Witnessing history through parish registers: The 1885 smallpox epidemic

Smallpox was a highly contagious and often fatal disease which was a real plague in several regions of the world until its eradication in 1979. Its impact on Quebec during its colonial period was discussed in the first part of this article.

An 1802 cartoon of the early controversy surrounding Edward Jenner’s vaccination theory, showing using his cowpox-derived smallpox vaccine causing cattle to emerge from patients. Wikimedia Commons.

Smallpox struck Quebec for the last time in 1885. Almost a century had passed since the conception of the smallpox vaccine, yet vaccination was not widespread among French Canadians despite efforts by governments to encourage or even impose it.

In March 1885, a conductor of the Grand Trunk Railway brought smallpox to Montreal. His bedsheets then infected Pélagie Robichaud, a worker in the laundry room of the hospital where the man was receiving treatment. She was the first to victim of the 1885 smallpox epidemic. Her burial indicates that she passed away in Montreal on April 2nd.

Source: Image d1p_1101a1007.JPG, Drouin Collection Records (Québec/Fonds Drouin/Mtl/Catholique/Montréal (Basilique Notre-Dame)/1880/1885/Sépultures/), GenealogyQuebec.com

Following the contagion of Pélagie Robichaud, the disease killed several thousand people in 1885 and 1886, with Montreal at the center of the epidemic. Vaccination was imposed on Montrealers, not without resistance: several anti-vaccination riots broke out among the suspicious population.

The anti-vaccine movement had influential figures on its side. Joseph Émery-Coderre, an eminent doctor campaigning against compulsory vaccination, is a notable example. The Catholic Church was called in to convince the reluctant population. Édouard-Charles Fabre, Bishop of Montreal at the time, played a decisive role in garnering public support for the vaccination campaign; he would order the priests of his diocese to do the same.

This crisis arose in a complex political context: it broke out at the same time as the North West rebellion, during which the Métis of the Prairies revolted against the Canadian government. The Métis of Western Canada, who are primarily descended from French Canadians and First Nations, were mostly French-speaking and Catholic, and their rebellion enjoyed considerable support in Quebec.

Its failure, which notably resulted in the hanging of Louis Riel, considerably exacerbated tensions between Francophones and Anglophones in Quebec as well as the distrust of French Canadians towards government directives. John A. Macdonald, then Prime Minister of Canada, is credited with the phrase “[Riel] shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”

Louis Riel and the Métis provisional government. Wikimedia Commons.

French and English-language newspapers were passing the buck, on the one hand evoking the hysteria of English Canadians and on the other hand the uncleanliness of French Canadians. On September 12th, 1885, L’Union des Cantons-de-l’Est, based in Victoriaville, published an article on the alleged ravages of smallpox. Here is the introduction:

” If we were to believe the American newspapers published in English, we would think that smallpox is decimating the good city of Montreal. Practically speaking, our commercial metropolis is currently in quarantine at this time! Many people are suffering, and many more will suffer from this state of affairs. And whose fault is it? It is your city’s press, good people of Montreal. It spread everywhere that smallpox was eating away at you, that the plague was taking on horrible proportions, that the whole city was going to have to go through it. “

Thus, this article accuses English-language newspapers of greatly exaggerating the proportions of the smallpox epidemic, especially since English Canadians seemed to attribute the gravity of the situation to French Canadians:

” Now, as there needs to be a bête noire everywhere, it was imagined that French Canadians must be the originators and propagators of the epidemic. The Montreal Herald accused our conationals of being ignorant, dirty, filthy, etc. This is a big slander! Our French Canadian women are generally clean, industrious, spending three quarters of their time washing and cleaning in their homes. “

However, this article does not reject science and recognizes the shortcomings of the French-Canadian population when it comes to hygiene.

” The ravages of indifference to reading and science are infinitely more to be feared than those of smallpox in Montreal, whose victims do not exceed a few dozen. “


Source: Image 00080.jpg, Drouin Institute’s Miscellaneous Collections (23 – Journaux anciens/L’Union des Cantons de l’Est (Arthabaskaville)/1867-1887/1885/), GenealogyQuebec.com

Also in September 1885, however, remedies and recipes for smallpox were published in L’Union des Cantons-de-l’Est, perpetuating the idea that vaccination was superfluous at best, if not dangerous.

” I remember reading in the (Journal de l’Instruction publique) that the Sarracenia root was an antidote against this disease. Quickly I set to work, I sent my altar boy, a young Montagnais, to fetch me the plant in question, we infused the root, scarcely had they taken two or three potions that they felt sensibly better, the fever disappeared, the pustules dried out, they were out of danger, they did not even bear the marks of smallpox. ”

” When Jenner discovered the cowpox vaccine in England, the world of science wanted to strike lightning upon his head; but when the most learned medical school in the universe, that of Paris, published this recipe for smallpox, it passed without a hitch. It is as infallible as fate and wins in all cases.
Zinc sulphate, 1 grain ; digitalis, 1 grain ; 1 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Mix with two tablespoons of water. When the mixture is perfect add four ounces of water. Take a teaspoonful every hour. The disease will go away within twelve hours. “

Source: Images 00078.jpg and 00084.jpg, Drouin Institute’s Miscellaneous Collections (23 – Journaux anciens/L’Union des Cantons de l’Est (Arthabaskaville)/1867-1887/1885/), GenealogyQuebec.com

The 1885 epidemic was the last major health crisis related to smallpox in the Western world, just under a century before the complete eradication of the sickness thanks to vaccination. 1979 marked the end of the virus responsible for one of the deadliest contagious diseases in human history, of which only a few samples remain to this day for research purposes.

Marielle Côté-Gendreau
Student and Université de Montréal’s Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) collaborator.

Witnessing history through parish registers: Smallpox in the colonial era

Smallpox is a highly contagious and often fatal disease which was a real plague in several regions of the world until its eradication in 1979. It has invaded the French Canadian population on numerous occasions since the start of the colony, wreaking havoc in parishes.

It is under the names of petite vérole or picot(t)e that smallpox is most often designated in Quebec registers. This name of picote originates from the blisters which covered the bodies of the victims.

Illumination presenting a disease which seems to be smallpox, Toggenburg Bible (Switzerland), 1411. Wikimedia Commons.

The parish priest of L’Islet, a village in the historic region of Côte-du-Sud on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River southwest of Quebec City, highlighted the usage of these two terms in a rare note in the margin of a burial record. He registered on August 24th, 1792 the death of Marie Louise Bernier, 19th and “last dead of this disease, that is to say of the petite vérole or picote in Canadian or French terms since October 23rd, 1791”.

Source: Image d1p_51740348.jpg, Drouin Collection Records (Québec/Registres paroissiaux 1621-1876/L/L’Islet (Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Secours)/1790/1792/), GenealogyQuebec.com

Smallpox is the disease involved in the voluntary contamination of enemy First Nations with infected blankets during Pontiac’s War, an initiative reportedly approved by British officer Jeffrey Amherst. This event has been on the news in the past few years as the City of Montreal decided to rename Amherst street to “Atateken”. As smallpox was not present in America before the arrival of the Europeans, it was especially deadly among the Natives, who had no prior immunity.

On May 4th, 1709, Louis Miskouabemich, a man of the Nepissing First Nation, was baptized in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. The record says he was 110 years old, which is unlikely but certainly indicates an advanced age. The elder had previously received the ondoiement, a quick ceremony that takes the place of baptism if death is likely to occur before a proper baptism can be organized.

Indeed, Louis “[was] dangerously sick of small pox”. His age and possibly his social position gave him a very advantageous sponsorship: his godfather was none other than Philippe de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, who was then Governor of New France. His wife Élisabeth de Joybert held the role of godmother. The couple were absent and represented at the ceremony by a couple of local notables.

Louis Miskouabemich died on June 27th of the same year.

Source: Record 14937, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Smallpox was known to cause miscarriages and premature deliveries, and increase infant mortality rates. Many of these instances can be found in Quebec registers.

Marie Huguet dit Latour, from L’Ancienne-Lorette, near Quebec City, experienced a tragic end in 1755: “the first picotée who brought it from Quebec City died pregnant her child baptized by the midwife in its mother’s womb”. Her death occurred only 6 months after her marriage. The child, therefore assumed to be highly premature, clearly did not survive as it was ondoyé while still in the womb.

Source: Record 259406, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Other traces of premature births due to smallpox can be uncovered in the Lachine registers. For example, in 1702, the burial of a child “born last night aged seven months his mother being sick of smallpox and in case of danger he was ondoyé by Jeanne Malteau the midwife”.

Source: Record14627, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

However, the family reconstructions available on PRDH-IGD tell us that the mother, Barbe Brunet, overcame the disease and died in Châteauguay at the respectable age of 74.

A few months after this child’s burial, a woman named Marie Fortin “died last night of smallpox while giving birth to a girl aged six and a half months who was immediately ondoyé by the midwife and then died and was buried in the same grave as her mother”.

Source: Record 14654, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Smallpox also took an active part in a historic drama, the Expulsion of the Acadians by Great Britain and its American colonies in 1755, during which over 12,000 of them were torn away from their lands. Smallpox developed in certain groups, adding to the scourges of hunger, thirst, cold and other diseases that were already decimating the Acadians.

From the hundreds that reached Quebec, many were severely weakened by smallpox. The numerous burial records marked with “acc” or “acad” in the Quebec City registers, identifying Acadian deaths, are testimonies to this tragedy. The winter of 1757-1758 was particularly deadly.

December 26th to 28th, 1757, Notre-Dame-de-Québec. Note the numerous “Acad” margin notes on these pages of the Québec register.
Source: Image d1p_31431309.jpg, Drouin Collection Records (Québec/Fonds Drouin/QC/Catholique/Québec (Notre-Dame)/1750/1757/), GenealogyQuebec.com

The wandering of Acadians in exile would sometimes last several years, as illustrated by the burial in the cemetery of Saint-Cuthbert of Catherine, “Cadienne [Acadian woman] who died of smallpox after receiving all her sacraments as soon as she arrived in the said parish”, on November 6th, 1769.

Source: Record 440471, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

It appears that smallpox also affected the British army garrisoned in Quebec City. In the registers of Berthierville, formerly called Berthier-en-Haut, we can find this curious record, written in English:

We the undernamed persons do hereby certify that John Mackffee, soldier in the 28th Regiment and in Captain Darlis (?) Company and Jennet Forah were married and lawfully entered the bond of Matrimony, and that some time after, said Macfee was, by the Providence of God seized with the Small Pox and dyed at Quebec in June 1766
dated at Quebec the 10th day of September 1766

Source: Record 741600, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

This is followed by a paragraph written in French, which deems this strange act appropriate and authorizes the widow to contract a new marriage if she wishes.

This mortuary record appears to be in a suitable form according to the customs of the troops of this province; even though I do not know the signatures; if the person whose death is attested is the same person with whom the person who presents herself for a new marriage was married, you can regard her as a widow and carry on. Only take care to verify her name as much as you can
in Montreal on May 6th, 1768

Source: Image d1p_1161b0055.jpg, Drouin Collection Records (Québec/Fonds Drouin/B/Berthierville/1760/1766/), GenealogyQuebec.com

10 years later, smallpox played an important role in the failure of the invasion of British Quebec by the American revolutionaries in 1775-1776. An epidemic in the rebel ranks considerably reduced the troops available and forced the abandonment of the project of conquest.

Thus, smallpox periodically affected the inhabitants of Quebec for two centuries with epidemics of varying severity. It struck Quebec for the last time in 1885. Montreal then became the epicenter of a severe epidemic. This crisis and its repercussions, both sanitary and political, will be discussed in the second part of this article.

Marielle Côté-Gendreau
Student and Université de Montréal’s Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) collaborator.

Witnessing history through parish registers: The cholera epidemic of 1832-1834

Contagious diseases have affected Quebec several times since the 17th century. Epidemics certainly bring their share of deaths, but each one of them contributes to the evolution of public health measures and beliefs about immunity. This article tells the story of the cholera epidemic that struck Quebec in 1832, and to a lesser extent in 1834, through contemporary newspapers, available in the Drouin Institute’s Miscellaneous Collections, and parish registers, available in the LAFRANCE tool and on PRDH-IGD.com.

Le cholera à Quebec  – Joseph Legare

Named indifferently Asiatic Cholera, Spasmodic Cholera or Cholera Morbus, the disease, which was originally limited to Asia, spread during the 19th century in the Western world through a series of pandemics. Originating from India around 1826, the second cholera pandemic reached the British Isles in February 1832. Irish immigrants were responsible for the introduction of this infectious disease, which caused the first large-scale epidemic in Quebec.

In February 1832, the Grosse-Île quarantine station was created in anticipation of the arrival of cholera and started hosting immigrants before allowing them access to the port of Quebec City. The island, located fifty kilometers downstream from Quebec City, is now a national historic site.

Quebec City experienced the first outbreak of the epidemic in America. On June 4th, the Quebec Gazette announced the imminent arrival of the Carricks at the Grosse-Île station:

“Capt. Park of the Astrea, arrived yesterday, spoke [communicated with] the Carricks, [capt.] Hudson, from Dublin, at Grosse Ile, on Saturday [June 2nd, 1832]. The Carricks lost 42 passengers, her carpenter and one boy, on the passage, from some unknown disease. The remainder of the passengers and crew are now in good health.”

Source: The Quebec Gazette, 4th of June 1832. Image QG_13_0020, Drouin Institute’s miscellaneous Collections (23 – Journaux anciens/The Quebec Gazette/1832/06), GenealogyQuebec.com

It was already known in America that this “unknown disease”, cholera, was wreaking havoc in Europe, and newspapers were following the situation very closely. In order not to create panic among the population, two days later, the Quebec Gazette reminded that:

Rumours are again in circulation, and very generally, that the Cholera Morbus has got to the Quarantine Station, &c [etc.]. It is only necessary to repeat, that until some official statement appears on the subject, they are wholly to be discredited.”

Source: The Quebec Gazette, 6th of June 1832. Image QG_13_0021, Drouin Institute’s miscellaneous Collections (23 – Journaux anciens/The Quebec Gazette/1832/06), GenealogyQuebec.com

The authorities confirmed via the newly created Board of Health that “The rumour of there being persons at the station sick of cholera, is entirely without foundation.”

Source: The Quebec Gazette, 8th of June 1832. Image QG_13_0022, Drouin Institute’s miscellaneous Collections (23 – Journaux anciens/The Quebec Gazette/1832/07), GenealogyQuebec.com


They indicated that the Carricks was undergoing disinfection procedures and were confident that cholera would not reach Canada. This conviction was based on a favourable opinion of the sanitary situation of the Canadian people:

« It has been found in every part of the world, that the Spasmodic Cholera uniformly seizes and destroys, with the rapidity of lightening, those who indulge in fermented liquors, and in intemperance of any kind, – the dissolute – the idle – the dirty, – all become its victims, while those who are cleanly, temperate and industrious, escape.

            This is a matter for consolation and hope, especially for a people, who like the Canadians, in the rural districts particularly, are distinguished for their sobriety, industry and cleanliness ; and who, moreover, since they are exempt from the evils of extreme poverty, are proportionately secure from the more severe attacks of the disease.

            If the Spasmodic Cholera therefore should appear among such a people, it will probably be very limited in its extent, and very mitigated in its severity. »

Source: The Quebec Gazette, 11th of June 1832. Image QG_13_0023, Drouin Institute’s miscellaneous Collections (23 – Journaux anciens/The Quebec Gazette/1832/07), GenealogyQuebec.com


Indeed, cholera was the deadliest in disadvantaged neighborhoods as contagion was favoured by high population density and poor hygiene. Contrary to the Board of Health’s projections, the following table, published on July 2nd, 1832 in the Quebec Gazette, only one month after the arrival of the Carricks, shows a rapid evolution of cases of cholera in Quebec City hospitals. The absence of strict measures to contain the disease allowed cholera to reach Montreal, which would also be hit hard.

Source: The Quebec Gazette, 4th of July 1832. Image QG_13_0036,, Drouin Institute’s miscellaneous Collections (23 – Journaux anciens/The Quebec Gazette/1832/07), GenealogyQuebec.com

Among the environments most at risk, the unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in prisons made them particularly vulnerable to the development of the epidemic. On June 17th, 1832, just two weeks after the Carricks’ arrival at Grosse-Île, “two men of unknown names who died of Cholera morbus in this city’s prison” were buried in Montreal.

Record 4213784, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Yet high society was not spared. The following record, from Beauport, near Quebec City, indicates that Marie Louise Fleury De La Gorgendière died of cholera on June 2nd. She was the widow of the Honourable Louis Antoine Juchereau Duchesnay, Lord of Beauport, politician and military man.

Record 3255441, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Reports from the time indicate that cholera could strike very quickly: it was not uncommon for a healthy-looking individual to die within a day from rapid dehydration caused by extreme diarrhea. This reality is reflected in parish records, as the following one reveals that Angélique Angers died on August 8th in Neuville “of cholera after ten hours of illness“.

Record 436060, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

The Saint-Louis Cemetery in Quebec City, located at the corner of Grande Allée and De Salaberry Avenue, opened in 1832 to accommodate cholera victims. It quickly gained the nickname of the Cemetery of the Choleric and was a resting place for the dead of cholera and typhus until 1855.

Deaths piled up at such a rate that priests increasingly resorted to mass burials. Here is the first occurrence of such a burial of cholera victims:

“On June thirteen, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two, we Deacon of this Diocese undersigned, by special authorization from the Bishop of Quebec, buried in the Saint Louis Cemetery fifty-four individuals, the names of whom we have not been able to obtain, all deceased of Asiatic Cholera at the Emigrant Hospital, and of professions and ages unknown to us.”

Record 4341082, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Montreal and Quebec City, the two large cities of Quebec, each experienced a few thousand deaths as population density and movements increased contagion. However, cholera also raged in the countryside. Let us look at the case of this family from La Prairie, in the Montérégie region: Félicité Denault and her newlywed daughter Émilie Chabot both died on June 23, 1832. Three days passed before their husband and father Louis Chabot joined them in the grave. This family had already been hit hard by child mortality, which had struck at least seven of their twelve children.

Family file 82097, PRDH-IGD.com

Individual files 250275 and 237279, PRDH-IGD.com

Registers also show that the epidemic traveled beyond Canadian borders through the frequent comings and goings of French Canadians who had migrated to the northern United States. In February 1833, the parish priest of Marieville, in Montérégie, recorded the death of Edouard Bérard, 11 years old, “who died on August 24th in Franklin, Franklin County, State of Vermont, of the colera“. The records show that his youngest brother, Marcel, was born in Franklin and was baptized in Marieville on June 13th, 1832. Circumstances suggest that it was during this family trip that the contagion could have reached young Édouard.

Record 4522160, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

A second wave of the cholera epidemic hit in 1834 but turned out to be much less deadly than the first. It was then that the registers of St-Luc-de-la-Grosse-Île opened and started recording baptisms, marriages, but especially burials of Irish immigrants in quarantine on the island.

“This register, which contains eighteen sheets, including this one, was by us one of the Judges of the Court of King’s Bench for the district of Quebec, undersigned, stamped and initialed on each sheet to serve for the recording of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials which will occur at the Quarantine Station established at Grosse-Isle, the so-called isle being dependent on the parish of St. Antoine de l’Isle aux Grues.

            Quebec City, May 24th, 1834.”

Image d1p_10090097, Drouin Collection Records (/Québec/Fonds Drouin/G/Grosse-Île/Grosse-Île (St-Luc)/1830/1834/), GenealogyQuebec.com

Cholera returned to Quebec during the third pandemic in 1849 and 1854. This dark episode contains its share of tragic stories but was the source of various innovations in terms of public health measures, in particular the creation of the quarantine station of Grosse-Île and the Board of Health. The knowledge and skills acquired during this period proved invaluable in managing subsequent epidemics.


Marielle Côté-Gendreau
Student and Université de Montréal’s Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) collaborator.

Witnessing history through parish registers: The French and Indian War, Part 2

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) marks a turning point for New France, which changes hands. The first part of this blog article narrated, via the parish registers of the Catholic Church, the events that led to the assault of Quebec City.

We pick up the story in September 1759, at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. After a successful landing at the Anse-au-Foulon (Wolfe’s Cove), west of Quebec City, the British troops reach the heights of Quebec City.

This 1797 engraving is based on a sketch made by Hervey Smyth, General Wolfe’s aide-de-camp during the siege of Quebec. A view of the taking of Quebec, 13th September 1759.

The battle results in a British victory and the death of the enemy generals Montcalm and Wolfe.
The burial of Montcalm is recorded in the register of Notre-Dame-de-Québec in Quebec City, with the honours due to his rank:

was buried in the Church of the Ursulines of Quebec City high and mighty Lord Louis-Joseph Marquess of Montcalm General Lieutenant of the armies of the King, Commander of the Royal and military order of St. Louis, Chief Commandant of the land troops in North America, who passed away the same day from the wounds suffered at the battle the preceding day, comforted with the sacraments which he received with a lot of piety and Religion

Source: Record 253561, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

In these registers, the titles of nobility are side by side with the most anonymous descriptions: for example, we can find this burial of an unknown soldier.

“a French soldier of whom I could not know the name nor the regiment, all that someone could tell me is that before his illness he wore the wig, and being wounded at the battle on the thirteenth of this month, we was taken on an English ship where he died in the harbour.”

Source: Record 253571, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

We often tend to forget that it is not on the Plains of Abraham that is played the ultimate round of this conflict between the British and the French. While Quebec City is occupied, the French officers ask the king for reinforcements with the intent of retaking Quebec City in the spring. On April 28th, 1760, the Battle of Sainte-Foy is won by the French against a British Army diminished by the harsh winter, resulting in high casualties on both sides.

Source: Record 256530, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

List of deaths recorded in the General Hospital of Quebec after the battle of Sainte-Foy. Source: LAFRANCE search, GenealogyQuebec.com

However, the French reinforcements never arrive and the first ship to reach Quebec City after the ice melts is British. The French are forced to retreat to Montreal, where the capitulation is signed on September 8th, 1760. The Treaty of Paris of 1763, which terminates the Seven Years’ War, officializes the change of hands of New France.

However, the traces of the French and Indian War in the records are not all as morbid. The cohabitation of the military men of the British Army and the local population also results in new baptisms and marriages. The following record, dated November 21st, 1760, is the baptism of Guillaume, an “English boy whose father and mother are unknown”, a standard formula for illegitimate children.

Source: Record 248004, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

In another record, dated June 12th, 1761, another child is baptized with “unknown parents”.

Source: Record 248097, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

However, we learn at her parents’ marriage in 1765 that little Élisabeth was born from a Swiss father serving in the British troops and a French-Canadian mother.

Source: Record 250388, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Thus, parish registers reveal the first signs of the transformations and upheavals that shake the French-Canadian population at the dawn of a new era. War certainly took the life of numerous young people, but it also brought new dwellers along the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Can you also discern in your own family history the consequences of the Conquest of New France?

Marielle Côté-Gendreau
Student and Université de Montréal’s Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) collaborator.

Witnessing history through parish registers: The French and Indian War, Part 1

The destiny of the French colonies in North America was forged by their conflicts with the British Empire and the American colonies. These conflicts left their mark in the parish registers, which remain a constant throughout centuries of change. This article is the first of a series aiming to illustrate the historiographical power of parish registers using GenealogyQuebec.com‘s LAFRANCE tool as well as the PRDH-IGD.com database.

The French and Indian War is known as the American theater of a worldwide conflict, the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), during which the French colony of Canada is ultimately conquered by the British Empire. Despite the upheavals, priests keep recording, in the parish registers, the milestones of the lives of their parishioners. These records, which are instrumental to French-Canadian genealogy, also are a historical treasure trove as they reveal the impact of the war on the population of the St. Lawrence Valley.

Source: Wikicommons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:French_and_indian_war_map.svg

As soon as 1755, French military regiments are sent in America to support New France as the British threat intensifies. The presence of these military men does not go unnoticed: throughout the French and Indian War, many burials and marriages related to these events are recorded in parish registers. Some choose to settle permanently in Quebec and constitute the last group of immigrants under the French regime. The following record, on February 11th, 1759 in Charlesbourg, celebrates the marriage of “jean Schoumarcker dit prêtaboire [literal translation of the name: readytodrink !] soldier of the company of the Brenne in the regiment of Berry […] and of marie joseph richard”.

Source: Record 261291, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

These soldiers are generally clearly identified in records, by their name and regiment. With a few exceptions: in February 1756, a few months after his arrival, a “young soldier of the Regiment of Languedoc” drowns in the Richelieu River. The priest omits to indicate his name but insists that his captain, the Sieur Guyon, could attest to his catholicity!

Source: Record 324752, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

The First Nations also play a prominent role in this war, hence the name French and Indian War. The next record, from the summer of 1758, highlights their contribution: we learn about the death of Jean-Baptiste, a “sauvage micquemaque” in Fort Saint-Jean, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, after his return from a “fight against the English” at Fort Carillon, south of Champlain Lake in what is today the State of New York.

Source: Record 325976, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

The British become a major threat in New France when they sail up the St. Lawrence River with the objective of taking Quebec City. On July 31st, after two weeks of bombardments, the Battle of Montmorency (or Beauport) takes place. The French are victorious in this first fight for Quebec City.

The month of August is marked by a campaign of terror from the British, who ransack villages along the coast in hope of forcing the French Army to leave the protection of the Quebec City walls. Baie-Saint-Paul is deeply affected: the priest records the death of Charles Desmeules, “killed and the hair pulled up […] at the point of aulne by the english where they landed and burned the bottom of the st paul bay”, but also those of “several children dead when we had taken refuge in the woods” while “the English were at coudres Island and quebec city”.

Source: Record 201896, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Saint-Joachim loses its priest, “massacred by the english on the 23rd of this month leading his parish to defend it against the incursions and hostilities of the enemy”.

Source: Record 235388, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

On both shores of the St. Lawrence River, parish registers show the urgency of the situation: buried in a hurry and “without ceremony because of the english”, numerous bodies are exhumed and inhumed again after the end of the war.

Source: Record 205287, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

The conflict culminates in September 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City, as the British Army, the French Army, the Native warriors and the Canadian militia, composed of locals, fight for the city. This battle and subsequent events will be discussed in the second part of this article.


Marielle Côté-Gendreau
Student and Université de Montréal’s Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) collaborator.

From Pascal to Noël: The impact of the calendar on your ancestors’ names

In French Canada, the religious calendar punctuates daily life until the 20th century. This influence is also conspicuous in the first names given to children.

The baptisms recorded in Quebec between 1621 and 1849, available on PRDH-IGD, account for this phenomenon. Christmas babies named NoëlNoëlla or Marie-Noëlle are the best-known example. This blog post will track religious and other seasonal events in French Canada via baptismal records.

The year begins with a very appropriate name: unsurprisingly, half of baby boys named Janvier between 1621 and 1849 are baptized in January. The Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany, also leaves its mark as 22% of children named Épiphane or Épiphanie are baptized within two days of January 6th.

A search for Épiphane / Épiphanie on PRDH-IGD.com, with the early January baptisms highlighted. 

Lent, which spans from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, and Eastertide, which lasts until Pentecost, are of great importance in the catholic calendar. As a result, 43% of Pascals are born in March or April. It is customary that marriages are not allowed during Lent. “Dispensations from the prohibited time” have to be delivered by the bishop.

The analysis of French-Canadian baptisms highlights a few changes in the catholic calendar. For example, Saint Benedict’s Day is celebrated on July 11th since the Second Vatican Council. However, it is on March 21st that Benedict of Nursia is commemorated in French Canada, and 21% of Benoîts (French form of Benedict) are baptized within two days of this date.

The effect is also perceptible for very common names, like Jean-Baptiste, inherited from John the Baptist, who is the patron saint of French Canadians since 1908. However, the celebrations of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint John’s Day, which coincide with the summer solstice, date way further back. The Jesuit Relations report a ‘Saint John’s fire’ in Quebec as early as the night of June 23rd, 1636. This feast bears a political meaning in Quebec since at least the 19th century. On June 24th, 1834, the patriotic song Ô Canada! Mon pays, mes amours (‘O Canada! my country, my loves’) is performed for the first time. It should not be confused with current Canadian anthem O Canada, although it was also composed for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day as a French-Canadian patriotic song a few decades later, in 1880. Jean-Baptiste is a common first name all year long, but a peak is observed in the days surrounding June 24th.

A more surprising finding is the concentration of Augustins in the month of August. This phenomenon, which is not of religious origin, rather arises from the etymological link between the month of August (août in French) and Augustin, which both derive from latin augustus. 12% of Augustins are born during that month. This proportion reaches 22% in the French-Canadian elite, such as seigneurs, lawyers, notaries, doctors as well as merchants, for example. The father’s profession can be found on most baptismal records. When provided, this information is generally indicated on the record certificates available on PRDH-IGD (What is PRDH-IGD?).

PRDH-IGD baptism certificate of an Augustin born in August. Note that the father is a judge.

All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1st, also yields a French name, Toussaint (literally ‘All saints’). The five-day period around this date groups one third of all 4279 Toussaints born in Quebec between 1621 and 1849. The influence of the religious calendar on first names is not specific to French Canada: it is also visible among French pioneers. For example, Toussaint Giroux, from whom most Giroux descend, was baptized on November 2nd, 1633 in Réveillon, in the Perche region.

Toussaint Giroux’s individual file on PRDH-IGD.com

All Saints’ Day paves the way for several major feasts during the months of November and December, which mark the end of the agricultural activities.

Martin is another fairly common first name that draws a large proportion of baptisms to its feast: 21%. Saint Martin’s Day, celebrated on November 11th, is indeed an important day in the religious as well as the agricultural calendar. Lionel Groulx, an important priest and historian, reports in Chez nos ancêtres (‘In our ancestors’ homes’, 1920) a custom that would take place on Saint Martin’s day in many seigneuries. As the harvest is over, land tenants must visit the seigneur in his manor house and pay their annual dues. The event is also described in Philippe Aubert de Gaspé’s Les anciens canadiens, known as one of the first novels of Quebec.

Just like Jean-BaptisteCatherine is a very popular first name influenced by the feast day of its patron saint: over 5% of baptisms are concentrated in a five-day period around November 25th, an important religious and cultural celebration since the time of New France. The famous St. Catherine’s Taffy, which is attributed to saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, a prominent figure in the early development of Montreal, is prepared on that day. This French-Canadian culinary tradition still persists today.

Noël and its derivatives are the archetype of calendar names: almost 40% of 3395 baptisms are celebrated within two days of Christmas. The year comes to an end with Saint Sylvester’s Day, or New Year’s Eve, which sees the birth of 43% of Sylvestres of the time.

Proportion of baptisms in the vicinity of the date associated with a few first names in the baptismal records on PRDH-IGD.com


NameDayProportion of baptisms within a five-day interval (%) *Number of baptisms
Épiphan(i)eJanuary 6th22.0162
AgatheFebruary 5th5.43 541
ScholastiqueFebruary 10th6.02 741
ValentinFebruary 14th29.3165
PatriceMarch 17th22.8631
Patrick6.51 981
BenoîtMarch 21st21.1690
PascalMarch and April43.22 558
(Jean) BaptisteJune 24th2.953 506
AugustinAugust12.011 371
Michel(le)September 29th10.017 310
RémiOctober 1st7.21 445
ThérèseOctober 15th3.19 222
UrsuleOctober 21st3.94 499
ToussaintNovember 1st29.94 279
MartinNovember 11th21.31 255
CécileNovember 22nd6.53 444
CatherineNovember 25th5.420 718
AndréNovember 30th4.07 645
(François) XavierDecember 3rd4.117 019
Noël and derivativesDecember 25th38.93 395
ÉtienneDecember 26th6.29 088
SylvestreDecember 31st42.6295

* In the case of first names referring to a month, the number in this column indicates the percentage of baptisms recorded during that month.

This exercise, conducted with the exceptionally well-preserved data of the Drouin Collection Records, indexed on Genealogy Quebec and PRDH-IGD, sheds light on the influence of the calendar on given names. By paying renewed attention to the link between names and dates of birth, you will probably also be able to make sense of the names of some of your ancestors.

Marielle Côté-Gendreau
Student and Université de Montréal’s Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) collaborator.

Understanding the linguistic variation in your ancestors’ names

Your genealogical research might have left you with the impression that your ancestors liked to change names quite often. The concept of “dit names”, which was the subject of a previous blog post, sheds light on a part of this variation, which can be obscure to a present-day observer.

Although baptism was the cornerstone of civil identity in French Canada for four centuries, this identity was not, until the beginning of the 20th century, as constraining as it is today. It was not unusual for an individual to use different first and last names in the course of a lifetime. This phenomenon is fostered by the orthographic instability of proper names, the flexibility of the civil registration system as well as illiteracy.

This article offers some tips to keep in mind in order to locate all the occurrences of your ancestors in the archives.

Do not cross without looking both ways – A name may hide another! 

Do not rely on spelling

This tip may seem trivial to experienced genealogists, but it is a very handy one. For example, the ancestor of the Hétu family would spell his name Estur. The silent ‹ s › and ‹ r › were orthographic relics, for which the French language is renowned. The ‹ h › was added over the years as an ornamental letter.

Orthographic variation should not be systematically attributed to illiteracy, as evidenced by the Hénault family. Four members of this educated and wealthy family signed, in 1816, the marriage record of Honoré Hénault and Julienne Mailloux and spelled their last name three different ways: Hénault, Heneault and Eno. The priest chose the unaccented variant Henault.

Honoré Henault and Julienne Mailloux’s marriage record – Source: Record 2352319, LAFRANCE, GenealogyQuebec.com

Before standardization of proper names, their spelling would be determined to some extent by the whims of the priest, the notary and the individual him or herself.

Keep in mind that language changes

Most Dions are patronymic descendants of pioneer Jean Guyon. How is that possible? First, note that Guyon is pronounced Guee-yon and not Gu-yon. Nowadays, hard ‹ g › is articulated at the velum while ‹ d › is articulated behind the upper front teeth. However, in the past, ‹ g ›, when followed by a vowel pronounced from the front of the mouth like ‹ ee ›, tended to move forward. This linguistic process induced a shift from Guyon to Dion.

Guyot, which derives from the first name Guy just like Guyon, went through a parallel transformation and gave birth to Diotte. However, some names went the opposite way: Pierre Andiran is the ancestor of all Languirands.

Similarly, the Chiasson and Giasson families share the same origin. Only the vibration of the vocal folds in the onset of the word separates those two names. In the absence of a fixed spelling, this phonetic feature was likely to fluctuate across regions, time periods and individuals. Like Guyon and Dion, these two names are two sides of the same coin.

Vowels are also impacted by linguistic change. Maybe you will be surprised to learn that most Harveys from Quebec did not receive their name from an Anglo-Saxon immigrant. It rather comes from the name Hervé.

Be on the lookout for deleted or added sounds

The absence of a strict orthographic norm when it comes to proper nouns opens the door to oral variation. Certain sounds and syllables have a natural tendency to appear or disappear according to their position in the word.

One reason for adding segments is the introduction of definite articles lela and l’(the) in front of last names: it was usual to call people le Gagnonla Corriveau (a famous folkloric and historical figure) or l’Andiran. Reinterpretation of this structure in a merged form completes the shift from Andiran to Languirand.

Now, pronounce Reguindeau (Ruh-guin-do) out loud, then Reyindeau (Ruh-yin-do). You will probably notice the similarity between the two forms, and how easy it is to go from one to the other. The change from hard ‹ g › to ‹ y › is an example of palatalization. English yellow is linked to German gelb through the same process. You might have recognized the French-Canadian last name Riendeau (Ryin-do), inherited from Joachim Reguindeau from La Rochelle, France.

The pioneer François Amirault dit Tourangeau offers another example of deletion: most of his patronymic descendants use the name Mireault or an orthographic variant. The reverse phenomenon can also be found as the female first name Zélie produced Azélie.

The alternation between first names that are essentially distinguished by a few additional sounds can be found without regard for etymological cognateness. In French Canada, Élisabeth and its ancient derivative Isabelle behaved as two variants of the same name until the 19th century. However, Domitille & Mathilde, Jérémie & Rémi, Apolline & Pauline as well as Napoléon, Paul & Léon are not related.

Detect shared consonants, vowels and syllables

 Beyond truncated segments, some names share more subtle similarities that explain why they have often been mixed up, or even used interchangeably.

Apolline & Hippolyte, Jérémie & Germain, Mathilde & Martine as well as Alice & Élise illustrate this phenomenon. In other cases, the similarities seem even more tenuous. It is improbable that a present-day genealogist would spontaneously perceive a link between Angélique, Julie and Judith. Yet records show that these three first names have often been used alternately.

All of the appearances of Marie Angélique (Judith, Julie) Desgranges in the PRDH-IGD.com records, illustrating the interchangeability of these first names throughout the records.

Focus on the most distinctive part

 A first name with a rare ending is susceptible to be substituted with other names that share the same characteristic. It is the case of David & Ovide or Stanislas & Wenceslas.

The most distinctive part of a first name, or even a last name, sometimes acts as a nucleus that can be completed with a variety of prefixes and suffixes. Thus, Rose generates Rosalie, Rosanna, Rosina and Rosa. The female first names structured around the nucleus ‹ del › provide another example. By varying starts and endings, this group includes Adèle, Adélaïde, Adeline, Délie, Délina, Délia, Délima, Odeline and even Odile, which are not all etymologically related but came to sound alike and sometimes be used alike.

Similarly, it is not surprising that Brunet is occasionally substituted with Bruneau or Brunel, and Gendreau may alternate with Gendron.

Know the first name combinations inspired by the saints

 To shed light on this last type of variation, religion rather than linguistics comes in handy. Some saints’ and blesseds’ names are composed of several parts, with Jean Baptiste (John the Baptist) being the most well-known. An individual may use one part or another. Thus, Rose de Lima (Rose of Lima) paves the way for Rose and its sisters Rosalie, Rosanna, Rosa, as well as Délima and even Délina.

François Xavier (Francis Xavier), Jean François Régis (John Francis Regis), Jeanne Françoise Frémyot de Chantal (Jane Frances de Chantal) and Marie des Anges (Mary of the Angels), among others, also open the door to alternation between their parts.

The resemblance function in the LAFRANCE and on PRDH-IGD.com

 The resemblance (or likeliness) function available on the search engines of both PRDH-IGD and GenealogyQuebec.com‘s LAFRANCE will neutralize some of this variation, making genealogical research easier.

PRDH-IGD.com search engine with the Likeness function activated

For example, searching for “Mathilde” will generate a list containing women named Mathilde, Domitille, Martine, Donatille, Mélitime, Métheldée and Militilde, with their various spellings.


Marielle Côté-Gendreau
Student and Université de Montréal’s Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) collaborator.