Genealogy of the French in North America

Family names

At the Roman era, the first class citizens had a name in three parts (two given names and a family name).  The other inhabitants had usually only a given name, sometimes with a surname.  When the Empire vanished in 476, family names disappeared for about 1000 years.  In about 1300, at least in France and the neighbor countries, the surnames reappeared.

Those family names were built using some common patterns.  Most of times, it was a given name used as a family name, a trade name, a good or bad quality, some kind of geographical generic names (like Lamontagne or Larivière which mean Mountain and River) or specific places or places of origin (like Le Normand, Paris or Beauregard).

Many nobles had no true family name and were using the name of their land as a family name or mixed a commoner's family name and a land's name.  This lack of coherence makes it difficult to specify such a person.  This is why this document has some conventions that other specialists would disapprouve.  For example, the king of France Louis VI is named Louis VI de FRANCE, so that he can be indexed under FRANCE (de).  Among the children of a king, usually only one became the next king.  Louis VI had many son called here de FRANCE, because of their father.  But at the next generation, those who were not kings took the name of their major land .  Thus, Louis VI is the father of Louis VII, Pierre and Robert.  Pierre married to Élisabeth de COURTENAY and is also known as Pierre Ier de COURTENAY.  You will see Pierre Ier de FRANCE and his son Pierre II de COURTENAY.  Similarly, his other son Robert de FRANCE inherited the county (or earldom) of Dreux and was therefore called Robert Ier de DREUX, father of Robert II de DREUX.  For these reasons and despite some people received many names during their life, this document will use only one name. 

Creating a new name

Usually, someone inherits the family name of his/her father.  It happens that the father (and even the mother) is unknown.  In New France, some persons had no family name at all (shown as «..» in this document) or took the name of their mother, tutor, etc.  There was no naming pattern for this kind of birth.  Moreover, some people learned (or guessed) who was their biological father and decided to use his family name.  Some persons lived with a first family name for some years, then with the name of their tutor or mother, and finally the name of their presumed father.

Independently of that, many persons had a family name different of their father's name, even if they were legitimate children knowing their father.  For example, a noble named by his land could purchase a new seignory and by that process, changed his name.  Moreover, in some part of France, the local custom was to use a name made from three parts, more or less like in the Roman Empire.  It was not a matter of nobility but a tradition useful to distinguish many different families sharing the same family name.  Sometimes, that surname replaced the family name.

Dit names

As an example, let's use the Jarret family from Vignieu (Isère, France) at the 15th century.  An epidemic of plague disseminated the population and the lord of the place repopulated his lands.   New families appear, often not related with the former local families.  Let's see 4 people living at that time: Barthélémy Jarret, his son Pierre Jarret, another Pierre Jarret not related and Pierre Hugon.  Barthélémy Jarret purchased many lands and would like that his son Pierre be his heir.  The tradition of that time is to hide the name of women and Barthélémy want to be sure the other unrelated Pierre will not get the lands.  So, Barthélémy took the family surname or dit name Hugon.  This dit name is a second given name and not the last part of his family name.  Actually, he is known from that time as Barthélémy Hugon alias Jarret, father of Pierre Hugon alias Jarret.  The other Pierre Jarret changed his own name to Pierre Sibuet alias Jarret, Sibuet being a given name.  As for Pierre Hugon, he is not concerned and keep his name as is.

All this to prove that the distinctive part is the second given name and not the last part because they distinguish the two Jarret and not the Hugon.  In other words, the original name of Barthélémy was Jarret et non Hugon.

About 100 years later, Benoît Jarret, a descendant of Barthélémy, had to protect again his lands from another homonymous also calledBenoît Jarret.  First , he took Hugon as a dit name, but then found that the other Benoît is also a descendant of Barthélémy, so he opted for Jacquemin, his grand-father, while the other Benoît became Benoît Jarret dit Rouge.  In 100 years, the tradition changed slightly and the dit name is now added at the end of the family name (maybe because French became the official language of France in the meanwhile, replacing Latin in official records).

Even if they were not as popular everywhere in France, it seems the dit name existed in many parts of France.  Thus, it is not surprising if this tradition appeared in New France with a major difference, that is a huge part of the population is using it.

The dit names appeared quite soon in New France.  In 1634, we have the burial of Jean GUIOT dit NÉGRIER, from Normandy.  In 1638 occured the wedding of François DROUET dit MORTAIGNE, from Saint-Hilaire de Mortagne, in the province of Perche.  As you see, names were often written by the sound, whence the difference between MORTAGNE, the place of origin, and MORTAIGNE, the dit name.

The tradition widely expanded with the arrival of the Régiment de Carignan in 1665.  Indeed, the well known genealogist René Jetté told me someday that there was a huge concentration of dit names around lac Saint-Pierre.  This area has a lot of seignories belonging to former officers of the Régiment de Carignan.  More than thanking these militaries for the Indian wars, the goal was for protecting the colony because the Iroquois (Mohawks) travelled along the Richelieu and installing there former soldiers was a nice idea.  Some of the officers cam from Dauphiné, a province where the dit names were already popular.  Thelist includes Verchères, Contrecœur, Sorel (or Saurel) and Saint-Ours.  Their soldiers already owned a war name they kept when becoming tenant of their former captain, which contributed to wide use of dit names in that area.

How to deal with the dit names

The military tradition needed that a surname or war name was given to soldiers so that if an ennemy was spying, he couldn't know the actual name of the soldiers to treat his family, or perhaps it was a mean to manipulate the soldiers and to avoid the creation of friendly links when sending them to death.  Most immigrants with a dit name were soldiers (but this is not always true).  Many of those warnames are those of flowers (Lafleur which means the flower, Latulipe, Laviolette), gibes  (Ladébauche, Laterreur, Laguerre, Jolicœur or nice heart, Deslauriers, Brisetout meaning break everythings, Prêt-à-Boire or ready to drink, Lafaveur, L'Espérance or hope), places of origin (Le Parisien, Le Normand, Le Breton, L'Irlande), or even small hamlets you will see on large scall maps or land registers (Beauregard, Coderre).

There is another mechanism to create dit names so as to distinguish homonymous families already living in the same area.  Often, the dit name comes from the given name of the father (Simon, Vincent, etc.) or from the land inhabited by the child.  Dit names can be accumulated but it is casual to have two or even three dit elements.  The ancestor of most of Quebec's Beauregard was called André Jarret, sieur de Beauregard.  His children were named Jarret, Beauregard, Jarret dit Beauregard and Beauregard dit Jarret, with other spellings like Jared and Borgard.  André has a son Vincent.  For some unknown reason, two sons of that Vincent used, three times, Vincent as a family name and at the next generation, children from three of the four sons were called Vincent in many occurences.  So, that Vincent dit name was created from the son of the immigrant but not from the immigrant himself.

The Rivard family is more complicated.  The brothers Nicolas RIVARD dit LAVIGNE and Robert RIVARD dit LORANGER came from teh province of Perche in France as hiremen.  Nicolas had many sons, including Antoine RIVARD dit LAVIGNE, François RIVARD dit LACOURSIÈRE, Jean RIVARD dit PRÉVILLE, Julien RIVARD dit LAGLANDERIE, Nicolas RIVARD (no dit name) and Pierre RIVARD dit LANOUETTE.  The sons of Robert were called LORANGER, de MONTENDRE, BELLEFEUILLE, FEUILLEVERTE et MAISONVILLE.  More dit names appeared at the next generations, like DUFRESNE, BEAUCOUR or GERVAIS.  Then, the original family name may disappear in some lines and there is for instances one called LORANGER dit MAISONVILLE.

Sometimes, many family share the same dit names.  The LAFLEUR can descend from families like POUPART, BIROLEAU, POIRIER, BÉÏQUE, LECOMPTE, MEUNIER, etc.  Some families kept both names, using an hyphen, like the BEAUGRAND-CHAMPAGNE, descendants from the BEAUGRAND dit CHAMPAGNE).

The end of dit names

Dit names have practically disappeared from the tradition.  Some family names (found in the foreign baptism record of the immigrant) are gone and the descendants have only a dit name, while in other families, some lines have the original name and other have a dit name used by the immigrant and the remaining, dit names created after 2 or more generations and in a few cases, the dit name was replaced by another dit name.  At least three cases are known where the immigrant came with the dit name while another family name is found in the French records (François DESLAURIERS dit LAFRANCE, baptized François BARIA, Pierre VAILLANT born as Pierre RASLEAU and .François PHÉNIS or PHÉNIX dit DAUPHINÉ from the GRUFFAT family).

Many genealogists looked for a law to explain why dit names are no more in use.  Actually, the cause is more social than legal.  Most dit names vanished in the second half of the 19th century, when more and more families settled in towns.  When living in a large city, more head of families became are hired by large companies and need a bank account.  In that context, if the bank employee is not a friend, it is not obvious to say you are a Bourbonnais when changing a cheque while your friend is calling you Brunet.  At the same time, there is a massive emigration to USA, where it is also unwelcome to use two family names.  With the increasing pressure, dit names disappeared nearly completely.  Nonetheless, in the 1901 Canadian census, 668 persons (out of more that 5 millions) have a dit in their family name, while in the 1881 census, there are only 330 such names.

Even if not law erased the dit names, it seems the requirements of the vital records since 1866 is such that they won't be back.  The law says you have to use the name received at the birth or a new name with the permission of the vital records director.  This is far from the old times when one was using sometimes one part of the family name, sometimes the other part.

Variation in spelling of family and given names

Most of our ancestors didn't know how to write.  Their name was written by the sound.  Many reason can change how the name is written: for instances, if the person is not saying the name correctly, if he/she have a regional accent and the priest or notary is from another place, if he/she is born foreign.  Some clerks knew how to draft the letters but ignored the proper spelling of words.  The Académie française was founded in 1635 and published its first dictionary in 1694, and even after that, the French language continued to change.  For example, it is only in 1835 that the names in -ois and read as -ay were written in -ais (françois, for the language, was said fransay, while François, the given name, was said franso-ah).

Standardization of family names begun only in the 19th century, when it was required for example to show official papers to get married.  This explains why a name was spelled differently until it stabilized, sometimes with 2 spellings, sometimes with more.  Thus, Jarret, written Jarret in France and in some original records about the immigrant, was written Jared, Jarred, Jaray, etc., in the vital records, before being standardized as Jarret (except one person who chosed Jaret even if siblings wrote Jarret), Jarest and Sharray (in United States).  Likewise, we have Arsenault, Arseneau, Arseneault in Québec, and Arseneaux in United States.

There is a similar phenomenon with first names, but there are less spellings.  We have for instances old given names like Jehan which became Jean, Edmé now Aimé or Magdeleine now Madeleine.
Un phénomène similaire existe pour les prénoms, mais le nombre de variations est moins élevé.  Nous avons par exemple des prénoms anciens comme Jehan devenu Jean, Edmé devenu Aimé ou Magdeleine devenu Madeleine.

Because the spelling is changing, all the names in this work were standardized.  The rule is roughly as follows: the given name is always standardized, except a few cases like a foreign given name.  The family name is standardized before 1800.

Given names are standardized like the data from PRDH-RAB and Parchemin, two major reference databases.  In many cases, two spellings are proposed to ease foreign searches or understanding.  Thus, you may see "John or Jean" to name the father of an immigrant born in England.  Marie is shown if it is used at least once: if a woman is named Madeleine 10 times, and Marie Madeleine once, then it is written as Marie Madeleine.  If it is Madeleine 10 times and Marie once, it will be Madeleine (the isolated Marie is considered as a mistake), but if it is Marie at least twice, the form is Madeleine or Marie, like if it is Madeleine once and Marie once.

Family names are standardized at the family level.  Similar names like FONTAINE and LAFONTAINE are not merged but remain different.  If someone is using both names, the database contains «FONTAINE or LAFONTAINE».  If a family is using GAULTIER and al the other are GAUTHIER, then it will be GAULTIER for this family.  Foreign names are kept as is to ease foreign search, for example if the name in France is written in the catalan language.


Genealogy of the French in North America
© Copyright 2006 Denis Beauregard