Thursday, June 17, 2010

Location, Location, Location

In genealogy as well as real estate, what matters most is location, location, and location.

The province of Quebec is a big place. Good French-speaking Catholic families in Quebec had large families, so in every generation there are many people with the same name, many about the same age. How do you even know where to start looking? That was the problem I faced when I started looking for my great-grandfather Joseph Chosa’s baptism record in Quebec. And that’s when I discovered the value of marriage indexes.

As I mentioned previously, large numbers of the present-day inhabitants of Quebec are passionately involved in genealogical research. I did (and still do) a lot of reading about the history of Quebec and discovered that this is not new behavior.

During the French and Indian War (the North American phase of the Seven Years’ War in Europe), the city of Québec fell to the British in September 1760, and the French Regime effectively ended. The 1763 Treaty of Paris was the legal end of the war, and its terms required France to cede most of her possessions in North America, including Quebec which was taken over by Great Britain. British merchants, British fur traders, and British farmers poured into Quebec and settled there, bringing with them all of their own value systems, including a passionate hatred of the Catholic Church and a passionate belief that everyone who was not English was by definition inferior.

The Brits were not, however, stupid. They had just finished a long and costly major war, and the English colonies to the south of Quebec were clearly growing restive. They realized that the French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec quite naturally felt threatened by the British conquest, so they wisely decided to permit their new French-speaking subjects to continue with most of their accustomed ways, including the conditions of land possession, the French language, and the Quebec legal system.

Naturally, those French-speaking subjects still felt threatened, especially since the British colonists made every effort to get the still-lucrative fur trade and the best lands for agriculture into British hands. There was a major rebellion of the peasants (“habitants”) in 1837-38, which was put down, and the British tried new approaches to persuade these rebellious French-speaking subjects to assimilate or emigrate. They were not exactly successful: many emigrated, but many stubbornly remained, and to this day, there is strong sentiment in Quebec for administrative separation from the rest of Canada or, better, complete independence as a sovereign nation.

One of the way those French-speaking subjects of Great Britain resisted assimilation was to trace the heroic heritage of their ancestors. They, of course, faced the same problem we do: how to pick out which of the dozens of Antoines and Marie-Annes and Jean-Baptistes and Genevièves were their great-grandparents?

The answer: marriage records.

Most marriages nowadays take place where the bride lives; the same was true in Quebec (and France, and Denmark, and probably just about everywhere else), as far back as the records go. Unlike American marriage records, Quebec Catholic marriage records are chock-full of useful genealogical information, including the maiden names of all the women involved.

Before fill-in-the-blank printed forms were available, every priest made his own boiler-plate form for recording marriages; that form consisted of several very long sentences that generally included the following:

First, the date of the marriage, the name of the officiating priest and his authority (i.e. the name of his religious order and/or his status as curé or missionary) that gave him the right to preside at this marriage. Next, a statement that the proper banns had been posted, that no bar to this marriage had been found, and that the priest had duly given the nuptial blessing.

Next comes the real meat of the record: the name of the new husband and his parish of residence; the name of his previous wife if he was a widower and/or the names of both his parents and their parish of residence, along with whether either parent was deceased; then comes the same information about the bride and her prior husband and/or parents.

Next comes the names of witnesses to the marriage (at least two males, one witnessing for the groom and the other for the bride). Often the names of other witnesses of both genders are also listed. Often the relationship of each witness to either the bride or the groom is also given. Last comes the signature of the priest and those of all participants who were able to sign, with a statement as to who declared his or her inability to sign the register.

Occasionally you find marriage records which do not give all the above information, particularly if the families involved are at the lower end of the social and economic scale, but the bare minimum is always the date, authority of the officiant, the names of the groom and bride and the names of their parents or deceased prior spouse, and the two witnesses. Wealthy or otherwise “important” people often got their marriage recorded in larger-than-usual handwriting along with rather more flowery wording.

With all that genealogical information packed into one marriage record, it was only natural that someone would decide to compile it all on a large scale. The first such attempt was Tanguay’s, which I discussed briefly in an earlier post. There are two problems with Tanguay’s work. First, he only goes up to about 1765, the end of the French Regime in Canada. Consequently, he’s not much help if you’re looking for the parents of someone born about 1830. Second, because his work was all done by hand, there are a lot of errors and omissions. Some of these were corrected by Joseph-Arthur Leboeuf’s Complément au Dictionnaire Généalogique Tanguay, published in 1957.

However, Tanguay has one really terrific feature that none of the other marriage indexes has: he lists all of the children—male and female—of this couple for whom he found records. He gives the exact or estimated baptism date for each child, burial date if the child died young, and for the survivors who married, the name of each child’s spouse(s) and the date(s) of the marriage(s). Once you get back into the era of the French Regime, then, Tanguay enables you to look up the marriages of the couple's known children and connect your ancestor to his or her whole family group.

There are many other marriage indexes, most building on Tanguay and therefore having many of his inevitable errors and omissions. Almost all of these are also limited to the time frame of the French Regime. Jetté’s excellent work ends at 1730; the Institut Drouin has two inventories, one going up to about 1760 and available on CD-ROM; the other, all 113 volumes of it, goes from 1760 to 1935, but frankly, I have no idea where to access it other than buying a subscription at vast expense.

Another, extremely valuable modern research tool for the French Regime period is the PRDH (Programme de Recherche en Demographic Historique) developed at the University of Montréal. The PRDH went back to the original parish records, transcribed them, and created a computerized index of every person mentioned in any record up to 1765, eventually adding not only parish records but censuses, confirmations, recantations (of Protestants, who under the French Regime had to abjure their faith and embrace Catholicism to stay in the colony), ship’s lists, hospital sick lists, and marriage contracts.

The PRDH is accessible online, but not for free; you subscribe and then pay by the hit. Since in any given generation there are likely to be dozens of people with the same name (or variation thereof), you could easily have many hits and still not have your ancestor if the record you’re looking for was in a section of the register which decayed or was lost over the years. On the other hand, the PRDH can locate and identify records which are otherwise very hard to find.

Many people have collected and published, with varying degrees of accuracy, repertoires (catalogs) of all of a particular parish’s records of a specified type (most commonly marriages, but some parishes have baptism and/or death repertoires as well). Generally, these go up to the date of publication, and therefore have relatively recent information, but they still won’t do you much good if you don’t know which parish to investigate. Many of these inventories are out of print; some of them are available for purchase on CD-ROM; others are only accessible at libraries which are all-too-often inconveniently located a thousand miles or more from where you live.

There are, however, two marriage indexes which go well up into the first part of the 20th century: the Rivest marriage indexes (organized by the name of the bride), and the Loiselle card index, organized alphabetically by both bride and by groom. Rivest is quite expensive and, unless you’re rich enough to buy it, available for use only at the Family HIstory Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and at certain other major research libraries. The enormous reorganized and updated Loiselle index is on microfiche and, like the Rivest, can only be used in Salt Lake City or other major research center. However, the original Loiselle card index and its supplement are readily available on microfilms which you can rent for use at your local Family History Center.

I rented the two films (regular and supplemental) which covered the surname Chausse, then renewed the rental twice to keep them indefinitely in my local Family History Center, and it has been worth every penny. I did not learn from them where my great-grandfather Joseph was born. I did, however, learn where Chaussés, especially Chaussé women, were getting married during the period from about 1800 to about 1860. Loiselle told me where Chaussé families (including Joseph's parents and siblings) were living in that time frame, which in turn enabled me to narrow my search for his family to particular areas.

Now that the Drouin Collection of parish registers are online at, I would have found Joseph much sooner than I did. A search now at for Joseph Chaussé born about 1831, give or take 2 years, turns up about half a dozen possibles, one of whom is in fact my great-grandfather. But I had to do it the hard way. (You may have to do it that way too; a search engine is made by human beings, who often have difficulty with the old records. Ancestry’s index is by no means infallible; I have recently found several Quebec baptism records where the index brings up not the name of the baby but that of a godparent. These records are in fact quite legible, so clearly somebody goofed.)

Eight years ago, however, none of this was online, so I had to wait several weeks for every microfilm I ordered to be delivered. Since I wasn’t getting any younger, I took a trip to Salt Lake City for a week, poring through Quebec parish registers at the Family History Library and collecting information on every Chaussé I found (including several Josephs). I had no idea whether any of the Josephs was my great-grandfather, though, because I didn’t have a firm grip on when he was born and had no way of recognizing Joseph when I found him; therefore I took notes but did not invest in printouts (at ten cents a pop, that could quickly add up to a significant amount of money as well as an overweight-luggage fee when I returned home).

The trip was not wasted, however, since I collected many other useful records, including Michigan land records, Indian Census records, and voyageur contracts for my mother’s maternal ancestors, as well as records involving my Danish ancestors and my husband’s family.

I also came home with copies of the birth, death, and marriage records reported to the state of Michigan by Houghton County up to 1875, and by Baraga County beginning in 1875 (when Baraga County was formed out of what had been part of Houghton County). Many of these register pages were black with age, and the page recording Joseph’s death was particularly so: I could tell he had died in October 1919, but could not make out the exact day or the stated age at death. However, I did acquire names and birth/death dates for several of his children who were born and died between censuses. This, although I didn’t know it then, would be crucial in breaking the logjam.

When I got home, I worked on my husband’s family lines for a while, then on my fur-trade ancestors, and after that I went back to my Danes. I wasn’t giving up; I was just taking a vacation from my search for Joseph in hopes that when I came back to him, I would have a fresh perspective and be able to see things I hadn’t seen before.

Everybody needs a vacation once in a while.

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