Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Matters of Law

Original vital records may the skeleton of genealogy, but they don’t put flesh on those old bones. Say I find the birth, marriage, and death records for an ancestor: a fine start, but it doesn’t tell me what I really want to know: what kind of person my ancestor was, what he did for a living, how he got along with his family and neighbors, what hardships and tragedies he endured: in short, I want to know everything possible about him. (I used the male pronoun, but I research my female ancestors with the same enthusiasm.)

Today I’d like to discuss a source for all of the kinds of things the vital records of Quebec don’t tell you: legal records. Reading legal documents is not most people’s idea of fun, but if you’re researching Quebec ancestry, it’s the only way to resolve some kinds of genealogical problems. It’s true that it’s not always easy to locate them. It’s also true that it’s not always easy to read these records, not only because of the age and condition of the original records, but also because of the clarity (or lack of clarity) of each notary’s handwriting (or that of his clerk) and the legal vocabulary and abbreviations.

A French or French-Canadian notaire or notary under the French Regime was not at all like an American notary public, but more like a modern English barrister: he drew up legal documents, provided legal advice, and acted as a mediator, but in court every individual had to present his or her own case. In a largely illiterate society like that of Quebec, the notary served the vital function of documenting everything from land ownership to contracts to testimony to inventories of property.

The real trick with using notarial records is in discovering their existence. The notaries themselves and their clients had the same problem. Therefore, notaries were required not only to store copies of every document they prepared but also to provide two finding aids: the index and the repertoire. The index is a catalog of each year’s acts organized by the surnames of the persons involved. The repertoire is a list of every document by date. Every document was “usually” given a number and some notaries went so far as to state which box the document was placed. The repertoire also contains a short description of each act and the names of the parties involved. (The earliest Quebec notaries did not always number their acts or make indexes.)

Ancestry.com has numerous notary indexes online, but (for whatever reason) very few of them are labeled by the notary’s name; instead, you look under the letter of the alphabet for the notary’s surname and although you may see one or two actual surnames, mostly you will see a list of dates of the practices of notaries whose surname begins with that letter. That’s not a lot of help unless you have a reference source that lists the notaries and the years when they practiced.

I acquired such a reference several years ago: The Notaries of French Canada 1626-1900 by Robert J. Quintin, which is still available online from Quintin Publications as a comb-bound book or as a CD for $14.95. It contains 3 lists with the same information, sorted by notary surname, by dates of practice, and by location of practice. (This enables you to pick out which “unknown” index on Ancestry’s index of notarial records is for the notary you want.) Before any indexes came online, this reference enabled me to determine which notaries my ancestors might have used for their legal needs and to order the appropriate microfilms. I solved a number of problems that way (and sent back a number of microfilms that held absolutely no record of interest to me). But Ancestry doesn’t have the indexes of every notary online, at least not yet, and most of the early notaries didn’t make indexes because they were not yet required to do so.

However, with a bit of effort you can home in more precisely on your ancestors’ notary records. It’s well worth the effort, and not just for obvious "must-haves" like marriage contracts: minor everyday notary records can sometimes resolve conundrums posed by the church and census records.

Let me give you an example. One of my immigrant ancestors was Jean Demers-dit-Dumay, born about 1622 to Jean Demers-dit-Dumay père and Barbe Maugis in the parish of St-Jacques de Dieppe, diocese of Rouen, Normandy. The home town and parentage information was in his 1654 marriage record at Montréal to his wife Jeanne Vedié. The estimated birth date comes from his July 1708 burial record, which gives his age at death as 86 years.

No one can say that Jean and Jeanne failed to obey the Biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.” As I discussed in a previous post, I have records for 14 children, and I believe that a 15th (for whom no baptism record survived) was born during a 4 year gap between 2 of the known children. The first 3 were born at Montréal; the rest were baptized at the Jesuit mission at Sillery, near Québec city, or at Nôtre-Dame de Québec. (This suggests to me that the incursions of the Iroquois in the Montréal area may have led Jean and Jeanne to move north in hopes of being out of the danger zone, but I have no proof of this.)

Now, as my Great-Grandfather Joseph Chosa put it, when it comes to writing down a name, “you spell it like it sounds,” and in early Quebec that was the rule—in spades. Regional accents played a role: the people who recorded the parish records or other records for this couple may have came from different areas of France, and therefore their spelling of the sounds of someone’s name may be wildly different from that used in the person’s other records. (I have seen Quebec records in which one surname is spelled in three or more different ways in the same document. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now, in European languages there was no standard spelling for any words or names until universal literacy.)

This means that my 8G Grandfather Jean appears in the Quebec records as Jean Demers, Jean Dumay, Jean Dumais, and even Jean Dumets or Du Metz, plus a likely few others I haven’t run across. His wife Jeanne Vedié’s surname appears in some records as Voidy. This in turn means that running a surname or record search online will miss many of the records for this couple unless you search with every conceivable spelling—and even then, you can’t be sure of catching a weird spelling that some 17th-century notary or curé invented. I’ve run across some of those, too.

Now, there were two other men surnamed Demers/Dumets/Dumay who immigrated to New France about the same time, who were fairly close to Jean in age, and whose parents lived in the same parish of St-Jacques de Dieppe. There is no question but that one of them was Jean’s full brother: André Demers-dit-Dumay’s marriage record shows that he had the same parents—Jean Dumets dit Demers or Dumay and Barbe Maugis/Mauger—who lived in that same parish.

André’s July 1711 burial record gives his age at death as 88, implying a birth year of about 1623. André, like Jean, married at Montréal in 1654. Most of André’s 12 known children were baptized at Montréal, and André spent almost all of the rest of his life in the Montréal area.

The third man, Etienne Dumay/Dumais, was also from St-Jacques de Dieppe and according to his marriage record at Montréal, his father was also named Jean Demers-dit-Dumay or Dumets. His mother, however, was Miote Lacombe. Now, it always seemed to me very possible that Etienne was the half-brother of Jean and André by another wife. Etienne’s December 1702 burial record at Boucherville give his age at death as 76, making him born about 1626, after Jean and André. Of course, Jean is a very common first name, and French and Quebec naming customs show that there could easily be two married men in the parish with the same name. Therefore, while it seemed very plausible that Etienne was related to Jean and André, on the basis of these facts alone it is not possible to say for certain that he was, say, their half-brother.

Now, this issue does not matter in tracing my direct ancestry, since I’m descended from Jean and the trail is solidly documented. However, I really wanted to know the relationship between these three men, particularly since Etienne and Jean both left Montréal and moved north to Sillery (then a Jesuit mission across the river from Québec, now an area of the vastly-expanded city). I wanted a history of my ancestral extended family, not just names and dates on a pedigree chart.

Therefore, when trying to figure out if Jean and André were half-brothers of Etienne, I did not rely on the estimated birth years derived from estimated ages at death. In this era, estimated ages are often wild guesses, and the same goes for census ages of adults. What I did look at was whether the three men lived in the same places at the same time and whether there was any proved contact between them—for example, were the men and/or their wives godparents to one another’s children?

Etienne may have immigrated first: at any rate, he married Françoise Morin at Québec in January 1648—six years before Jean and André married in Montréal. However, soon after the marriage he and Françoise clearly headed south to Montréal, where their first child was baptized in May 1649. Etienne and Françoise moved north to Sillery before November 1650, where they had at least 6 more children between 1650 and 1663. In the mid-1660s Sillery came under attack by the Iroquois, and it appears that Etienne and his family quite sensibly fled. Françoise died sometime between 1663 and 1678, and sometime afterwards Etienne headed south to Boucherville, where his son Etienne fils had married in 1686. Etienne père died at Boucherville (across the river from the Île-Montréal) in December 1702.

André, unquestionably my ancestor’s brother, married Marie Chefdeville at Montréal in January 1654 and apparently remained there for most of his life. Of the couple’s 12 children, 10 were baptized in Montréal.

Jean and Jeanne, my 8G Grandparents, were married at Montréal in November 1654 and their first three children were born and baptized there. By 1663 they were at Sillery (where Etienne was living at the time). Most of their children were baptized either at Sillery or in the nearby city of Québec; it is not clear whether the children baptized in Québec were born in the city or at Sillery; one baptism record is found in both places, and the Sillery record clearly came first since it records the birth of twins and the Quebec record misses that detail. Both Jean and Jeanne died in the city in 1708.

It is interesting, to say the least, that in the registers for Sillery, Montréal, and Québec city, neither Jean nor his wife Jeanne were recorded as godparents to any children of Etienne and his wife Françoise, and neither Etienne nor Françoise were godparents to any children of Jean and Jeanne. In addition, André and his wife Marie never were godparents to any child of either of the other two couples or had any of them serve as godparents to their own children. Yet all three men were living in Montréal at the same time for several years, and Etienne and Jean both lived at Sillery for several years at the same time. This is quite unusual: the normal custom was to keep things in the family: your married siblings and their spouses or other in-laws or relatives were generally your first choice as godparents for your children.

Does this prove that Etienne was no relation to Jean and André? No. We know some baptism records have been lost, since some brides and grooms in the next generation are stated in the marriage records to be the offspring of one or another of those couples, but no baptism record for them has survived. It is entirely possible that André and Jean had great affection for one another and that Etienne (if a half-brother of the other two) likewise got along very well with them, all without any of this fraternal affection appearing in the surviving parish records.

Even if the three men were not on affectionate terms, they would recognize and honor the family tie. In a pinch, a brother or half-brother—even if he didn’t like you very much—would always help you out if necessary as much as he could; anything else would simply be unthinkable and would also ruin his standing in the community. For struggling and poor habitants living in chilly Quebec, where crops might fail due to the short growing season, and especially if they were living in an area where attacks by “les Iroquois” were a constant threat, it may have been important to ask more prosperous neighbors to be godparents: this could create a relationship which could be vital in times of scarcity or danger. It’s the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” strategy for family survival.

So there the situation sat for several years, until I invested in a CD, Inventaire des Greffes des Notaires du Régime Français. This CD is available from Quintin (the same source that publishes The Notaries of French Canada), for the bargain price of $69.95 plus shipping at this writing. I say “bargain” because it contains, as the title rather confusingly states, an inventory of every document (including marriage contracts) in the recorded repertoires of the notaries who worked during that period up to about 1760. Each notary’s repertoire lists—in more or less chronological order—the type of record, the date, and the names of the main parties involved. (Some of the original documents are no longer in existence, but the publication notes that fact.) Most of the genealogical gold is generally in the marriage contracts and testaments, but I have found that the records of sales, leases, transfers of property, donations, and inventories of property after a death can also be diamond mines of information. Inventories performed as an adjunct to the re-marriage of a widow or widower are especially useful, as these were generally made to document what property each party was bringing into the marriage so as to protect the rights of surviving children of the prior marriage(s).

This CD is organized by the beginning date of each notary’s practice; it gives a brief biography of each and tells you where the notary practiced. It is, of course, in French, but it’s still surprisingly easy to get the hang of what each document contains.

Quintin’s website has an equally useful CD called Inventaire des Contrats de Mariage du Régime Français Conservés aux Archives Judiciares de Québec. Marriage contracts are often the only documentation of a marriage and will generally tell you not only the names and parishes of the parents of both the bride and groom and/or the name of a deceased prior spouse, but also what property each party brings into the marriage. This CD is arranged alphabetically not by notary but by the couple’s surnames. Each entry gives you the notary’s name and the date of the contract. Best of all, there’s an entry under the bride’s surname and a matching entry under the surname of the groom. This is much faster than going through thousands of documents recorded by numerous notaries hoping to find out when your ancestors got married and who their parents were. I have and use both CDs.

In case you’re wondering, I have no connection with Quintin except as a customer. I’m recommending these items because they have proven to be very useful to me.

Once you know what notarial records exist for your ancestor, you can order the microfilms from Salt Lake City through your local Family History Center, then read (and reproduce) the original documents). And you’ll be astonished at what you’ll find. We Americans usually think of the Germans as being the masters of bureaucracy (although navigating the minefields of our own government bureaucracy is getting trickier every year), but believe me, the French (including the French of old Quebec) are at least the equals of the Germans.

Want to hire someone to do some work for you? Give some property to your widowed and impoverished sister-in-law? Borrow your neighbor’s second ox at plowing time because your own ox has gone to that great pasture in the sky? Exchange a bit of land with your neighbor? Settle some kind of dispute over, say, a boundary line? If you live anywhere in Quebec during the 16- and 1700s where at least one notary is accessible, you will hire a notary to record the exact terms even if you are illiterate. Witnesses to the transaction will sign the document, and of course, so will all parties (even if only with an X). You’ll get a copy, the other parties will get a copy, and the notary will keep a copy in his files, generally in a notebook or a storage box. He will also keep a chronological, usually also numbered, list (repertoire) of each document.

When the transaction has been completed—payment made or property received or returned—the parties involved will return to the notary (or to another one) so that he can issue a document to that effect (quittance) and add that to his repertoire, or at least there will be a dated notation on the original document that the contract has been fulfilled. (At the beginning of each year the notary will make his index of the previous year’s documents, with a notation of the type of act involved; in due course, the index will be published online by Ancestry.com, but the notary of course has no idea that could possibly happen.)

Only if you live somewhere too far away from a notary will you fail to document the transaction, and I think that in that case, usually the matter was agreed upon before witnesses even if no written record was made or has survived. (That was how voyageurs like my 4G Grandfather Louis Dufaut would marry Native American wives when there was no reasonable access to a mission or a notary.) As you’d expect, wealthy people had recourse to notaries far more frequently than poor folks.

A few weeks ago, determined to do a thorough job of discovering all available notary records for my ancestors, I decided to go through the Inventaire des Greffes CD I mentioned, which lists the complete repertoires of the notaries more or less in chronological order by date of beginning practice. Rather than hopping back and forth looking for specific records of my numerous Quebec ancestors, I simply started at the beginning and worked my way through it page by page, notary by notary, looking for anything that involved any ancestral surname. And in the repertoire for notary Romain Becquet, who practiced at the city of Québec, I found a listing dated 27 Jun 1678 for a sale (vente) by “Estienne du Mets, veuf de François [sic] Morin, à Jean du Mets, son frère”: Estienne du Mets, widower of Françoise Morin, to Jean du Mets, his brother.

Now, the notary would hardly have recorded such a relationship if he had not been given that information by Etienne and Jean. Technically, Etienne and Jean were clearly half-brothers (same father, different mothers), but as I have said before, in early Quebec that is a strictly legal distinction, not a distinction made in social terms within the family. Your half-brother is your brother, period. And that holds true even if you have not always been on the best of terms with him.

Riddle solved. Etienne was in actual fact the half-brother of Jean and André. It’s not clear whether Etienne’s mother Miote Lacombe was their father’s first or second wife. At least one researcher’s website says that she was the first, but I intend to look at the records for St-Jacques de Dieppe myself; so far as I’m concerned, someone else’s research is only a lead to original documents which I have to see for myself before I accept the other researcher’s conclusions.

Unfortunately, Becquet's records are not available on microfilm, nor are they available through the PRDH; the Parchemin Project can locate and send you an extraction of a record but not a copy of the original, so apparently I can't get a copy of the actual document without traveling to Quebec. I have no real doubt that notary Becquet recorded the transaction correctly in his inventaire; what I’m really wondering is what it was that Etienne sold to Jean and how much Jean paid for it. It could be anything from household goods to his late wife’s wardrobe to farm implements or a cow. If Etienne was already preparing to move to Boucherville, it could even be part or all of Etienne’s land in the area of the city of Quebec. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has transcriptions of Becquet's documents in book form and that should give the information. But it's still not the same as looking at your 8G Grandfather's actual signature or X mark that bridges a gap of 330-plus years and feeling a sense of contact.

Whatever it was that he sold to his brother Jean, if Etienne Demers/Dumay/Dumets and Françoise Morin are your direct ancestors, then you’re my distant cousin.


  1. Dreamcatcher, I don't know how I landed on your blog; I think I was searching for "habitant", looking for information about what life was like in New France in the 17th century. For the last couple of years I've been lackadaisically tracking down the immigrants in our family, the people who went from France, or Germany, or Russia to Canada or the US. Why did they leave? What was life like when they got here? My mom's family goes back to the first French settlers in new France – you know, the same ones everyone else in Québec is related to – so I've been barking up many of the same trees you have. My daughter calls it Stalking Dead People.

    I found your blog really interesting. You tipped me off to several sources of information that I hadn't known about – thanks!

    Sent me an e-mail if you'd like to chat further (link on my blog). Happy hunting!

  2. What you have written is a true picture of the life in the French Québec in the 17th century! I enjoyed every word of it!

  3. What you have written is a true picture of the life in the French Québec in the 17th century! I enjoyed every word of it!

  4. Hi I am Michel Jolin, of Welland Ont, Canada and, through my Grandmother Aurea (Demers) Jolin, a direct descendant of my 8th GrGr Jean Dumetz-Dumets-Dumay-Demers; Yes Etienne was indeed the half brother of Andre and Jean, who's home in Quebec city, still stands, at 25-30 Rue Petit Champlain, lower town. http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=92653&type=bien#.WqhpoY2ovfM I got some great pics of the place when I was up there in 2013, the walls are some 5-6 feet thick, the reason the house managed to survive the British cannon balls!

  5. My Great Grandfather Nap Demers and family, the young woman in glasses, in front of the door, was my Grandmother Aurea. http://crccf.uottawa.ca/documents-numerises/archive/famille-de-napoleon-demers -Mike Jolin