Friday, August 24, 2012

The Plains of Abraham

The Seven Years’ War was a pre-modern world war which took place between 1756 and 1763, a war which involved much of Europe and the European colonies in North and Central America, Africa, India, and the Philippines. The prime movers were Great Britain and France, but the Prussian Hohenzollerns and the Austrian Hapsburgs were also heavily involved, along with Portugal, Sweden, Saxony, Spain, and the Russian Empire. Estimates of the fatalities involved range from 900,000 to 1,400,00, but whether that includes civilian casualties or only military personnel I don’t know.

In North America, the conflict is usually called the French and Indian War and involved, of course, the North American colonies of the warring European parties and the Native Americans who were allied with them. For those of us with Quebec French ancestry, the pivotal battle in that part of the Seven Years’ War began on 13 September 1759 and took place on the Plains of Abraham, a plateau outside the walls of the city of Québec.

I am not going to give you a complete account of the battle on the Plains of Abraham; I am not a military buff and there are plenty of excellent analyses of the strategies etc. I will only state that the actual battle was a short one, and cost the lives of both the English general Wolfe and the French general Montcalm while ending in stalemate. The British then laid siege to the city and on September 18, the city capitulated. The following spring, the British were themselves besieged in Québec City, but British naval superiority insured that French reinforcements could not get through, and the North American phase of the Seven Years War ended on 8 September 1760, when the remaining French defenders surrendered at Montréal.

I have a personal interest in the Plains of Abraham: it is said to have once belonged to my 9G Grandfather, Abraham Martin, who with his wife Marguerite Langlois were among the people recruited by Samuel Champlain to become the very first white permanent settlers of what became New France. Abraham Martin died in September 1664, but since his was one of the founding families of Quebec the name of his property stuck. Although it is not certain that he ever actually owned the plateau where the battle took place, he did have considerable land holdings in and around the future city and some of the fighting during the siege did take place on what had been his property along the bank of the St. Lawrence River.

Now, “Abraham Martin” doesn’t sound like a French name, does it? Actually, the surname “Martin” (pronounced “Mar-tanh”) is a not uncommon French surname, although “Abraham” is rather an unusual personal name in Catholic France and therefore in its colony of Quebec. Abraham had the “dit” name of “L’Escosais”—the Scot—and one researcher claims to have found the baptism of an Abraham Martin in Scotland in the right time frame (about 1589) to be the Abraham who was one of the first settlers at Québec. Some folks argue that “L’Escosais” was an alias of the sort commonly adopted to hide an unsavory past. However, a “dit” name could come from anything: he might have once been to Scotland, or wore a plaid garment suggestive of Scotland, or had red hair, or lived in a house whose previous owner had some connection with Scotland, or someone in in his family once had a Scottish friend, or—you get the idea.

The PRDH, according to online sources, says the Abraham was the son of Galeran-Jean Martin and Isabelle Côté and was born in 1589 at La Rochelle. La Rochelle, by royal decree, was one of the few places in France where Huguenots could practice their religion freely. Even if the PRDH is not being cited correctly (or has erred), I am inclined to think that Abraham was originally a Huguenot simply because the Huguenots very often gave their children “Old Testament” names. Many Huguenots came to La Nouvelle France in hopes of being allowed to worship according to their Calvinist faith. True, the Edict of Nantes in 1598 had given Huguenots the right to worship according to their conscience without loss of all civil rights. But the Catholic Church was fiercely opposed to the Edict and to tolerance of what the Church saw as schismatics and heretics. It was not until 1685 that the Edict was officially revoked, but the Church was determined to end the tolerance and anyone with a functioning brain could see that sooner or later the persecution would start again, and so it did.

Whatever his origins, my Abraham was recruited by Samuel Champlain (famed navigator, cartographer, explorer, and founder of Quebec) to become one of the first French settlers in the New World. Abraham arrived in New France in 1617, accompanied by his wife, Marguerite Langlois, her sister Françoise, and Françoise’s husband Pierre Desportes. A young girl named Anne Martin arrived on the same ship; she was may have been Abraham’s sister or niece (or no relation at all), but probably not his daughter since he gave the name Anne to one of his daughters born while that first Anne was still alive.

Abraham was a river pilot by profession (he was called the “King’s Pilot” during his lifetime), and he soon acquired expertise in guiding ships along the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. He also supplemented his family’s diet and income by fishing.

In my mind’s eye I see Abraham on what must have been a very cold day—4 January 1624—trudging through the snow on the unpaved path in the tiny hamlet of Kebec to the little chapel which would one day be the great cathedral of Notre Dame in the city of Québec. There was surely a smile on his face despite the weather, because his young wife Marguerite Langlois had just been safely delivered of a female child who seemed strong enough to survive. Now the priest at the chapel would baptize the first female child of French parentage born in the little colony.The little girl was named after her mother, Marguerite. In due course she grew up and married (at age 14) Étienne Racine; this couple are my 8G grandparents through their daughter Marguerite and her husband, Jean Gagnon, who had 9 children together.

Marguerite’s brother Eustache had been the first male French child born in the little settlement, baptized on 23 October 1621. Their sister Hélène was baptized there on 21 June 1627. And the next? Well, there’s a gap in the records, not because they have been lost but because almost all of the first settlers—including the priest—left Kebec in 1729, and no one knows where the Martin family spent the next 3 years.

In 1729 the brothers David, Lewis and Thomas Kirke (whose father was a Scot and whose mother was French), then living at Newfoundland, besieged the tiny French settlement at Québec, and Champlain surrendered rather than have everyone there die of starvation. The Kirkes, rather generously, agreed to allow most of the French inhabitants to remain, but it appears that all returned to France except for the family of Guillaume Couillard and his formidable wife, Guillaumette Hebert. (Some people say that the Martins also stayed on, but no one has found any record to prove whether Abraham and his family stayed in Quebec or whether they returned to France. Absence of proof is not the same as proof of absence.)

Timewise, there “should have been” another child born to Abraham and Marguerite about 1630, but no record for its baptism has been found on either side of the Atlantic. If such a child born in Québec, with no priest avalable to preside over the baptism and make a record of the act, Abraham doubtless baptized the child at home, and it is probable that the child died young, as so many infants did. After the Kirkes left in 1632, Jesuit missionaries and a few families of the original settlers returned, and again records for the families of Abraham Martin and his brother-in-law Pierre Desportes are found in Quebec, along with those of additional adventurous families.

Abraham was a close friend and companion of Samuel Champlain, the founder of Quebec. In his will dated 17 September 1635, Champlain left to Abraham and his wife 600 livres to be spent in breaking ground in la Nouvelle France, 600 livres to their daughter, my ancestor Marguerite, on condition that she marry and remain living in la Nouvelle France, and 300 francs to his goddaughter, Hélène Martin, on the same condition. He died on 25 December. Unfortunately a cousin on his mother’s side successfully challenged the will in Paris and it was overturned. It is not clear what happened to Champlain’s property. You can read and download a transcription of the testament online, but I warn you, it's in French. (The testament had vanished into some repository in France and was not discovered until 1859.)

Whether or not they ever received anything of Champlain’s bequests, Abraham and Marguerite continued to prosper. Abraham acquired considerable grants of land in and outside the town of Québec, and he and Marguerite continued to have children:

Hélène Martin (born in 1627 as noted above, who was to have received 300 francs from Champlain but probably didn’t) married Claude Étienne in 1640, when she was 13, had one child by him, but both husband and son died. Hélène married a second time, at age 20, to Médard Chouart dit St-Onge in 1647, had one daughter who died within a day or two of birth, and died before August 1653, when her widower re-married.

Marie Martin, baptized in Québec in April 1635, married at age 13 Jean Cloutier in 1648, had 14 children, and died in 1699.

Madeleine Martin, baptized at Québec in 1640, married at age 13 Nicolas Forget in 1653, had 8 children, and died in 1688 at Lachenaie.

Barbe Martin, baptized at Québec in December 1642, married at age 13 to Pierre Biron in 1655, had one daughter who died in childhood, and died in 1660, age 18, at the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec.

Anne Martin, baptized at Québec in 1645, married at age 12 to Jacques Raté in 1657 and had 12 children; I do not have her date of death.

But, I hear you cry, what about the sons of Abraham and Marguerite? Was Eustache the only one? Well, no. There were at least 3 of them, but for two of them, records are lacking or not clear. Eustache Martin, the first child of French parents in the Québec register, was persuaded at age 13 by Champlain to learn the Huron language so as to serve as an interpreter for the Jesuit missionaries. He is mentioned in the Jesuit Relations, but not after 1635. It is presumed that he died in harness, but there is no record to tell us what happened to him.

Adrien Martin, baptized at Québec in 1638, is believed by some to have become a servant of the Jesuits, but for all we can prove, he may have died in infancy. There is apparently no surviving record of him after his baptism.

Charles Amador Martin, baptized in 1648, did in fact survive until 1711. He became a Catholic priest and served at Château-Richer from 1687, then at Ste-Foy; he also served at Ste-Anne de Beaupré and Ste-Foy. He was a talented composer of church music and had beautiful, very legible handwriting, which makes reading the registers for those parishes during his time there a real pleasure.

The sad fact is that Abraham and Marguerite had no known sons who passed on his family name to future generations. However, through his daughters and their 40+ offspring, his and his wife’s genes were passed on to the present day. I think they might have had many more grandchildren if their daughters hadn’t married so young. Once a girl had her first menses, she was likely to be married even if she hadn’t finished growing. She was also likely to die in childbirth. Governments eager to expand a settlement and men desperate for wives can be hard to resist, and Abraham and Marguerite may have been pressured.

On 15 February 1649 (exactly one year after the baptism of his son Charles Amador), Abraham was arrested on a charge of improper conduct with a 16-year-old girl named Anne Martin—who was definitely not his daughter, nor was she the young Anne Martin who had come to Quebec on the same ship with Abraham and his in-laws in 1617, more than 30 years previous. However, it is possible that she was a relative of some sort. (Abraham did have a daughter named Anne, but she was about three weeks shy of her 5th birthday at the time her father was arrested. The French surname of Martin is not a rare one.)

Everyone who writes about this seems to assume that Abraham was an old rip who raped, or at least had sex with, an innocent young girl, and that the entire community was shocked to the core. I’m sure the community was shocked, but It may have been shocked at the arrest of a prominent citizen on a highly improbable charge. It appears that the girl in question was not an innocent, virtuous victim debauched by a predator: she had been imprisoned for theft and may have been hanged later.

Unfortunately for the historian and the genealogist, the surviving records of the matter do not provide details of the charge against Abraham or how the case was settled. For all anyone knows, Abraham may have done nothing more scandalous than visit her in prison and perhaps been seen giving the girl a comforting hug—or merely  a pat on the shoulder. He may have had no contact with her at all, and the accusation may have been a desperate ploy by the girl to force a prominent citizen to work for her release. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that Abraham was released and went on with his life, and that there is no evidence that he suffered any lasting consequences of the situation afterwards. He continued to prosper and was still respected in the community. How can i be sure of that? Simple. A proven sex offender doesn’t have streets and businesses and parks named in his honor, nor public monuments to celebrate his life. But if you go today to the city of Québec, you will find a major street named for Abraham, at least one restaurant, a monument to him in the lower city, and of course, the Plains of Abraham—a public park and popular tourist attraction.

On 6 September 1664, Abraham deposited a deathbed will with notary Pierre Duquet; (he was buried two days later, about 75 years of age. Duquet also recorded the inventory of Abraham’s property on 7 October. There was no challenge to the testament (as there had been for Champlain), and his property was distributed without fuss. Unfortunately, there is no real genealogical information in his testament, although the inventory shows that he was a very prosperous man.

His widow Marguerite married again on 17 February 1665 (about 5 months after Abraham’s death) to René Branche, but died the following December. Why she married again at all is the big question, to which we have no definitive answer, only guesses. Perhaps she herself was ill (her burial record states that she died in the hospital) and wanted to make sure that the interests of her children and grandchildren were legally protected by someone she felt that she could trust. On 11 Jan 1666, notary Becquet recorded the inventory of her possessions. I would love to have that inventory, but alas, Becquet’s records have never been microfilmed. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a book of transcribed copies of his records, but if you want to see the originals you have to go to the archives of Québec.

But the real legacy of both Abraham and Marguerite was their forty-plus grandchildren and their thousands of descendants. I am proud to be one of them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Child Labor in Quebec

Today I would like to discuss something I found in the inventaires of several Quebec notaries: numerous cases of a small child becoming “employed” (engagé or engagée, depending on gender) by an adult or a married couple.

Now, most of these appear to be genuine situations of employment. Labor was scarce in underpopulated old Quebec, and even a 4-year-old can be truly useful on a farm or in any house. Moreover, many youngsters learn life skills better if their teacher is not a lovingly lenient—or overly impatient—parent. (Teenage rebellion is not a recent phenomenon. The ancient Romans and Greeks complained about it. I’m sure Neanderthal parents did, too.) These cases of children past the toddler stage being hired out to others may have been an economic necessity for poor families with an overabundance of hungry mouths to feed, especially if the family lived in a town or city instead of on their own small farm.

Working in a prosperous household might give a girl from a poor family a shot at catching the eye of an unmarried man who had better prospects than her parents did. A good marriage for a daughter generally improved the lives of her entire family, because it would disgrace her husband not to help his in-laws. Among poor families, income, space, and resources were usually stretched thin; it made good economic sense for older children to be essentially self-supporting.  (My father, the eldest child of his parents, had his first full-time summer job at the age of 7, tending the cows on a nearby dairy farm. His pay: room and board—and pride.)

But some of these child engagements in Quebec are clearly not in expectation of temporary labor, because they are to remain in place until the child reaches the age of 18. Let me cite a series of examples from the files of notary Joseph-Charles Raimbault, who practiced at Montréal from 1727 to 1734. I have a CD which contains his Inventaire (a list of his records which includes a brief summary of each.) (This CD, Inventaire des Greffes des Notaires du Régime Français, is still available as of this date, and it’s pure genealogical treasure.) Notaire Raimbault had so many of these “child labor” files compared to many of his colleagues that I couldn’t help notice them and wonder what was going on.

Raimbault’s first year of practice was pretty conventional for Montréal in this time frame: hiring (engagements) of voyageurs and adult employees, sales and purchases of goods (much of it for the fur trade), marriage contracts, and real estate deals. There is one record of an apprenticeship for a period of 5 years and another for one year: everything was perfectly normal until I came to this entry:

1728, May 2: “Engagement de Toussaint (enfant trouvé) âgé de deux ans, à Jean Groux et Agathe Hay sa femme jusqu’à de qu’il ait atteint l’âge de 18 ans.”

For those of you who aren’t that fluent in French, Toussaint is a two-year-old foundling who is being hired out to, presumably, work for Jean Groux and his wife until the youngster turns 18.

What kind of service can a two-year-old provide for anyone? The very idea was mind-boggling. As I proceeded through the inventaire, I soon discovered similar contracts:

On 1 August 1728, Joseph LaDéroute, a son of Jean-Baptiste LaDéroute (habitant of Chambly) was hired by the commandant of the fort at Chambly as a domestic for 9 full years.

Well, as I said earlier, this is not unreasonable. I assume that the youngster was old enough to be genuinely useful. A similar contract comes on 1 February 1729, with a youngster hired as a laborer for 9 years; a third on 20 June for 14 years for a youngster employed by a man who is a locksmith and blacksmith. This seems to be an apprenticeship, although that is not specifically stated. (There are several apprenticeships which are so designated.)

A young girl’s parents hired her out to a married couple as a domestic for 12 years in April 1730.

A month later, on May 12 a woman hired “Marie Madeleine enfant trouvé” (foundling) until the girl turns 18. Her age at the time of hire is not stated.

On May 20, one Paul, enfant trouvé, age not stated, is hired by the seigneur de Simblin until Paul turns 18.

On 1 June, “Marie-Joseph enfant trouvée” is hired by a man, term of employment to age 18. On July 1, “Aimé-Marie, enfant trouvée” is hired by another man, same terms.

On 19 July, “un enfant trouvé nommé Siméon” is hired on the same terms by a man from Verchères.

On 30 July, an “enfant trouvé nommé Louis” and another named Joseph are hired on the same terms to different men.

Since the ages of these children are not stated, all of these could be genuine hires. However, the next such engagement gives some enlightening details.

On 4 August, 1730, Raimbault records the hiring of another enfant trouvé, named Siméon; the act occurred in the presence of Michel Lepaillieur “notaire procureur du Roi”. The child’s birth date (14 December 1729) is stated, as is the fact that the child is “sous la garde” of his “employer” until he reaches age 18—almost 17 years hence.

If I were a character in a cartoon, a light bulb would have appeared over my head as I read this entry.

The one common element in all of these “hirings” is that each of these children is described as an “enfant trouvé” a foundling, whose natural parents are supposedly not only anonymous but unknown. Note that there is no mention of payments being made by anyone to provide financial support for the child, although it is probable that the child would be expected to help the “employers” according to her or his ability as he/she grew up. (That’s normal child-raising practice everywhere, throughout history.) But the fact that this engagement takes place in the presence of the King’s representative tells us that a fairly prominent person is involved with this baby’s affairs—note that the “employer” has the child “under his protection.” The King’s representative’s involvement also suggests that the arrangement is likely to be a matter of a broad royal policy regarding the care of children whose parentage is irregular or who are orphans.

All of these “employers” are in fact agreeing to raise these children and to be responsible for their health and conduct until they are old enough to take care of themselves and assume adult independence and responsibilities. They are what we now would call foster parents.

In some cases, the male guardian may be the actual father of the child, or one who is indebted to or is a friend of the biological father. It’s likely that the “enfant trouvée” is related to her employer or his wife. And of course, a childless or charitable couple could have any of several completely benign motives to raise a parentless child not related to them as if he or she were their own, including that of simply wanting someone to remember them with fondness and pray for their souls after they have died.

There are many more such “engagements” in the files of Raimbault.

Now, an “enfant trouvé”, sometimes described in the parish registers as “de parents inconnus” (of unknown parents) is not necessarily a child of unknown origins abandoned on someone’s doorstep or in the street. It’s likely that in rural parishes, everyone knows who the mother is and also has a pretty good idea of the identity of the father. Even in the large towns and cities, the neighbors of the mother would certainly know of her situation. Pregnancy generally does become obvious at a certain point.

So why the legal pretense of not knowing who the parents are? Simple. A child who was labeled “illegitime” would bear the social stigma of that label for the rest of her life, while a foundling whose parents are officially decreed to be unknown “could be” an orphan of legitimate birth.

Marriage would legitimize any children of newlyweds born who were born before the marriage took place; the marriage record will specifically state the names of any such children and declare that they are now legiimate. Therefore, an enfant trouvé was likely the product of rape, adultery, or a brief fling—or, let us not forget, of a genuine love affair with a man who died of natural causes before a marriage could take place (disease could take even a healthy young man very, very suddenly in this era). And of course, Montréal was the epicenter of the fur trade, which was an inherently dangerous profession, and many voyageurs died during their term of service.

Most curés therefore took the charitable road and spared the innocent child a lifetime of scorn and inability to marry into a respectable family by recording the child’s parentage as unknown rather than stating that the child is illegitimate.

There is an enfant trouvé in a collateral line to my direct Chaussé ancestry: he is called “Pierre connu par le nom Chaussé” (Pierre known by the name Chaussé) in the record of his 1827 marriage to Marguerite Trinque at Ste-Élisabeth, where my great-grandfather Joseph was born. I believe this is the Pierre ”né de père et mère inconnus” (born of unknown parents) who was baptized at Berthierville on 27 November 1804. His godparents were François Contu and Thérèse Bacon.

Now, Thérèse Bacon was my 4G Grandmother, and I strongly suspect that her eldest daughter Marguerite Chaussé was the mother of little Pierre. Marguerite was about 22 in 1804, her family lived at Berthierville at the time (the parish at Ste-Élisabeth had not yet been established). Marguerite died in 1832 at Ste-Élisabeth, age 50; unlike all her adult sisters, she never married. Who the father of the boy was, I have no idea, although I suspect that he was a married man and therefore unable to marry Pierre’s mother. The entire affair must have been the talk of the parish for months.

I do not know which Chaussé household actually raised Pierre to adulthood, but certainly the Chaussés in the area rallied to Pierre when he grew up and married; the marriage record doesn’t list the witnesses, but Chaussés and their spouses served as godparents to the couple’s children.

Quebec naming customs being what they were, Pierre was almost certainly the son of a Pierre; after he married Marguerite, he eventually started using the personal name of Maxime in addition to, and later in place of, the name Pierre. (There was another Maxime Chaussé in the parish.) This suggests that he and his “unknown” father did not get along. But the extended Chaussé family saw to it that this innocent child of “unknown parents” had a fair shake in life and plenty of people he could call on for help.

He still had to work, and work hard, to prosper, but that was the lot in life of every small farmer in Quebec. Pierre’s numerous descendants have every right to be proud of him.

As for all those “enfants trouvés” in the notary records, I find it fascinating that nearly three centuries ago, the legal system in Quebec was ensuring that children who could not be raised by their birth parents found homes with what appear to be respectable families, so that they would be properly cared for and presumably educated until they were old enough to support themselves. Our own system should do as much for the children in this country in the same situation, and in many cases, foster parents do raise foster children with as much love and attention as the best natural parents do for their own natural children. But far too many foster children are seen merely as sources of income, and suffer neglect, abuse, rape, and even murder.

Today is Independence Day, the anniversary of the birth of what became The United States of America. As we have our picnics and watch fireworks displays or sporting events, I hope we all take a moment to reflect on the dreadful circumstances in which too many people in our country live these days. Even in this staggering economy, we can do better. We should do better, especially for the children.

We’re supposed to be united, aren’t we?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering Our Warriors

Today is Memorial Day: the day we honor those who have served in our country’s armed forces and particularly those who died during that service. For me, this includes a rather large number of my relatives who served, including my uncle Peter, serving in the Air Force in World War II, who lost his life in a jeep accident on August 15, 1945—the day Japan surrendered.

Two of my mother’s cousins also lost their lives in that same war: Joseph A. Cook was a lieutenant in the Air Force whose plane went down over the Himalayas in March 1944; his brother Ernest M. Cook was an Aviation Chief Ordnanceman on one of the aircraft carriers during the series of battles in October 1944 collectively known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The remains of these men were never recovered. I never met them, nor my uncle either. But today in particular, they are on my mind, along with all my many relatives who survived their military service, from the Civil War up to the present.

War always changes a person, even if he or she comes out of it still breathing. This post is about all those who served and survived—physically, at least—but whose service is and has been shamefully rewarded. I find this shocking, because all Native Americans have always honored our warriors. Every powwow begins with a flag ceremony honoring them all, both the living and those who have walked on, whether their military service took their lives or not. A warrior who serves in peacetime, ready to defend his country, is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice and is equally honored with those who took part in actual combat.

I remember my days at University of California at Berkeley during the Vietnam War. Many students there assumed that all military personnel were evil baby-killers and concentrated their fury on veterans and persons in ROTC. I didn’t. I agreed that it was a war we should not have gotten into, but my sympathy was for the young men drafted and sent into a war that could not be won. They all came home damaged; the physical injuries were treated, but the psychological injuries were not.

Fighting in war changes a person forever. For that matter, simply serving in the military changes a person forever, even if you never come under fire or take part in any action of war. And if you have been injured or otherwise traumatized during your military service, your country owes you a debt to repair the damage in every possible way.

Unfortunately, our country fails to meet that obligation. Personnel coming home with gaping wounds or missing body parts usually get appropriate treatment, but other physical and psychological injuries may be brushed aside. For example, my late father-in-law suffered a permanent hearing loss while serving in the Persian Gulf during World War II; the Army literally blackmailed him into pretending the impairment did not exist by refusing to send him back to the USA or discharge him unless he signed a statement that he had no such injury. I know a woman who served after the Gulf War fighting ended and was raped by an officer; he was merely blocked from future promotion, and she was considered unharmed. Treatment for PTSD was not considered really necessary back then unless you suffered permanent physical injury.

The armed forces and the federal government go to great lengths to prevent veterans with physical and psychological service-related disabilities from accessing the care they need. A vet who doesn’t live near a military base has to depend on local civilian facilities—many of which do not accept Tri-Care, the military’s insurance coverage for veterans of all services. The Veterans Administration is hopelessly behind on processing the paperwork for veterans who need physical or mental help, although some centers are worse than others. Veterans often wait months, even years, to get the help they need. This means that many veterans coming home now from Iraq or Afghanistan go without the treatment they need to resume normal civilian life.

Worse, veterans with psychological disabilities are largely considered as dangerous and often can’t get jobs. Why? Because employers have read or watched too many news reports about desperate veterans who went berserk and killed people. Moreover, employers who are not themselves veterans generally don’t appreciate the value of military-acquired skills. Vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a significantly higher rate of unemployment than persons with no military background.

According to Bobby Shriver's article in today’s Los Angeles Times (May 28, 2012), “Los Angeles has the highest reported number of vets in the nation... According to the latest count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County dropped by 3% between 2009 and 2011. The numbers declined for all groups except one: veterans. There were 9,000 homeless veterans here in 2011, a 24% increase over 2009. And the number of chronically homeless veterans—individuals who are homeless because of severe mental disabilities—increased by more than 100%, from 1,243 to 2,520. And more are coming.”

Shriver notes that the nearly 400-acre VA center in Los Angeles has large grounds which are leased out as sports facilities, a dog park, a public golf course, and several businesses. Meanwhile, the VA buildings—some of which were specifically designed to serve to treat veterans with mental disabilities—sit empty, decaying, and unused.

People can see if a vet has lost a limb and sympathize; but PTSD doesn’t show physical scars. And vets who served in multiple deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan (that means most of them) are the ones who suffer most from psychological disabilities.

Look around your own town. If it’s like most large towns, a large percentage of our recently-discharged veterans are living on the streets and being regarded as lazy, irresponsible, and dangerous. Without homes, they become scruffy, go without proper nourishment, and look worse and more dangerous every day. It’s a feedback loop: the worse you look, the worse you feel, and so you start looking even worse.

An average of 18 veterans commit suicide every day—20% of the national daily rate for all persons in the USA. The VA estimates that a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes—some 6,500 veterans a year. These veterans lost their lives because of their military service: it just took a little longer for them to fall down.

There is no excuse for this shabby treatment of our living veterans. Today we honor specifically those who died in combat; but all living veterans who face the likelihood of premature death because of their military service should also be honored today. These are casualties we can—and should—prevent, or at least treat honorably.

If you see a homeless vet on the street, don’t ignore him (or her). Talk with that vet, say “Thank you” for the sacrifices the vet made, offer a meal. And try, really try, to get that vet a job and the treatment the vet deserves, and write to your senators and representatives, both state and federal. If enough of us do this—well, it’s an election year, isn’t it? Politicians will make great efforts to do what their voters want them to do, and if the voters demand seriously improved treatment for our living veterans, they’ll listen, because politicians want to keep their jobs and advance their political careers.

And in the meantime, do whatever you can to help a veteran in need to get the life he or she deserves as a just and obligatory compensation for the service that vet has given to our country.

We owe them all, big time. And on Memorial Day, we should remember the living as well as the dead, and vow to treat the living with the honor and assistance they deserve.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Genealogy In The Digital Age

Nowadays we’re all getting spoiled by the proliferation of genealogical information online, especially of images of original documents located in archives halfway across the country—or halfway around the world. But unfortunately not everything is online yet; what’s online is often over-processed and not very legible, and it’s not always free, either. Genealogy has become big business.

When I started out, online genealogy was in its infancy, so I ordered microfilms through my local Family History Center—lots and lots of microfilms. (They were only $2 a pop back then, so I renewed many of them to “Indefinite Loan” status and they are still at the Center.) And at that time, the Center had an excellent microfilm printer, so I printed out the records I found. That meant I bought lots of steel filing cabinets, too, which even then weren’t exactly cheap.

I still have a vast pile of paper records that never made it into the cabinets. (Fortunately, filing cabinets are useful for other family members, too.) In my defense, let me say that I had no idea back then how many ancestors I would discover and how many documents I would want to save. Nowadays my genealogical records are mostly in digital format, filed in digital filing cabinets on my computer, and I am working on getting all the paper documents and photos into digital format so that if the original papers don’t survive, the images—and the information on them—will.

The Center’s microfilm printer eventually faded and died, but technology evolved. I evolved too. Not long before the printer died, I bought a small but (for its time) very advanced digital camera, a Canon A95, to be used on a vacation. When we came back, I used it not only to photograph images displayed on a microfilm reader, but also to take photos directly from the microfilm, with the aid of a small desktop camera stand, a lightbox, and two add-on lenses, a Hoya 10X and a Canon 4X. (I was able to do this because the camera had a center-point zoom feature which enabled me to judge whether the focus was clear or not. Newer, more “advanced” cameras, don’t play well with add-on lenses.)

The whole photography package—including editing software—saved me vast sums of money, since so many of my ancestors were concentrated in the same areas for generations, and there were many church registers where relatives turned up in one capacity or another on virtually every page.

Alas, after about 5 years of faithful service, the A95 that was the linchpin of the whole operation lost the center-point-zoom feature and couldn’t be fully restored. I still have the camera, though, because even if I can’t use it to photograph legible microfilm images with my old setup, it still takes excellent photos (including photos of microfilm or fiche images as displayed on a reader), and is very compact and lightweight—a major consideration when traveling.

Fortunately, many of the original records I wanted were now coming online. I was delighted when began to put online the US Indian censuses and the Drouin collection of Quebec church records, along with some of the surviving Canada censuses and Quebec notarial records. I cheered when began digitizing its vast collection of genealogical record and putting Canadian records online. This gateway page includes links to the Drouin collection of Quebec original records, including notary records and Catholic parish records, plus links to original records of other provinces and to the Canadian censuses, and indeed original records from all over the world—and it’s all available for free. If the records you want aren’t online yet, they will be; massive amounts of material are added every week.

The records online at commercial websites are all too often over-processed, to make the paper as white as possible even if doing so fades the writing on the pages to the point of illegibility. FamilySearch online records are straight from their microfilms, not “improved” by any ham-handed editing, so I can download the images and manipulate them so that they are often more legible if less “pretty” than the same images on Ancestry.

Unfortunately, not everything I want or need is online yet and may not be available soon enough to do this senior citizen any good. So I often still turn to microfilm for the records I want (which now may be ordered online only and are sent to your nearest Family History Center for viewing).

Technology marches on. The microfilm printer at my Family HIstory Center is long since deceased, replaced by a microfilm scanner.  It’s convenient and free to use (at least at my local center), and you save your digitized images to a flash drive, external hard drive, or directly to your notebook or laptop computer. Sounds perfect, yes?

Well, not exactly. It works fine with images that are clear and with good contrast, but the one at my local Family History Center (like my scanner at home) has a maximum quality of only 600 dpi, so scanning just won’t do justice to a record in very poor condition. Larger Family History Centers, other repositories with microfilm and microfiche records, and of course the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, may have more scanners, but those scanners are likely to have long lines of people waiting to use them, so you have to limit your time at the scanner, then come back as many times as necessary to collect all the records you want. The software can be a challenge as well, although most places do provide instructions at each scanner, and presumably the people in charge of the place can help you if necessary.

The first thing to realize about a microfilm/microfiche scanner is that if the facility is busy, you can’t hog the unit; you have to share. This means that you have to nail down the locations of the images you want before taking the film or fiche to the scanner, so you can work quickly and efficiently. Even if you’re the only patron in the place, you should use a reader to locate the records to avoid wear and tear on the scanner and to minimize the likelihood of the computer connected to the scanner having a nervous breakdown and being out of action for weeks or months.

Locating the records is no help if you drop the film or can’t find the document once the film loaded onto the scanner, so while I’m at the reader, I “bookmark” the images I want, without damaging the film. I use transparent 1/4-inch removable plastic colored marking dots. Specifically, I use Avery See Through Color Dots, #05796, and they’re available at many large office supply stores, or you can order them online. Every package of 860 dots has equal amounts of 4 colors (red, yellow, blue, and green) and a dot leaves no sticky residue on the microfilm. Just to be doubly safe, I mark the beginning of the target record with a colored dot placed in the space just before the first image (not on the actual image), in the upper or lower margin if there’s not enough space between images. I mark the end of the document with a dot of a different color just after the last image, again without overlap onto the actual image. (I usually use green or yellow at the beginning and red or blue at the end.) Once I’m on the scanner, I remove the dots as I go, put them back onto the sheet they were originally attached to, and re-use them. If good manners means that I have to yield the scanner to another patron in mid-session, I take one of the color dots from the sheet and mark the new starting image as I did before.
On some microfilms, page or image numbers are given; If that’s the case, you can skip the removable dots and just write down the numbers (beginning AND end) before going to the scanner, then check them off as you scan them. Write a note of where you had to break off the session if you can’t finish everything at one go. There are few things so maddening as discovering after you’ve sent the microfilm back (or after you’ve taken the plane to go home) that you missed a crucial page or three.

Once at the scanner, locate the first image you want to scan and get it centered and focused as clearly as possible. The scanner’s screen may have guidelines on the monitor for that purpose. Be aware that with scanners at Family History Centers the associated computers will add “For Personal Use Only” in large letters across the bottom of the document, so allow room for that; you don’t want vital information to be covered. Use the scanner computer’s software to determine the best settings to use for this document. If the film is negative (white text on black background), the software should be set to convert the image to positive. Use the Prescan feature if it’s available; that way you should be able to adjust the light level after the initial scan is displayed on the computer, to maximize legibility.

When it comes to the resolution setting, you have to make a tradeoff between image quality and the time it takes complete the scan. For some very clear microfilms or fiche with good contrast, a 200 dpi scan may suffice, but I usually use 300 or 400 dpi, especially if the film is blue rather than black (meaning the contrast is poor). If the displayed image is very dark or very pale (or if part is very dark and part is very pale), I use the maximum 600 dpi for the entire document. Scans of 200 or 300 dpi are the fastest (just one pass of the scanner with the machine I use locally), 400 dpi takes 2 or 3 passes, and 600 dpi takes 5 passes. If you go with 600 dpi and there are other people waiting to use the scanner, limit the number of images you scan to 5 or less (if the document is 6 pages, the person at the head of the line will probably not complain if you ask him/her nicely to let you scan that 6th page).

Once scanned, the computer monitor will display the result; you should be able to adjust the light level. The last step is to click on whatever button will tell the computer you want to scan another image. The image you just scanned will go to a sort of parking place until you’re done. When done, you save the images you have scanned to a folder you create on the scanner’s computer, then download them to your own storage device at your convenience. Save the images in TIFF format rather than JPEGs if permitted; JPEGs will degrade every time you make any change to the image. Be sure to give the folder a useful name, such as the film number or name and a brief description of the contents. If this folder is one of several from the same film, you may want to add a batch number, especially if it’s all one long document. (I scanned a 107-page probate not long ago, and if I hadn’t put those batch numbers in I’d never have been able to reassemble it in order.) If you’re not going to download the folder to your own storage media yet, add your name or initials; you don’t want to download someone else’s files—or worse, find that someone else has downloaded your files by mistake and then deleted them. Once you’ve downloaded your files, delete them from the computer.
Although I use the microfilm scanner at my Family History Center for some documents, I still prefer photography. I get better results by photographing documents (and photos too) with a digital camera than by scanning; most scanners’ highest quality setting is 600 dpi, while the camera can capture 1200 dpi—especially useful with documents faded or blackened by age and/or poor storage conditions. Moreover, I never have to wait in line for a short stint of scanning, then come back several times to get the other documents I want to collect. If the microfilm reader displays the images on a vertical screen, great; if it’s one which projects the image onto a slanted surface, I don’t mind that the image will come out in a trapezoid shape (like the opening credits of “Star Wars”) rather than a square or rectangle, because—unlikely as you might think—that’s a quick fix.

Once I get the images, scanned or photographed, onto my computer at home, I always make a working copy to edit the images, and park it in a different location on the computer, while the original unedited images remain untouched in my Pictures folder and will be backed up automatically onto my external hard drive that night. If I’m traveling, I park the new files on my laptop and back them up onto a portable hard drive or a data DVD until I can transfer them to my desktop computer at home. (One of these days I’m going to back up all my files to the Cloud as well.) Either way, once backed up, the files can be deleted from the flash drive so I can use it again.

Whether I’m working with scanned images, images downloaded from the web, or image I have photographed, I use Adobe Photoshop Elements as my editing software. There are other good photo-editing programs out there—one may be already on your computer. But Photoshop Elements works very well for me, and isn’t overly expensive, so I have no incentive to change. (I started with version 4 and upgrade only occasionally. I’m now using 6 or 9, depending on which icon my cursor happens to land on.)

Photos of documents can be edited, one by one, as soon as they are on my computer and duplicated. (My cameras only take JPEGs, but I can convert the photos to TIFFs on my computer so they don’t degrade during editing.) However, scans from microfilm or fiche saved as a batch are now married and have to be separated in order for me to edit them for maximum clarity. Therefore, I do not begin the editing process by opening up Photoshop Elements, because Photoshop Elements will display only the first image of a multi-image Tiff file and not the rest—not without a little further effort on my part.

Since I use a Mac, I begin by opening the working copy of the unedited scanned TIFFs in Preview and saving it as a PDF file. How do I do this? I can’t tell you for sure how to do it on a Windows machine, but on a Mac you open the TIFF document, then click on File->Print, which brings up the print menu. In the lower left corner of the menu is a button labeled PDF. Pull that PDF menu down and choose Save As PDF. (I save it to the Desktop.) This part of the process takes about 20 seconds.

Now I open Photoshop Elements, choose “Select”, and open the new working PDF. The screen will display thumbnails of all of the images in the sidebar. I select the image(s) of the first document, or if it’s all one document, select All. Next I choose “Save As” (usually I use the same name as on the original TIFF folder), but before I hit that Save button, I change the file format in the dialog box back to TIFF. Photoshop Elements will immediately warn me that changing the file format can only be done as a copy. That’s exactly what I want it to do, so I click “Okay”, and voila! The individual images of the file are now divorced. That’s because these TIFFs were created by Photoshop Elements rather than by the scanner’s computer. I repeat the process as necessary to separate (and name) all of the individual documents. (To avoid confusion, to which I am prone, I then park the original working copy and the first PDF elsewhere off the Desktop. When I’m finished processing all the images, I can Trash both sets. I’ll still have the original download.)

I am now in business. I can open up any of the new TIFF files in Photoshop Elements, and thumbnails of all the separate pages will appear. I have turned an “inseparable” document into a folder of separable images that I can process one at a time. Now I can crop and/or edit any of the images that need it. I can turn a negative image to positive in Photoshop Elements simply by opening it and pressing Command+i. I can massage all of an image as a whole, or I can select and massage only an area that needs extra work—such as adjusting the light levels only in a washed-out or too-dark area—to be completely legible. If it’s all one long document, I can add page numbers to the name of each image. This means that I can separate a long document spread through several files—say, the probate for Davey Jones—into single pages with individual names showing the order of the pages (DJ24, DJ25, etc) and put them all into one folder called Davey Jones Probate, and file that with the rest of Davey’s records in my digital filing cabinet.
If I am editing a “Star Wars” photographed image made at a microfilm reader, I start by opening it and saving it as a TIFF. I can change the trapezoidal image to a rectangular one. Here’s the recipe: First I level the small “top”and the longer “bottom” using the Image->Rotate and adjust them to completely horizontal (you can do this in tiny fractions of a degree to get it right). Next, I crop it, leaving a small margin all around the page. If it’s a negative image, I hit Command-i to turn it positive. Next, I choose Image->Distort; little handles will appear at the corners. I use the handles at the narrow-edge corners to pull each side outward until it forms a right angle at the wide edge and the image is now a rectangle. Next I choose “File->Save As” option; the software will ask if I want to apply the transformation before merging the two layers into one. I click on “Yes”, then cancel the save. Now I can re-crop if needed, then click on Levels (Command+L; the L can be lower case) and edit the general light level for optimum contrast. (I can use the circle or square selection tool to select a particular area that is still too pale or too dark and adjust that area individually.) When I’m satisfied, I choose “Save As” and give the image a more meaningful name than “IMG” plus a number, which is what the camera named it.

Last but by no means least, once any single image has been optimized and saved, I can resize it and/or crop it to focus on a particular area and resize that area. I can save just that area under a new name with “Save As” and change the format to ,jpg or .tif, or I can choose “Save for web” (.gif) if the image is small already. (That’s how I was able to post signatures from notary documents in my last post.) I can turn a document or part of a document into a small PDF e-mail attachment that any computer can open. And I can do it all without losing the whole of the original optimized image simply by closing the parent file without saving the changes.

All of this sounds time-consuming, but once I got the hang of it—which was fairly quickly—generally it has always taken me less than 3 minutes to crop and edit an image, save it, then generate a resized version to share. Even from the start 10 years ago, with no prior photo-editing experience, it usually took me less than a minute or two to edit an image of a badly degraded old document to make it legible. (Damaged or degraded heirloom photos may take considerably longer to repair; you don’t want your great-grandparents’ wedding picture to look like a zombie jamboree from a horror movie!)

Is it worth the trouble? Decide for yourself: below are two copies of a page in an 18th-century Danish churchbook, one as photographed on a microfilm reader with a slanted screen, and the other inverted and edited (and both resized to fit on this blog):

I for one believe it is worthwhile, because I’m interested not just in collecting the record but in milking the document for every scrap of information that may lead me to more records and more information about my ancestors. Therefore, I don’t want any of that information to be illegible because it’s gone black with age or faded into faint flyspecks. That “illegible” information may hold important clues to find more records and/or to reconstruct part of my ancestor’s life that no one else has found. (I can’t replace words that have been torn away from the page a century or two ago, though. Pity.)

You see, even on a black-with-age page, the original information is still there, buried under the mold or whatever, and it’s not hard to get at it simply by adjusting the light levels. Images which are very badly faded may be too far gone to work with, but I have successfully changed the light levels even online over-processed images that appeared at first to have no surviving information, enough to tell whether that image has one of my family members on it—and if it does, I can order the microfilm (or download it from if it’s available) and get a better image to work with, and the information on it.

And in genealogy, it’s the information that counts.

POSTSCRIPT: Now that the 1940 Federal Census has been released, we’re all agog to find our families in it, but hampered by the fact that very few of the states have been indexed yet. I found many of my family members in one afternoon, including some in a large city, because Steve Morse and his colleague Joel D. Weintraub have developed a LINK One-Step Enumeration District finder for the 1940 census, with links to the online images of the actual census records at either the National Archives, Ancestry, or My Heritage. If your relatives didn’t move between 1930 and 1940 and you have their Enumeration District number from 1930, the site can convert the 1930 ED into its 1940 equivalent. If you have an address for about 1940, the site can tell you which Enumeration Districts might have that address and link you to a map of each possible district. Bravo and many thanks to these genealogical heroes!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Long Arm Of The Law

In an earlier post, “Which Pierre Forcier?”, I discussed the usefulness of notary records in sorting out relationship problems in Quebec research, particularly in tracing voyageurs back to the correct family line. But notary records can solve other kinds of problems, too. Law shapes a large part of everyone’s life, no matter where or when they live, and legal documents can not only resolve questions about your ancestor, they can tell you a great deal more about him/her and what kind of life he/she lived than you can glean from the parish records. The law gets involved in every aspect of a person’s life, wherever and whenever that person lives.

Even so, why bother reading centuries-old, dry-as-dust legal documents which are probably in poor condition, when you already have your ancestor’s church records? Isn’t that enough for your pedigree chart?

If a pedigree chart is all you want, that’s your choice. Personally, I believe that pedigree charts are just the bare bones of genealogy. I want every scrap of information about my ancestors that is available, because I want to know the persons they were. I want the flesh on those ancient bones and the ideas and emotions and personalities in those brains. I want to reconstruct their lives as much as possible and pass on the story of those lives to their descendants in the generations to come. And I firmly believe that my ancestors want that story passed on. (See my May 2010 post titled “Simplify, Simplify . . . If They’ll Let You!”)

That’s why I love notary records.

For one thing, you can gauge the wealth and ambitions of an ancestor by tracking his/her business records: sales, purchases, hiring, contracts, and so on. (Yes, women could and did transact business from the earliest days of Quebec. Many women acted on behalf of their absent husbands; they also could own property in their own right, and their husbands or male relatives could not do anything with that property unless the woman gave her consent, in writing.)

Business records may not sound very exciting, but they can tell you a lot about your ancestor’s character as well as his finances. Was he ruthless in pursuing the smallest bit of cash owed by a poor widow? Was he generous in forgiving small debts, or in extending the term of a loan? Was he wealthy enough to rent a bench to sit on in the church or did he and his family have to stand during the entire Mass and sermon? Was he pious (or nervous) enough to make donations to his parish or to other religious institutions, either during his lifetime or in his will?

Was he one of the marguilliers (what the British call churchwardens), the more prosperous lay people in the parish who take on the job of keeping the church and rectory facilities and grounds in good condition and who manage the parish finances? If your ancestor was one of the local “movers and shakers” or at least a cut above the poor, you can often tell that in legal documents simply because the notary does not record him as plain Pierre Roy but as “Sr. Pierre Roy”: “Sr” or “sr” is a term of respect roughly equivalent to “Mister.” “Sr” is not the abbreviation for the seigneur, the overlord of a district; once you start looking at the records, you’ll often find a whole paragraph commonly devoted to the honorifics of the local seigneur if he is a party to the transaction, especially if he is of the French nobility or is exceptionally rich and/or powerful.

Even if you have the church marriage record, it’s always worthwhile looking for a marriage contract, because it will tell you a great deal about the family’s wealth and social status. If no contract for your direct ancestor is available, it’s equally useful to look for those of siblings of the bride and groom, which will give you the same information and may have the signatures of numerous relatives as witnesses.

Now, obviously it would be a herculean, long-lifetime task to go through the entire files of every notary who practiced in Quebec since the 1600s. The good news is that there are finding aids. The not-so-good news is that those finding aids can be a little confusing because the terminology is not consistent from notary to notary (and sometimes not even in the records of one long-lived notary). Just a little poking around will show that the notaries themselves were making up their terminology as they went along. (They were pioneers; that’s what pioneers do.)

In searching notarial records, there are two main terms which are often used: Inventaire and Répertoire. The problem is that the two terms were often used interchangeably. One notary’s Inventaire is a list of the documents he has drawn up, and the Répertoire is the actual files. Another notary names the list his Répertoire and the actual files his Inventaire.

This may sound weird, but think of yourself as having a large shop. In one situation you need a list of what items you sell and the other supplies you need (i.e. a finding aid so that you know what and how much to keep in stock and from whom), and in another situation the inventory is the actual goods and supplies on hand at the moment.

Rather than go crazy over terminology, when I use the term “Inventaire” I mean whatever the notary (or someone else) created as a finding aid, and I use the term “Répertoire” for the actual documents. Labels don’t matter; what counts is whether you are talking about a finding aid or about original documents. When looking at notary records, it’s easy to see which is which, whatever the label.

A notary’s finding aid—whatever it’s called—is a list of the notary’s documents in his keeping, usually in chronological order by date of deposit. (Sometimes documents, especially marriage contracts, were deposited with the notary months or even years after the original date.) Most notaries also wrote a description of the type of document and the main parties involved, on what became the outside (blank) side of the paper when it was folded to fit into whatever box he kept the documents in. This was done so he or his clerk didn’t have to open every single document when looking for a specific one). Those same descriptions are usually what appear on the finding aids. Some notaries recorded a lot of detail in the finding aids; some gave just the date, the type of document, and the names of the primary parties involved.

A fair number of notaries’ finding aids are organized alphabetically by type of document, so you will find an Accord (agreement) under “A”, with all documents listed under “A” (Acte, Association etc.) in chronological order. Notaries decided for themselves what a given type of document was called, so that a contract (“contrat”) will (usually) be under “C”, but a marriage contract is often found under “M” for “mariage”, along with business agreements (“marché”). A sale might also be found under “M” for “marché”, under “T” for “transaction”, or under “V” for “vente”, and in fact, there are alternate names for virtually every kind of document a notary might draw up.

I think it's obvious that the “type” of document was also decided by each notary according to his own ideas. A marché, for example, can mean either a sale or an ordinary business agreement. Notary 1 uses it to mean a purchase; Notary 2 uses it to mean an agreement of any sort, while Notary 3 uses accord to mean an agreement. A sale is often recorded as a vente or a transport or even as a transaction. There are many other examples which I won’t go into here; you’ll discover those by yourself. If you run into this kind of finding aid, you will have to make a list of every item that interests you, including date, and then sort them into chronological order to locate the documents.

Just to make life more interesting (and in fact more helpful) for modern researchers, some notaries numbered their documents and/or made notations as to which numbered box (boîte) the documents were filed, usually in chronological order. (Filing cabinets didn’t exist in the 16- and 1700s.) On busy days, this could lead to two or more documents with the same number, as the finding aid will show. Notary Louis Chaboillez, who practiced 1787-1813 in Montréal and whose records included large numbers of fur-trade contracts, kept separate boxes and finding aids for those engagements.

In looking through notary records, therefore, your best bet is to look through the finding aids first (if they are available), then look up the actual documents. Otherwise go through the actual documents page by page, looking for ancestral names both on the outside “label” and in the actual documents, especially the signature pages, where your ancestor might appear as a witness rather than a participant in whatever transaction is being recorded.

By now I suppose you think that locating notary records for your Quebec ancestors is way too difficult. It’s not. For one thing, a notary who lived 500 miles from any of your ancestors or whose practice began decades after your ancestor crossed the border is unlikely to have records pertinent to your search—although it’s possible that he might have records for collateral relatives. Concentrate your search on notaries who practiced in an area at or near where your ancestors lived at the same time your ancestors lived there, and you’re fairly likely to find something useful.

Now from some really good news: although you can still rent microfilms from the Family History Library (you go online to set up an account, order and pay for the films online, and view the films at your local Family History Center (LDS church), there is now another source for notary records:

I was delighted when Ancestry began putting the finding aids for notary records online, but now they are also putting the actual notary documents online. This will require a subscription which lets you access Canadian records, but there are frequent “tryout” periods when you can access them for free, particularly when Ancestry is airing its “Who Do You Think You Are” series on television. Your local Family History Center may have a full-access subscription which you can use as a patron; your local Genealogy Society or even a college or university library may also have a full-access subscription. (These days, few public libraries can afford it, but if and when the economy revives you might be able to go there also for access.)

Ancestry’s notary records are grouped first by notary surname. Look under “C” for the surname today, for example, then choose between “Unknown” and “Carreau, S.” But under “Unknown” you will find a very long list, starting with “Unknown” and continuing with list of date ranges: 1651-1653, 1666-1700, 1669-1700, and so on.

What will come up when you click on one of those date ranges will be either a finding aid or the original documents, and crystal-clear the images are, too, depending on the condition of the old documents. It’s easy to tell whether what you have is a finding aid or the original documents. And you’ll know who the notary is, because the Institut Drouin, which filmed the records and finding aids, places along the left border a label which appears on every single image and gives the name of the notary, the archive which houses the original records, and the dates of the records in the group you’re looking at. Why Ancestry can’t give the notary name on the original list I don’t know.

Just to make things more interesting, Ancestry in some cases breaks the records of a notary into segments of, say, 3 or 4 years. In other cases the entire repertoire of a notary—even if it’s 2,000 + images—are given in one chunk, so you have to make a written note of which is the last image you looked at if you have to take a break. The records are not searchable, but even if I have information from a finding aid, I look at every document, because one of my ancestors may be mentioned, be a witness, or be an actual party to the issue no matter what the notary’s summary or finding aid says., take a bow. And keep putting more images online, as you’ve been doing. Six months ago there was very little; by February 2012 there has been a substantial increase, with more coming every month. I’ll be checking back regularly to see what’s been added.

Just a few days ago I found at Ancestry, in the records of notary Barbel, documents drawn up in January 1709 relating to the property owned my my 8G Grandparents Jean Demers and Jeanne Voidy/Vedié, both of whom had died the previous year. The surviving children (and, if female, their husbands) are identified, and there is an inventory of all of their property, including real estate and personal or household goods.

In an earlier post titled “Matters of Law” I told you that I had found in the inventaire of notary Romain Becquet a brief summary of a sale of something by Étienne Demers, widower of Françoise Morin, to Jean Demers, “son frère”. I intended to order the microfilm; alas, it appears that Becquet’s records have never been filmed, so the only way to see them is to go to the Québec archives and photograph or photocopy them (or hire a professional genealogist in Québec to do so on your behalf). The Family History Library has transcriptions of Becquet’s records in book form, but you have to go to Salt Lake City to use the book. Naturally I fretted: would I ever find out the details of that sale?

The answer was yes. The 1709 documents drawn up by notary Barbel includes a summary of the 1678 transaction between Étienne and Jean as drawn up by notary Becquet; it verifies that the two men were brothers and describes the property, which is a piece of land in the city of Québec. So even if I never see Becquet’s record, I know that I evaluated that entry in his finding aid correctly and that Jean and Étienne were in actual fact brothers (technically, half-brothers, a distinction which had essentially no significance in family life except in the probates of their father’s two known wives).

A major thrill in genealogy is finding an original document containing the actual signature of your ancestor (or his/her mark, if not literate). In the parish registers, those are more difficult to find than you might think. You will always find the priest’s signature, but in the earliest parish records, the signature of anyone else is generally non-existent (unless one or more of the persons involved is of high rank and or great wealth). And of course, many people in those early days were illiterate, a situation which lasted until the mid-to late 1800s, when most children went to school and learned to read and write.

But legal documents are different from censuses and parish records. From the very first, any legal document required the signature not only of the notary and the parties involved but also of witnesses: even if they were illiterate, they had to put their mark on the document so that they could testify later if needed as to what they witnessed. When going through notary records, I always look at the signature page of every document, and sometimes I hit pay dirt, especially with marriage contracts.

Here, for example, is a very coveted pair of signatures: those of my 8G Grandparents Jean Durand and Catherine Annenantha (here signed Catherine Huronne), from their 1662 marriage contract (Notaire Audouart):

The next example is the set of signatures from the 16 June 1669 marriage contract (notary Cusson) of my 8G Grandparents, Paul Hus and Jeanne Baillargeon. Jeanne (just below Paul's), like her father Mathurin Baillargeon (left of Jeanne) and her mother Marie Metaier (just under Mathurin), signed with a simple + between the personal name and surname; Paul signed (upper left)with a sort of arrow mark; and one of the witnesses, "Moral D St Quantin", had the rather flamboyant signature (directly under Jeanne and her mother). "Moral D St. Quantin", original name Quentin Moral, was a seigneur and judge as well as my 8G Grandfather twice over; his wife Marie Marguerie is my 8G Grandmother through two daughters by him, and also my 9G Grandmother by her first husband, Jacques Hertel. (Nothing is ever simple and straightforward in Quebec genealogy.) The notary’s own signature is at the bottom right corner.

As a last example, I have not one but two signatures of François Jehan or Han-dit-Chaussé, the first of the direct male line on this side of the Atlantic of my great-grandfather Joseph Chosa. The first signature is from a 1677 contract, the text of which makes it clear that his full name is François Han-dit-Chaussé; the second is from his marriage record at Repentigny in 1685, where his surname is recorded as Jahan because that is the surname of his father, whose name and parish of residence in France is stated in the record.

I always get a special thrill when I see an ancestor’s signature, but these two of François are extra-special. They came as a surprise to me, because most of François’ descendants who were my ancestors apparently were illiterate. Note the clear, flowing, practiced penmanship: it is clear that François was well educated even though many of his descendants were not.

This is the “reach out and touch someone” moment in genealogy: the moment when your ancestor transcends space and time to connect with you.