Tour de New France

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

If you’re always humming “Alouette,” and you can’t resist swapping family histories with every Brosseau and Gervais you meet, you probably descend from the French citizens and soldiers who settled eastern Canada during the 17th century. French Canadians all seem to be related one way or another, which means you might share ancestry with the likes of songstresses Celine Dion and Madonna, beatnik author Jack Kerouac or hockey player Guy Carbonneau.

But you won’t need famous ties or bonne chance to find your French Canadian roots. I started researching mine after spending years pursuing my English and Irish ancestors. In one afternoon, I’d traced my Quebec family back to the province’s beginnings in 1608. Excellent record-keeping and tons of published sources make French Canadian research nearly as smooth as the Trans-Canadian highway. Of course, you may encounter a few potholes, such as language barriers and confusing naming practices. But with our advice to steer you around these problem spots, it’s sure to be a quick trip back to your French connection.

La Nouvelle France

The term French Canadian can mean different things to different people. About a third of today’s Canadians speak French; 25 percent actually have French ancestry. To the south, 2.3 million Americans claimed French Canadian heritage in the 2000 US census. Historians call people with roots in Quebec province Quebecois (pronounced kay-BEK-wa); families with ties to the Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are Acadians (see page 67). French settlement in Canada began between 1608 and 1760, when about 10,000 people migrated there. The first male settlers were soldiers and indentured servants (engages); servants who stayed after their indentures became farmers and laborers. Between 1663 and 1673, Louis XIV sent poor and/or orphaned young women — the Filles du Roi (King’s Daughters) — to the colony, supplying them with gold, clothes, sewing tools and food.

Though the Filles du Roi contributed to rapid population growth, Britian’s American colonists outnumbered France’s. Louis XIV ceded Acadia to Britain in 1713. During the Seven Years’ War, the British government removed 10,000 Acadians to its southern colonies, Louisiana, the Caribbean and Europe. After the war, in 1863, France gave up the rest of Canada. Britain expanded Quebec to the west, then in 1791, divided it at the Ottawa River into Upper Canada (also called Canada West) and Lower Canada (Canada East). Fifty years later, both regions became one Province of Canada. The province was split again in 1867, this time into Ontario (the former Upper Canada) and Quebec. If your ancestor lived in an area that changed hands, you may need to look for records in multiple locales.

French Canadians who immigrated to the United States maintained strong cultural ties by establishing schools, newspapers and community organizations. By 1790, an estimated 6,000 Acadians and Quebecois lived in Louisiana territory, and more than 3,000 in Michigan. Many also settled near the St. John River in what would become Maine. “Some of the earliest people in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest were French Canadians, leading to place names like Detroit and Marquette,” says Michael Leclerc of the Boston-based New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) <>, one of the best US repositories for French Canadian research. Immigration to the United States peaked in the decades between 1850 and 1900, when 500,000 French Canadians (many of them descendants of the Filles du Roi) traveled, usually by train, to industrial regions in New England and the Upper Midwest.

Parlez-vous FranÇais?

Before you kick your roots search into high gear, familiarize yourself with a few French words and phrases common in Quebec. Leclerc says record-keeping there follows the “coutume de Paris” rather than British customs. See <> for information on French record-keeping.

The French spoken and written in Canada isn’t the same French you learned in school. Immigrants’ dialects merged with the official language of government administrators, church leaders and military officials to create French Canadian and its unique expressions. For instance, a wife in schoolmarm French is a femme, but in French Canadian, she may be called a dame. If you stumble across a word or phrase you can’t find in a French dictionary, try the 1894 Dictionnaire Canadian-FranÇais by Sylva Clapin (Quintin Publications), or Renata Isajlovic and Isabelle Martin’s Quebecois Dictionary and Phrasebook: English-Quebecois, Quebecois-English (Hippocrene Books).

We have a bit of good news for non Francophones: Since Canada officially recognizes English and French, many of the Web sites we recommend have versions in both languages. And if you do come across any French-only Web pages, such as some on the Archives Nationales de Quebec (Quebec archives) site <>, you can get help from Google. Go to <>, type the URL in the Translate a Web Page field, and select French to English from the pull-down menu.

Nommes difficiles

French Canadian naming customs can throw you for a loop. Probably most confusing are dit (French for “also known as”) names, which people used in place of or along with their surnames — but often, inconsistently. A dit name could relate to a physical characteristic, place of origin, fief (for nobles), father’s name, mother’s family name, military service or anything else, according to the University of Montreal’s Research Program in Historical Demography <> (this program’s acronym, PRDH, comes from its French moniker). Some dit names are inherited; others stay with one family or branch. PRDH has an online database of surnames and associated dit names found in pre-1800s documents (click the Information of Interest link, then First and Last Names). People sharing my ancestral surname Bachand, for example, have used the dit names Blaise, Gipoulou, Martinbeau and Vertefeuille. When searching for records, you’ll need to check dit names associated with your family names in addition to the standard surnames.

Don’t end your list of names to search yet: Some immigrants changed their last names after arriving in America. A family named LeBlanc might opt for the Anglicized White, and records could be under both names. And as with all surnames, you may find different spellings — consult the American-French Genealogical Society’s (AFGS) <> list of surname variations for help (use the link on the left side of the home page).

As if that’s not enough, first-name nicknames are common, too. I thought I knew my French Canadian aunts Loretta and Rita. Then I learned those were their middle names — they both were actually named Marie. In PRDH’s online chart of common 18th-century girls’ names, versions of Marie (Marie-Joséphe, Marie Louise), take up the first 13 spots. For boys, Joseph, the given name of my uncles Eugene and Maurice, was second only to Jean-Baptiste. My grandparents, like their fellow French Canadians, followed Roman Catholic tradition by naming their children for saints — in fact, the 1703 Rituel du Diocése de Queébec printed a list of acceptable monikers. Always verify you’ve found the right person by making sure other facts, such as parents’ names and the town, fit. With thousands of Maries and Josephs, it’s easy to go astray. (I’m thankful my relatives’ birth records’ show their full names.) Luckily for genealogists, women kept their maiden names and used them on records, including marriage and baptismal documents, throughout their lives.

Savoir faire

Verify your French Canadian roots by first tracing your family in the United States using census, church and vital records, and newspapers. Thanks to the AFGS, many Catholic parish records from New England are in print. New Hampshire’s Franco-American Centre <> holds French Canadian newspapers on microfilm. Immigrants often visited home, so look for relatives on the St. Albans lists — records covering border crossings from 1895 to 1954. They’re on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, NARA’s regional facilities, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <> in Salt Lake City. You can learn more about the St. Albans lists on NARA’s Web site <>. (Click the link for the Fall 2000 Prologue.)

Once you’re ready to follow your ancestral trail over the border, these resources are your best bets for finding family facts:

• Genealogies: French Canadians’ strong cultural ties have resulted in a plethora of published genealogies. The seven-volume Dictionnaire Geéneéalogique des Familles Canadiennes by Cyprien Tanguay covers early families of Quebec. Arthur LeBoeuf’ Complement au Dictionnaire Geéneéalogique Tanquay contains additions and corrections to Tanguay’ book. They’e available on one CD for about $35 from GlobalGenealogy <>. Rene Jetteé, the professor who began PRDH, wrote Dictionnaire Geéneéalogique des Familles du Quebec des Origins a??? 1730 (University of Montreal Press, $275) about founding families through 1730.

To read up on French Canadians throughout Canada, see The French Canadians 1600–1900: An Alphabetized Directory of the People, Places and Vital Dates edited by Noel Montgomery Elliot (Genealogical Research Library, out of print). Its name and place-name index covers people living in Quebec (regardless of ethnic origins) and those of French descent — including Acadians and Meétis, who have mixed European and Indian ancestry — in other provinces during the last 100 years.

? Church records: Once genealogies point you to names and places, look to the Roman Catholic Church, which for most of French Canadians’ history, recorded their baptisms, marriages and burials. Baptismal records include the dates of birth and baptism, parents’ names and parish of residence; they often mention sponsors’ names and Dad’s occupation. Marriage documents list the wedding date and place, the bride’s and groom’s names and parish, their parents’ names, witnesses’ names and their relationships to the couple, the groom’s occupation and, for recent immigrants, their hometowns in France. Burial records give the name and age of the deceased, spouse’s name, and the dates and places of death and burial.

Starting in the late 1700s, parishes sent copies, known as registres d’état civil, to the provincial government. These registers are better sources than public vital recordsg — government-mandated civil registration didn’t begin until 1994. Records younger than 100 years are off-limits to researchers (though you may be able to get copies from the church itself), but older ones are available at the Quebec archives, the NEHGS library and the FHL. Use FamilySearch to find an FHL branch Family History Center (FHC) near you, then borrow registers on FHL microfilm for a $5.50 fee per film. Original records often contain notes in the margins that don’t appear on microfilm, so you’ll want to see them if possible.

Birth and death indexes (répertoires) to parish registers are arranged either alphabetically by name or by page number (thus, chronologically). In Quebec, page numbers refer to the front and back of a sheet, not just one side of the page. Marriage répertoires usually group marriages by surname, with a list of marriages for individuals of that name. The bride and groom may be indexed separately. And don’t be surprised if marriage records show overlapping branches in your tree. “Marriage between first and second cousins was allowed,” Leclerc explains, “with permission from the bishop, which is noted in the record.”

The now-defunct Drouin Institute microfilmed registers of Catholic and Protestant parishes in Quebec, which it published in the invaluable three-volume Dictionnaire National des Canadiens FranÇais, 1608-1760 (called the Red Books) and the massive 113-volume Répertoire Alphabétique des Mariages des Canadiens-FranÇais, 1760-1935 (known as the Blue Books). The books are on microfilm at NEHGS and the AFGS in Rhode Island. Visit the AFGS Web site to order the Red Books on an $89.95 CD. AFGS, the FHL and the Quebec archives also have the Loiselle Quebec Marriage Index, which lists Quebec brides and grooms on parish registers from the province’s earliest years to the 1900s.

The 47-volume Répertoire des Actes de Baptême, Mariage, Sépulture, et des Recensements du Québec Ancien contains abstracts of early censuses, hospital records and names from parish registers. PRDH has the index in its online database (click Database, then Public Access to the Database, then Repertory of Vital Events). You can search and get limited data for free, but you must subscribe to see an entire record. Rates vary based on the number of “hits” you want; 150 hits cost about $19.

all about acadians

If your search leads you to Acadian ancestry, you descend from one of the French families that established settlements in the colony of Acadia (today, Canada’s Maritime Provinces) during the 1600s. The British forced many to swear an oath of allegiance or leave during the Seven Years’ War — read about the Grand Dérangement (Great Expulsion) in The Acadian Odyssey <> and A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland by John Mack Faragher (W.W. Norton, $28.95).

Some Acadians fled west into Quebec or south to the American Colonies; others were sent to England. When Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, fell to the British in 1758, Acadians there were shipped off to northern France. After the war, many displaced families returned home or moved to French-owned Louisiana, where their descendants eventually became known as Cajuns. Hundreds died, and many families got separated during this dispersal.

Depending where your ancestors ended up, their records might be in England, France, Louisiana or Canada. Look for Canadian records at Library and Archives Canada <> and your ancestors’ provincial archives (see below). You’ll find research guidance on the Acadian Cultural Society Web site <>, and an index of Acadian/Cajun families on the Confederation of Associations of Families Acadian site <>. Network with fellow Acadian researchers via the Acadian-Cajun mailing list <>.

Acadian Archives

University of Maine at Fort Kent, 23 University Drive, Fort Kent, ME 04743,(207) 834-7535, <>

Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management

6016 University Ave., Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 1W4, Canada, (902) 424-6060, <>

Prince Edward Island Public Archives and Records Office

Box 100, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, C1A 7M4, Canada,(902) 368-4290, <>

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Bonar Law-Bennett Building, 23 Dineen Drive, Fredericton, New Brunswick, E3B 5H1, Canada, (506) 453-2122, <>

Fewer French Canadians practiced Protestant religions, and their churches were less diligent about sending registers to the government. The FHL has microfilm of pre-1900 registers; also look for R. Neil Broadhurst’s A Checklist of Registers of Protestant & Jewish Congregations in Quebec (Kintracers, out of print). Try contacting your ancestors’ religious archives to ask where records are kept — visit <> to search for archives of Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian and United Church of Canada parishes.

Pardon My French

Figuring out foreign records doesn’t have to leave you muttering fourletter words. Even if you don’t speak a lick of French Canadian, you just need a little practice and this quick guide to common genealogical terms:

Censuses: Quebec took its first census in 1666, and provincial head counts continued at irregular intervals through the 19th century. Nationwide enumerations began in 1871 and happened every 10 years thereafter; 1911 is the most recent one open to researchers. After 1851, censuses list everyone in the household. See <> for more on when censuses happened and what data they provide.

Canadian censuses generally aren’t indexed, but you’ll find some exceptions, such as the 1666 Quebec index on FHL microfilm. Search free indexes to the 1881 Canadian census on FamilySearch and the 1901 census on Automated Genealogy <>, which also has a partial index for 1911. The subscription site <> has a complete 1911 index; results link to record images on Library and Archives Canada’s ArchiviaNet site <>. A subscription costs $90, or you can buy 10 record “views” in two weeks for $5.

Unindexed censuses are organized by location, so find your ancestor’s street address in resources such as city directories (search nearly 100 of them at <>). If you know the province, town, county or census district, use ArchiviaNet to run a search on its 1901 and 1911 census images. Microfilm copies of records are at Library and Archives Canada, NEHGS and the FHL. Log on to <> and <> for links to records posted elsewhere on the Internet.

Notarial records: “Notaries were public officers responsible for writing legal documents, usually between individuals,” says Joyce Soltis Banachowski, a contributor to French-Canadian Sources (Ancestry, $39.95). They handled land transactions, wills, and marriage and other contracts. These records, which date to 1663, are a gold mine if you can make out the French script — Dictionnaire de Droit et de Pratique (Quintin Publications, $29.95) by Claude Joseph de Ferriére can help you translate the legal terms.

Quebec’s notarial system was based on that of France. Your ancestors could use two types of notaries: The king appointed royal notaries, who practiced throughout New France; local landowners assigned seigneurial notaries to particular areas. Leclerc points out that some notaries who specialized in certain transactions didn’t have assigned areas.

 Notarial répertoires list records by date, record number and a short description; or by year and the first letter of the notary’s surname. No provincial indexes exist, and each notary kept his own records, so you’ll need to know which notaries practiced where your ancestors lived before seeking their notarial papers. Look for this information in The Notaries of French Canada: Alphabetical, Chronologically, by Area Served by Robert J. Quintin (Quintin Publications, $15). Leclerc suggests starting with notaries in your ancestors’ community and working out to surrounding areas. Microfilmed notarial répertoires are available at NEHGS, the American-Canadian Genealogical Society <> and the FHL. Originals, some of which haven’t been filmed, are at the Quebec archives.

General research advice is abundant in books such as those listed above and in Leclerc’s online articles <> (click View All Research Articles). Download the free Tracing Your Ancestors in Canada guide from that country’s archives <> and see the FamilySearch Quebec Research Outline (on the home page, click Guides, then Research Outline). If you want to take the DNA route to your French Canadian connection, you may find a few relatives by participating in the French Heritage DNA Project <>.

Your family tree may look complicated to non-French Canadians, but c’est la vie. With these resources, you’ll get the connections straightened out in no time.



• Atlas of Canada


• Canada in the Making


• Canadian Encyclopedia


• Canadian Genealogy Center


• Canadian Mailing Lists


• Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online


• Drouin Institute


• Perry-Castaêeda Library Map Collection: Canada


• Projet GenWeb du Quebec


• Quebec Genealogy Resources


• Research Program in Historical Demography



Before the King’ Daughters: The Filles a Marier, 1634-1662 by Peter J. Gagné (Quintin Publications)

The Canadian Frontier, 1534-1760 by W.J. Eccles (University of New Mexico Press)

Dictionnaire des Noms de Baptême by G. Beleze (Quintin Publications)

The French-Canadian Heritage in New England by Gerard J. Brault (University Press of New England)

French-Canadian Sources: A Guide for Genealogists edited by Patricia Keeney Geyh (Ancestry)

French Canadians in Michigan by John P. Dulong (Michigan State University Press).

Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, 2nd edition, edited by Robert Von Dassonowsky and Jeffrey Lehman (Gale Group)

Guide to the Library of the New England Historic Genealogical Society edited by Maureen A. Taylor and Henry B. Hoff (NEHGS)

King’ Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673 by Peter J. Gagne (Quintin Publications)

La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada — Cultural History by Peter N. Moogk (Michigan State University Press)

Our French-Canadian Ancestors by Thomas Laforest, 30 volumes (Quintin Publications)

The People of New France by Allan Greer (University of Toronto Press)


• American-Canadian Genealogical Society Box 6478, Manchester, NH 03108, (603) 622-1554, <>

• American-French Genealogical Society Box 2113, Pawtucket, RI 02861, (401) 765-6141, <>

• Bibliothêque et Archives Nationales du Quebec, Centre d’rchives de Montreal Edifice Gilles-Hocquart, 535, Avenue Viger Est, Montreal, Quebec H2L 2P3, Canada, (514) 873-6000, <>

• Franco-American Centre 52 Concord St., Box 994, Manchester, NH 03105, (603) 669-4045, <>

• Library and Archives Canada 395 Wellington St., Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0N3, Canada (866) 578-7777, <>

• New England Historic Genealogical Society 101 Newbury St., Boston, MA 02116, (617) 536-5740, <>

• Quebec Family History Society Box 1026, Pointe Claire, Quebec, H9S 4H9, Canada, (514) 695-1502, <>

• Quintin Publications Box 65546, Orange Park, FL 32065, (904) 375-1113, <>

From the June 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.