Private Sylvester Simmons- one mystery solved, new mysteries emerge

St. Augustine Catholic Church Cemetery by Hannah Richardson

By John Singleton

On the weekend of July 10-11, an article appeared here in the Natchitoches Times entitled, “Has anyone seen Sylvester Simmons?”

As a volunteer researcher, I’ve been trying to find the final resting places of a number of WWI soldiers from Louisiana. Simmons’ remains had been shipped back from France, in 1922, for local burial.  And that’s essentially where the trail went cold.  A local reader, C.M. “Butch” Lawson, a retired Master Chief Avionics Technician and Cold War and Vietnam Veteran, contacted Hannah Richardson at the Times, and in short order, I had a partner in my search for Pvt. Simmons.  Butch, an able genealogist, suggested that I focus my efforts on the Saint Augustine Catholic Church cemetery.

Butch had done some poking around in old census records and connected the dots between Sylvester Simmons, his mother, Clemence Metoyer and his half-brother Joseph Bernestine. Long story a little shorter, I was able to speak to a nice lady at Saint Augustine who, after checking cemetery records, was able to confirm: “Yes, Sylvester Simmons, who died in France, was buried here in 1922.”

My original mission, with the help of my new friend, Butch, is complete.  But new mysteries about Sylvester Simmons emerged during the search.  Mysteries that may be far more difficult to solve than simply finding his final place of rest.

During our conversation, Butch gave me somewhat of a crash-course in the Creole history of Natchitoches Parish.  Fascinated, I later watched several documentaries about the challenges of being Creole in a world that forces one to declare whether they are black or white.

That inspired me to do some additional digging.  In the 1910 census, Clemence Metoyer, widow, is shown as the head of her household.  The census-taker recorded that she had three sons:  Andrew, Sylvester and Joseph.  All of the sons had the last name Metoyer and the race of all four people was listed as Mulato.  Also listed in the 1900 census in Natchitoches Parish was the Mary Simmons’ household consisting of her daughters Virginia and Corine, as well as her son Sylvester B. Simmons.  Sylvester would have been around 41 at this time, and Clemence Metoyer would have been a few years older, so I tend to think Sylvester B. Simmons was Pvt. Simmons’ father.

The younger Sylvester, using the last name Metoyer, likely changed his last name to reflect that of his father, much like his brother Joseph began to use the last name Bernestine instead of Metoyer.  But here’s the really odd part:  The elder Sylvester Simmons, along with his sisters Mary and Corine, lived under the same roof, none ever marrying, for 50 years.  His father, Samuel S. Simmons listed his real-estate value in 1860 as $45,000, or about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.  They weren’t poor people.  So, is it possible, or likely, that Sylvester Bossier Simmons had a “fling” with Clemence Metoyer, resulting in the birth of Sylvester Metoyer?

The Simmons family is listed as “white” on the various censuses.  In the 1910 census, a number of Metoyers in Natchitoches Parish were also listed as white.  And one last twist that really makes me wonder:  Sylvester Simmon’s half-brother, Joseph Bernestein, also served in WWI.  Draft cards during WWI had the left lower corner clipped off to signify the applicant was black.  Bernestein’s draft card not only has the corner intact, it lists his race as white.  I believe Clemence Metoyer was indeed a light-complected Creole woman who could pass as white, but perhaps the Simmons family wouldn’t accept her into their upper-crust world.

My original mission may be complete, but I’m very curious about the potential relationship between Clemence Metoyer and Sylvester Bossier Simmons.  I suspect that will remain a mystery.