Land Ownership in Canada

Our French-Canadian ancestors had a far different system of land ownership than we, their Franco-American descendants, are used to. The seigneurial system, born out of feudal France, requires we think of researching their property records in different ways.

In the earliest days of the settlement, the crown granted large swaths of land to the Company of New France (also known as the Company of One Hundred Associates), various branches of the church, and to a limited number of individuals. These grants were called seigneuries. Individuals who received the grants were called seigneurs. The church and the company acted as the seigneur for their grants.

The seigneurs would then give their own grants to individuals, who would pay a cens (a small annual cash payment) and rent, much larger and usually a combination of cash, crops, and farm animals. These were the habitants who cleared the land and created farms. They were usually referred to in official documents as censitaires.

Waterways were the primary method of travel in New France, thus everyone wanted easy access to them. Seigneuries usually had a certain amount of frontage on the river, with the land extending deep back from there. The seigneuries would then be further subdivided with each censitaire receiving a certain amount of frontage, with the rest of the land going back from there.

Censitaires were able to assign their property to others. They could buy or sell rights to property, or leave their property to their children through a will, division of estate, or other method. As censitaires distributed their land to their children, the property would be further subdivided. Eventually the land would become a series of tiny strips moving away from the water.

Once the seigneury was divided and no further frontage was available, the land would be subdivided into ranges (pronounced like rang in the phrase “rang the bell”). A second range of subdivisions would be created by the first. In some cases, a third or fourth (or more) range might eventually be created. These were seldom neat, straight lines. Natural occurrences (such as marsh/swamp land, ravines, and more) might impact the way the land was granted. The lower the range, the greater the likelihood that your ancestor might have been more economically successful.

The seigneurial system of land tenure continued even after the Conquest. It continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century until the passage of the Feudal Abolition Act of 1854. It was not until well into the twentieth century, however, that the seigneuries were all finally totally gone.

Records of these rentals, as well as sales and purchases of individuals’ rights to property, are found in the notarial records. Remember that not all transactions were handled locally, and the notaire in the seigneurie may not by the one who handled all the legal contracts surrounding the property of your ancestors.

For more information on the history of land and property in Quebec, see:

Harris, Richard Colebrook. The Seigneurial System in Early Canada Madison, Wisc.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

Munro, William Bennett. Documents Relating to the Seigneurial Tenure in Canada, 1598–1854 New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968. First published 1908 by the Champlain Society.

5 Alternative Sources for Death Information

The Social Security Death Index used to be the go-to place for genealogists to find information on those who have died recently. Unfortunately, Congress has now removed our access for the most recent three years, providing us with major problems in trying to find deaths in this time period. Indexes to death records are not always available online. And obituaries are not published as frequently as they used to be.

I was recently contacted by a friend. He had seen posts on Facebook indicating that the wife of his ex might have passed away, but he wanted to be certain before sending condolences. Since the death would have been in New York City last year, accessing a death record was out. No obituary could be found. So, the question became “Where to look next?” Here are five resources I checked, ultimately leading to confirmation of the death.

1. Funeral Homes
As newspapers charge more and more to publish obituaries, funeral homes and mortuaries are taking their place as publishers of these notices. While most have websites that leave this information open to search engines, not all do. Look for funeral homes in the area where your subject lived, and check for obituaries and death notices there.

2. Probate Records
When someone dies owning property, a record of the estate is usually created in the probate courts. Many localities have made indexes for modern records available online. Check these to see if a person’s estate has been entered into probate. When dealing with common names, one has to be very careful to use more evidence to confirm that the person is the subject of the search. You might need to view the probate record to determine if the identification is correct.

3. Land Records
Nowadays, many people create trusts to minimize tax penalties on estates. Unfortunately, these trusts can escape registration in the probate system, removing that as a resource for us. However, if your subject owned real estate, you may be able to find information there. Many localities are making not only their deed indexes accessible online, but also images of the records themselves. Look for information in these transactions. Often a surviving spouse will sell the property, and there will be a notation that the other spouse is deceased. Survivors will also often take out a mortgage, or refinance an existing mortgage, on the property. This can give you evidence of the death of one of the property owners.

4. Find a Grave/Billion Graves
More and more, contributors are adding information to these sites about recent burials. These are not always accompanied by photographs, but often have at least bare bones information on them. Some comes from death notices in small community newspapers that might run death notices or news items that are more difficult to find in the massive results of a search engine.

5. Church Notices
This is the record that actually lead to the confirmation of my subject’s death. Funerals rarely get notices in church bulletins because they usually happen too quickly. Depending on the denomination, however, there might be a later scheduled memorial service. In the Catholic church that my subject was a member of, a mass was said in her memory. While it does not confirm the exact date of death, it does show that she was deceased by the time the mass was said. Another clue can be the date of such memorial masses, which often occur near to the anniversary of the death.

Five Books for Your Reference Shelf

Despite the easy availability of information, good genealogists know that sometimes old school books are still the best way to learn and get information. Here are five books that deserve a prominent place on every genealogist’s reference bookshelf.

Elements of Genealogical AnalysisElements of Genealogical Analysis: How to Maximize Your Research Using the Great Migration Study Project Method
Robert Charles Anderson, FASG
(Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014)

Thirty years in the making, this book is an inside look into the strict research methodology used by those involved in the Great Migration Study Project, the scholarly project to document the origins of this group of seventeenth-century immigrants to New England. The first section is devoted to analytical tools for sources, records, and linkages. The second section discusses the problem-solving sequence from problem selection to problem resolution.


Going to the SourcesGoing to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing, Fifth Edition
Anthony Brundage
(Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons, 2013)

First published in 1989, this work is a great introduction to the process of historical research. While it focuses on the study of history, the skills are also applicable to genealogy. And good genealogists know that history is a major component of our research. It is brief, only 7 chapters and 5 appendixes in 176 pages.



Money and ExchangeMoney & Exchange in Europe & America, 1600–1775: A Handbook
John J. McCusker
(Williamsburg, Va.: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1978)

In modern America, our currency is guaranteed by the federal government. This has not always been the case, however, especially in the colonial era. Terms like bills of credit; pounds, shillings, and pence; sterling; old tenor; current tenor; Proclamation Money; Lawful Money and more are often found in the documents we use in genealogy. But do you really understand what each of these terms mean? And how money in the colonies was linked to money in countries around the world? McCusker does an excellent job of explaining money and the way it was used in simple terms that can provide a greater understanding of your ancestors’ lives.

Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records
Patricia Law Hatcher, FASG, FGSP
(Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2016)

This work is an excellent resource for understanding the records left behind by your ancestors concerning their real estate. Whether the ancestors lived in state-land states or public-land states, this book will help you find the records and show you how to interpret them to get the most information from them. Originally published in 2003 by Betterway Books and long out of print, it has been reissued by the Genealogical Publishing Company. Although not a complete revision, it has been reviewed for obsolete references and information which has been either updated or deleted.


Women and the Law of PropertyWomen and the Law of Property in Early America
Marylynn Salmon
(Chapel Hill, N.Carol.: University of North Carolina, 1986)

Researching women can be one of the most challenging aspects of research for American genealogists. Could women own property? Could they sign contracts? What happened to their property when they were widowed? What about unmarried women? Salmon cuts through the misinformation and explains what the real implications were based on the law, and how that can impact your ancestral research.