There are challenges researching the family tree for a surname like Smith or Jones, but it can be equally difficult to trace back an unusual last name. My husband’s great grandmother from St Kitts was born Margaret Johanna Cannonier (1868-1940), and I have been trying to make sense of how the many Cannoniers of St Kitts were related, and where their name originally came from. Margaret Johanna’s father was John Henry Cannonier (about 1832 to 1868), whose profession was listed on his death record as planter. Perhaps because John died only 6 days after Margaret’s birth, there is little information about his origins. My husband’s grandmother could only tell us, years ago, that she thought the Cannoniers were French or Italian.
How rare is the name Cannonier? The 2000 United States Census only counted 177 people with the name, which ties it for the 133,114th most frequently occurring surname in the country. On one surname distribution website, the United States has the most people named Cannonier in the world, while St Kitts has the second most. The US Virgin Islands and Bermuda come in third and fourth. The Bermudian Cannoniers can (at least partially) be traced back to a 19th century Kittitian who relocated to Bermuda. Some of the Kittitian Cannoniers who emigrated to the United States settled in New York City and Texas.
The earliest mention I’ve found of the name in St Kitts is in the 1817 Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834. An Andrew Cannonier appears as a “proprietor” who held nine enslaved people. Two of the enslaved men, named Sam and James, were listed as creoles of Montserrat, an island about 60 miles from St Kitts. James is noted as originating from a John Cannonier, who doesn’t appear as a proprietor in the St Kitts register. In the 1822 register, Andrew is recorded as having sent James back to Montserrat. Who was John Cannonier?
A John Cannonier appears in records of monetary compensation the British government gave to slave owners when slavery was abolished in the West Indies in the 1830s. John Cannonier was a fairly large slave holder in Montserrat, in his own right as well as in his role as executor for two estates on the island. The fact that Andrew and John shared the same unusual last name, and appear to have moved slaves back and forth between their two islands, would suggest that there could have been a family relationship.
On to the origins of the name – where did the West Indian Cannoniers come from? One possible answer arose after looking for the worldwide occurrences of spelling variations of Cannonier, such as Canonier and Canonnier. Both variations are largely centered on the same area of France, a region today called Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. Drilling down on the regional data revealed that the Cannoniers were located in and around a city called Saint-Étienne. Saint-Étienne has been known since medieval times as a major center of firearm, sword, and armor manufacturing. At one time the many factories there were designated as the French royal suppliers of arms, supplying their armies during conflicts such as the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and World War I.
And the literal translation of the French name Cannonier? It’s equivalent to the English word cannoneer, an artillery soldier who operates a cannon. Not so surprising from a French center of arms manufacture!
The possible links between Saint-Étienne, the Cannoniers of St Kitts and Montserrat, and Margaret Johanna Cannonier are still largely a mystery. More work awaits.
- United States Census Bureau, Genealogy, Frequently Occurring Surnames from the Census 2000, 2014
- Forebears.io, a data aggregation website, 2019 (I can’t confirm the site’s accuracy, but the content provides some clues)
- Ancestry.com, Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834, 2019
- Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, UCL Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, 2019
- Geneanet.org, Origin of the name Cannonier
- The Margins of City Life: Explorations on the French Urban Frontier, 1815-1851 by John M. Merriman, 1991
- Benjamin Arms, Firearm and Sword Production in Saint-Étienne
- Recoilweb.com, Saint-Étienne Museum of Science and Industry, 2017