This family story has been made possible through the research of Lorelei Rockwell.
If you would like to contact her for more information, her email address is lorelei@kennedy-rockwell.com


“I was born in Detroit, rather out 16 miles at Grosspoint, MI, the year I do not know, but I was aged 76 last March 23,” Emily told Special Examiner Young. This was June 1918 as Emily Whitmore Defer Laberdie applied for a Remarried Widow’s Pension based on the Civil War military service of her husband Honore Defer.


It was Emily’s peculiar luck that Honore Defer enlisted in ‘the War of the Rebellion’ using the name Francis Defer—a name by which he had never previously been known. Now more than 50 years later Emily, unable to read or write, had to prove her husband ‘Ennery’ was, in fact, the soldier Francis Defer. She had two precious pieces of evidence—his original discharge papers and a handsome picture of her husband in uniform. This was meager proof in the eyes of the Pension Authority.


Emily is the oldest of the seven children Theresa Caroline Alard bore her first husband Joseph Whitmore. She grew up in a lively rural family in what they called Grosse Pointe, but which shows up in many records as L’Anse Creuse or Erin Township, Macomb County. St Paul’s was their church. The year of her birth—which she didn’t know because she ‘didn’t have numbers,’ was 1842.


Her father was an early immigrant from Switzerland who died in 1854 when Emily was 12, leaving her mother in a precarious situation with a large, young family. Fortuitously, another Swiss immigrant, a widower with a young family of his own, appeared, as if by magic, practically on Theresa’s doorstep. More precisely he moved in with a relative living nearby. This was George Defer, he had sons Honore, Joseph and Peter and a daughter Marie-Anne. Strongly attracted to each other Theresa and George did what came naturally and when she became pregnant, they married—in February 1856.


These were families who had a definite affinity for one another. Emily was attracted to her step-brother Honore; both were young. Emily worked as a domestic for the Jacob Gaukler family; onorHoHonore apparently explored his new country, working for a time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. By 1861, however, they sealed their attachment and married at Ste Anne’s.


Honore’s siblings lived and worked in downtown Detroit in an immigrant neighborhood east of Woodward wedged between Jefferson Avenue and the River. Honore and Emily and settled there too. They started their family; Mary Theresa was born in 1862, named for each of their mothers, but Honore’s spirit of adventure was still strong.


President Lincoln called for volunteers in the War to preserve the Union.  In the summer of 1862 Honore and his Swiss cousin Francois-Xavier Salgat enlisted in the cavalry. Emily was left alone with her baby daughter.


Luckily, Honore came through the War without injury. Emily said:

“I came back to Detroit from living with my folks while he was in the army. I came back to Detroit right off when he returned from the War.”


Honore continued to be a man looking for his chance; he’d already taken many risks in his quest. Brought up in the small entrepreneur tradition, he soon found a niche. He became a rag dealer. Not much, you say? His brothers were grocers, his father often a peddler. He tried a butcher shop. He was definitely no farmer.


Emily and Honore’s family grew; Emily gave birth to two boys–Joseph [Josie] in 1866 and Henry Schnyler in 1868, then Jennie in 1872.  By 1873 Honore moved from a precarious small business into the security of public employment—he became a Detroit constable—a position much prized by the family. Emily gave birth to a stillborn child. They bought the house on Franklin Street where they’d been living. She had another little boy they called Joe. Naming her children in 1918 she got in a little trouble with the examiner who questioned her having two sons named Joe. Emily tried to explain:

“I did have two called Joe, but the first one we called Josie and the last one has another name I do not remember. Yes, we call him Joe. This last Joe died when aged 2 years, and only a few days after his father was buried. . .”


There was an appalling brevity to their contentment. Honore suffered unknowingly from heart disease. Tragically he died suddenly in May 1874, a few days short of his 37th birthday. Emily told Examiner Young:

We were living there [on Franklin St] when he died. But he died in the doctor’s office suddenly.”


Emily Whitmore Defer and her children faced a daunting future with her husband’s unexpected death. What could she do? How could she support her children? She was 32, had been married and at home for 13 years and had never worked at anything—just domestic work when she was a girl. She said:

 “After my husband’s death I remained in Detroit about two years, all of my children with me, doing all kinds of work—washing, scrubbing, anything I could get to do.”


She was a resilient and resourceful woman as future events depict. After struggling on her own in Detroit, she returned to her Macomb County roots.


A lonely widow, Emily first lived with her brother Joe. She sold her Detroit house to her Irish brother-in-law James Conway and worked at reorganizing her distraught life. Next she bought a little house near her brother for herself and her children. She was proving herself to herself. She was proud of having made it on her own for five years, but in the 1870’s a widow like Emily could not support a family. Circumstances dictated she find a new husband. Local gossip whispered she was shameless; ‘loose’ they said. Should we be surprised? She was young, full of life, and lonely. Her name was linked with that of a childhood friend—Sylvester Labadie, seven years her junior. The gossips were right. Self-reliant and independent-minded Emily became pregnant in 1879. Sylvester Labadie and Emily Whitmore Defer left their place of origin—possibly to avoid talk, but just as likely for the lumbering work ‘up north’ about which everyone was talking.


In leaving, Emily had to make choices. Her oldest child—Mary was about to marry her neighborhood sweetheart; her future looked settled. Her son Joseph 13 was integrated into her brother’s farm family. She would take her baby 7-year-old Jennie with her. What happened to 10-year-old Henry at this time is unknown, but she undoubtedly saw to his care. It never occurred to Emily to abandon her children. Despite their severely destabilized family life, she was devoted to them and they were committed to her, and each other, their entire lives.


A Justice of the Peace in Bay County married Emily and Sylvester in May 1879. Catherine [Lamy] Marsac and her son Leon Marsac [also from Macomb County] witnessed the ceremony.


Despite Emily’s native intelligence, her illiteracy frustrated her. In her Pension file statements we can appreciate the heart-break of illiteracy.  She didn’t know when she or her children were born, how to spell either of her husbands’ names, the names of the places she had lived, or how to prove her husband Ennery Defer was truly Francis Defer, the Civil War soldier.


Examiner Young wrote:

She is a woman of fair natural ability; but very ignorant. She does not know the name of her husband. She was calling him Ennery, Hennery, and, because it seemed lurking somewhere in her brain that she had heard some say it was in his ‘papers’, she was attempting to work in a Franz, and Frank. She does not know how to spell her surname, which is evidently the French Labadie. So ignorant is she, that when she was probably trying to tell me of Essexville, all I could get out of her pronunciation was “Sigsville.”


Illiteracy, however, did not destroy Emily’s life. She put together a new life; unfortunately Sylvester Labadie was not the rock on which she could build.

 I was married to him at Sigsville [she means: Essexville], near Bessity [Bay City], Mich. ….

                      I had three boys by him. . . 

1.                Frank Sylvester, now living in Ashland, Wisconsin, working in the dynamite mills there;

2.                Noah, living at Thomasson, Wisconsin, … a train conductor; and

3.                Fred Jean, living in Duluth, a trainman. . ..




I began to live with Sylvester Labadie near Bessity, Mich. It was quite a way from Detroit; do not know how far. Two of my children by him born there, and I guess it was about three years that we lived there. From there we moved into the woods at Junction, Mich, [there is no Junction, MI, it was probably Something Junction] county I do not know. We were there about two years. There my child Fred Jean was born. [Fred was born May 1884 in Deep River, Michigan. Deep River is in Arenac County. Deep River Twp borders Adams Twp; in Adams Twp is a small community named Morres Junction.] 


Her daughter Jennie Defer moved out and married by 1886; she was almost 15. Her step-father was a serious drinker, and when he drank, he was violent. Emily put up with him, but Jennie settled in Traverse City where her married older sister now lived.


In 1894 Emily too moved north, with Sylvester and her three Labadie [their name now corrupted by illiteracy to Laberdie] sons, to the little northern Wisconsin town of Saxon in the iron-rich Gogebic Range where her oldest son Joseph Defer was an up-and-coming young businessman.                 


In 1900 Emily is living with her young adult Laberdie sons in Saxon. She is working as a servant and although she is listed as married, Sylvester is not with her. His drinking changed their lives, yet Emily did not abandon him. He lived nearby.


About Sylvester Emily said:

“No, he and I did not always live together after that [after they moved to Saxon]. He went away and left me 13 years ago [about 1905].  Was gone about 3 or 4 weeks, he then came back, but never lived with me again. It was this way: He was drinking hard and would come home and abuse me. I told him then that he would have to give up drinking or give up me. He said he would give me up. So he went off. Do not know where he went or whether he came back alone. He did not come to me. Right after he left me, I went to Traverse City, Mich., to my daughter, who was sick. She died. I then visited among my folks about Detroit, Mich., and then returned here, after an absence of six months. It was October when he left me.”


Her oldest daughter Mary Theresa in Traverse City had been struggling with heart disease—the same malady that killed her father at 36. In 1906 Mary Teresa died; she was 44. Her obituary reads in part:

The remains of Mrs. Frank Forton who died at her home on Hannah Avenue of organic heart trouble were laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery Saturday, February 17.  She will be sadly missed at home by her husband and eight children and also by her mother who has been a faithful watcher at her side during her illness. [emphasis added].


Emily continues her story:

“No, I did not break up housekeeping when I went to Michigan...


“When I came back, Labadie was here. He told me, when he met me on the street, to get out of town and not come back again. I went to the owner of the house I was occupying asked who paid the rent while I was gone. He said no one did. So I paid it and he told me to occupy the house and I did. Labadie owned a shack here, across the street, and lived in that alone. He batched it. He continued his drinking. He continued living in that shack until taken sick there, was then taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ashland, Wis., where he died in just a few days [December 9-13, 1915, cause: lobar pneumonia, contributory--cold and intemperance]. He was brought back here and buried right here in the Saxon cemetery…. I attended his funeral… He left that shack and the lot on which it stands. They say it is mine.“


Emily told only part of the story. Sylvester was actually ‘laid out’ at her house and his funeral was held there.


This was not the only family death in 1915. Emily’s daughter-in-law Annie Darling Defer, her son Joseph’s much-loved wife of 25 years died in July—of alcoholism. Despite a certain prosperity, these were unrefined, tough people, living taxing lives, in desolate, lonely country. They drank; they drank to smooth the rough edges; they drank a lot. Sometimes they drank so much, they died.


Emily continued to live alone, but near all five of her boys, Defer and Labadie. They supported her. In September 1916 the Civil War pension law changed and she became eligible for a remarried widow’s pension if only she could prove her Ennery was Francis Defer.


In a 1918 deposition she says:

“My residence and address are Saxon, Iron County, Wisconsin, and I have been here 23 years last November. Am living alone, keeping house for myself. I cannot work out any more to earn any money. The boys give me a few dollars now and then; that is the way I live.”

Note:  In 1918 she was 76.


In May 1918 the Bureau of Pensions, Special Examination Division finally made their decision—a decision of tremendous importance to Emily. A decision made after numerous interviews with family and friends in Michigan and Wisconsin as well as copious mail enquiries. A decision made after examining the soldier’s original discharge papers, after obtaining and showing his photograph to interviewees—deposing them about his identity, his life and the details of Emily Whitmore’s life; after recording Emily’s long, complicated life in her own words in abundant detail; after collecting documents to substantiate her marriages and her spouses’ deaths—a decision made, to tell the truth, after creating a genealogist’s dream-come-true file.


The Bureau of Pensions wrote:

“Reference for special examination is made to determine whether the claimant’s former husband was identical with the soldier of record….


“There seems to be little doubt but that the claimant’s former husband whose name she gives as Francis and Francois H Defer was identical with the soldier of record who served as Francis Defer.”


Emily was awarded a widow’s pension in October 1918: $20/month beginning October 1916, increased to $25/month in October 1917; after her long struggle it must have been a satisfying windfall when her $540 retroactive payment check arrived.  Her pension was eventually raised to $30/month—the amount she was paid in November 1926--shortly before she died.


Emily would have taken astonished pride in knowing she was a sufficiently important person so that her obituary was carried on the Associated Press wire:


Ironwood Daily Globe, November 15, 1926

Oldest Pioneer of Saxon Dies Sunday

Mrs. Emaline Laberdie Passes Away After Long Illness

Saxon, Wis, Nov 15-[AP] Mrs. Emaline Laberdie, 84, Saxon's oldest pioneer, died Sunday at her home after a long illness due to complications of old age.

   Mrs. Laberdie was born March 23, 1842, at Detroit. In April 1859, she was married to Henry Defer at Detroit [actually married 9 Mar 1861] and in April 1878 [actually 1 May 1879] she became the bride of Sylvester Laberdie at Essexville, Mich.

   Five sons, J. J. Defer of Saxon, Henry Defer of Ironwood, Noah Laberdie of Thomaston, Sylvester Laberdie of Wakefield, and Fred Laberdie of Superior, Wis, one daughter, Mrs. W. G. Dobson of Traverse City, Mich, 20 grandchildren and 23 great grandchildren survive.

   Funeral services will be held Wednesday morning at 8 o'clock at St Ann's church of Saxon. The Rev. Fr. Allaire will officiate. Burial will be made in Lakeview Cemetery.

   Mrs. Laberdie was a member of the Catholic Ladies' Aid society. She lived alone for about 20 years in a small house near the Saxon school. Her daughter lived with her for the past ten months. All the children were present when death came. [emphasis added]




EMILY3 WHITMORE  (JOSEPH2, JOSEPH1) was born 23-Mar-1842 in Wayne or Macomb Co MI and died 14-Nov-1926 in Saxon, Iron Co WI.  She married (1) HONORE HENRY FRANCOIS DEFER 09-Mar-1861 in St Anne's Church in Detroit MI, son of GEORGE DEFER and MARIE DOMINE.  He was born 23-May-1837 in Pleigne, Canton Jura, SW, and died 07-May-1874 in Detroit, Wayne Co MI.  She married (2) SYLVESTER CELESTIN LABADIE 01-May-1879 in Hampton, Bay Co MI, son of CELESTIN LABADIE and MARY ANNE MARSAC.  He was born 28-Feb-1848, bp 4-Mar-1849 at St Paul’s in Grosse Pointe, Wayne Co MI and died 13-Dec-1915 in Ashland, Ashland Co WI.



The Alard family appears in Father Denissen’s French Families of the Detroit River Region, 1701-1936, p 4, #8, i; the Whitmore line does not appear there but Whitmore family information is available in the Macomb County Database at the Mt Clemens Public Library. Celestin/Sylvester Labadie appears in Denissen, p 615, #4, i.


Emily was originally known as Amelia.


1850 Census MI/Macomb Erin Twp, p.188B/189A #1172/1203

More, Joseph            33 m   farmer 300     MI

      Theressa              28                                MI

      Amelia                   9                                 MI

      Theressa               7                                 MI

      Lewis                     6                                 all MI

      Joseph                  3        

      Stephen                 1


1860 Census MI/Macomb/Erin, taken 24 July, p.184

 #1522/1445   Dufar, George          40 France     Pedlar 1600 personal/270 real est

                                    Thersea          39 MI

                                    Amelia            16 MI               Domestic*

                                    Joseph           13 Mich,

                                    Stephen          11Mich,

                                    Richard            9 Mich,

                                    Catharine       5 Mich, [these 5 are actually WHITMORE children]

                                    Francis            3 Mich,           [DEFER children]

                                    Isadore           5/12 Mich

*Husband’s Civil War pension shows she worked for Jacob Gaukler.


1870 Census Wayne, Detroit, 10th Ward, p 361-2, Ln 38. #35/54, taken 2 June

Defert, Henry             31 Pedler in Rags $--/1000  Switz 

      Emily                     26 Kps House                         MI

      Mary                       8 at sch                                    CN

      Joseph                  3                                               MI   

      Schnyler                1                                               MI [this is Henry S]


City Directory 1875-76

Defer, Emily [wid Honore]                                h 365 Franklin

Defer, Peter                           clerk               bds 312 Franklin

Defer, Virginia [wid Joseph]    grocer             312 Franklin


She is not listed in the 1877 Directory.


In the 1880 census, Sylvester and Emily have a seven-month old son [born November 1879]--confirming she was pregnant when they married in May.


1880 Census MI/Bay, Hampton Twp (ED 29, SH 28, LN 1), p 667D

Labadie, Sylvester    31        MI MI  MI         farm laborer [many sawmill workers nearby]

              Emily             38       MI Sw MI

   Defer, Julia            8        step dau

Labadie, Sylvester 7/12       b Nov

Lives near Leon Marsac and family from Macomb Co.


In 1900 she says she had 9 children, 7 of whom are living. We have accounted for the 7 living children. She told the 1918 examiner she’d had one child born dead and a last Defer child, Joe who died when he was 2, ‘only a few days after his father was buried.’


1900 WI/Iron/Saxon Twp, ED 41, p 198B, taken 21 Jun, ancestry.com image 13/14

#110/115 Laberdie, Emily   hd  Mar 1842  58  m 22 9/7 MI Sweden MI servant  RH

                        Sylvester        son Nov 1878  21  s              MI MI MI          day laborer

                        Noah               son Nov 1880  19  s                  all MI              "

                        Fred                son May 1884 16   s                             "                 


Emily was with her daughter Mary Theresa Defer Forton in February 1906:

Traverse City The Evening Record, February 19 1906, p.2.

     The remains of Mrs. Frank Forton who died at her home on Hannah Ave of organic heart trouble were laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery Saturday, February 17.  She will be sadly missed at home by her husband and eight children and also by her mother who has been a faithful watcher at her side during her illness. [emphasis added]


1910 census Wisconsin, Iron, Saxon (ED 35, SH 8, LN 91), taken 12 May

#135/138 Laberadie, Sylvester     30 s           MI MI  MI  shingle man/lumber mill RH

                     Emily (mother)           68 m2x 32y 9/6 MI Gr MI none


1920 WI/Iron/Saxon/ Ed 99, taken 15 Jan, image 4/18

#32/37 Emilia Laberdie       head   O F 77 wd cnr,w        MI Gr MI none


WI Death Certificate from Iron County Clerk, State record, page 40.

Emily Laberdie, female white, widowed, husband S. W. Laberdie

born Mar 23, 1842, age 84/7/22, housewife, b Detroit MI, father: Whittmore, mother: Caroline Allor, dod: November 14, 1926,

C.C Urquhart, Hurley, WI attended her Nov 10-14, 1926, she died a 4 a.m., Chronic myocarditis, contributory arterio sclerosis.

Place of burial, Saxon, WI on Nov 17, undertaker Joe Charbonneau, Hurley

Filed Nov 20, 1926, J J Simon, Registrar




Children of Honore Defer
      Emily Whitmore






Generation   4

All born Michigan


  1. Mary Theresa Defer   md Francois-Xavier Forton
  2. Joseph J Defer             md Annie Darling
  3. Henry S Defer               md Ida Hallett
  4. Jennie Julia Defer       md William G Dobson     







2.             i.   MARIE THERESA4 DEFER, b. Feb-1862, Canada; d. 15-Feb-1906, Traverse City MI.

3.            ii.   JOSEPH J DEFER, b. Oct-1866, Detroit, MI; d. 14-Apr-1929, Saxon, Iron Co, WI.

4.           iii.   HENRY SCHNYLER DEFER, b. 23-Oct-1868, Detroit, MI; d. 30-Jan-1928, Ironwood, Gogebic Co MI.

5.          iv.  JENNIE JULIA DEFER, b. 28-Jan-1872, probably Wayne or   Macomb  Co MI    d. 19-Oct-1948, East Lansing, Ingham Co MI.

A photo of Honore Defer, 1839-1874 is on this website


This family story has been made possible through the research of Lorelei Rockwell.
If you would like to contact her for more information, her email address is lorelei@kennedy-rockwell.com

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