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 before 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. In the 1822 register, Andrew is recorded as having sent James back to Montserrat. Who was this John Cannonier?
A John Cannonier of Montserrat appears in records of monetary compensation the British government made to slave holders when slavery was abolished in the West Indies in the 1830s. 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.
UPDATE December 2019:
I have been able to take the Cannoniers in St Kitts records back to 1795 now. The marriage of Robert Hill and Mary Cannonier appears in the Basseterre marriage register for the St George’s parish, dated May 18, 1795.
- 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
[…] a follow up to the blog post regarding an Andrew Cannonier of St Kitts, I have fallen down a rabbit hole with another Andrew […]
My name is Daret Cannonier. My father and my mother were both born in St. Kitts. I always thought my grandparents were all from St. Kitts as well. I recently found a manifest of my uncle’s travel papers online which says that his father, my grandfather, was from the French West Indies (St. Martin) I am not sure if that is true, but I think there is a connection to the Cannoniers in Bermuda and the ones in St. Kitts.
My son traveled to Bermuda about 5 years ago, and he looks like brothers to the Bermudian Cannoniers. It was rather strange (not in a bad way).
Although my parents are from St. Kitts, I was born in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, as my parents have lived in the Virgin Islands for over 60 years.
Thanks for reaching out, Daret! I’ll email you separately – I’d love to get more details to try to place your family tree among the Cannoniers of the West Indies.
Okay. I look forward to hearing from you.
Great post. Very informative. Definitely helpful, especially the links. Thanks a mil!
My Cannonier relatives: Twin girls born in St Kitts 1855
Eugenie Elisabeth Cannonier m William Woolward and Margaret Ann Cannonier m John Jacob Harney
Yes, Margaret Ann Cannonier is a familiar name that I am curious about! I will email you separately.
This is so intriguing ! Every little piece helps with putting this puzzle together. I’m from the Montserrat Cannonier”s with even less information.
Thanks for the great work you’re doing.
Hi! This is Daret Cannonier . I don’t know if you ever responded. Please look at my email address below.
Hi Daret, I had responded to you in 2019, but maybe my email went to your junk mail folder. In any case, this is what I had written:
If you don’t mind, could you give me any of your Cannonier ancestors that you know of? I keep a spreadsheet of all the Cannoniers that I’ve come across from the West Indies (there really aren’t that many). I am hoping that some day it will become clear how everyone is related. Not there yet!
I’d like to try to connect your family with those that I already know about. I’ll share with you what I’m able to figure out.
[…] Cannonier – what’s in a name?, cornerofgenealogy.com blog, 2019 […]
I am a Cannonier from St. Kitts. My great-great grandfather was James Cannioner who apparently lived in Sandy Point and was married to Mary Mack/ McIntosh . He had 6 children
Mary Cecilia 12 Jan 1866
Ann Elizabeth 11 Apr 1868
Alberteen 23 Jan 1872
James Augustus 23 Apr 1874
(twins) Martha and Mary 22 Sept 1876
William Walton 1879 my grandfather.
The Cannonier family is mostly in the Parson’s area and many of us now have different last names.
Hopefully we can all share and learn.
Oh yes, I recognized your family names right away! I have seen lots of records of the childrens’ births. There does seem to be a good number of Cannoniers from Sandy Point. Do you have any idea who the parents were of James Cannonier (the father)? I’m always trying to take the family name farther back in history to common ancestors, especially those that (I have found) originated in Montserrat.
Dreamer, I have not found that as yet and my SKN archivist has passed. I am trying to get a contact email for the SKN archives when get it I will reach out again to continue my research.
If you are referring to Viki O’Flaherty, that is a great loss to us all! The assistant archivist Mavis has the email address email@example.com but I don’t know what the current arrangements are for helping with inquiries to the archives.
[…] Cannonier ancestors from St Kitts, I have come across connections to Cannoniers from Montserrat. I’ve also found one Cannonier who appears on the small West Indian island of Dominica. […]