that family members who knew him thought Joseph was something of a womanizer. It may very well have been the reason Caroline and Joseph split up, and perhaps what caused her jealousy in her second marriage as well. They apparently divorced sometime around 1920. Joseph dies in 1980, having lived a very long life.

Here then comes to rest the story of one of the dispossessed of Grand Ronde. Caroline apparently had no children with either husband. She had no land to return to on the reservation. It remains to be seen if any of the Mercier family have additional stories of Caroline. There is no explanation of why she never appears to have returned to the reservation. Her parents, Francis and Mary, reportedly had a stormy relationship and in the 1920s Mary finally divorced Francis, the divorce papers (Oregon State Archives) suggest that she was abused by him as they included evidentiary sheets of abuse. Mary then goes to live with Jasper Luce on the Siletz River. My Grandmother Norma Lewis recalled visiting her Grandmother there. The Mercier household may very well have been stressful to live in, and Caroline may have had enough, and left forever as many children will do.

Such a dysfunctional and abusive household on reservations in this time would have not been uncommon. Many tribal people had gone through an extremely stressful life on the reservation and during the time of this story, there were deepening losses to the reservation and community in the form of land loss and cultural changes. With the lack of ability of the newest generation of tribal kids to gain land on the reservation and the fact that they were still not American citizens, they had few opportunities. Many people engaged in any activity which would somehow benefit them, women married outside the tribe for American status. These actions were prompted by the actions of the Federal government, whose politicians, each generation, passed new laws regarding Native peoples, most of which tended to lead the tribes to the eventual termination of their status. When tribal children could not inherit lands or gain allotments they would commonly leave and find opportunity, a job, elsewhere.  With a piece of land to anchor them to the reservation, people would leave. This causing the disintegration of the community center which in turn affected the culture and viability of the tribe. In this manner, through these various and diverse stresses on the community, many of our relatives may be forever lost to the tribe.

The references to the above article are in-text. This story was interesting as this is directly my family line at the reservation. Julius Mercier, Caroline’s older brother was my Great Grandfather. Caroline is then a Great Great aunt.


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