By Carolyn L. Barkley
I recently began editing a client’s manuscript about several families who emigrated from France to Québec and then, later, to the United States. As I began reading his text, I realized how little I knew about Canada – let alone Québec. Did you know, for instance, that O Canada, the national anthem, was originally commissioned by the Lt. Governor of Quebec, the Honorable Théodore Robitalle for the 1880 St. Jean-Baptiste Day ceremony? The text was originally available in French only, with no English translation available until 1906. The song officially became Canada’s national anthem in 1980. Because of my immersion in all things Québécois, I’ve take this opportunity to reprint an interview from the January 22, 2008 issue of Genealogical Pointers to enhance our Canadian research skills.
Interview with Denise Larson,
Author of Companions of Champlain: Founding Families of Quebec, 1608-1635
GENEALOGY POINTERS (GP): How did you first come to be interested in genealogy?
DENISE LARSON (DL): My first foray into genealogy was at the kitchen table in my parents’ house in Connecticut when I was a teenager. I had gathered enough courage to ask to interview my maternal grandfather, who was there for Sunday dinner. He was a tall man with formal manners, and he reminded me of Charles de Gaulle. Grandfather Henri was pleased to tell me how he had devised a process to keep wood veneer flat when he worked at a mill in Stockholm, Maine, before the family moved to Connecticut during the Great Depression. As to the family’s ancestry, he said that we were related to a famous French general who had left a large estate to whoever could prove next-of-kin. Grandfather said that an uncle had tried to make a connection with the general and claim the inheritance. The uncle had found an old man who had come from France as a young boy but couldn’t remember the name of the ship. If he had remembered it, then our family could have proven descent from the general and claimed the estate. The story of a grand estate in France waiting to be claimed hooked me on genealogy, right then and there. My enthusiasm must have been evident to my mother, who took me aside later in the day and said, “Your grandfather is a great storyteller. Don’t believe everything he says.” She gave me my first pinch-of-salt skepticism, and I’m grateful to her for it. The American Bicentennial, 1776-1976, was celebrated a few years after the kitchen storytelling. I sent for some free brochures on how to research family history and genealogy. Following the directions in those pamphlets is what started me on the right track to real genealogy. I started gathering birth, marriage, and death certificates. I read European and American histories and took notes about immigration, economics, and anything that might have had a bearing on my ancestors’ movements and settlement.
GP: Did your own family history lead you to write Companions of Champlain?
DL: In a way, yes. I continued my interest in genealogy and history, and when I moved to Maine I found a treasure trove of resources at the Maine State Library in Augusta. I took advantage of every opportunity to do research there and in the Maine State Archives. I was able to compile a substantial genealogy for both my maternal and paternal lines. When my local library in Bath, Maine, was looking for a new manager of its history and genealogy room, I used my own research work to show my familiarity with genealogy and related history. I was hired, and this opened the door to in-depth local history research. This did not apply to my own family, but there was a large French-Canadian presence in the area. I started developing an interest in the greater picture of French settlement. About the same time, I decided to finish my Bachelor of Arts degree. I focused my studies on the cultures of North America, especially those of the Northeast. Eventually, I amassed a huge amount of research and information about Native American and European immigrant cultures. I blended the material with the work I had done on my own family, added the methodology gained from researching New England history, and used some journalism skills acquired while working for a daily newspaper–and, voila, Companions of Champlain emerged.
GP: What do you hope Companions of Champlain will achieve?
DL: When I decided to assemble all my research material into book form, I realized that the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec would take place in 2008. I felt that if I could put all the pieces of French-Canadian genealogy and history in one place, then people who read and use the book would save themselves perhaps years of searching and much frustration with false starts and dead ends. My hope is that readers will read Companions, enjoy the celebration in Quebec, then take an interest in their own French-Canadian ancestry and assemble the pieces of their own ancestry puzzle, using the clues and guidelines presented in Companions of Champlain.
GP: Who would be interested in reading Companions of Champlain?
DL: People with an interest in New World history will find a clear explanation of why the great European powers of the 17th century suddenly took a keen interest in western exploration. Too many histories focus on English settlement and its relentless expansion. French incursion into North America took a decidedly different approach. Anyone who has an ancestor of French-Canadian origins will find not only an explanation of what that heritage means but also the very moment that the French-Canadian culture began. To be able to pinpoint the birth of a new culture and society is very rare and wonderful.
GP: How would you describe the culture that resulted from the founding of Quebec by the French?
DL: From contemporary accounts written by Champlain, the Jesuits, and government officials sent out by the French Crown, I’d say that the French-Canadian way of life evolved into a blend of European civil order, with North American practicalities for survival. The mix simplified the social lifestyle of the inhabitants, brought near-equality among them well before the cry for fraternity and equality rang out during the French Revolution, and emphasized the importance of community.
GP: How many residents of the U.S. are likely to be related to the ancestors in Companions of Champlain? Where are they most likely to live?
DL: An estimated 48 million U.S. residents can trace their family line back to a French-Canadian ancestor. According to the 2000 U.S. census, the New England states show the highest percentage of French-Canadian ancestry–up to 25 percent of the population. States that border Canada have substantial percentages. Even far western states show a good deal of French-Canadian heritage. Western expansion in Canada paralleled that of the U.S. Winnipeg, in particular, was a huge draw for workers during the early 1900s. As economic conditions changed, many workers and their families emigrated south to the U.S. in pursuit of jobs and a share in the American Dream.
GP: What was the greatest challenge in writing Companions of Champlain?
DL: The very limited number of extant primary sources for the early 17th century was both a curse and a blessing. The resources were so few in number that I was able to compile a list of what I would need to examine in order to provide solid background information, but the material was so rare and widespread that I could not access it myself. Through communication with museum and library curators, interlibrary loans from both the U.S. and Canada, and the miracle of the Internet, I was able to access digitized reproductions of original documents, reputable translations of documents, and reliable reports and studies of 17th-century artifacts. I used two different translations of Samuel de Champlain’s Voyages the writings of Champlain’s contemporaries, Lescarbot, and the Jesuits; publications by The Champlain Society; reference works on France, Canada, and the Age of Exploration; the classic genealogy dictionaries by Jette and Tanguay; and the collections of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the National Library, and the Archives of Canada. So that readers can find and access any of these resources, I included a reference list in Companions of Champlain. When an important fact or event is mentioned in the text, an endnote follows the paragraph. The endnote includes an author’s name and a page number. Readers can go to the Reference list, which is alphabetized by author’s last name, to find the full citation of the source and, using interlibrary loan, direct purchase, or the Internet, can access the referenced material and read more about any noted event that interests them.
GP: What’s unique about Companions of Champlain?
DL: The list of the first French families to settle in Quebec–the contemporaries and companions of Samuel de Champlain–is something I did not find in any resource. Official documents noted that the population of Quebec numbered 50 persons at the time of Champlain’s death on Christmas Day in 1635, but no census had been taken. By searching through primary and reliable secondary documents, I developed a list of individuals who were in Quebec during Champlain’s lifetime and who stayed and started a family. These were the progenitors of French-Canadian society and culture. I combed through every available contemporary (1600s) source and all the reliable historical accounts. I’m confident that I’ve identified all the earliest pioneer families–but, in genealogy, one never knows.
GP: What was the best part about writing Companions of Champlain?
DL: The best part for me was finding the stories about life in the earliest days of Quebec. My favorite anecdote was about a pot-luck get-together that was held at the Hebert home, which was a relatively large stone house, built on Cape Diamont overlooking Champlain’s Habitation. Mme Hebert put her large brewing caldron over the fire, and everyone contributed something to the pot. It was held in the spring, when food stocks were low, and maybe morale was low, too. Supply ships periodically came from France with flour, wine, cider, and dried foods, but no ship had arrived yet that year. I would love to go back in time to see everyone gathered there, have a bowl of soup, and listen to their conversations and concerns.
GP: What was the worse part about writing Companions of Champlain?
DL: Realizing that I would not be able to follow all 18 families through the fifth generation was hard for me to accept. I charted five generations of the Hebert family because the Heberts were the first to settle permanently in Quebec. I realized I would not have either the time or the space to do all 18 families and have the book out in 2008. GP: Why 2008? DL: Quebec City was founded on July 3, 1608, by Samuel de Champlain and his men. This year–2008–is the 400th anniversary of that day. Special commemorative events will take place all year long in Quebec. I wanted Companions of Champlain to be a part of the celebration and an introduction to French-Canadian heritage. I see it as an enticement for anyone with a French-Canadian ancestor to take an interest in genealogy and link with these intrepid pioneer families.
GP: What do you hope Companions of Champlain will achieve?
DL: When I decided to assemble all my research material into book form, I realized that the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec would take place in 2008. I felt that if I could put all the pieces of French-Canadian genealogy and history in one place, then people who read and use the book would save themselves perhaps years of searching and much frustration with false starts and dead ends. My hope is that people will read Companions, enjoy the celebration in Quebec, then take an interest in their own French-Canadian ancestry and assemble the pieces of their own ancestry puzzle, using the clues and guidelines presented in my book.
GP: How would a reader who is interested in genealogy use Companions of Champlain?
DL: Five appendices provide novice genealogists with guidance on how to conduct research in order to trace a family line back to the founding families of Quebec and do it in the quickest, easiest, and most reliable way. There’s a glossary of genealogical terms that genealogists encounter when reading Canadian documents and an explanation of terms and practices that are unique to French-Canadian genealogy. Paralleling Mayflower Families through Five Generations, Companions of Champlain includes the first three generations of the 18 families who lived in Quebec during Champlain’s lifetime. The genealogy of the first family to settle in Quebec, the Hebert family, is given through five generations. Standard pedigree charts are included in Companions. One chart is blank for reproduction and filling in; the other is an example of how to use the chart. What is not standard is the method of using the numbers on the pedigree chart as the key to reference sources. Novice genealogists often are too eager to follow a family line and neglect to make note of where they found a piece of good information, only to need to refer or reference it later. Using the method described in Companions of Champlain, genealogists coordinate the information on the chart with the reference sources listed on the reference sheet, both using the same number unique to each individual. Reference citations are made using the formats given in Evidence! by Elizabeth Shown Mills, a book that should be at every genealogist’s elbow.
GP: Are there any surprises in the book?
DL: The most amazing single thing was the discovery of the astrolabe that Champlain lost in 1613 near the Ottawa River. To have it found in 1867, 254 years later, and in the year of the Confederation of Canada, was astounding and perhaps prophetic–from Quebec’s beginning to Canada’s formation. A photo of the astrolabe is included in Companions of Champlain.
GP: Did you find a family of particular interest when compiling their genealogy?
DL: Yes, the head of the Marsolet family was unusual. Nicolas Marsolet appears to have been a free spirit and independently minded. He was enterprising enough to attempt to set up his own fur trading routes, which was strictly forbidden under the contracts made with the trading post’s sponsors. He “went native” when out in the woods and was accused of collaborating with the Kirke brothers during the seizure of Quebec in 1629, even going so far as to help the Kirkes stop Champlain from taking his two adopted Native American children to France. The people who were allowed to go to Quebec were carefully selected. To find someone so incongruent with the others in such a small group was very interesting.
GP: What’s your next book project?
DL: I’m considering a history of the 16 counties of Maine from the viewpoint of the cultural diversity of their earliest settlers. Much has been written about the industries of Maine–timber, potatoes, ships, and seafood–but little is said about the origins of the workers who developed and ran the mills, farms, and boats. I’d like to tell the settlers’ story.
Other interesting books to support Canadian genealogy include:
- In Search of Your Canadian Roots by Angus Baxter (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994, reprinted 2008).
- Finding Your Canadian Ancestors: a Beginner’s Guide by Sherry Irvine and Dave Obee (Ancestry, 2007).
- Here be Dragons! Navigating the Hazards found in Canadian Family Research by Althea Douglas (Ontario Genealogical Society, 1996).
- Here be Dragons, Too! More Navigational Hazards for the Canadian Family Researcher by Althea Douglas (Ontario Genealogical Society, 2000.)
- Canadian History for Dummies by Will Ferguson (2nd ed., For Dummies, 2005).
- Ontario People: 1796-1803 by E. Keith Fitzgerald (Clearfield, 1993, reprinted 1998; currently on sale at genealogical.com).
- Guide to Quebec Catholic Parishes and Published Parish Marriage Records by Jeanne Sauve White (Clearfield, 1993, reprinted 2008).