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.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings. Gabriel Forcia is my husband's great-great grandfather.