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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 10/8/2003

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French-Canadian Beginnings

I am fortunate that my children’s ancestral background is relatively varied; whenever I get tired or frustrated with one ethnic group, I can move to another. This week, we’ll take a look at how I am going to get started on my wife’s French-Canadian ancestors, a group I have not really worked on in any depth. While the details of this search will necessarily be in upstate New York and the province of Quebec, the methodology behind the apparent madness will be applicable to virtually any crossing of an international or ethnic border. Much of this methodology has served me well when attempting to cross the pond on lines from Europe as well.

Complete My Research in the United States
The excitement of working in a foreign country should not cause the family historian to overlook research opportunities in the area where the ancestor settled. Generally speaking, research should be as complete in the new country as possible to before crossing any “ponds” or international borders. This allows the genealogist to maximize the amount of information known about the immigrant ancestor and his or her family in order to research as effectively in the old country as possible. Typically it is necessary to know the ancestor’s specific place of origin before researching in the ancestral homeland. There are exceptions to this rule, but the more done “at home” the better.

I Have My Work Cut out for Me
My wife’s French-Canadian lines begin with her great-grandmother, Marie Desmarais, born in Clinton County, New York, in the 1890s. At present, her background is assumed to be entirely French-Canadian, but further research may prove this assumption incorrect. Census records are relatively easy to access from a distance and provide a foundation for further research in Clinton County, New York. Research should continue in local records, which will provide more details than the periodic census.

Based upon my preliminary research, it appears that Marie’s family had lived in Clinton County, New York, since at least the late 1840s and early 1850s, starting in most cases with her great-grandparents. It is imperative that I work on documenting as much of this lineage with census and local records as possible before searching records in Quebec. Currently the names of Marie’s four grandparents and four of her great-grandparents are known. Some of these lineages have already been traced into Quebec and are fairly well documented—and then there are some loopholes.

I will admit that I have done a bit of online surfing to find information on these French-Canadian ancestors, particularly using WorldConnect ( and Google ( where I turned up a significant number of ancestors. Some French-Canadian lines have been fairly well established using the significant amount of church records from the area. The abundance of church and other records in Quebec will make my search easier when I get to that point. However…

A Couple of Warnings Are Necessary
One. I must make certain any information from online or printed sources fits logically into the family structure I have already surmised from census and local records. And even if online information fits logically with the family structure I have, it (or my own conclusions) may still be incorrect.

Two (most important). I must use these online sources as clues (clues, clues, clues) to further research…not as facts to put in my files. In the course of my surfing for this article, I found one message board posting that incorrectly speculated on a parentage of one of the ancestors of Marie…a parentage that is already well documented. There were at least two responses of “thanks, I’ll add that parentage to my database.” These GEDCOM files and message board postings are an excellent way for me to get clues, but they provide me with clues, not facts. The quality of the postings can vary greatly. And in one case, they would have led me down the wrong path, had I assumed the posting was correct.

So far, I’ve used federal and state census, church, and some local records to create a working family tree of Marie’s family in upstate New York State. I have some clues based upon Internet sites and postings. Based upon a fairly comprehensive family genealogy published recently, one great-grandparent of Marie has already been traced to some of the earliest settlers of French Canada. The book appears well documented. Consequently for now, I have decided to focus my work on the other branches of Marie’s family.

Where To?
I’m going to create working family group charts for all of Marie’s great-grandparents. While I obviously cannot work on all four sets at one time (remaining focused is always an excellent idea), organizing the information I have already obtained at this point is a great way to start. I will try and complete the family group charts in as detailed a fashion as possible, learning the names of all siblings and their vital statistics (birth, marriage, and death) information.

I will then learn about French-Canadian research in general, paying particular attention to the sources that are unique to this area and to any specialized finding aides. It is imperative that I do this before I just start ordering records and making conclusions.

Where to Learn?
While there are many online sites with information on tracing French-Canadian ancestors, I must admit that sometimes it is nice to have a printed reference to sit and study with the computer turned off, without the distractions that are always on the Internet. I also like to have a notebook handy in which I can take notes.

The book I’m using to help me get started with my French-Canadian work is Ancestry’s French-Canadian Sources. This book contains information on a wide variety of French-Canadian sources, discussing both primary and secondary materials. With chapters authored by eight genealogists, the book was compiled by members of the French Canadian/Acadian Genealogists of Wisconsin.

While I’ve spent some time working on these families in New York, I have not yet started working with any records from Quebec. Now I think I’m ready to begin that work. I read French-Canadian Sources from front to back and now have a much better idea of what research strategies I should use. I certainly do not remember everything in the book nor am I an expert. However, I am extremely glad that I read the book before I began working on these families in Quebec. And of course, I will pick one family on which to start and not research them all simultaneously. I will not order two hundred rolls of microfilm from my local branch of the Family History Library the next time I visit.

What have I done before crossing the ethnic barrier?
- I have completed my work in the United States, researching the families as much as possible.
- I have organized the information I have into the family structures.
- I have used online sources and genealogical information compiled by others as clues, not as facts.
- And I have made an attempt to learn about sources and research methodology in the new area in which I will be researching.

Getting started in a new area usually means wrapping up our research in the “old” first. Next week, we’ll look at some of Marie’s families and what my next research step will be based upon what I’ve learned about French-Canadian records. I have families where I know the place of birth in Quebec, and some for whom I do not. There are families where I have approximate dates of marriage in Quebec and the maiden name of the wife, but no idea where in Quebec the marriage took place. Next time, we’ll see what options I have.

French-Canadian Sources--the book from

French Canadian Research: Part II


Copyright 2003, Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill.