Cohort Report: Kerouac’s Nashua Roots

Tracing Jack’s Nashua Roots by Suzanne Beebe

Many of those familiar with Jack Kerouac know he was born, raised, schooled, and buried in Lowell, Massachusetts. Fewer, however, know that his parents, paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles all came from Nashua, New Hampshire — a busy mill city of the era, somewhat smaller than Lowell but with a French-Canadian population that at one time was proportionately higher. Kerouac’s paternal grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Kerouac, migrated from Quebec in 1890 to work in Nashua, and the six Kerouac children who survived to adulthood lived and worked there until Jack’s father Leo, with new wife Gabrielle in tow, broke ranks and moved to Lowell for a printing job there.

But the Lowell and Nashua Kerouacs continued to visit back and forth, and Jack was well-acquainted with his grandfather’s and other relatives’ houses in Nashua — and most probably with other points of interest, including the French churches and cemetery so intertwined with the family’s history. It’s surprising to many that Jack himself is not buried in the family plot at St. Louis de Gonzague Cemetery, where his parents, brother Gerard, and daughter Jan Michelle rest beneath a large memorial stone engraved with their names. But he had married his childhood friend Sebastian’s sister, Stella Sampas, and had ended his own journey in the Sampas family’s Edson Cemetery plot in Lowell.

For anyone wanting to explore the Kerouac family’s roots in Nashua, a tour is available every year as part of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival held the first week of October in anticipation of Kerouac’s anniversary of death on October 21. The tour is led by Reverend Steve Edington, a life-long student of Kerouac’s work and a pastor for twenty-four years at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashua. Realizing his good fortune in living and working where Jack’s family first settled, Reverend Edington made ample use of city, church, cemetery, and library records in Nashua to flesh out the Kerouac family’s history, residences, and relationships in the Gate City and surrounding communities. He sought out current family members, collected family stories and memories of Jack and the relatives he would have known at the time, and learned about the rich cultural and religious life of the French-Canadian communities entrenched in what are still known as Nashua’s French Village and French Hill.

In 1999, he published Kerouac’s Nashua Connection, a now out-of-print book that can still be found on Amazon and other websites for purchase through third-party resellers. But for those who want to see for themselves and hear from a knowledgeable source about where and how the Kerouacs of Nashua lived, worked, and worshipped, the annual tour, which begins and ends in Lowell, is the route to go. And the tour’s final stop at the headstone in St. Louis de Gonzague Cemetery is a heart-wrenching pulling together of the major threads in Jack’s troubled and tumultuous life.

For anyone interested in taking the October tour — or taking advantage of other tours and events available as part of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival — I suggest bookmarking the following URL and getting on the Festival Committee’s e-mail list: http://www