“Dit” Names: And What If Your Surname Was Not the Original One?

Your surname is Languedoc, Sanschagrin, Laframboise or Saint-Jean? There is a good chance your ancestor’s name was completely different.

In Québec, a lot of people do not share their surname with their ancestor. They are rather known by their ancestor’s or one of his descendants’ “dit” name. Some pioneers’ surnames are actually not used anymore, having been replaced by the “dit” name associated therewith.

Much of these “dit” names were borne by militaries which then represent the third most important group of immigrants after the “engagés” and the King’s Daughters (or Filles du roi). In the army, each recruit was given a nickname by an officer. The soldiers who settled in Canada, a colony of New France at the time, were mostly from the Carignan-Salières Regiment which came in 1665, from the Compagnies franches de la Marine which were responsible for the colony’s protection as early as 1683, as well as infantry’s regiments who came to fight the British during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

For other families, “dit” names appeared later on in order to distinguish the different branches. Hence, descendants of the Lefebvre family of Baie-du-Febvre also bear the name Descôteaux, Labbé or Laciseraie. As for Paul Hus’ descendants, they had for a surname Beauchemin, Capistran, Cournoyer, Latraverse, Lemoine, Millet, Paul, Paulet, or even Paulhus. Be careful though, those with the “dit” name Lemoine are not all descendants of Paul Hus and those named Laframboise do not have all the same ancestor.

It is not easy to explain why a specific surname was given to an ancestor. In a few cases, the “dit” name comes from the pioneers’ wife maiden name, such as Bélisle dit Levasseur, Lemire dit Marsolet and Morand dit Grimard. In other cases, it is a contraction of the first name and of the surname: Castonguay (Gaston Guay), Louiseize (Louis Seize) or Paulhus (Paul Hus). For seigniorial families, the “dit” name represents the fief or the seigniory’s name: Boucher of Montbrun or Noël of Tilly.

The most common “dit” names often simply derive from the ancestor’s first name: Germain Gauthier dit St-Germain. The “dit” name may also reveal more or less precisely the origin of an ancestor like L’allemand (translation: from Germany), Langevin (from Anjou), Lyonnais (from Lyon) or Montauban. The “dit” name could tell you about your ancestor’s occupation like Lalancette, for a surgeon, or Lalime, for a founder or a locksmith. Wondering what your ancestor looked or was like? Legros (large), Latendresse (gentleness), Sansregret (no regret), Lespérance (hope). In the army, “dit” names were often a flower or plant name such as Latulipe (tulip), Larose (rose), Lafleur (flower), and so on.

To conclude, what about some funny nicknames from our military ancestors? Baisela (sorry, this one will be translated as “xxx”), Vivelamour (viva love), Prêtàboire (ready to drink), Vadeboncoeur (goes with a happy heart), Tranchemontagne (mountain splitter), Passepartout (goes anywhere or master key) or Laterreur (terror).

Jetté, René et Micheline Lécuyer. Répertoire des noms de famille du Québec des origines à 1825, éd. SGCF, Montréal, 201 p.

Jetté, René. Traité de généalogie, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Montréal, 1991. 716 p. (out-of-print)

French Canadian Surname Mutations in the United States


If you are from the United States and are looking for French Canadian ancestors, you know for sure how difficult it can be to find them.

You probably heard about “dit” names—my colleague Suzanne will discuss these in a future post—but besides that, something else can be fairly challenging, and that is the mutation of French Canadian surnames in the United States.

I have encountered many cases where people had no clue that a French Canadian was actually in their tree. Often barely two or three generations back, and they had no idea that this Jane Wood was in fact Geneviève Dubois. Or they were stunned to learn that Nelson Little went by the name of Narcisse Petit north of the border.

I am doing quite extensive research in Vermont records and I have come across some interesting surnames’ variations! If the literal translation from the French might appear easy to figure out—I cannot help thinking of Shortsleeve, for Courtemanche—some others are not that obvious. Just think of German: might be either for Lallemand or Saint-Germain.

Sometimes, I just need to say it out loud to tell what the French Canadian name might be. I am thinking of Browshaw, for Branchaud; Gorrow, for Gareau; Sears, for Cyr; or Tromblei, for Tremblay. In these cases, the surnames were not translated but rather anglicized. But when I read Fosha, I quickly thought of Foucher while it was for Forcier (which I ended up with after intensive work). And what about the Blanchettes who decided to use Blanchard instead?

Others may seem straightforward like Rock. Oh, yes, it must be for Laroche or Larocque! No, Desrochers or Durocher… wait, what about Lapierre? The same pattern occurs for the name Stone. You are typically up for many hours of research.

Some surname variations simply cannot be explained. How did Arpajou became Parish? And what about Daniels used for Beauchemin? Without the parish repertoires from Vermont, I would be at a loss!

Finally, my favourites are, and by far, John “French” and Martin “Frenchman”. Great idea, guys! Thanks for the help!

Are you sure, you do not have French Canadian ancestors? If you have hit a brick wall in the Northeastern States, or even in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin or Michigan, there is a real possibility. As you can see, you need to think outside the box if you hope to find that needle in the haystack.

The Elusive Lady


While I was looking for one of my ancestors on the Web, I was in for a total surprise. I did manage to find the man but certainly not where I thought I would. I stumbled upon this history thesis about domestic violence in Montreal during the first half of the nineteenth century1.

Jean Detouin’s name was mentioned therein but not for the reason you are thinking: he was not a violent man but rather a victim as someone attempted to kill him and burn his house. He had resigned himself to make a complaint against… his own wife!

Marie Archange dite Julie Daigneau was born in Boucherville in 1797. On June 20, 1821, she married Jean Detouin, a carpenter who just immigrated from Belgium. At that time, Marie Archange was living in Montreal while her parents were living in Boucherville. Her older sister, Marie Josephe, also married in Montreal in 1818 with François George Lepailleur, a notary. It is a possibility that Archange was living with her sister at the time of her marriage, although it would have been for a short period since the Lepailleurs left for Châteauguay in 1820.

Seven months after her marriage, Archange gave birth to a girl, Marie Elmire. It was not unusual for the first child to be “premature”—Archange is certainly not the first woman to get married while being pregnant. Three other daughters were born two years apart from each other: Marie Archange dite Angèle, Henriette, and Caroline. The last one was born in June 1828, seven years after her parents’ marriage but passed away five days after the birth. Then, the next to youngest child dies in December 1829. Finally, Jean Detouin died in turn a victim of the cholera epidemic in 1832. The two eldest daughters are therefore left fatherless and went on to live with their uncle. And what about the mother?

Jean Detouin’s statement against his wife, dated May 5, 1831, is quite informative about the family’s life conditions as well as those of Montreal’s families from the same era:

“… about three years ago, Julie Daigneau, his wife, has left their bed and house and abandoned her children and started drinking. She’s a vagrant and a prostitute. She was out of jail last Tuesday and since then, has come several times to the deponent’s house, especially today, has disturbed the peace, assaulted him and threatened to hit him and has uttered multiple threats, including wanting to burn his house…” [translation from French]

Well, well, Archange, now a vagrant and known as Julie, is out of prison and left her house about three years before. I turned to the Montreal Prison registers and started looking as of the date of her last childbirth and there it was! Julie was first jailed in November 1828 for shoplifting. She faces the same charges in March 1829. The next occurrences will be about vagrancy or for disturbing the peace.

With more sleuthing, it is no surprise that Archange was in this situation. Angélique Catafard, her youngest’s godmother, was in prison too. She was arrested at the Champ-de-Mars, with other prostitutes. The policeman described them as vagrants and women of bad repute.

Archange dite Julie Daigneau will be serving no less than 28 prison terms where she will actually die on February 3, 1837. She left abundant traces of her existence in court records. On the one hand, if I had solely relied on civil records, I would have never found a death record for her. On the other hand, I would have never known about this family’s misery. Finally, in light of this portrait, it is legitimate to wonder if Jean Detouin is the father of Archange’s four daughters.

1 Pilarczyk, Ian C. Justice in the Premises: Family Violence and the Law in Montreal, 1825-1850.

A Visit to The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site


During summertime, I visited The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site of Canada – Parks Canada*. I have been curious to stop by, as there are some voyageurs in my family tree.

The tiny museum is a nice—and smart—30 to 40-minute break while on a bike trip along the Lachine Canal on a very hot day. An old warehouse built in 1803 by Alexander Gordon, a former employee of the North West Company, the museum building is the last remnant of the Fur Trade era which made Lachine the Voyageurs’ rendezvous in the spring.

Even though the exhibit is not mainly intended for children, I could see that those who attended really enjoyed the interactive visit. And the kid that I still am did as well! Maps, artefacts and documents are shown along with explanations about a voyageur’s life. The post that above all caught my eye was this one:

“Interested in hiring on?”

Here are the job requirements:

Physical Requirements:
Height: under 1 m 70 tall
Weight: less than 63 kilos
Sex: male
Shoulders: broad and strong
Legs: short

Essential Qualifications:
Great physical and mental stamina.
Able to tolerate mosquitoes.
Not easily bored.
Cheerful and fond of the simple life.

Working Conditions:
Paddle between 16 to 18 hours a day.
Regularly portage 2 or 3 40-kilo packs.
Haul canoes.
Repair damage to canoes.
Get soaked in cold water at every portage.
Sleep five or six hours a night on the ground.
Sing to help maintain the paddling rhythm of anywhere from 40 to 60 strokes a minute.

Compensation from the Company:
Wages: less than $100 a year.
Clothing: pants, shirt, handkerchief, mitashes (leggings) and blanket.
Fire bags: pipe, tobacco and knife.
Food: two daily rations of a mixture of peas, beans or corn and salt pork cooked on a thick mush. Everyone eats from the same pot.
“Régale”: an occasional glass of rum.

Well, that lifestyle wasn’t for the faint-hearted I guess! By the way, I can’t help but wonder if otherwise interesting applicants would be turned down due to their off-key singing.

If you have read engagement contracts signed before a Notary Public, you may thus be familiar with these terms:

Bowman: he watches for shallows and rocks.
After man or steersman: he steers the canoe.
Middlemen: he is one of the paddlers’ crew.

Some passengers came along as well, either bourgeois or clerks of the Fur Trading Company. In all, about 10 to 12 people were aboard the canoe.

But why using these small boats to engage in such an adventurous journey? For canoes were the only mean to bypass the Sault-Saint-Louis rapids. Each canoe was transporting four 90-pound ballots containing merchandise that was exchanged for furs with Amerindians. Voyageurs were leaving Lachine, on Lake St. Louis’ shores, to paddle to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ontario), which was the first stop before going further in Fur Country.

Any voyageurs in your own family tree? You may consult this database here from La Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

The museum is open from mid-June to Labor Day weekend.

* To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, Parks Canada is offering free admission to all Parks Canada locations in 2017.

GenSpotters’ Research Tip: Researching Your Italian Ancestor’s Place of Origin


Our main goal when starting in genealogy is to seek the first immigrant who bears our surname. Once the task has been achieved for the paternal ancestor, we go through the same process for the maternal line. For my mother’s family, we were able to identify the first Italian immigrant, but as his birthplace was unknown to us, it was impossible to go any further.

Nonetheless, even though an ancestor’s place of origin was not relayed from one generation to another, that doesn’t mean we have hit a brick wall. In Québec, the first thing that comes to mind is to consult parish registers—place of origin is often referred to in the marriage record. Still, said place could be kind of vague, such as a diocese, a province, or a region.

Consulting censuses might prove relevant in investigating our ancestor’s place of origin as the country of origin is usually indicated therein. Moreover, in the 1861 Canadian Census, birthplaces are mentioned. Of course, in order to be listed, your ancestor has to be already in Canada before that year. In some censuses, the immigration year is provided and this information is noteworthy.

A valuable source to locate your ancestor’s place of origin has to be passengers’ lists. Assuming that your ancestor left his country around 1900, you are in for finding some priceless information about him, including the next-of-kin in country of origin, their village or town of origin, as well as their final destination. Several immigrants came to Canada via the United States. Passengers’ lists would then report that your ancestor was in transit. Finally, more detailed information might have been given by your ancestor to the customs officer at the border.

Keep in mind to take note of every pertinent information and to record same in table form, transcribing the name of the place of origin (exactly as spelled out in the document), the document type, as well as the source consulted.

You have recorded everything and as a result a place name appears in almost all documents you have perused. You think that you finally hold the key to go further on your family tree? Maybe not. On the one hand, if your ancestor has given his province’s capital, you will need to take your research to the next level; on the other hand, if you have your ancestor’s village of origin, you may turn to the Civil State registers—being able to read Italian will help!

Strolling Through Quebec’s Cemeteries

I love cemeteries. Is there a genealogist out there who doesn’t?

I remember, ages ago, long before I was doing genealogy, whenever we passed a cemetery while driving around, my brother-in-law would tease me and say: Oh! look, a cemetery for Diane!

So it will not come as a surprise to you if I tell here that I most appreciate websites dedicated to cemeteries for genealogists. There is one though, in my opinion, that really stands out as it has much more to offer than burial listings and rather contains many details about the cemetery itself.

I find it very moving to walk through a cemetery, but before I shed a tear, I want to make sure I am in the right place.

For cemeteries located in the province of Quebec, the Website of the Fédération Écomusée de l’Au-Delà (available in English), created by Daniel Labelle, provides information such as the address or location; the foundation and closing date (if any); the parish foundation date; the latitude and longitude (Google Map is shown); its chronology (first, second, third cemetery, etc.); and sources.

Let me give you an example: Lachenaie, where many of my ancestors originate from. When I type the name of the town, I get three results: the old cemetery, the current one and the church crypt.

First, let’s take a look at the results obtained for the old cemetery. I am learning that: it was the parish’s first cemetery; it was located on the seignorial domain; it was founded in 1679 (1683 for the parish); and it was closed around 1730. Moreover, the notes mention that it was near a chapel. When I click on the Google Map and choose the Satellite view, I can see precisely where it was situated.

Now, let’s turn to the results pertaining to the second cemetery (actually still there today) which dates back to about 1730. They provide, besides the above-mentioned information, its position versus the church, the spatial arrangement, the type of cross, the perimeter and other various data.

So, thanks to this unique tool, whenever I visit Lachenaie cemetery, I know for a fact that I am standing exactly where were buried my ancestors who died after 1730, even though there are no remains of ancient headstones.

If you are planning to come to Quebec to walk in your ancestors’ footsteps, do not forget to check out this website before you start your journey.

Living the Life of Your Ancestor in his Native Region—A Unique Experience

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I traveled quite a lot in my life. However, I must confess that the most memorable trips are the ones that included stopovers to places where some of my ancestors came from. Obviously, these visits comprised the local church and cemetery, but they were not my sojourn’s most touching moments.

When I stopped by my Tuscan ancestors’ village of origin, rather than checking into a hotel, I chose to rent an apartment. One of the best times I had was chit-chatting with the owner who not only told me so much about the village’s history but also didn’t forget to let me know where I could have a taste of the finest gelato in town—a shop ran by one of her friends, of course!

Another travel experience that left a vivid impression on me was my trip to Lot-et-Garonne department in France, where I met a volunteer from the local genealogical society with whom I had been corresponding. As he was the owner of an orchard, I learned everything there was to know in respect of prune production. Residing in a castle, he shared with me the whole story of the premises as well. It was just fascinating. As for dinner, I was treated with a homemade aperitif wine, a delicious meal—that could have qualified for a banquet!—and a prune with Armagnac for dessert. Absolutely exquisite!

That’s what genealogical travels are all about. And this kind of trip is not to be found in a brochure. It is a mix of meeting people, culinary delights, and unique cultural experiences.

Going to BAnQ For Some Research? Bring Your Camera!

A few weeks ago, as I went to BAnQ Archives (on Viger Street, in Montréal) to do some research, I had a pleasant surprise. I learned that you can either use a camera, a phone or a tablet to take pictures of the documents you are unearthing at the Archives.

This is great news indeed!

I was looking at a map of Sorel which was too large for the copy machine to deal with. I took out my tablet and I ended up with a pretty sharp image of the map. Even better than the photocopier as it was in colour! And you save so much time—and money—and paper! Imagine going through a large book, like the Montréal Prison Registry, for instance: you can take as many pictures as needed while perusing leisurely instead of marking all the pages that you are interested in, bring same to the counter, and wait for the photocopies or the scanned pages to be ready.

Now, let’s be clear. We’re only talking about original documents that you are allowed to order at the counter on the fourth floor. For any other kind of documentation (such as books, newspapers or magazines), you still have to either use the self-serve copy machine or ask the personnel to make some photocopies for you (both fee-based services). Furthermore, you cannot take pictures of the screen when viewing a microfilm. The images must absolutely be saved on your flash drive. And for whatever reason, if it is not permitted to take a picture of a specific original document, the personnel will let you know when you are handed the original document.

So, what are you waiting for? Visit the BAnQ Archives, dive into original documents, and do not forget to bring your phone, tablet or camera!

GenSpotters’ Book Review: Une petite Cadie en Martinique by André-Carl Vachon


We thought that much had already been written about the tragic event that was the Deportation of Acadians. Many statistics have been put forward as to the number of individuals affected by this tragedy. Historians have often reviewed these figures or have come up with new estimates without mentioning which primary sources were relied upon. During the Grand Dérangement, a number of individuals were deported by the British to the West Indies, more precisely to Martinique. Up until now, only one historian had documented this fact. André-Carl Vachon’s essay is filling that gap.

This essay consists of five chapters, the first one briefly relating Acadia’s history up to the Deportation. In the next two chapters, the author makes a distinction between the Acadians who were sent to Martinique from New England at the end of the Seven Years’ War from those who came from France. Without a doubt, the first group was deported. As for the second group, people heading out of France were not all Acadians. The author clearly establishes the difference between these two groups by using passenger lists. The information presented in a table gives the following: evidence concerning their Acadian origins, their repatriation request to return to a French territory, the first mention of their presence in Martinique, and the place of settlement after they left Martinique. The identification of the population of Acadian origins required comprehensive research.

The author then turns to the Acadians who settled in the town of Champflore, in Martinique, and explains where they came from, their various occupations and, on a sadder note, how the climate had an impact on the survivors’ decision to leave the island of Martinique. Vachon concludes his essay by giving some information about Acadians who went to Martinique many years after the Deportation. The author also shares his Martinican lineage with us in the appendix.

This didactic-approach essay will please any genealogist as it gives precise information on these families. Written in a clear and concise manner, it is definitely a good start for beginners unfamiliar with this often unknown episode of the Deportation, as well as a well-documented reference of the presence of approximately 205 Acadians in Martinique.

After the publication of this book, the author received the Medal of the town of Morne-Rouge, a “link and a symbol of rekindled friendship and of a renewed relationship”. —Mayor Jenny Dulys-Petit.

André-Carl Vachon, Une petite Cadie en Martinique, Éditions La Grande Marée, 2017, 137 pages.

Any Black Sheep in Your Family?


We all expect our ancestors to be nothing but virtuous: war heroes, doctors, notables—the usual—but what if there was a black sheep in your family? One must cope with reality—but what at first seems to be a disgrace may actually prove rewarding: convicts left paper trails!

I came across this essay thanks to the Internet—History of the Montreal Prison from A. D. 1784 to A. D. 1886, written by Rev’d J. Douglas Borthwick. When published in 1886, the prison—known then as Pied-du-Courant, now the SAQ (liquor commission) head office on De Lorimier Avenue—had been opened for 50 years. Great work as a whole, but foremost, what I found particularly interesting is featured on pages 257-268 where the author lists the names of the prison’s inmates from 1812 to 1885. The years 1812 to 1825 are precious: the prison registry available at the Archives starts in 1826. Of course, this listing is far from comprehensive, but nonetheless valuable.

This book is what we call a secondary source, it thus has to be used with circumspection. Do your homework—if a name looks familiar, make sure such person is the one you believe he (or she) is. Visit the BAnQ Archives on Viger Street and unearth everything there is to know about that black sheep you are going after.

You think I am being beyond cautious?

Here is a case study: I was all excited when I noticed a certain Jean-Baptiste Tourville, who was sentenced to death in 1836. My mind was racing so fast. I know my people—who could he be? Well, he might have been from the Dutau-Tourville line after all—which is not related to the Hubou-Tourville’s (my own). He might have lived in Terrebonne or Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu as, in these early years, people were transferred to be imprisoned in Montréal should the crime have been committed in a small village outside of the city.

I decided to go to the Archives to check this story out. I perused the prison registry and the trial papers, and finally realized that the name was misspelled in the book: it was a poor guy named Jean-Baptiste Fournelle who was hanged, not Tourville. Obviously, the family honour was restored, but I was a bit disappointed—that Mr. Fournelle did leave quite an impressive paper trail!

The bottom line is that one must not jump to any conclusions following the sole review of this listing (or for any other secondary source for that matter). You need to validate the facts.

Happy hunting!