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Amarilda Desbiens, Scottish adoptee in Baie-St-Paul? a road-trip up dead ends


Amarilda Desbiens



It is easy to look up a French-Canadian catholic lady for three main reasons:
1. The documents are centralised in the archives: no need to know the church or village name.
2. Women always use their birth family name in records, from birth to death. There may ‘’wife of’’ or ‘’widow of’’ also included.
3. Parents are listed on the marriage record.
You can use the Drouin collection of books, one for men and one for women, with marriages 1760-1935, or online Drouin or Ancestry or Family Search at home or at the Quebec family History Society.

Beginning of the Journey

When I started my research, I had my mother in law’s parents and their wedding. Her grand-father Benjamin Simard’s wedding I found : to Amarilda Desbiens, August 17th 1887 in Baie-St-Paul .

SimardXDesbiens 1887 StPaul1

SimardXDesbiens 1887 StPaul2

Amarilda was the daughter of Joseph Desbiens and Louise Bouchard, and on I went in an afternoon, all the way up the tree to France.

Then, with different resources I found birth and death certificates, but no birth date for Amarilda. Even in books where they would list her whole family, ancestors and descendants, there was a marriage and a death, but no birth for her.

At the Société d’histoire de Charlevoix, her card was in a collection of funeral cards. I got an approximate date of birth of 1866 from the information: died May 11th 1944, at 77 years and 9 months.


All her sibblings were baptised at Les Eboulements and her father in Ile-aux-Coudres. At the local Quebec Archives Depot of Charlevoix I look at the microfilmed birth registers for 1865, 1866, 1867. No Desbiens birth .

At Baie-St-Paul and Les Eboulement cemeteries: no tombstones for the family.

Digital Camera

Les Éboulements

First turn up a mountain road

A friend told the family that Amarilda was adopted and from Scotland. She was supposed to be a Donaldson or Danielson, but I found that her sister married one, nothing about Amarilda.
My mother in law said Amarilda was a really cold and distant grand-mother, sitting very upright in her chair, a cameo at her neck and a blanket on her knees. She only had three kids.
When she was young, my mother in law’s sister was so blond with blue eyes, she was told she was Irish by the neighbours.

At BAnQ: census on microfilms:
1871, She is not listed with her family. She probably hasn’t arrived yet:

DesbiensMA-Potvin et DesbiensJ REC 1871

1881, still not there:

DesbiensJf REC 1881 BStPaul

1891, she is married and with her husband:

SimardBf REC 1891 BStPaul

So she must have been adopted when she was older than 15 years old.

I started looking up immigration history books, lists… To no avail.

Even now, when I look up online Ancestry, Drouin or Family Search : marriage records only for dear Amarilda.

Now I knew she was laughing watching me go in circles. Every place I went, every book I got my hands on, I looked her up. Not a word on her birth.

Final sretch

I finally tried at Baie-St-Paul presbytery. In the filing cabinet, the individual’s cards are grouped by family. With husband Benjamin and kids, Amarilda’s card, with three dates: birth, marriage and death! I then looked up her parents, Jospeh Desbiens and Louise Bouchard cards as a group, with their children: there she was, born not in Les Eboulements, but in Baie-St-Paul: MARIE DESBIENS. ONLY Marie! Baptised 9 aout 1866

DesbiensMarieAmarilda B 1866 BaieStPaul

Baie-St-Paul register, 1866

Before she was five, she was adopted by the neighbour Charles Potvin, a baker and merchant, and wife Marie Filion.
She married Benjamin Simard August 17th 1887 in Baie-St-Paul.

Benjamin Simard

Benjamin Simard, merchant

They had 10 children:
7 died young or at birth, Ambroise died at 18, Florence and Charles became adults.

H11 1
Back L. to R.: Daughter Florence, Amarilda, X. Son Ambroise sitting in front

Amarilda’s eldest son, Charles, took his name from his godfather: Amarilda’s adoptive father.


Charles Simard with mother Amarilda

Charles Potvin being a merchant, maybe Benjamin Simard even took over his store.

X, Amarilda, Florence
The store of Benjamin then Charles Simard, across from the church in Baie-St-Paul

Looking in the rearview mirror

All those little clues at first could not be taken for proof, but I did keep them on the back burner.

No Scottish, no Irish, not adopted INTO Desbiens family but adopted OUT to a Potvin family. Still I learned a lot even if side tracked.
I find her birth and death dates in Death Index Quebec 1926-1997 but no place of birth.If I had looked up the 1866 Baie-St-Paul register, page by page, I would have found a baby girl born to those parents in August 1866.

1. Census: 1871 she is not there, not because she has not joined the family, but because she has already left it, for…the neighbour: Charles Potvin and who will not children of their own.
When you look at the ditto signs before her name on the census, there is a very nicely formed beginning of a D for Desbiens ( just like her Desbiens family above), it stops, and dittos are put in, saying she’s a Potvin.

DesbiensMA-Potvin et DesbiensJ REC 1871

2. On the baptism certificate of Marie Aurélie Amarilda AKA Florence, Amarilda Desbiens Potvin is the mother

SimardFlorence B 1894 BStPaul

3. At Amarilda’s wedding, Charles Potvin is her witness.
If you look at the line where he is mentioned, ‘’friend of bride’’ is written over a few words that were already written. Father? Adoptive father?

SimardXDesbiens détail

4. Charles Potvin and Marie Filion are godfather and godmother of Charles Simard, first surviving son of Amarilda and Benjamin.

SimardCharlesB N 1890 StPaul

The road up ahead
Why was she adopted?
The first of Amarilda’s siblings was born in 1850, they were 10 children in total, and twins were born in 1863. Maybe mom was getting tired and needed help. Maybe she was sick. Or the twins were a lot to take care of, and she was pregnant with her last child who was born in 1869. Or they took her in when her mom gave birth to the last one? Charles Potvin, no kids, baker and merchant he was probably better off than his neighbours. In the area, in those days, many well off families would pay for less fortunate children’s education, or adopt them. Charles, once a father, paid for education for quite a few children of Baie-St-Paul also.
Eventually, Zoe Potvin, Charles’ sister, even married Eusebe Desbiens, Amarilda’s brother.

Facebook to connect on and on and on.

Yes, we are all connected with our trees, and the web makes it so you can get lost as one page connects to the next and to the next…  We genealogists are so curious, we can lose entire days brousing.  But sometimes at the end of a treck, you hit what you didn’t know you were looking for but needed anyways.

Fumbling around Facebook today, I found lots I wasn’t looking for. On the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan Facebook Page, I discovered Katherine R Willson’s social media genealogy page  as I was following a lead historical and genealogical Facebook pages.  YES!  Browse throught the list and you may mingle with the right crowd gen-buffs on Facebook: the ones that can help you, the ones where cousins may be hiding, and the ones to keep on getting lost through genealogical maze on the web.  You may download the Facebook list but please keep the credits on each page.

Want to know more about genealogy, art and military family support?  Those are KATHERINE R. WILLSON’s favorite topics and she is writing a book about the use of Facebook as a genealogical research tool.  Member of many historical and genealogical societies, she is also a mixed media artist.  To know more about talks she gives, go to her social media genealogy page .

The French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan page helps us take walls (brick or other) down between Canada and USA to help our searches, and yes, there is a brickwall Facebook page

Facebook nous permet de rejoindre bien des gens, mais Katherine R. Willson nous aide a trouver ceux qu’on cherche: ceux qui peuvent nous aider ou des cousin.  Vous pouvez rencontrer cette conférencière sur sa page social media genealogy page .  La généalogie, le support de familles militaires et les arts sont ses sujets préférés.

Pour rendre Facebook encore plus utile, elle a compilé une liste de sites Facebook historique et généalogique que vous pouvez télécharger.  Elle nous prie de garder les crédits sur chaque page si nous diffusons cette liste.

C’est justement en me promenant sur Facebook, sur la page French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan que j’ai été référée a sa page.  Un autre lien Canada-Usa qui fait tomber des murs, de brique ou autres, page de Brickwall Facebook

Message in a web bottle

You may approach genealogical research like you would fishing — and just to bring it back to French-Canadians — ICE-fishing (OK I wrote the ICE word, but it’s going to warm up today!).  Instead of fishing with one rod, you set up as many lines as you can. The limit is how many you can check at a time… and how many holes you can dig before you are so hot you strip down to your t-shirt.

This is just what  a cousin did:

2001, Welland, Ontario: she sends on RootsWeb * a querry about my great-aunt Simone Viau-McDuff.  And waits.

2011, Laval, Québec: I’m poking around the web, put in Simone’s name into Google and find her message. Wow! For sure it’s the same person, but… the message is 10 years old!  No one keeps their e-mail address for that long. Too bad!

Still, I send my line to the water and reply. Next day, I get a reply.

Geraldine, daughter of my grandfather’s cousin, was jumping up and down in her living room when she got my message (just like I was when I got hers).

Like many Quebecers during the 20th century, her grandfather Philias Viau , had moved from Lachine to work in the Niagara region around 1904. He was my great-grandfather J. Francis Viau’s brother. They lost their French, but there are still some Wellanders that don’t speak English. The Welland canal was of great importance as a link between Lakes  Erie and Ontario. Many industries flourished along the canal, like The Electro Metallurgical Company unit of Union Carbide where Philias worked.

I went to visit Geraldine by train, learned about the region, met some great people. Among them, Renée Tetrault, a founding member of the Welland Branch of the Franco Ontarien Society of History and Genealogy now known as the Réseau du patrimoine franco-ontarien. Renée has served for more than thirty years as the expert who assists researchers at their Centre for Research in the Welland Public Library. She will describe the extensive holdings of their library in and offer suggestions for researching in Quebec.

Which leads me to introduce this French-Canadian resource: there are six regional centers in Ontario.  Three times a year they publish Le Chainon (paper or digital).  They have quite a few online resources (Ontario and other provinces including Quebec, and even American parishes) available to members, among which transcribed notarial records, BMS, cemetaries, family histories, cities and towns, census, archive guides, and a lot more.

Two things to remember:

When part of a family moves away, news and pictures are exchanged to keep in touch. Geraldine had pictures of my Montreal family that I had never seen and letters writen by my direct ancestors. The jewel: a cash book kept when Philias’ father Onesime Viau died in Lachine, where all spendings (lots of prayers in church) and income (rents) were described along with after-death inventory  and each child’s share of inheritance. The two of us were able to piece together family stories that individually we couldn’t figure out and dentify people on each other’s pictures.  Finding cousins will help you go up your tree in surprising ways.

Viau p
Onésime Viau and Antoinette Dorais with their children, Lachine, Québec

The other, send a lot of lines out, keep a log, follow up, but be patient. Be courteous, some will never bite, some are not interested. But dream big, don’t be stopped by logic and expect anything…fish come in many shapes and sizes, and even as messages in bottles.

* Rootsweb was one of the first online free cooperative genealogical resources. Ancestry has picked it up, but we can still go into archives or free.

Genealogy in newspapers

At the Quebec Family History Society’s (QFHS) Brick Wall Solutions special interest group meeting last night, member Geneviève Rosseel led the meeting and made a terrific presentation about how to use newspapers to search for ancestors. Geneviève’s presentation included a handout she had put together that listed webinars, books, magazines, preservation techniques, Society resources, and 12 pages of newspaper websites.

The Brick Wall Solutions group, also known as the Brickers, is one of four special interest groups that QFHS members have formed where like-minded people get together to share ideas and solutions. The Brickers group is the largest and an excellent example of how genealogists work together to learn from each other. Each month, a member volunteers to lead a meeting and talk on one topic. Topics range from creating a research log to genealogical proof standards to mind mapping.

The Society’s other special interest groups are Family History Writing, the French Connection, and Newfoundland and Labrador Research Interest. More information is available on the Society’s website.

Here are some of Geneviève’s favourite websites:

1. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec for Quebec newspapers –


2. Map of 1690-2011 US Newspapers –


3. Newspapers around the world –  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_online_newspaper_archives

4. WorldCat lists newspapers held in libraries around the world – http://www.worldcat.org