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Article Published April 14, 2000

Through the Looking Glass: A View of North American French History & how changing political geography affected records
By Xenia Stanford


Those searching for French roots in modern Quebec or other areas of North America are often confused by the names used for various political divisions of the French inhabited regions of Canada and the United States. Finding records in modern Quebec for example is mystified by the fact that vital records in that province have only been centralized since 1994.

If you try to obtain records from Le Directeur de l'état civil for any vital event prior to January 1, 1994, you will be asked for either the name of the religious parish and municipality, county and province for any record under the jurisdiction of a church; or for the name of the municipality, county and province for any civil registration.


One might sneer and say "Obviously if I am requesting records from Quebec then that is the province so why do they state this requirement?" Perhaps the officials wish those seeking records to think seriously about the jurisdiction since the use of the term Quebec has been confusing to many from outside the current province's borders. Even modern residents of that province may not be familiar with the entire history and thus be confused by the term as found in records from various eras.

First of all there is confusion between the name of the city or "la ville" and the name of the province. This has not been helped by the more modern acceptance of QC as the abbreviation for the provincial name. The former PQ was more easily distinguishable as the Province of Quebec while QC was more recognizable as the abbreviation for Quebec City. However, since PQ has become synonymous with Parti Québecois and not the province itself and since other Canadian jurisdictions do not have a P for province in their two-digit codes, QC was considered a more appropriate designation for Quebec.

To residents this is not confusing because if you are in the province of Quebec and tell others you are going to Quebec, everyone knows you mean the city. Those living elsewhere or temporarily outside the borders must distinguish the difference by adding the word city or province.

This is not the only reason why the officials of the province may wish searchers to stop and think about the location of their ancestors. If the early record says Quebec, does it mean city, province or district?

Even if an old document claims the ancestor lived in the Province of Quebec, he or she may in fact have lived in what is now present-day Ontario. It is more than a matter of shifting borders. The original use of the name Province of Quebec included all of what now includes most of modern day Quebec and Ontario.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning to examine the use of the term in context with history and geographical boundaries.


Originally Quebec (spelled Québec in French) was the name of the settlement established by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. He founded a trading post at or near the native village of Stadacona, which had been visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535. By Champlain's time the occupation had changed from that of the Iroquois who greeted Cartier to the nomadic Algonquins, who did not have permanent structures there. It is believed Champlain chose the name Quebec from the Algonquin term, which meant: "where the river narrows".

Later two more main fort towns were established: Trois Rivieres in 1634 and Montreal, founded as Ville Marie in 1642.

For the most part as immigrants arrived from France they settled near one of the three main forts or towns for protection and access to services. Land for farming was necessary for most of those who wished to live in communities as opposed to adventurers who were mainly employed in the fur-trade or those in communities who depended upon a trade for their livelihood. Even those with a trade often preferred living on land where they could be as self-sustaining as possible.

The most desirable location for farms originally was in or near one of the towns for protection and access to other services. All of these three towns were located on the St. Lawrence River. Thus prime land was situated with access to this "highway". Hence land was usually parcelled out in narrow strips starting at the river and extending back inland. This gave the settler river frontage and a woodlot at the back, the best of both worlds. The houses or dwellings were usually erected near the front of the strip of land and faced the river just as residences today mostly face the streets.

Thus these settlements formed by the three towns and their neighbouring farm plots along the river created three communities with the town as the administrative centre. As the population grew and the settlers moved increasingly further from the town, the authority or administration of matters by the "city" and the regional jurisdictions of the same name were divided. So for each of Quebec, Trois Rivieres and Montreal there was a town or city of that name and a surrounding judicial District with the corresponding name of the municipality in which it was centred.

Other towns or communities of different names formed between and around the original three municipalities. Originally they were then "incorporated" into whichever of the three administrative centres they were nearest. These were the seats where laws or judicial decisions were made, courts met and records kept. So if a record was under the jurisdiction of Quebec, was that the town or was it the judicial district?


The first use of the term "Province of Quebec" did not refer to the modern day province nor was it consistent with current boundaries. The term Quebec did not refer to anything larger than the administration district of Quebec since the formation of the other two, except perhaps in the fact that if the northeast North American mainland areas owned by France had anything considered as a "capital" or main region, it would have been the District of Quebec with its town or city of Quebec as its seat.

In fact, if you are looking for court cases in the other jurisdictions you may find they were referred to the court in the District of Quebec. Although Jacques Bertault and Gilette Baune murdered their son-in-law at their farm in the District of Trois Rivieres and the first inquisition was held there, the seriousness of the crime caused it to be sent to the tribunal situated in Quebec city for the final decision and eventual execution of the husband and wife.

Perhaps this is why when the last significant stronghold of France in North America was ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Quebec was chosen as the name for the entire newly acquired section of northeast North America.

The British already held Acadia since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 so the name was not extended to include these areas. Also it did not include former French lands south of the Ohio River nor west of the Mississippi as these had already fallen into British hands prior to the final siege on Quebec City.

In 1754 the French and British began the series of major struggles, which would result in the loss of any significant holdings by France in North America. Two years before war was officially declared in Europe, the North American contingents of these two great nations began their battles. It started as a clash between the two sides over possession of the rich Ohio Valley and erupted into the Seven Years War. By the time Wolfe mounted his final fatal siege on the Plains of Abraham in September of 1759, the British had successfully claimed the areas south of the Ohio River.

The French territory of Louisiana, which comprised their possessions west of the Mississippi, were secretly transferred to Spain in 1762 but the Treaty of Paris in 1763 officially granted these lands and the area along the St. Lawrence to Britain. The new colony created by the British was called "Quebec" but was bordered in the west by the Ottawa River and in the east at St. John River. It was distinguished as separate from Nova Scotia at Chaleur Bay and from New England at Lake Champlain. This was much smaller than the current Quebec Province and also smaller than the Province of Quebec declared by the Quebec Act of 1774.

The largest area to which the term Quebec had been used now included all the territory east of the Mississippi with the southern border being the Ohio River. It followed the Ohio River to Lake Ontario and then extended to Lake Champlain and east to Chaleur Bay over to the furthest east edge of the Labrador Peninsula. It included almost all of the Labrador Peninsula except for the northern most edge, which was part of the territory known as Rupert's Land. It included Magdalen and Anticosti Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence but excluded St. John Island (called Ile St. Jean in French and renamed Prince Edward Island after 1799), Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland. Also excluded were the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, which remain French territory even today.

Some northeast parts of the present day United States fell into this "Quebec" province as did basically all of modern day Ontario. The borders also extended into Manitoba. Boundaries were extended further west some months later under the authority of Quebec province's Governor Guy Carleton. The current borders for the provinces of Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec were not fully established until the twentieth century. In between you will find names strange to us, such as the District of Mackenzie, the District of Keewatin and the District of Ungava. The last one, which sounds more like a name suitable for a country in Africa, was the Labrador Peninsula, part of which forms modern Quebec Province.

However, the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783 was the next major event that caused the shrinking of the 1774 Province of Quebec. After the Treaties of Versailles and Paris in 1783, although the province still included most of modern Ontario, southern portions went to the United States. Further the influx of United Empire Loyalists north to British strongholds during and for several years after the American struggle for independence caused a change of the balance of population between Francophone and non-Francophone. Thus in 1791 the term Quebec for any region larger than the city and its immediate surrounds disappeared from official usage until Canada's independent constitution in 1867.

Thus even if your ancestor was born and raised in the same area now called Quebec Province, the records of the time may not in any way refer to Quebec, but to a version of the name Canada. (This will be discussed later in sections on the name Canada.)


During the building of the North American frontiers many forts were created by French, British and Spanish contingents. These fortified towns were erected as protection against the hostile natives and also the opposing Europeans. Each fort had its own chapel or priest for religious services and to record any vital events. These communities, especially in the more remote areas, were virtually self-contained. Census, military and commercial records were also kept within the fort walls.

Most of the fort records outside the jurisdiction of the first three regional districts have never made their way into the usually designated archives. Many went to the federal or national archives or other library repositories. Some may have been absorbed into the National Archives of Canada or into libraries or archives in other Canadian jurisdictions. Still others, especially Louisiana and many New England forts, became part of the repository at U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) or perhaps libraries or archives in one of the states.

If the explanation above does nothing else but show you that current borders mean little in terms of where records are housed, it will have been well worth my time to research and write and yours to read. The other treasure I hope you have gleaned from this is that geographical names only mean something in the context of time and politics.

N.B. A book that covers where to find French fort records and what they contain is "French Forts in New France…(North America)" by Léa Normandeau-Jones (Toronto: Heritage Productions, 1998). This is so far the most comprehensive book on the topic.


Do you have ancestors from the region of Lanaudière, which includes the counties of Berthier, Joliette, Montcalm and L'Assomption? Even if your ancestors originated from somewhere else in Quebec you would have appreciated the resources available from the library of "La Société de Généalogie de Lanaudière", which was reputed to have been the second largest genealogical collection in the province of Quebec.

It is with great sadness that I must report the destruction of this valuable collection on March 22, 2000 due to a fire. The SGL had suffered a loss two years ago when a water pipe burst on the upper floor of an old school where the collection was housed. They subsequently moved to part of the main floor of a two-story building and rebuilt the lost collection as best as possible. On Tuesday March 21st volunteers eagerly painted the walls in the other section of the main floor in anticipation of doubling the space for administration and collection areas. About 1 a.m. early Wednesday a cab driver reported a fire.

. Unfortunately the firefighters could not save the library equipment or collection. The SGL is counting it as a total loss except for the publications they have available for sale. The cause of the fire is believed to have been an electrical fault.

The losses included both men and women sets of the blue Drouin, consisting of 113 volumes for marriages of French Canadians between 1760-1935. This resource consists of 49 volumes for those marriages indexed by surnames of "hommes" and 64 for "femmes". The dictionary included the date and place of marriage, the names of both parents of each of the spouses and "dit" names. Names of prior spouses were given for any widows or widowers who were remarrying.

These two sets form the largest index to French Canadian marriages. Only about a dozen libraries in the world have a set of the men's Drouin and another dozen the women's. Very few had invested in both sets of these "unpublished" treasures, as had the SGL.

The library also had the PRDH (Programme de Recherche en Démographie Humaine), a 47-volume "repertoire" of baptisms, marriages, burials and census of old Quebec. Other "repertoires" from all over Quebec, parts of the United States, Manitoba, Northwest Territories and other areas of North America where large groups of people of French descent settled in parishes or communities.

Many other lost resources were personal family histories, many Acadian books, Quebec Archives series and much more. The vice-president had just advised the membership at a meeting a week earlier that there were about 4,000 volumes in the total collection. In addition the microfilm viewer-printer worth about $15,000, six other fiche and film viewers, the photocopier, computer, printer, tables, chairs and other equipment has been destroyed.


Claude Amyot, President of the Société Généalogie Lanaudière, and the Board are working diligently to rebuild the library collection and replace the equipment. Those interested in helping may do so by joining the society, contributing books on Quebec genealogy, purchasing publications from the sales inventory or making a donation. Cheques or money orders can be made out the society and mailed to them at the address as follows:

Société Généalogie Lanaudière
CP 221 Joliette, QC
J6E 3Z6

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