British Home Children: The Story of an Investigation (episode 1)

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The Quest of Therese

Therese was born in Montreal, not long after World War I. She was already 90 years old when she asked for my help concerning the mystery of her mother's English origin.

As far as Therese knew, her mom was born in Bristol, in southwestern England, daughter of Walter R. and Mary Jane W. Our English girl's father would have died shortly after her birth. She immigrated to Canada at age 10, without any siblings, with her mother and stepfather—Therese didn't know his name—, and they settled on a farm in Prescott, Ontario. The mother and her husband then had to go back to England having some business to attend to, leaving the child under the care of the village Catholic convent. The couple never returned. After years at the convent, our English girl moved to Montreal alone where she lived off several odd jobs until her marriage. No family, no pictures, no objects would tell the story of her youth besides some fading memories of the farm and of a cruel and mean stepfather.

Therese's dad coming from Rimouski, they would both go over there during the summer. She then gathered with aunts, uncles, cousins; visited houses; looked at photos—in a nutshell, she now had a family. Her father was wounded during World War I, directly exposed to mustard gas. He returned as a broken and handicapped man. He later met our English girl in Montreal and married her. He was 44 years old, she was 38. Therese lost her father at a very young age.

As an only child, Therese lived alone with her mother. If her father had left her a brief family history, her mother would remain silent on the subject. Invariably, all her questions would be answered by a laconic, "What's the point of you knowing all this?" Young Therese grew up with her questions still unanswered. "Is it possible that adults would abandon a child?" "Did the ship they embarked on sank like the Titanic?" "Have they died in England from the Spanish flu?"

It's in the eyes of this 90-year-old woman that I understood the importance of a genealogical investigation, the vital need we have to learn about our own family's history.

"We might not be able to find what we are looking for. So much was lost during the bombing of England."

Let's proceed step by step. Before trying to explore the unknown, the genealogist must rely on known facts. The new information must match the proven facts.

"Let's start with this—your birth, your parents' marriage."

"I have no idea of when and where my parents got married. And at no time I happened to see their wedding pictures. When they met, they were no youngsters. Maybe they just lived together and didn't marry after all."

I am pleased to see that Therese is open-minded about all this. We never know what secret our investigation might reveal.

"When my mother died, I found this document in her personal papers."

I look at it—the paper is worn out but it is still legible. It is the Birth Certificate of Lilly R., delivered by the General Register Office, Somerset House, London, England, referring to the volume from which it was extracted. A sure lead!

"Parents' names are not indicated, but there is a date and a place of birth. That is a good start. I'll get back to you next Saturday."

Captives from Deerfield, MA in the Province of Quebec

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Maison Allyn à Deerfield

Captives, you said?

When starting our family tree, we are light years away from knowing where our quest will take us. It is therefore important to think outside the box since quite a few surprises might await us.

Let me give you an example to prove my point. I was going through the church register of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue looking for the marriage record of Albert Lalonde. In the record dated February 7, 1746, he is mentioned as being the son of Guillaume Lalonde and Marie Magdeleine Helene. Still a rookie at the time, I thought nothing of it. My next thought was that the priest simply omitted to mention the maiden name of the groom's mother. One can never be too careful though. I then assumed that "Helene" might be her surname, she could have been born from unknown parents, for all I know, hence explaining the use of all these first names. Well, was I wrong!

The marriage record for Guillaume Lalonde and Marie Magdeleine Helene, dated April 27, 1710, in the parish of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, indicates that the bride's parents are English and residing in the village of "Tierfille". The marginal annotation brings out another clue: this village is in Massachusetts and is actually "Deerfield".

Marie Magdeleine Helene is 19 years old at the time of her marriage and was 13 when she was baptized at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue Catholic Church in 1705. According to the priest, her name is then Marie Magdeleine Sire Helene. In fact, her English name is Sarah Allen or Allyn.

On February 29, 1704, a number of inhabitants from Deerfield, including Sarah, were made prisoners during a French and Indian raid. Some of these New England's captives were taken to New France and were "adopted" by a French Canadian or Indian family. Sarah was one of them, living with Sir Quenet. While a majority of them chose to return to New England once liberated, some married in Quebec and have numerous descendants. They were named Carter (now Chartier), Dicker, Farnsworth (now Phaneuf), French, Hurst, Price, Rice, Rising (now Raizenne), and Stebbins (now Stebenne).


Additional Reading

Haefeli, Evan and Kevin Sweeney. Captors and Captives, The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield, University of Massachusetts Press, 2005, 376 pages

GenSpotters' article on Quebec's civil copy of Parish Registers

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.

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!