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French-Canadian Roots
Xenia Stanford





SEARCHING FOR French-Canadian roots can be  challenging due to the unique characteristics of this  area of research. However, often the uniqueness  makes the search much more rewarding and  fascinating.

The challenges posed by the unique history, language,  religion, culture and laws may seem foreboding.  However, this is only the case if they are not  understood. By exposing the myths and mysteries  surrounding this area of research, the challenges may  be turned into treasures.

Challenge of Defining French Roots The first challenge is to define exactly what are French Canadian roots. This is not easy but, historically, "French-Canadian" referred to an area larger than that of the current province of Quebec. The term Canada or Canadian originated before the term Quebec and long before the Confederation of Canada in 1867. It predates even the first Acadian settlement in 1604. When Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608, the term Canada had been in existence since 1536.

In that year, French explorer Jacques Cartier was returning some natives he had taken to France with him at the end of his first trip to the new land he had claimed for France. When the natives saw their home village in the distance, they pointed to it and said "kanata". From that time forward until at least the 1755 map John Mitchell drew for the British troops, the name "Canada" was used to refer to parts and often all of the French possessions in North America.

When Cardinal Richelieu was appointed to establish the colony, he gave total jurisdiction for the fur-trade to the Company of the Hundred Associates in exchange for ensuring-, the settlement of Canada. The 1628 contract with the Company stated they must encourage the settling of any and all lands from Florida to the Arctic. The British had staked their claim along the east coast where the 13 colonies of what would become the United States lay. The Spanish were exploring the west coast up from Central America and the Portuguese were looking at parts of Florida. However, at one time the nation sometimes labeled Canada stretched from Hudson Bay down to Florida, across to the Rio Grande River and up through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Michigan and other areas now part of the US.

In 1616, Father Pierre Biard wrote that Canada did not include all areas of New France, only the part around the great River Canada (later renamed the St. Lawrence) and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. However, many documents written by the explorers and scientists discussed the flora and fauna of Canadensius or Canadensis; for example, the texts written by Jacques Cornuti in 1637 and Franqois Du Creux in 1664.

The map of Marc Lescarbot, who accompanied Champlain to Acadia, shows Acadia as part of Canada. However, Acadia is often regarded  as separate because it had a much shorter history as  a part of French-occupied territory. It was one of the  first areas conquered by the British in 1713, which  encouraged many French people to leave and settle  around Quebec City and Montreal. Other Acadians  joined them in 1755 when the British, fearing  insurrection from within during their war against  France, deported Acadians who would not swear  allegiance to England. Most were sent to the French  territory called "La Louisianne" (Louisiana, Alabama  and Mississippi today). By 1763, the French had lost  all their North American lands except for the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. The British named their new possession north of New England "the Province of Quebec" and it then included most of what is Ontario today. The area that was to become Ontario was at the time officially called the "Western part of Montreal District of the Colony of Qu6bec". The US declared its independence from England in 1776, and was officially recognized as an independent nation in 1783. In 1791, after the influx of United Empire Loyalists, the former "Province of Quebec" was renamed "Province of Canada". So once again the French living within these borders could consider themselves French Canadian. However, the borders between the "Province of Canada" and the US were not established until the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1837. While these were being determined, one could go to bed at night a French-Canadian and wake up the next morning a Franco-American without having moved. Although there was no significant change after 1837, the borders between the two countries were still disputed until the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.

The boundaries of provinces within Canada continued to evolve after 1867, and the modern borders defining the province of Quebec were not finalized until 1927. Besides which, people in many other parts of Canada consider themselves to be French-Canadian. Furthermore, there are many Americans who have French-Canadian roots regardless of whether they call themselves Franco-Americans or something else.

So it is a puzzle not easily solved. The only conclusion to be drawn is that French-Canadians cannot be confined to a single province, country or region. To be French-Canadian is something like the definition given to this author of what it is to be native. The answer was "if you think you are one - then you are".

What's in a Name?

Another challenge is determining where French-Canadian ancestors lived. Besides the names Canada, New France, Province of Quebec (1763-1790), Province of Canada (1791-1866), Dominion of Canada (1867-present), often people locating a census or other record and find their ancestor was born in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Canada West or Canada East. To make matters even worse sometimes the document will say English Canada, Canada English, French Canada or Canada French. How confusing!

To make it simple, here are a few dates and names:

1791-1839: the "Province of Canada" was divided into Upper Canada for areas settled mainly by the United Empire Loyalists and other primarily English-speaking Protestants and Lower Canada for the region settled by mainly French-speaking Catholics.

1840-1866: the former Province of Canada became United Canada and was subsequently re-divided into Canada West for the former Upper Canada and Canada East for the former Lower Canada. However, many people continued to refer to them by the older names.

1867: United Canada split into two provinces: Ontario (the former Upper Canada or Canada West) and Quebec (the former Lower Canada or Canada East). Joined by two other provinces, they formed the Dominion of Canada.

Canada English or English Canada and Canada French or French Canada were never official names but were often used to refer to the English-speaking parts of Canada, particularly Ontario, and the French-speaking parts of Canada, primarily Quebec. These names were used on documents from at least the 1791 division onward and are still used informally for these areas today.


A Difference of Language

Another obvious challenge for those who do not read, write or speak French is the difference of language. Some believe knowing modern French makes the research into French-Canadian roots much easier. This is only partly true. Reading and understanding the old records can be challenging for even French-speaking people today.

Besides the obvious problems of damage and deterioration of the records, we must remember that the language changed over time and evolved by region. When the French began to settle North America, they brought their regional dialects with them. Those who came from the north spoke a dialect of a branch of French called Francien, Parisian French or Langue d'Oll, which had been influenced by other languages of Europe. Those who came from the southern part of the country spoke Langue d'Oc, which had changed little from its vernacular or vulgar Latin roots (Latin vulgate was the spoken language of the Roman conquering troops and commoners, while classical Latin was the written formal language of scholars).

When the French arrived in the New World, they encountered many new animals, plants, conditions and experiences for which there were no French words. They either borrowed from the natives or invented their own. Thus the languages of France and Canada evolved separately.

As the settlers were first arriving in Canada, French was still not standardized in grammar or spelling. Further the illiteracy or bare literacy of the people affected spelling and grammar. Although the priests sent from France knew how to read and write better than most of their parishioners, they were not often scholars. This resulted-in many variant spellings in documents for names of the same family or even same person. In one example, a single person's name is variously spelled Shea, Chea and Shay in one record. Between the 17th and the 19th century, another family's surname is spelt variously Hayot, Hayet, Ayot, AyiA, Ayotte, Ayette and Alliette.

The change of terms over history cannot be forgotten either. There are words that mean something quite different today than they originally meant and others that no longer exist in modern French dictionaries. Thus deciphering old French-Canadian records can be a challenge even for those who are fluent in modern French.

A Matter of Faith

Still other challenges are due to religion. Although the French Edict of Nantes granted religious freedom (from its introduction in 1598 until it was revoked in 1685), the banning of non-Catholic settlers in Canada began with the 1627 decree of Cardinal de Richelieu that Protestants were welcome to come to New France for short periods in the summer to conduct business but were no longer permitted to settle. This rule lasted until after 1763 when the French lands in North America were ceded to Britain.

Thus vital records were kept according to the laws of France and the religious customs of the Catholic Church. Although the priests had to abide by the civil laws for recording events, they regarded their duties primarily as obedience to God (thus the Church) and then to the King (hence country). Therefore, the registers are firstly a recording of the church sacraments and secondly the required vital records of the country. The most significant impact of this was that vital records were recorded as BMS (baptemes, mariages and sepultures) instead of BAD (births, marriages and deaths).

According to secular law, the priests were to record the vital date, which they did. However, the date of the record is the date of the church sacrament and the date of the birth or death are buried within the text. For example, the register might read: "on the 7th of October 1745, 1 the undersigned priest baptized Jean, born last Tuesday son of..." Similarly a death would be recorded as the day of the burial service and the death date might be given as "hier" (yesterday).

Although baptism was considered very important to prevent a child from dying in the state of "original sin", thus being condemned to a life in limbo (neither Heaven nor Hell), there are cases where the services of a priest were not immediately available. The family might wait until the priest came around or until they could make it to the nearest church. Sometimes the child baptized was several months or years old. In other cases a whole family of Protestants who wished to stay or live in New France might be baptized on the same day but be of any age from newborn to adult.

However, if the life of the child  was in imminent danger and a  priest was not present, anyone  could baptize the child. This  was called an  "ondoye"("ondoyee" for  females) and would later be  "deposed" or entered in the  register. Again the date of the  original birth or baptism might  be buried within the text of the  record while the date entered in  the register could be days,  weeks, months or occasionally  years later.

Sometimes baptized children  are entered in the registers as  "anonyme" and "inconnu". Usually "anonyme" (anonymous or unnamed.) referred to a stillborn that died without a given or first name. "Inconnu" ("inconnue" for females) meant surname or parentage "unknown". If the child died shortly after birth, he or she might not have been given a first name either. However, sometimes the child might have been given a grace name, such as Marie or Pierre. These then might be entered in the register as "Marie Inconnue" and "Pierre Inconnu". The "inconnu" label was usually given to children who were born out-of-wedlock and left at the church or convent door for the parish to look after. This makes tracing roots further back impossible.

Another religious taboo was marrying outside the Catholic Church or without the services of an ordained priest. If the couple had already married, for example in a Protestant ceremony, and wanted it considered official, the marriage had to be "rehabilitated". This can lead to confusion as to the date of the original marriage, though sometimes it is given.

Religion even affected the census taking. As in France, the church was responsible for such civil duties as record keeping and tithing. Thus the early census records were based on parishioners and non-parishioners. If the person was a parishioner, meaning baptized Catholic, all names and ages of members of the household were given. Also each communicant was noted. (A communicant was someone who had been confirmed in the faith and thus was eligible to receive communion.)

On the other hand, if a person were a non-parishioner, meaning not baptized a Catholic, the census of his home might indicate only the name of the head of the household. The rest might be listed only by sex and age or even in some cases listed only as the number of female and male non-parishioners living in the house.

There were many other differences due to Catholic influences, but after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ceded French territories in North America to England, English-speaking Protestants began to arrive in the "Province of Quebec" and were granted religious freedom including keeping of their own records.

Matters of Law

Another challenge is that posed by the French laws applied from the inception of New France to even today. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Britain agreed to allow the French to keep their language, civil laws and customs. In 1791 the civil code was repealed to bring in English common law for the United Empire Loyalists located in what is now Ontario. However, Lower Canada (Quebec) was allowed to keep French civil law. Thus even after Canada became a British jurisdiction, the French in Lower Canada still observed the "Custom of Paris" or Code Louis. As the systems evolved in Lower Canada, they remained separate and unique. For example, even though the Code Napol6on was enacted in France nearly a century after New France had become a British colony, this was adopted as the basic civil code for Quebec when they reformed their laws in 1866 and remained in effect until the new Quebec Civil Code, which came into effect in 1994. The challenges created due to the different structure of law in Quebec are several, especially to those used to the English systems.

One of the differences was the church responsibility for record keeping and some of the challenges posed by this have already been discussed. However, the full implication of this extended beyond the BMS versus BMD issues. Under French law the Church's responsibility for record keeping meant vital statistics and census records were kept in the parish registers and record-books. Thus there was no central depository.

The first parish registers of the colony were started in 1621 but were destroyed in a church fire two years later. Similar difficulties in France lead to the set of laws called Code Louis issued in 1667. This code decreed that all parish records were to be copied at the end of the year and the copies sent to the Palais du justice or prothonotarial districts. Although this meant a duplicate copy was usually available, finding them in these offices was not any easier. The prothonotarial districts became numerous as the colony grew and often the boundaries of the district changed. To find a particular record in the parish one had to know the parish and date of the "act" (by the ceremonial date). To find the copy of the record in the prothonotarial district one had to know the parish, the date of the act and the district to which that parish sent their records for the particular year of interest.

When the British allowed the Protestants to settle and keep their own records, the challenge of finding records became even more complicated. Now one had to know the religion, the parish and the date of the event. Then in 1926 civil registration of births and in 1970 civil recording of marriages was allowed with the documentation performed by town halls. Now in addition to the other information, one had to know whether it was a church or civil service. This continued until 1 January 1994, when all births, marriages and deaths had to be registered as a civil record.

However, by this time millions of records were filed in churches and town halls with second copies in the prothonotarial districts. These were still kept by the parish or town hall and not indexed. Thus even today a searcher must know if a pre-1994 event was registered by a church, if so, which denomination and which parish, or by a town hall, if so, which town hall and the specific date recorded.

The prothonotarial offices have been closed and the records over 100 years old moved to one of nine regional archives, which to the confusion of many are called Archives Nationale du Quebec, and one is still challenged by where the records for the particular parish or town were sent for the specific year required. Forget counties when trying to locate these records because the county system introduced by the British in 1772 was not used to determine where the records were kept or sent.

Another difference between records under the French structure and those under English law is that French notaries from the 10th century or even earlier were given much more authority or responsibility than British public notaries. A French notary could handle any matter that was not considered a criminal offence. In fact the notary was an empowered attorney because they could settle disputes and document acts such as wills, marriage contracts, land transactions, employment engagements and many others. The notarial documents of New France are real treasures for finding ancestors in French Canada.

This poses two problems. Although marriages in parish registers are not as confusing regarding dates as are births and deaths which must be found through baptisms and burials, many novices searching for their French-Canadian roots mistake the marriage contract date as the date of the marriage. The contract could occur days, months or years earlier than the marriage or could be dissolved before a marriage took place.

The second problem is that some searchers may be confused when they see a date followed by a name, such as Dufrense or Cusson, and believe the date to be that of the marriage and the name to be the place of marriage. The name indicated for a marriage contract is not where it occurred but which notary drew it up and witnessed the signing.

These contracts can be tricky to find. The couple received a copy but the original was filed in the office of the notary. The files of the early notaries were collected and deposited in the archives. These are filed by the name of the notary and the date signed. Thus to find them one must know the name of the notary, his jurisdiction (where these are filed) and the date recorded.

A Distinct Society

The French in Quebec are proud of their distinct society. The richness of the unique customs and traditions arose in part from their French past but also from the differences they faced as Canadian pioneers or habitants.

Some of the first conditions affecting the settlers were the friendship with the Huron and the hostility to the Iroquois. The Jesuits priests and Recollet fathers were sent to Christianize the savages and initially made their largest impact on the Huron. At Tadousgac the priests baptized the "savages" and gave them Christian or grace names Marie, Pierre and Joseph being the favourites. However, in recording the baptisms or marriages of the converted, the priests faced the problem of no surnames. Thus they tried to use the father's name as the surname and this raised challenges, as the sounds did not always have an equivalent alphabetic letter in French. In particular there was a whistling sound similar to the French word "huit" with its silent letters h and t. Since huit is the French word for the number 8, the priests adapted, spelling the native name with an 8 wherever they heard the huit-like sound. Even so the names are difficult for us to spell and pronounce. However, this is not as frustrating as searching roots back to this period, finding part native ancestry and not being able to trace that line any further back.

Another problem for those trying to establish. a strong colony was the need to bring people to the country, have them stay and build families. It was difficult to encourage and keep settlers when the Iroquois were attacking and killing them.

To solve this problem, the Carignan-Salieres soldiers were sent to New France to quash the Iroquois threat. To encourage them to stay after this duty was done, the soldiers were offered land and titles. However, men alone could not increase the population with families born on Canadian soil. The French also wanted the families to be of French extraction so they began finding and sending women to the colony as "Filles du Roi" or "Daughters of the King" with a government-supplied dowry.

Upon arriving in Canada, the women had only two or three months to marry, enter the convent or return to France without the dowry. The men too were penalized if they did not choose to marry or did not choose a French. Catholic woman. The men were threatened with the loss of their trading rights if they did not find a suitable wife.

The Carignan-Salieres soldiers and others encouraged to settle in the new colony were given seigneuries and the title of Sieur followed by the  name of the land. This was a custom in France but in  Canada it as well as other factors led to the increasing  use of dit names. Many argue that the soldiers brought  with them their "nom de guerre" (secret war name) and  that was the foundation of the dit name. This perhaps is  part of the answer but there seemed to be many reasons  probably the same reason as surnames arose in the first  place or nicknames arise in other cultures. Louis dit Le  Grand or Pierre dit Le Petit may be so called because  they were of the opposite. While Louis Guertin was called  dit Le Sabotier because he made sabots, there were two  Jacques Berniers in New France. One was called  Jacques Bernier dit Jean de Paris perhaps to distinguish  this devout man from the other more mercenary person of  this name.

The point is not so much why or how they arose but the fact that they contributed to the unique nature of French-Canadian history and to the challenge of tracing these roots. The confusion arises from the evolution of the name due to various dit names for people of the same lineage. The dit name could be used before, after or in place of the original name. It could even be hyphenated at times. Thus one family line originally from France as Talon became Talon dit Lesperance in Canada. Some of the family reverted to original name Talon, others became L'Esperance or Lesperance, and others still hyphenated their name as Talon-Lesperance.

These are but a few examples of some of the distinctions found in searching for French-Canadian roots. The language is not the only or most formidable barrier to finding and interpreting these records - the culture, history, law and religion pose much greater challenges - but these can all be overcome.  For a good article on Canadian Records visit

Our special thanks to the Family Chronicle Magazine for permission to reprint this article on our web site and in our family books.  We recommend you visit their website and see if a subscription will help you in your family search.


Lionel E. Mayrand

Reprinted with permission
Family Chronicle
Volume 5, Number 3
505 Consumers Road, Suite 500
Toronto, Ontario, M2J 4V8 Canada

416 491-3699

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