MSS-056-Health and Sickness in New France (Hélène’s World-Part 4)

Episode 056-December 1, 2016

mss-056-header-image-jpg-ver-2In this episode, Susan McNelley, author of Hélène’s World: Hélène Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Québec, joins us again, this time for a look at the health concerns of our pioneer ancestors. What diseases were most prevalent? Whom did they turn to for help? How can you get a general idea of the health of your ancestors?

It took four tries to put this episode together, so a big thanks to Susan McNelley for sticking with it until we had a viable product. And thanks also to Pat McGrath who is always willing to help me test out new recording software so I can find something that works.

Health and Sickness in New France

During this interview, Susan and I discussed the following:

Illnesses in New France

Our pioneer ancestors were healthier than their counterparts in France.

Although these diseases were serious for the French settlers, they were devastating for the Natives.

  • Scurvy
  • Smallpox
  • Measles
  • Diphtheria and scarlet fever (identified by symptoms, not today’s name for the disease)
  • Influenza
  • Viral hepatitis
  • Typhus
  • Plague

The French brought syphilis back to Europe.

Medical personnel

  • The first physician who came to New France at the end of the seventeenth century was Michel Sarrazin.
  • Surgeons were trained in schools for barbers and surgeons. They were the hands-on practitioners who carried out the treatments prescribed by the physicians. Robert Giffard was one of the first surgeons in the colony.
  • Hospital nuns arrived in the colony in 1639 when the Augustinian nuns established the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec. Three years later, the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal began serving the colonists from that area.
  • Midwives were important to the colony because women had such large families. Initial training was informal, but by the early 1600s, there were schools for midwives in Paris. Marguerite Langlois, wife of Abraham Martin, was the colony’s first midwife. Hélène Desportes was the second mentioned in the records.
  • Apothecaries had to be members of the Catholic Church and approved by the Church in order to practice. Louis Hébert, Canada’s first farmer, was an apothecary in Paris who brought his skills with him to New France. He was responsible for mixing and dispensing medicines according to the physician’s instructions.

Health and sickness among the Natives

  • Natives treated illnesses with herbal teas, poultices, fasting, purging, bloodletting, and sweat lodges.
  • Tobacco was prized by Native Americans for restorative purposes as well as ceremonial purposes. They knew that it diminished hunger and thirst.
  • Natives did not use amputation. They did use splints and cauterization, and could stitch wounds using a fiber from the tendon of a deer’s leg.
  • Sickness was the realm of the medicine man.

Determining the general health of your ancestors

  • Church and civil records (guardianship papers and inventories, many available through or provide clues.
  • Cause of death due to sickness is rarely stated. Unusual instances such as accidents often are.
  • The PRDH (see episode #26) records and links families. The researcher can get glimpses of the overall health of the family by paying attention to details such as longevity and children who lived to adulthood. By paying attention to multiple deaths during a short time period and researching historical accounts, you may be able to determine if your ancestor possibly died during an epidemic. The PRDH also contains hospital records.
  • Town histories give an indication of the health of your ancestor and what resources were available to them.

Other episodes with Susan McNelley

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out Susan’s other interviews for a look at the lives of our pioneer ancestors.

  • MSS-020-Hélène’s World-part 1
  • MSS-033-Hélène’s World-part 2
  • MSS-043-The Role of Religion in New France (Hélène’s World-Part 3)

Other Links



This is a repeat offer from Dr. Elizabeth Blood of Salem State University. She is looking for French samples for her French language translation class.

Last year several of us sent in journal articles or notary records. Now it’s your turn; scan your materials and get them ready. Even a genealogy society took advantage of the offer and sent in an introduction to a French-language genealogy book. Make sure your documents are easy to read. See if your local French-Canadian genealogy library has a copy of the multi-volume set of Transcriptions d’actes notariés by Fleurette Asselin and Jean-Marie Tanguay published by the Genealogy Club of Longueuil. They have transcribed the often hard-to-read French script into typed text that Dr. Blood’s students should be able to handle. Mail your copies to eblood [at] salemstate [dot] edu with “MSS Translation” in the subject line.

You should receive your translations around May or June. If you’d like to share them, send a copy of the original with the translation and I’ll post them on my website so others may benefit from the translations also.

Hall of Fame

On October 14, two of Maple Stars and Stripes past guests were inducted into the American-French Genealogical Society’s French-Canadian Hall of Fame. Both Lucie LeBlanc Consentino from episodes 19, 29, 30, and 50 and Leslie Choquette from episode #54 were awarded this great honor in a very moving ceremony at the Society’s headquarters in Woonsocket, RI. If you’d like to watch their acceptance of the awards, you can go to Kudos to the AFGS for putting on such a wonderful annual program!

NERGC Conference

Join us in Springfield, Massachusetts, from April 26-29, for the 2017 New England Regional Genealogical Consortium conference with guest speakers Thomas MacEntee, Warren Bittner, and Kenyatta Berry. An entire track on Friday is dedicated to French-Canadian genealogy. Topics include:

  • French-Canadian Genealogy: Getting Started with Margaret Fortier
  • Finding Your French-Canadian Immigrant Origins in Europe with Michael LeClerc
  • French-Canadian Immigrants and Catholic Sacramental Records with Denise Picard Lindgren
  • Beyond Repertoires and Indexes: Finding and Using Original Documents in French-Canadian Research with Michael LeClerc
  • Tracking Your Ancestor across the Border into Quebec with George Findlen (episodes 35 and 42)

Early bird registration is in effect until February 28, 2017. You can download the conference brochure and register for the conference at


Survey 54

Question: Which genealogy podcasts, other than Maple Stars and Stripes, do you listen to? Only currently updated shows were included. Choices were: Ancestral Findings, Extreme Genes, the Family Tree Magazine podcast, the Forget-Me-Not Hour, Genealogy Connection (packaged with Genealogy Guys), Genealogy Gems, the Genealogy Professional, the Genealogy Guys, Geneatopia, and Research at the National Archives and Beyond!

The results told us a couple of things. First, how many genealogy podcasts does the Maple Stars and Stripes audience listen to? 50% listen to three podcasts as well as Maple Stars and Stripes. 30% listen to five others or one other. 20% listen to nine, six, or two others. 10% listen to all ten of them, none of them, or four others. And no one listens to seven or eight others. On average, Maple Stars and Stripes listeners consume four other genealogy podcasts besides this one.

Which are the top three genealogy podcasts according to you? 55% of the audience chose, for third place, Genealogy Guys. There was a tie for second place at 65% between Extreme Genes and the Family Tree Magazine podcast. And in first place, the most listened to podcast among MSS listeners at 75%, was Genealogy Gems. So if you’re not familiar with some of these podcasts, use the links above and give them a listen. You might discover something new and wonderful.

Survey graphicSurvey 56

This month’s survey question: Which podcasts, other than those specifically about genealogy, do you recommend to other genealogists? These could be on history, language, travel, organization and record keeping, technology, anything that other genealogists might find useful. Go through your subscription list and pick out ones that you think the rest of us, or at least some of us, might like. List the name of the podcast and why another genealogist might be interested. Word-of-mouth is the way I’ve discovered many wonderful podcasts, so here’s your chance to help out fellow genealogists.

French-Canadian News

What's Happening HeaderThe Franco-American Centre

December 16, 2016, from 6-10 PM at the Stark Brewing Company in Manchester, NH: Soirée de Noel and Volunteer Appreciation Night. Bring your musical instruments for “Open Mic” night and sing or play your favorite French or English songs and carols.

The Quebec Family History Society

December 17, 1 to 4 PM, at the QFHS Heritage Centre and Library in Pointe-Claire, Quebec: How Do I Find My Ancestors in Quebec?

Classes are held at the QFHS Heritage Centre and Library in Pointe-Claire, Quebec.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All

Merry Christmas

Get Maple Stars and Stripes

How to Contact Maple Stars and Stripes






2 comments on “MSS-056-Health and Sickness in New France (Hélène’s World-Part 4)

  1. Suzanne Boivin Sommerville

    Thank you, Sandra and Susan. Another excellent podcast. Much has been made of the devastation caused by the transmission of smallpox to Native Americans by Europeans. This was, of course, a tragic consequence of two populations, previously unknown to each other, coming into contact and not a deliberate act. A later event puts another slant on the issue of unintended transmission of disease. Native Americans also spread the disease. The years of 1731-33 saw an outbreak of smallpox in New France. In a letter dated 1 May 1733, Governal-general Beauharnois in the mother colony refers to having already informed Pontchartrain in France “of the ravages caused by small pox among the Villages of the Five Iroquois Nations.” He also writes: “From the News I have received I learn that It is decreasing there But that It has spread among all the nations, and that the Miamis and Poutouatamis Among others have lost many Persons. Brandy, which they went to get from the English, has also contributed to their ruin.” May 30 at Montréal, he writes: “la petite vérole et une fièvre maligne continuent de faire des ravages à Détroit ainsi que chez les Miamis et les Ouiatanons”: “smallpox and a malignant fever continues to ravage Detroit as well as among the Miami, then at what is now Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the Ouiatanon, a branch of the Miami at Lafayette, Indiana. Thus it seems the smallpox traveled from Iroquoia to the Miami via the Indians who had gone to trade with the English. Considering the time it took for messages from the pays d’en haut to reach the mother colony, the trading evidently took place sometime before the fall of 1732. I have documented the disease at Fort Pontchartrain (Detroit) in 1732 and 1733. It also spread to the mother colony of New France. French Canadians born in the New World also contracted the disease, no longer having the immunity their parents or grandparents might have had.

    A 1733 October 14 letter from Beauharnois and Hocquart to the minister in France says there were close to 2000 deaths in the colony from “la petite vérole.” Work had to be suspended. [Sources: C11A, Volume 59, fol. 8-9v, excerpt from ArchiviaNet and C11A, Volume 59, fol. 163-206, excerpt from ArchiviaNet. ] My examination of the registers for Montréal and Québec City for 1733 shows that almost all of the deaths recorded are French Canadians, page after page, often of young children. The outbreak prevented the domiciled Indians (those who had settled in New France) from trading with the English.

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