What is in a name? Lessons Learned from my french and quebecois research


This is part of a series of related posts discussing how names can be both challenging and illuminating in genealogical research. Names are everything in Genealogy: they identify us as individuals, they help us build our family groups–they are the foundation stone for our research. It is the first search item we employ when we are looking for more information on any individual or family. But is a name just a label? Is it just a one-dimensional handle for a person or family? Absolutely not.

Montreal Harbour in 1889 in Quebec, Canada. Photo by George Bishop.

It should go without saying that this entire post relates specifically to families who settled in French Canada and were of French descent. Families from several different countries have settled in French-Canada, and they would typically follow their own cultural naming conventions. If your Murphy’s ended up in Québec but started out in Cork, they wouldn’t be following these naming trends.

There are huge bonuses to discovering that your family hailed from French-Canada, and that is because since the 1400s there has been a French tradition of conducting very regular, and very thorough, records by the Catholic priests. The French brought this tradition with them when they began establishing settlements in Canada, and it can mean that once you establish a verified link to Québec you will find yourself feeling suddenly wealthy with records…very detailed records that typically include many other family members, identified by their relationship.

You might think that you’ve found the holy grail of family research, and indeed, in many ways you have, but now there is a new challenge. Wading through all of the names. And there are a ton of them. For each person.

If you are looking at family names for groups post-emigration, there are the typical items to consider about basic spellings and formats that should be considered whenever you are consulting official records, and as I discussed rather thoroughly in the first post of this series (What’s In a Name? Lessons from my Journeys in Irish Research), but quickly summarised here in two basic concepts: names could be changed by the record taker, they were typically written as they were heard, not as they were actually spelled; and names could be changed by the individual themselves. Throughout this post I refer to my own maternal family name as Gratton, which is how it is typically used now in the USA, but the snippets of records I share will show Graton, with just one “t.” Still the same family, the extra “t” came in at some point in official records in the mid to late 1800s.

The French, and French-Canadians, for that matter, have a whole bunch of other fun name related items to keep in mind:

  • They often have three or more given names.
  • Surnames:
    • There are fun things like Nobiliary Particles.
    • “Dit” names.
    • Women and their maiden names.

GIVEN NAMES

Let’s start with this one. Given names. Be prepared to find at least three names for an individual in religious and legal documents. When a child was officially named at Baptism they would be given an assortment of appellations, and this structure was adhered to consistently through the mid 1900s.

  • First First Name, typically Marie or Joseph (or, sometimes, other gender appropriate saint names), to indicate gender;
  • Second First Name, typically taken from the gender appropriate god-parent; and
  • Third First Name, the actual name for the child themselves.

So, someone who was called Pierre, may actually appear in official documents as Joseph Claude Pierre.

To add to this, when looking at documents that include several members of the same family group, you will also find that it was common to give all the boys in the family the same First First Name of Joseph, and the girls Marie. To distinguish between these children their Second First Names would get tagged in for clarity, so you could see Marie-Louise, Marie-Domithilde, and Marie-Françoise all listed as children in the same family.

It is also common to find given names re-used, so if a son was born and named Joseph Claude Pierre, but that child died, the next son was typically given the same name as the deceased child. This can get very confusing, particularly if you don’t realise that you are examining documents that are referring to two different children.

So, taking an example from my own family, here is a little excerpt of the fun I get to have with my Gratton clan,

Courtesy: Quebec, Genealogical Dictionary of Canadian Families (Tanguay Collection), 1608-1890; Volume: Vol. 4 Sect. 2 : Gli-Jin; Page: 350

This screenshot is from one of several outstanding resources for Canadian families. You can search them through several services, not the least of which is Ancestry.com. I’ll get into discussing resources for various regions in another series.

Ok, so, above is a snippet of my Gratton family, who originated in France and emigrated to Canada in the mid-1600s. Fast forward about a hundred years after their arrival to Québec and you’ll discover Joseph Graton, above, who married Marguerite Filion and went on to have several children: Agnés, Joseph, Marguerite, Louis-Charles, André, Anonyme, Marie-Gabrielle, Charles, Jean-Baptiste, Jacques and Marie-Marguerite. It seems easy once you know who is who and who was born when, but when I was first tracking all this information down it was hard to know if Marguerite and Marie-Marguerite might be the same person, or if Charles and Louis-Charles were one and the same. Patience and diligence is key. It was absolutely essential for me to hunt down the baptism record for each and every child, and follow them later in each of their lives for any other breadcrumbs referencing their full names so that I could confidently differentiate between the two. To be fair, there happens to be a large contingent of researchers around the world who have devoted their time to the Gratton line, and so a lot of work was thoroughly done prior to my showing up at the table for the earliest generations.

So what are the take-aways with given names and French-Canadian research?

  • Get used to multiple first names;
  • Accept that some or all girl children in a single family may have a name that starts with Marie and some or all of the boys may start with Joseph (or another religious name);
  • Double check your dates when discovering two occurrences of precisely the same name but with different years of birth and/or baptism. You are likely looking at two different children, and one of them probably died in early childhood.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Contact me to see how I can help.


SURNAMES

As if we weren’t already having plenty of fun with multiple given names, now we get to dig into the latter half, the surnames.

Of course, as is found in other cultures, surnames were often derived from various sources: where they were from (nom de terre), what they did, something they were associated with such as a uniform or other unique item, or who their father was. This is all pretty common when examining surname origin for any locale. But then we get into real fun, with particles and stuff.

The Nobiliary Particle

What is a Nobiliary Particle, I hear you ask? Simply put it is the de, du, d’ or des so frequently found in French surnames. It is found in most European cultures, for example in Germany you would see “von” in place of “de.” In French, “de” means “of”, and it is associated with surnames related to someone’s associated place, a nom de terre (name of land). Talking about it this way may make it seem bizarre and uncommon, but it’s more prevalent than you might think. You’ll see it in names such as “de Tocqueville,” “d’Orléans,” “de Rochefort” and “de Béthune,” as a few examples. It is called the Nobiliary Particle because the use originated as part of a signifier of nobility. But settle down, let’s not get too excited about that. You’ll also see it in names like Dupont, Ducharmes, Dubois. The particle often (but not always) would be absorbed into the surname when there is no nobility associated.

Dit Names

The French also have dit names. Dit is a form of the french verb dire, which means “to say.” Basically, this means that a dit name reflects what a person is referred to, or called, as opposed to their official surname. Dit names were regularly in use through the 19th century, and carried the same legal weight as the official family name in documents and records. The dit name evolved for a few reasons, primarily to differentiate between families of the same surname living in close proximity to each other, but also, over time, to allow adopted children to retain their original surname alongside their adopted name. Similar to the original establishment of surnames, a dit name was often derived from a personal attribute, place of origin or vocation. It is said that the custom began in the military, when those with the same name would adopt a nom de guerre to distinguish themselves from others with the same name. Typically the dit name would be attributed to the parents within a family group only, but children would often carry it on, either hyphenating it with the official family name or choosing to drop the official family name altogether.

So, I have an ancestor, François Xavier Graton, who married Marguerite Bernesse dit Blondin. Marguerite’s official family name was Bernesse, but her father was called Blondin, and Marguerite kept the dit name as well as the official family name.

Maiden Names

Speaking of marriages, this brings us to another fun fact–historically right up to and including today, women in Québec typically retain their maiden names after marriage (note that this practice is reserved for Québec, and is not as common elsewhere). Their maiden names will be found on legal documents and religious records. Finding a maiden name used on this type of documentation should not be taken as an indication of relationship status.


If your head is spinning a bit after all of this, I don’t blame you. That’s a lot of names, and name variants, to throw around. However, once you have gotten more familiar with these aspects, the wealth of information in French-Canadian records becomes much more accessible. The names as recorded in French-Canadian documents can help you clarify family relationships, discern one family group from another, discover familial occupational trends, and more. If you don’t speak French, don’t fret, contact me to see how I can help.

Want to learn more? Here are just a few of the great resources when it comes to names in French-Canada that I refer back to all the time:

This is by no means an exhaustive list of references, just a start to get you going. Good luck, and let me know how you go!

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