French Canadian Surname Mutations in the United States

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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.

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

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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!