Adventures in French-Canadian Genealogy

Every once in a while, I dabble in my family’s genealogy. I have built a small family tree (more like a shrub), photographed gravestones, collected marriage and death certificates, and looked at photographs. It’s not my hobby, though: I have too many other things going on in my life to devote the kind of time that genealogy requires.

The Soul of a Hunter

card catalog, French-Canadian genealogy, research You need the soul of a hunter, tremendous patience, a nose for detail, and a willingness to go where no one in your family has gone before. That includes church offices, town halls, libraries and old cemeteries. When it comes to hunting ancestors, “And still, she persisted,” describes the most successful people.

My family is French Canadian going way back. 23andMe tells me I also have German, British, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese DNA. Those ancestors must have contributed to the ancestral gene pool a long time ago, though. My family spoke French and we all went to St. Louis de France parochial school. I learned to say my prayers in French, English and Latin.

Back to the 19th Century

French-Canadian Habitants Playing at Cards, Cornelius Krieghoff, French-Canadian genealogy

French Canadian Habitants Playing at Cards by Cornelius Krieghoff

Thanks to a couple of diligent relatives, I have a lot of information about one side of the family. My father was a Boucher. His mother was a Surprenant and that line is well documented back to the 19th century. Family names include Simard, LeComte, Lacroix, Phaneuf, Emard, and Gagnon.

My mother was a Boisselle and her mother was a Roberts. That’s Roh-bair, not Rob-urts. I think the German blood came in there because Boisselle is a Belgian name. That line remains completely unexplored.

Stopping at My Great Grandfather

The Boucher information goes back no further than my great grandfather, Arthur Boucher Jr., who was born either in Bangor or Brunswick, Maine; I have seen records that say both. We know his parents were George Boucher and Helena Dionne, both born in Canada. But that’s all. One family story says that he was a lumberjack who died working in the woods. It was three days before my great grandmother learned that she was a widow. I have absolutely no documentation for this story. Like much old family lore, it could be a complete fabrication.

I would love to track some of my family back to one or more of the 780 to 850  Daughters of the King but that would take more traveling—and digging in old archives—than I have time to do. Most French Canadians have several of these women in their family trees. Thanks to the generosity of King Louis XIV, who paid their dowries, young women in good health and of “good moral fiber” came to the New World to marry French colonists.

Daughters of the King, Les Filles du Roi, King Louis XIV, French Canadians, Province due Quebec

Lessons in Genealogy

Together, Les Filles du Roi and their French-Canadian husbands proliferated, even if they didn’t always prosper. French Canadians had big families: 10 to 18 children were common. You needed a lot of kids to help on a farm and they all had chores to do.

In those days, before life-saving vaccines, what we now call “childhood diseases” like measles, diphtheria, and mumps killed a lot of children. Smallpox still existed and, along with influenza, took their toll on adults and children alike.

Often, children sickened and died in groups as epidemics swept through the countryside. They left a line of small sad stones in the village graveyard with dates that were far too close together.

Vague Official Records

Quebec City 1700, French-Canadian genealogy, French-Canadian history

Quebec City 1700

The official records in city halls and town halls often don’t help much with French-Canadian genealogy. You think they will tell you where an ancestor was born so you can track the family back to that place and begin searching local records. Often, however, they list Place of Birth as simply “Canada.” Sigh.

In this case, Canada equals Province of Quebec—but that still encompasses a lot of territory. Where to begin? Did they migrate from close to Montreal or the Eastern Townships? Do you search in Longeuil? Trois Rivieres? Napierville? Missisquoi? Boucherville would seem a good place to start.

Old French-Canadian Names

I love reading the old French-Canadian names, which sometimes seem as long as the families were large. Boys carried monikers like Zephirin, Elzear, Achille, Arthemise, Napoleon, Odat, Exsore, and Dolomise. Girls got more common names but we also have Delima, Lucienne, Olivine, Emmeline, Odna, Elmina, and Azilda.

To be fair, naming all those children, one after another, must have presented a challenge. “Mon Dieu, Alcide, what do we name Number Ten?”

The DNA Connection

My husband and I had our DNA analyzed last year. So far, that has connected me to a couple of previously unknown third cousins. One of them does genealogy and has over 8,000 names in her database. I have sent her my family records and she has given me information on my Great Grandmother Mathilde Simard’s family. She was one of 15 children.

I keep telling myself I should sign up with Ancestry.com and begin building an online family tree that will connect me with others. I just don’t have the time.

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