Who Inherited the DeGrace Fortune?

Ann Martin Appleby and Alexander Appleby: rightful heirs?

When I began looking for documents to fill in details about my New Brunswick ancestors, I had never heard of the DeGrace family fortune. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a will made by the adoptive mother-in-law of my ancestor Ann Martin Appleby, naming Ann as executrix and partial heir to an estate rumored to be valued in the millions! But there was a catch—for Ann to receive the money, somebody would first need to legally establish her mother-in-law’s claim to the estate.

Could my impoverished Canadian ancestors really have been rightful heirs to this mysterious “DeGrace fortune?” I knew that I needed to find out more!

To back up a bit: my third great-grandfather Alexander Appleby, born on 4 March 1839 in New Brunswick, was the illegitimate son of James Appleby and Mary Butler. He was adopted by Amie and Celeste (DeGrace) Doucet, who had no biological children and raised Alexander as their own—though he was not legally recognized as their son, as the first laws regulating adoption in New Brunswick were passed in 1873.1

As an adult, Alexander married Ann Martin and had ten children, including my second great-grandmother Margaret Ann. Alexander seemed to have a close relationship with his adoptive parents, who ended up living with him and his family. Curious about how Amie and Celeste divided their estate, I decided to search for probate records.

Daughters of Ann and Alexander Appleby.

I found a will for Amie Doucet dated 28 January 1869 which states that upon his death, all property should be given to his wife Celeste (spelled Selas) Doucet for the remainder of her life.2 After her death, all property would then pass to their adoptive son Israel Roy, under the condition that he remain on the farm and continue acting toward Celeste as a true and faithful son. If not, then Celeste would have full power to grant the property to whomever she wished.

Israel Roy was the other adoptive child of Amie and Celeste. It appears that Israel did not remain on the property after all, as by 1881 Celeste is living with Alexander Appleby instead. The next record we get from Celeste is her will, dated 21 January 1895, which stipulates that all real and personal property should go to her dear friend, Ann Appleby wife of Alexander Appleby, whom Celeste named as executrix.3 The will then states that if anyone succeeds in establishing Celeste’s claim to the “DeGrace Fortune” then it should be liquidated and divided as follows:

  • 10% of the money shall be divided equally amongst Ann Appleby’s children.
  • 15% of the money shall be given to John DeGrace as payment for his work in establishing the claim.
  • $200 should be paid to Reverend Father William Varrily for masses for “the repose of my soul.”
  • If available, $300 should be given and divided amongst all of Celeste’s neighbors who are not DeGrace heirs.
  • Anything remaining should be divided equally amongst the other heirs of Celeste’s father Antoine DeGrace.

I did some digging and discovered that Celeste and her siblings believed their father was heir to a vast fortune in Spain, claimed to be valued in the millions.4 Could this have been true?

Celeste’s father, Antoine DeGrace, was born in 1755 in Palma on the Spanish island of Majorca to Josef Gras and Magdalena Pujades. According to stories, he entered the French Navy during the American Revolution, and was captured and brought to Canada as a prisoner. It was also claimed that he was a nephew of Admiral Francois Joseph Paul DeGrasse of the French Navy. After the war, Antoine began working in the fish and lumber trades in Chaleur Bay. He would eventually settle in Bathurst, New Brunswick, where he married Angelique Hache and had 14 children.

In 1884, Antoine’s 87-year-old son Pierre DeGrace was interviewed about the fortune. Soon after, the family began making a concerted effort to claim it. A DeGrace descendant travelled to Spain in 1887 in the company of a lawyer, and upon his return claimed that the fortune indeed existed and was worth $30 million! Then in 1894, family members claimed that the succession had been settled and that the fortune would be divided shortly—but the money never came. Many years passed before another attempt was made. In 1927, it was reported that Hector DeGrace of Buffalo was trying to locate the fortune.

Below is a timeline of the DeGrace Fortune, as far as I can trace it:

  • 25 Jun 1752, Josef Gras marries Magdalena Pujades.5
  • 30 Aug 1755, Antoni Pedro Gras, son of Josef and Magdalena, is born at Palma, Majorca.
  • About 1773, Antoni Gras joins the French Navy and fights in the American Revolution. His is later captured and sent to Canada.
  • 29 Dec 1781, a will is created by Josef Gras leaving “pious legacies” in the hands of Father Juan Morey, as well as to his wife and cousin.
  • 3 Jul 1787, Antoni Gras (now Antoine DeGrace) marries Angelique Hache dit Gallant in Bathurst, New Brunswick.
  • 13 Dec 1819, Magdalena Pujades dies in Majorca, supposedly leaving her entire estate to her son, with the Bishop of Barcelona as administrator. This money was supposedly put in trust, and though Antoine tried to obtain it he was refused.
  • 1884, Pierre DeGrace, age 87, son of Antoine, is interviewed and talks about the family fortune.
  • 1887, an article is published in the Moniteur Acadien detailing the fortune (estimated at $30 million) and its history.
  • 1894, an article is published in The Evening Mail (Halifax, NS) stating that authorities in Spain are satisfied and the remainder of the work to settle the estate is to be done by the family in Canada.
  • 1895, John DeGrace, a descendant, heads to Spain but returns shortly after, remaining silent about his findings. A few years later war broke out between Spain and the United States and negotiations ceased.
  • 1915, Representatives of the DeGrace family travel to Spain but do not share their findings upon return.
  • 1927, Hector DeGrasse of Buffalo, New York, renews the hunt for the fortune and estimates its value at $350 million.
  • 1928, Hector’s sons are now leading the search. Claims are made that a court case will be heard in a few months’ time in Spain regarding the fortune.

For many decades, nothing more was heard on the matter. Then in the 1980s and ‘90s, Louis G. DeGrace traveled to Majorca in a renewed search for the truth. He was able to uncover records showing that the family had been successful in the barrel-making and boating industries. Nothing else, as far as I am aware, has been uncovered to back up the rumors about the million-dollar fortune.

The story of the DeGrace family and their Spanish fortune seems to have been forgotten by descendants of the Applebys. However, some evidence of the connection remains in the family’s choice of names. For example, my great-grandmother was named Cathelina McGilvery; Saint Catalina of Palma is the patron saint of Majorca and has been celebrated there since the 1500s. Another grandson, Alexander Doiron, was given the unusual middle name Majoricus. Additionally the name Celeste, or variations of it such as Celina, Celestine, and Estella/Stella, appears many times across Alexander Appleby’s descendants.

Alas, no evidence exists proving that I am heir to a Spanish fortune. But for a genealogist, uncovering this fantastical 200-year-old family story is a treasure in and of itself!


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1 “Adoption,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed 21 May 2024. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/adoption

2 New Brunswick, Gloucester County deed registry books 1827-1930, 28 January 1869, Bathurst, Amie Doucet Will, Vol 21, Page 211, FamilySearch.

3 New Brunswick, Gloucester County deed registry books 1827-1930, 21 January 1895, Bathurst, Celeste Doucet Will, Vol 39, Page 326, FamilySearch.

4 “La fortune espagnole mythique de la famille DeGrace”, Marc Poirier, Acadie Nouvelle, 10 December 2021, https://www.acadienouvelle.com/chroniques/2021/12/10/la-fortune-espagnole-mythique-de-la-famille-degrace/

5 Spanish Gras-DeGrace-DeGrasse research notes of Louis DeGrace. https://sites.rootsweb.com/~mnichols/deg/deg_notes.htm