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First and last names

> Denomination in old Quebec
> The most frequent first names
> The most frequent family names

Denomination in old Quebec

claire Francoise

As they naturally fell under the laws and customs of France of the Ancien Régime, inhabitants of the St. Lawrence Valley in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries all had a family name and a first name. Children inherited their father’s family name, and men transmitted this name to their children. Married women kept their family name at birth, at least in religious, administrative and legal documents.

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 PRDH’s 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, immigrant’s place of origin, name of fief for nobles, mother’s family name, father’s 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, it’s 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.

The most frequent first names


Among Catholics, choice of first name wasn’t left to chance or parents’ imagination. On the contrary, the church liked to control the attribution of first names to ensure that on the day they were baptised, children received the name of a saint who would guide them throughout their life. In the Rituel du Diocèse de Québec, which laid out the rules to follow for writing baptismal, marriage, and burial certificates in Quebec, Monsignor de Saint-Vallier stipulated, "The Church forbids Priests from allowing profane or ridiculous names to be given to the child, such as Apollon, Diane, etc. But it commands that the child be given the name of a male or female Saint, depending on its sex, so that it can imitate the virtues and feel the effects of God’s protection." A list of accepted names – 1,251 for boys and 373 for girls – was published in an appendix to the Rituel.

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:

Rank First name N Rank First name N
1 Jean Baptiste 22 011 1 Marie Josèphe 18 807
2 Joseph 21 616 2 Marie Louise 13 115
3 Pierre 16 664 3 Marie Anne 11 060
4 François 13 088 4 Marie Marguerite 9 217
5 Louis 12 057 5 Marie Madeleine 8 812
6 Antoine 7 800 6 Marie Angélique 8 750
7 Charles 7 429 7 Marguerite 8 663
8 Michel 5 689 8 Marie 7 133
9 Jacques 5 627 9 Marie Geneviève 5 947
10 Augustin 3 790 10 Marie Françoise 5 695
11 Joseph Marie 3 612 11 Marie Catherine 5 594
12 Jean 3 599 12 Marie Charlotte 4 797
13 Étienne 3 098 13 Marie Thérèse 4 478
14 Alexis 2 500 14 Geneviève 4 074
15 André 2 204 15 Catherine 3 250
16 Nicolas 2 158 16 Marie Élisabeth 3 131
17 Jean François 2 054 17 Élisabeth 2 631
18 Paul 1 854 18 Angélique 2 399
19 François Xavier 1 782 19 Françoise 2 098
20 Ignace 1 701 20 Louise 2 048
21 Jean Marie 1 532 21 Marie Amable 1 982
22 Gabriel 1 531 22 Madeleine 1 765
23 Amable 1 443 23 Thérèse 1 745
24 Toussaint 1 020 24 Charlotte 1 686
25 Guillaume 995 25 Marie Archange 1 685

Would you like to know the frequency of a particular first name? Click here.

Or if you wish to see the complete listing.

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.

The most frequent family names

Our family name is us. We recognize it everywhere we see it. . . . 
Thus, it is something that is precious to us, since
its nature awakens in us
often pleasant memories, especially when it is a
question of our own family.
(Narcisse-Euthrope Dionne, 1914)

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.

Rank Family name N Rank Family name N
1 Roy 3068 26 Ouellet 1141
2 Gauthier 2330 27 Pépin 1125
3 Gagnon 2329 28 Richard 1100
4 Lefebvre 2158 29 Hébert 1100
5 Morin 2096 30 Dubois 1067
6 Boucher 1911 31 Fortin 1046
7 Côté 1846 32 Lévesque 1044
8 Bélanger 1778 33 Cloutier 1042
9 Pelletier 1762 34 Gosselin 1033
10 Paquet 1684 35 Martel 1012
11 Gagné 1636 36 Vallée 1010
12 Martin 1527 37 Charbonneau 1007
13 Parent 1505 38 Archambault 996
14 Leclerc 1505 39 Allard 996
15 Langlois 1457 40 Bouchard 970
16 Renaud 1455 41 Tessier 966
17 Fournier 1408 42 Robert 960
18 Caron 1369 43 Beaudouin 958
19 Tremblay 1340 44 Petit 953
20 Perrault 1284 45 Proulx 943
21 Thibault 1227 46 Houde 931
22 Demers 1216 47 Dupuy 916
23 Girard 1175 48 Fortier 911
24 Giroux 1171 49 Leduc 908
25 Ménard 1144 50 Bédard 900

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.