Quebec’s Notarial Records

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.
  • Wills
  • Estate Inventories
  • Division of estates
  • “Gifts of the Living” donating property to friend and relatives
  • Guardianships
  • Depositions
  • 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.

Marriage Contracts in Quebec

Today our notion of marriage is built on the concept of finding a life partner, falling in love, and getting married. This romanticized idea of marriage is perpetuated in modern popular culture, especially music and the cinema. But this ideal is a modern creation, and has not always been the case.

Prior to the twentieth century, marriage was considered an alliance between families. Fathers controlled who their children married. Not only did they look to make matches that would ensure their’ children’s financial security, they looked for alliances between families that would increase their social status as well.

In 1556, Henri II declared that all men under 30 and all women under 25 would now need parental consent to marry. In cases of disagreement about a potential marriage, the opinion of the father would prevail. In addition to the consent of the parents, the Catholic Church required the presence of a priest as well as witnesses to the marriage.

This tie to economics led to the development of marriage contracts. These ensured  that all parties lived up to their commitments, financial and otherwise. The settlers of New France brought this tradition with them to the colony, and it remains a common part of Quebecois marriages today.

About the time of the marriage, the parties would go to a notary and sign a marriage contract (contrat de mariage). This document would set out what the bride’s dower would be, what the groom would bring to the marriage, and penalties for either if they were the cause of the marriage not taking place. They also might include a distribution plan for the couples’ assets after their deaths.

For genealogists, marriage contracts are an extremely valuable resource. They often list the names of parents and other family members, as they are often involved in the contract. They can be used to document a marriage where no church record survives. They can give you an economic picture of your family at a given point in time. They can help document a place of residence for your ancestors at a particular time. They can also, based on the language of the contract, give you an idea of how well the two families got along, and if there were any distrust between or suspicion between them.

Notarial records are notoriously difficult to locate. There were no regulations concerning jurisdictions for notaries. One could use a notary anywhere in the province. Thus, records could be located far distant from where the parties lived. Ancestry.com has a database with indexes to many (although not all) notarial records. The records themselves are not yet online there, but if you can locate a record in their index, you can find which branch of the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales de Québec (www.banq.qc.ca) holds the records for that notary. With this information, you can write to that branch and get copies of the records. The information that these records provide are well worth the effort to locate them. You can also find images of some marriage contracts online at www.genealogiequebec.com.

For more on the history of marriage contracts in France, see Larousse de la Généalogie: À la recherche de vos racines  (Paris: Larousse/Vuef, 2002) 128–31.