Our French-Canadian ancestors left us a rich resource in the Catholic parish registers. While these provide us with a great skeleton of vital information (showing us when and where our ancestors were born, married and died), there is much more to learning about our ancestors’ lives than that.
Quebec’s legal system is much more complicated than those elsewhere. It is a compromise born out of the dual histories of France and Britain in North America. While the criminal law follows British law, the civil code is founded in the French tradition, the “coutume de Paris.”
The notarial system handles all aspects of contract law; any agreements between people. Notaries would also prepare testimony and other documents that might be used in the court system. Among the types of records you might find with the notaries are:
- Marriage contracts (prenuptial agreements that might include dower, disposition of the estate, etc.)
- Purchases and Sales of both real and personal property.
- Estate Inventories
- Division of estates
- “Gifts of the Living” donating property to friend and relatives
- Employment contracts
There is no provincial-wide index to these records at the moment. Ancestry is working on one, but it is a long way from complete. Eventually the database will include records as well as indexes. At the moment, however, it includes only some indexes to some of the notaries. It is, however, a prime resource and should be consulted.
The Parchemin Index provides abstracts of all notarial records through 1799. While an excellent resource, it is not available online to anyone; one must go to a library in person to access it. Select libraries in Canada offer access. To the best of my knowledge, the New England Historic Genealogical Society is the only library in the US that provides access. If you can’t visit in person, you can always hire a researcher to go there to search the index for you, or hire NEHGS’ research services to do so.
In addition to the records available on Ancestry, you can find limited collections elsewhere. Perhaps the largest is on FamilySearch, which has some nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century records available for browsing. Genealogy Quebec has some notarial records from the Drouin Collection. And the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales de Québec (BANQ) also has some records available online through the Pistard portal.
Many indexes have been published in book form as well, such as the Inventaire des contrats de mariage du régime français conserveś aux Archives judiciaires de Québec and Inventaire des testaments, donations et inventaires du régime français conservés aux Archives judiciaires de Québec, both by Pierre-Georges Roy.
If you do find records in any of the indexes and they are not available online, you can order a copy directly from BANQ. Send them a request that includes the name of the notary, date of the record, record number, and the party or parties involved in the record.
These records have been woefully underused because they have been difficult to access and understand. But they contain a wealth of information about your ancestors. Imagine this: Shortly after a couple marries (marriage contract) they hire people to build their house (employment contracts). When the they die, their will or wills tell you how the property will be distributed (testaments) and how the house is furnished (inventaires). How much more vivid is the picture you have of your ancestor’s live now?
If you are interested in learning more about how to use notarial records, check out our upcoming Genealogy Masterclasses on notarial records that deal with vital events and property and business records.