MSS-033-Hélène’s World-part 2

Episode 033-May 26, 2015

ScreenHunter_657 May. 19 19.40

In episode #20, we looked at the life of Hélène Desportes, an early settler of New France, as told by author Susan McNelley. Today we continue that discussion by delving into two major themes covered in the book Hélène’s World: ‘Survival’ and ‘Relationship with the Natives.’

In Language Tip #33, we look at clues to an ancestor’s nationality that may indicate a bit of intermingling with foreigners.

French-Canadian News

The American-French Genealogical Society

May 30th at 9 AM, at the AFGS Library, 78 Earle St, Woonsocket, RI: “Genealogy and DNA, Part 1” with Tom Allaire. Part 2 will take place on October 24th.

The Quebec Family History Society- Roots 2015 conference

The largest English-language conference in Québec from June 19-21, at McGill University in Montreal. Click here for online registration.

Language Tip #33-Clues to Nationality

When are your French not French? When they’re English, Spanish, Italian or German, of course!

Dit names (which often become surnames) can give us a clue to an ancestor’s origins. Or an ancestor’s country of origin may appear in a record, but the document recorded the French spelling of that country. Would you recognize it for what it is?

In the 1669 baptism record for Romaine Robideau, her father is André Robideau dit l’Espagnol, ‘L’Espagnol’ means ‘the Spaniard,’ and sure enough, in his 1667 marriage record, it states he is from the parish of Ste. Marie in Espagne, or Spain.

André Robideau dit l'Espagnol

From the Drouin Institute, Québec Records,


André's home parish

From the Drouin Institute, Québec Records,

In André Spénard’s 1690 marriage record to Marie Charlotte Arnaud, it states he is ‘allemand,’ or German, from Allemagne, or Germany.

André Spénard

From the Drouin Institute, Québec Records,

One of the best-known dit names that gives a hint to origins is that of Abraham Martin dit l’Ecossais, or Abraham Martin, the Scotsman. Since it appears he was born in France in 1589, there has been debate over the years as to whether that dit name could mean that he often visited Scotland, or perhaps at one time lived in Scotland. In 2013 the Ontario Genealogical Society published an article extending their theory based on research conducted by one of its members.

Another prolific nationality-based dit name is ‘Langlais’ or ‘Langlois,’ meaning ‘the Englishman.’ It very often became the dit name of captives carried to Canada from the American colonies, such as the Reeves, the Otises, and the Webbers.

Besides the many, many l’Espagnols found in Québec records, you’ll also find plenty of l’Italiens and even a Solyme Allemagne.

L'Italiens in parish records

From the Drouin Institute, Québec Records,

Whenever you see any of these proper nouns or proper adjectives appended to your ancestor’s name, be sure to follow up on that clue.

Nationality Clues

Hélène’s World-part 2

In my interview with Susan McNelley, we discussed the following:


  • The early settlers of Nouvelle France faced many hardships. Other than Louis Hébert’s family, there were only a half dozen women and no children. Many settlers were tradesmen, and several came from Paris. Some were wealthy.
  • So what made them brave these difficulties? One reason was a commitment to spread the Roman Catholic faith.  Also, Spain had been in the New World for a hundred years, and France wanted its portion. Trade was also a motivating factor. Merchants wanted to make a profit from the fur trade and fishing in the North Atlantic. Others were looking for an inland waterway to Asia.
  • The survival of the colony was not a given for at least the first fifties years. Part of the credit goes to Champlain, who could get along with everyone from the natives to people in the King’s court. Champlain prepared for everyone’s needs by bringing over the supplies they would need from France. They still faced food shortages every winter. In 1629 when Québec was captured by the English, the colonists were forced to forage in the woods for survival.
  • After Champlain’s death, there was a lack of leadership until the King took a more personal role in 1662. Two-thirds of the people who came to New France early on returned to France because of the difficulties.
  • The Natives taught the French the use of snowshoes and birch-bark canoes. They shared their stores of smoked eel.
  • Champlain brought seeds and herbs with him from France, and soon the colonists were growing peas and root crops such as carrots and turnips, and cabbage. They started orchards, and they grew pumpkins and squash as the Natives did. Later they grew wheat.
  • Other than Louis Hébert, the only other people doing any amount of farming were the missionaries.
  • After the King sent the Filles du Roi and the Carignan-Salière Regiment to New France, there were enough people in the colony engaged in farming to make a difference.
  • Carignan-Salière regimental flag
  • Louis Hébert and the Jesuits were the first to be given land grants. Most of the land went to wealthy people who were responsible for bringing settlers to farm their land. The largest land owners were the religious institutions. Officers from the Carignan-Salière Regiment who chose to stay in the New World were given seigneuries. Soldiers who had served under them often married a filles du roi and settled on the lands of their commanding officer. Many of them were wanderers and became trappers or coureur de bois. Laws were eventually passed regulating the fur trade in an attempt to keep more people farming on the land.
  • In the 1666 census, 50% of the settlers were engaged in a trade besides farming. Many did not have a farming background in France.
  • Pension alimentaire-the 17th-century version of social security. An older couple would give their property to a child, often a younger child because the older ones were already established, in exchange for that child taking care of the couple in their old age. Some property was given to children throughout the parent’s life.
  • Wine and brandy were imported every year. The colonists did establish breweries, but they still preferred their wine and brandy.
  • The early homes were built of logs; later homes of stone. But the wind often blew through cracks in the buildings.
Interior of a Canadian house

Interior of a Canadian house: Horatio Walker, Intérieur de maison (Inside of House), 1886, Watercolor on paper, 14 x 23 cm, Collection: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, 1934.539, Photo : MNBAQ, Jean-Guy Kérouac.


Native Relationships

  • The French first established relations with the Algonquins. The Natives did not want to settle in permanent settlements, as the French tried to influence them to do.
  • The Huron lived about 900 miles to the northwest and contributed to the fur trade. They did live in settlements, and every spring would bring their furs down the river to Trois-Rivières.
  • The fur trade began in the 1500s when the Natives would trade furs with the fishermen fishing off the northeast coast of the New World.
  • Although Champlain tried to get along with all the Native tribes, early on he allied himself with the Algonquin and Huron making an enemy of the Iroquois. The Huron were backed by the French; the Iroquois were allied with the English. This lead to deteriorating conditions resulting in the Carignan-Salière Regiment coming to New France to deal with the Iroquois threat.
  • Disease from 1637-1638 decimated the Native population. The Huron lost about 2/3 of their population, resulting in the inability to bring furs to the French each year. So the French had to hunt and trap and gather the furs themselves.
  • Disease also lead to a reduction in Natives found in Québec itself. The religious brought education to the Natives by teaching them in schools. As time went by, fewer and fewer Natives were in the classroom; the majority of students were French.
  • The first marriage between a Frenchman and a Native girl was that of Martin Provost and a young Algonquin girl, Marie Olivier, raised by the French.
Marriage record

Marriage of Martin Provost and Marie Olivier, sauvagesse; from the Drouin Institute, Québec Records,

  • Champlain’s goal was to see the French and the Natives form one society; therefore, he encouraged the French to live among the Indians and learn their language and customs. The Natives were much more casual in their relationships. Any children born stayed with the mother. This Métis population began from the beginning.
  • Consumption of alcohol was devastating to the Indians. The French realized that trading alcohol to the Indians was not a great idea, yet they were afraid that if they didn’t, the Natives would begin trading their furs instead with the English.
  • One of my favorite quotes from the book: It’s easier for Frenchmen to follow Native ways  than for the Amerindians to become French. This quote is from Mother Marie de l’Incarnation. Her Native students didn’t want to stay long in the school; they wanted to get back to their free Native ways. Keep in mind that the Native life was not an easy one to begin with.

Contact Susan McNelley

You can reach Susan through her website, Tracings by SAM.



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2 comments on “MSS-033-Hélène’s World-part 2

  1. Suzanne Boivin Sommerville

    Another worthwhile podcast, Sandra. Thank you, Susan Neeley. If I may, I would like to comment on a common misconception about property transfers or inheritance that affirms that the eldest son was always in some way favored at the expense of younger sons or daughters. While this was true under some French legal “customs,” it was not true under the Custom of Paris that ruled such transactions in New France. For an idea of the inheritance of property in New France, see especially the first part of my

    “André Roy dit Pacanne, Son of Pierre Roy and Marguerite OuabanKiKoué, and his Brother, François Roy, Voyageur and Interpreter, Part 2: A Question of Property”

    Feel free to read Part 1 as well, but Part 2 deals with the legal inheritance procedures of the children of Pierre Roy, an inheritance that was shared equally among all of the children, male and female alike. It is not the only property document under the Custom of Paris that I have studied.
    The link is on the right side of this page of the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan at

    For a discussion of the Marriage Contract under the Custom of Paris in New France, see the left side of the page at

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Hélène’s World more than a year ago!

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