If you have ancestors who lived along the St. Lawrence River between 1627 and 1970, it’s worth asking who owned the place where they lived. Often, you’ll discover that a colonial structure that began in France determined their rents, obligations and many other living experiences.
France’s Seignorial Regime
The colonialization of Quebec took place primarily under the French land ownership system known as “the seigneurial regime.” It began in North America in 1627 and continued in one way or another until 1970.
When European explorers and religious leaders arrived what we now call Quebec, they aimed to conquer territory permanently on behalf of patrons. Colonialists created manors for farming and religious settlements. Large tracts became private property where exclusive groups could hunt, log or trap. Other lots became militarized defence zones. Disagreements were rampant from day one.
Following the borders of colonization to figure out where to look for records during this period can be a challenge. In many ways, modern day genealogists face the same multiplicity of sources and analyses that cadastral surveyors faced after the British Conquest.
In 1673, British surveyors had to codify the rights and obligations inherent in the way the seigneurial regime was enacted in New France with a requirement under treaty terms to protect inhabitants who wished to remain in conquered territories. By examining French, British and cadastral records and interviewing the people then living on the territory, surveyors found multiple competing claims for the same tracts of land. They found it difficult to determine property boundaries that took into consideration the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants in a pure rent for land property distribution system. How much land per tenant is a landlord’s obligation to supply an operating mill worth? How do you evaluate the necessity to raise sheep on a certain part of a property in terms of acres of land? How do you define the borders of traditional Indigenous hunting lands while keeping intact promises to more recent European colonialists?
Unlike those surveyors, we no longer have access to the families who rented land from manor Lords or hunted on traditional lands. Instead, we have to scour the maps notes on they left behind, along with the notarial acts, land grants, pledge records, oaths of allegiance and censuses surveyors examined more than 250 years ago.
If they exist and we can find them. Today, original records might be held by First Nations, the British, French or Canadian governments, Catholic institutions, military organizations, provincial archives, ministries or libraries, educational institutions or private companies.
If we find legible documents, we have to interpret them, remembering that as European monarchs began dividing the territory between themselves, the area now known as Quebec went under different names. Some of these names are used for different territories today.
When Jacques Cartier landed in 1535, he named the major river now known as the St. Lawrence “the Canada River” despite naming France’s new colony the same. Canada’s first settlement was Quebec, followed by Montreal and Trois-Rivières, which remain in roughly the same locations as the modern-day cities. By 1608, much of North America became known as New France, which consisted of the colonies of Acadia, Canada, Hudson’s Bay, Louisiana and Newfoundland. As France ceded territory to Britain, New France shrunk to its most populated region along the Saint Lawrence Valley.
When France ceded their North American territory to the British in 1673, surveyors got to work trying to figure out how to divide up the land. They came up with so many ambiguities and complexities, that the British Government retained the seigneurial system even after they introduced a township system in 1774.
The American War of Independence began a year later and lasted for seven years. In 1783, an influx of English-speaking British Loyalists began purchasing property in the colony. Tensions with the new settlers and original inhabitants led successive governments to divide the territory into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791.
The war of 1812 followed. Multiple land grants occurred, but all were on properties beyond previously-existing manors.
How the Hudson’s Bay Company Lost its Seignorial Land Rights
Tensions for land resources didn’t get tense in Upper Canada until 1828, when Napoleanic wars led to a shortage of wood in Britain. By that time, William Price, a British Citizen who served in the militia during the War of 1812 owned a local timber company in Malbaie. Meanwhile, the Hudson’s Bay Company rented vast forests in Saguenay that it wasn’t logging. The governor held a commission to look at the territory in 1828, which led to a petition from 250 Malbaie residents to open up the land for logging a year later. By 1835, the territory still wasn’t logged, so 1,800 people signed another petition to open up the territory to private logging. The Hudson’s Bay Company attempted to set up logging operations in 1836 but couldn’t get the project underway. By 1837, 21 people, including Alexis Tremblay dit Picoté and Thomas Simard, set up the Société des Pinières du Saguenay logging company, which became known as the Société des Twenty-one. Over the next five years, the men not only logged the territory, but also built houses on the land they cleared. In 1842, the government cancelled their lease with the Hudson’s Bay Company and sold the land to the farmers. A year later, William Price purchased their logging company.
How Seigneuries Disappeared
Twelve years later, in 1854, the government officially ended the ability of seigneurs to create new rental contracts, but didn’t cancel contracts already in place.
Some seigneurs got paid for contracts for more than a century after the regime ended. A 1928 inquiry showed that 60,000 tenants continued payments to more than 190 different seigneurs. The government decided to set up a commission to loan cities, towns and county councils enough money to pay out their contracts. The cities then set up an extra tax to collect the payments from tenants over a 41-year period.
The last municipality paid the last manor payment in 1970.
If you want to research ancestors who lived on seigneurial lands, you’ll need to keep a few French terms in mind when searching through the various resources. Here’s a list of both for your information.
Acquet: Goods inherited or otherwise obtained prior to marriage
Aveu et dénombrement : Inventory, to be conducted by Manor holders when the property changed hands
Communauté de biens: commonly-held goods
Compagnie des Cent-associes: Company of 100 Associates, the Company of New France, named after 100 merchants, financiers and politicians who paid 3,000 livres each to underwrite a company in operation from 1627 until 1663.
Concessions en Fi’ef et Seigneurie, Foi et Hommages et Dénombrements: Registers of fealty and homage pledges a Lord made to the King when he received the land.
Corvées: one to four days of compulsory work per year during the sowing, haying or harvesting season
Déclaration de fiançailles: oral promise to marry
Douaire: dower or widow rights to be paid by a future husband to his future bride in the case of his death; this amount could not be taken by creditors in the case of bankruptcy
droit de réunion: right to repossess
Engagés – indentured servants. Usually found in notarial records signed by labourers, carpenters, masons and domestic servants in France for work in New France (Nouvelle France), Acadia (Acadie), and Louisiana (Louisiane). Contracts usually lasted three years and included cost of passage, wages, lodging and food. There are 4,000 people who came to Canada under these terms between 1630 and 1789. Note that after 1714, ship captains were required to transfer 3, 4 or 6 servants to New France, depending on the size of the vessel. Ship captains then sold these servants to whomever would pay for them once they got to New France. Between 1714 and 1721, ship Captains had to pay 200 lires per missing engagé; after 1721 the fee dropped to 60 lires.
Fiançialles: marriage bonds, oral promise of marriage, engagement
Lods: a tax due when a land was sold or transferred to another tenant (also called lods)
Propres: Items legally owned by a man and women when they married that would not be jointly owned after marriage
Rhumb de vent: the measurement of a territory perpendicularly and diagonally from a river.
Seigneuries: manor lots
Syndicat national du rachat des rentes seigneuriales, or SNRRS: National Commission for the Repurchase of Seigneurial Rentes
Tonnelier: a cooper, which is a carpenter who makes wooden barrels. Most manors had at least one cooper, who would make barrels for flour, grain, vinegar, wine and spirits.
Ventes: transfer fee (also called lods)
Primary Sources in Canada
Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BanQ)
- Advitam. “Seigneuries” https://advitam.banq.qc.ca/notice/315651.
- Advitam. “Autres seigneuries.” https://advitam.banq.qc.ca/notice/573685.
- Advitam. “Seigneuries.” https://advitam.banq.qc.ca/notice/229007.
- Marriage Contracts of Quebec: Contrats de mariage des districts judiciaires de Québec, de Beauce, de Charlevoix, de Montmagny et de Thetford Mines, 1636-1953
- Superior court records: Fonds Cour supérieure. District judiciaire de Québec. Insinuations, registres des insinuations de la Prévôté de Québec, vol. 1 (Anciennement registres 1, 2 et 3) (1er mars 1667 – 25 septembre 1696), folios 109-109v.
- Superior court records: Fonds Cour Supérieure. District judiciaire de Montréal. Cote CN601. Greffes de notaires, 1648-1967.; District: Montréal; Title: Saint Martin, Antoine Adhemar dit (1668-1699) Cote CN601. Greffes de notaires, 1648-1967.; District: Montréal; Title: Saint Martin, Antoine Adhemar dit (1668-1699)com. Quebec, Canada, Notarial Records, 1637-1935
- Parish Records:Fonds Paroisse Notre-Dame-de-Foy, 1662-1976, Cote : P48, Id 298582
- Parish Records: Paroisse Sainte-Famille, Ile d’Orléans – registres d’état civil, 1666-1790, ZQ1,S28 #184 : 12 avril 1666 au 7 octobre 1727.
- Parish Records: Paroisse Notre-Dame-de-Montréal, 1657-[vers 1850], Cote : P1000,D1277 Id 696688 et Registres d’état civil, 1642-1948, Cote : ZQ106, Id 420864 et Index alphabétique des confirmés de Notre-Dame-de-Montréal, de 1676 et 1678 – s.d. 11 pages Numéro : 301330
- Notarial records: Montréal (Québec : district judiciaire). Notariat, 008127867_003_M99W-KP4, Jan 1, 1657–May 14, 1669; notary Claude Aubert, 1652-1692; notary Bénigne Basset, 1658-1672; notary Pierre Raimbault, 1698-1727; notary Antoine Adhémar, 1673-1712.
- Fonds Cour Supérieure. District judiciaire de Montréal. Cote CN601. Greffes de notaires, 1648-1967.; District: Montréal;
Library and Archives Canada
- Canada, Library and Archives. “Settlement,” July 28, 2015. https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/exploration-settlement/new-france-new-horizons/Pages/settlement.aspx.
- Collection Jacques Henri Fabien (MG 25 G231), La collection sur microfilm se compose de renseignements généalogiques pour la période de 1657 à 1974.
- Cases of indentured servants who left their masters (extraits d’arrêts du Conseil supérieur concernant les engagés qui quittent le service de leurs maîtres) 00003916294, fol. 56-57v sur microfilm Centre des archives MG1-C11A, 1663-1702 Microfilm reel number: F-2.
- New France Archive Collection: https://nouvelle-france.org/eng/Pages/new-france-archives.aspx, including the correspondence and memoirs of Jean Talon
- Rules, arrests and declarations made in Paris (Recueils de réglements, édits, déclarations, et arrêts : concernant le commerce, l’administration de la justice, & la police des colonies françaises de l’Amérique, & les engagés : avec le Code noir, et l’addition audit code, France, Chez les Libraires associés, Paris), 1765, MG1-C11A. Microfilm reel number: F-2.
Archived Collections: http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/keys/collections/
- Seigneurie de Sorel Fonds (P109)
- Seigneurs de Rouville Fonds (P107)
St. Paul University, Centre for Vatican II and 21st Century Catholicism
Vatican Archives of the Sacred Congregation “de Propaganda Fide” 1622-1846, PFcongressi_1831-1836_p.407-526, https://ustpaul.ca/upload-files/RCRHC/PFcongressi_1831-1836_p.407-526.pdf.
University of Montreal, Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) Research Programme in Historical Demography
Primary Sources in France
Archives de Bordeaux
Amirauté de La Rochelle
Archives départementales du Calvados (14)
Archives départementales de Charente-Maritime (17)
Archives départementales du Finistère (29)
Archives départementales de Gironde (33)
Parish and state registers (les registres paroissiaux et l’état civil), 1538-1935
Primary Sources in the United States
Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska
English translation of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610-1791, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, secretary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, computerized transcription by Thom Mentrak, historical interpreter at Ste. Marie among the Iroquois living history museum, Liverpool, New York, 1898-1901.
Internet Archive, San Francisco, California
The Internet Archive operates as a free catalogue of everything on the Internet since 1996. It also operates as a public library.
Coleman, Emma L. “A Seigneury of New France.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 1, 1937, pp. 133–138. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/360151.
Gettler, Brian. “Money and the Changing Nature of Colonial Space in Northern Quebec: Fur Trade Monopolies, the State, and Aboriginal Peoples during the Nineteenth Century.” Histoire Sociale/Social History 46 (November 1, 2013): 271–93. https://doi.org/10.1353/his.2013.0057.
McInnis, Marvin. “Peasant, Lord and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes, 1740–1840. By Allan Greer. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985. Pp. Xvi, 304. 15.00 Paper.” The Journal of Economic History 46, no. 2 (June 1986): 571–72. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700046696.
Greer, Allan. The People of New France. University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Harris, Cole. Seigneurial System in Early Canada: A Geographical Study. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1984.
Jetté, René. Dictionnaire généalogique des familes du Québec. Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1983.
Jugements et délibérations du Conseil Souverain de la Nouvelle-France. Volume 1. Québec: Gouvernement du Québec, 1932.
Lunn, Alice Jean Elizabeth. Economic Development In New France, 1713-1760. PhD, MeGill University, 1942. https://escholarship.mcgill.ca/concern/theses/np193978n.
Mathews, Geoffrey J., Historical Atlas of Canada, vol. 1, From the Beginning to 1800, editor R. Cole Harris. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1987. The map is plate 51. FHL book 971 E7h
Noël, Françoise. Christie Seigneuries: Estate Management and Settlement in the Upper Richelieu Valley, 1760-1854. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.
Roy, Pierre Georges, Inventaire des Concessions en Fi’ef et Seigneurie, Foi et Hommages et Dénombrements Conservés aux Archives de la Province de Québec (Inventory of fief and manor concessions, fealty, promises and debts to the King at the Archives of the Province of Québec as of 1929) 6 vols. Beauceville, Québec: l’Eclaireur, 1927-1929, http://www.patrimoinequebec.ca/Archive/BIBLIOTHEQUE/23-inventairedesconcessions6.pdf.
Sulte, Benjamin. Histoire des Canadiens-Français. Wilson & Cie, Editeurs, Montréal, 1882, ISBN 0885450183; Editions Elysse, 1977.
Sawaya, Jean-Pierre. La fédération des Sept Feux de la vallée du Saint-Laurent: XVIIe au XIXe siècle, Sillery, Québec: Septentrion, 1998.
Trudel, Marcel. La population du Canada en 1666. Recensement reconstitué. Québec: Septentrion, 1995.
Borealia. “Beyond the ‘System’: The Enduring Legacy of Seigneurial Property,” October 9, 2018. https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2018/10/09/beyond-the-system-the-enduring-legacy-of-seigneurial-property/.
Borealia. “Mapping Land Tenure Pluralism in the St. Lawrence River Valley,” September 26, 2018. https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2018/09/26/mapping-land-tenure-pluralism-in-the-st-lawrence-river-valley/.
Bosher, J.F., Men and ships in the Canada trade 1660-1760, Canadian Parks Service, the French version.
French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan (FCHSM), https://habitantheritage.org/index.php
Genealogy Ensemble: https://genealogyensemble.com/ (particularly https://genealogyensemble.com/2020/03/22/quebec-windmills-and-seigneuries/, https://genealogyensemble.com/2020/05/06/the-antoine-pilon-home/, https://genealogyensemble.com/2021/04/07/what-legacy-stems-from-our-quebec-pioneers/, https://genealogyensemble.com/2021/03/24/an-outstanding-pioneer/, and https://genealogyensemble.com/2020/09/09/marin-boucher-pioneer-of-new-france/.
Mathieu, Jacques. “Seigneurial System | The Canadian Encyclopedia,” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/seigneurial-system.
New France, New Horizons, http://www.archivescanadafrance.org/, a bilingual site set up by the Direction des Archives de France (Paris) et les Bibliothèque et Archives Canada (Ottawa) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of New France in 2004. The search function still works.
Séminaire du Québec, http://www.seigneuriedebeaupre.ca/, https://charlevoixmontmorency.ca/portraits-seminaire-de-quebec/.
Southwestern Quebec Genealogical Resources, https://www.swquebec.ca/land_grant/land_grants.html.
Quebec Heritage Repertoire, https://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/