Family Names and Nicknames in Colonial Québec


The inhabitants of the Saint Lawrence Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries were subject to the laws and customs of France. Each of them had a family name and a given name. Children had the family name of their father. Married women kept their family name from birth, on official documents, although they were commonly known by their husband’s family name. For instance, after Jeanne Marie-Louise Gagné married Guillaume-François Baret, she was listed as “Jeanne Gagné” on the baptismal certificates of her children, but was known as “Madame Baret” to her neighbors.

Though the practice of handing on family names from one generation to the next is helpful for genealogists, there are some problems. First, there are many variations for some names, for several reasons. Most colonists in early Québec were unable to read and write, or even of signing their names. Even for the literate, spelling was not standardized. Priests and notaries, charged with recording vital statistics, wrote the names as they heard them. For instance, Guillaume Baret’s family name might also be written Barette or Barrette, and Jeanne Gagné’s family name might be also be written Gagnier or Gasnier. Another factor for those who decipher colonial documents is that the data can be difficult to read because some letters such as m, n, r, and u are easily confused in handwriting. And, of course, there are the inevitable “transcription errors” made by the person who entered the data. For instance, a priest who served in the same parish for two or three decades might write the family name of the bride’s grandmother instead of that of her mother in the marriage register, or the name of another brother of the baby’s father instead of the name of the actual godfather.

Another problem concerns the use of “dit” names, so called because they are introduced by the French word “dit’ (called). “Dit” names have many origins. Many were originally the “nom de guerre” adopted by the troops in a specific military company. The name “Lafleur” is the most common of the “noms de guerre”, associated with about 220 family names. There are nicknames associated with a physical characteristic, as “Legrand” or with a place of origin, as “Normand”, or the location of a property, as “Lapointe”. In some cases, the mother’s family name is associated with the father’s, as Jacques Couillard dit Després. As for our exemplar couple, the husband has a dit name: Guillaume-François Baret dit Courville, while his spouse is known simply as Jeanne Marie-Louise Gagné. Their granddaughter Marie-Josephe, spouse of Pierre-Amable Baret dit Courville is known sometimes as “Marie-Josephe Gagné”, sometimes as “Marie-Josephe Catin”. But that, as they say, is another story!

Introduction composed by Fr. John L. Sullivan – [email protected]