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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 24:   Canadian, French-Canadian, Acadian and French Connections

Oh, Canada!

It is said that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there. Genealogists soon discover not only were things done different in the past, but familiar words had other meanings and place-name hazards abound. For researchers wading into Canadian waters in search of ancestors, be careful. For like the apocryphal "Here be Dragons!" warnings on old maps, trouble may lurk in many areas.

If great-grandmother said she was born in "Upper Canada" — where that was? In 1791 the British split the colony in two called Lower Canada and Upper Canada. Each had its own legislature and its own (quite different) civil law codes and rules of land tenure. The Province of Canada existed from 10 Feb. 1841 to 30 June 1867. It joined Upper and Lower Canada but these two regions were referred to as Canada East and Canada West — and sometimes simply as The Canadas.

Then in 1867 the Canadas again became separate provinces, Quebec and Ontario. Also that year the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick agreed to join together and on 1 July 1867 the Dominion of Canada came into being. These dates are important to family historians because references to Upper and Lower Canada indicate a date before 1841; references to Canada West and Canada East means sometime between 1841 and 1867, and any reference to Ontario implies a time after 1867. When someone born before 1867 told an American census taker that they were "born in Canada" they usually meant Ontario, but might mean Quebec.

If geographical and political boundary changes were not enough, Canadian researchers must deal with the use of alias, dit and nicknames. An alias or nickname can be a wonderful identifier of individuals, especially when it gives some place association or physical attribute.

In Scottish settlements one finds these aliases or nicknames attached to the given name, so you might find your ancestor identified as "Black" Donald McDonald, but if you are really lucky, your immigrant Donald McDonald might be called Donald McDonald (Greenfield) — that being the place he came from in Scotland.

In French Canada some identifying names became surnames. In France, de or d' implies land ownership (though often tiny areas) so you may find your ancestor wound up with the name of a locality in France for a surname that has been handed down. French soldiers often had nicknames or noms de guerre, which were passed down to descendants. Settlers sometimes were identified by their French province of origin or some personal trait. The term usually found in Quebec is dit — meaning "called." Sometimes alias is used instead of dit. Dit names can complicate your research, but sometimes can help you identify your ancestors.

French Connections.

If you have French roots, you may be able to trace your family back many generations, for this country has excellent genealogical records. The French have a system that maintains a permanent record of an individual during her or life. In the registers of birth, marriage and death records, kept in the local town halls (called mairies) are wide margins — used for notes to be added later about the individual. However, there is a 100 years law governing information that can be given to an inquirer. To obtain a birth certificate, for example, you will have to prove you are the person named on the certificate, or descend from that person. If the record you want is more than 100 years old, you can write for it.


French civil registration records start in 1792. The records are located in the town or village of origin, with a copy, since about 1870, also in the Archives Departementales (regional branches, similar to U.S. counties). Both repositories have yearly and 10-year indexes to vital records. Church registers are in the Archives Departementales up to 1792 and since that date in the individual churches. Many have been indexed. In these records you will find baptisms, marriages, burials, confirmations and banns. Protestant registers — the Lutheran ones date back to 1525 and the Calvinists from 1559 — are similar to the Catholic ones. However, the location of these registers is scattered. Some are still in local church, some in mairies (town halls), some in Archives Departementales, and some in the Library of the Protestant Historical Society (Societe d'Histoire du Protestantisme Francais) in Paris.

Among the most valuable sources in France are the notarial archives (Les Archives des Notaires). Some notarial documents date back to the 12th century, but most to the mid-16th century. These notarial records contain marriage settlements or contracts, inventories after death, and the inheritances of land and property. The latter give full details of the heirs and descendants. Your ancestor may appear in emigration records (Registres d'Emigres). These date from about 1788 to the present and list all those granted permission to emigrate. Records give place and date of birth, address, occupation, physical description, and name of family members traveling with the person listed. The intended destination is also included.

The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City has more than 100,000 reels of microfilm pertaining to France. The vast majority of this collection consists of primary genealogical sources — civil and church registers, and some court or notarial records. Almost all the records are in French, of course. The early Catholic church records are in Latin. If your ancestors left from the Alsace region between 1817 and 1866 be sure to check the emigration records available at the FHL. A card index to these records has been microfilmed.

France Research Outline with letter-writing guide and French genealogical word list.

Canadian | French-Canadian | Acadian | French

French-Canadian Ancestors

If you are a second- or third-generation descendant of French-Canadian ancestors locate all living members of your family and obtain as much oral history as possible. It is from these relatives that you will discover the information that will aid your successful search in in American and Canadian records, which will lead you back to France.

Immigration into America by French-speaking Canadians began as early as the 17th century. However, it was not until 1871 that the large migration began. Between 1871 and 1901 approximately two million are believed to have come to the U.S. from French Canada, mostly from Quebec. There were French-Canadian settlements in the Midwest, particularly in the states of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the majority of French-Canadian immigrants went to New England.

If you trace your family back to Quebec, the marriage records, which are for the most part Catholic church records, will give you the name of the parents of both the bride and bridegroom.

Father Cyprian Tanguay published several volumes of the genealogies of early French-Canadian families. Consult his seven-volume work entitled Dictionnaire Genealogique de Families Canadiennes. Rene Jette revised Tanguay Dictionary.

Dictionnaire Genealogique des Families du Quebec Des Origines a 1730 is a genealogical dictionary of the families of Quebec from the beginning of the colony to the year 1730. It was published by Les Presses de l'universite de Montreal.

The Acadians
were French settlers of eastern Canada who were exiled from their land in the 1750s. The Cajuns are their descendants who settled in Louisiana.

Acadian-Cajun with more than 500 pages at this website includes separate sections on Acadian and Cajun genealogy. See below for the Acadian-Cajun Mailing List.

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Canadian | French-Canadian | Acadian | French


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Canadian | French-Canadian | Acadian | French


Canadian | French-Canadian | Acadian | French

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)