These customs have played in favour of Quebec genealogy because they facilitate the identification of people by name. Nevertheless, practical problems do arise. In particular, spelling was not standardized, and both family and first names could be spelled in several different ways. Although first names can generally be recognized fairly easily, this is often not the case for family names. Data gathered from old documents can be difficult to read because letters can be confused, and the problem is complicated further because a number of names are similar Boucher and Baucher, for example. Because most people were illiterate, their names come to us via an intermediary and were submitted to the vagaries of pronunciation, regional accents, and other factors. Added to this are the inevitable typos at the data-entry stage.
Therefore, it is not surprising that a name may at least be written in many different ways, if it is not in fact confused with another. That is why the names in the PRDH were standardized: each name is presented in a standard form that groups together all the variations found for this name in the documents. For example, the name Charbonneau is recognized under 55 different spellings, covering common variations Charbono, Charbonnau, etc. and errors of all kinds Charbonnauu, Cherbonau, etc. You can find out about the spellings associated with each name and the frequency of each associated spelling in the approximately 700,000 certificates in the PRDHs data base.
Another problem with denomination concerns the use of nicknames, often referred to as "dit names", because they are introduced in French by the word "dit" meaning "said", which abound in the nominative history of old Quebec. They have many origins: military nickname, sobriquet related to a physical characteristic, immigrants place of origin, name of fief for nobles, mothers family name, fathers first name, and so on. Some go back to the ancestor, while others are introduced by descendants; some are transmitted, others not; some belong to an entire family line, while others concern only a single branch. In short, its a real hodgepodge! From a practical point of view, an individual can be designated by a nickname at just about any time, and no rules can be made to predict when. That is why we have prepared, for information purposes, a list of all family name-nickname associations found in documents prior to 1800. The list does not take account of the order of name and nickname in the certificate, as the distinction between name and nickname was often not clear. Thus, the association between Gauthier and Larouche will appear in the lists at Gauthier and at Larouche, which list all the occurrences of Gauthier called Larouche and Larouche called Gauthier, with the same frequency. Frequency is obviously the key element that enables us to differentiate the associations of which we must keep track from those that result from rarities or errors. When priests are excluded, the association between Hudon and Beaulieu is the most frequent, with 1474 occurrences.
As well as a strong religious flavour, these rules resulted in a high concentration of relatively few first names in New France. As in France of the Ancien Régime, the names Jean and Pierre predominated among boys, and Marie, Madeleine, Marguerite, Anne, and Jeanne among girls. Jean-Baptiste and Joseph, however, were more common in the colony; similarly, the name Marie was more popular in Quebec, while Jeanne held sway in France. It is difficult to distinguish true double first names those written with a hyphen from juxtaposed first names, which could be used separately. In the PRDH, we circumvented this problem by separating all first names into their elements. Thus, the PRDH treats the name Jean-Baptiste as two names, Jean and Baptiste, and name searches in the data base can be made according to either one.
The table below give, for each sex, the list of most common first names, single or composite, among the some 400,000 individuals baptised before 1800:
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One notices that "Marie" is extremely frequent for girls 145 852 first names include "Marie". So its probably better to cumulate those first names with which "Marie" is used: "Marguerite" and "Marie Marguerite", for example, number 17 534, a figure which gives a more exact picture of the popularity of "Marguerite". You can obtain the total frequency of a given single first name, ventilated between cases where it was the only first name given and cases where it was given along with at least one other.
French Canadians are descended from a relatively small number of immigrants. On top of that, many names were homonyms. The result is that the number of family names in French Quebec today is very small (a few thousand) compared to that in France (hundreds of thousands). Everything was determined in the early centuries of settlement. The distribution of the most common family names of baptised individuals before 1800 shows that 37 family names accounted for more than 1,000 baptisms, 150 for more than 500, and 962 for more than 100. The 15 most common names were used by more than 28,000 individuals, and 1,400 names covered almost 95% of all individuals born in the colony before 1800. The table below gives the list of the 50 most common names; at the top of the list, unsurprisingly, are names corresponding to the earliest immigrants or to the most common homonymic stock.
Would you like to know the frequency of a particular name and its rank among baptised individuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Click here.