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?


  1. Hello!
    I love your of my top 3. I'm a fur trade descendant too. Where in the world can I purchase a copy of Theresa Schencks "All Our Relations" -? Hoping you mightknow..I have searched online everywhere with no luck. Even the library doesn't have a copy here. Please email me back..Thanks!!

  2. Another great post, Dreamcatcher. Lots of good information here. Thanks!