French-Canadian Names and Family Associations (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: French Canadian Ancestors  by Louise St Denis. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Names[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Surnames did not exist in France before the 10th century. It was only after the population began growing that surnames were required to distinguish families. It was not until 1539 that it became law that fathers would transfer their names to their children.

Many family names can establish the geographic location for ancestors. And sometimes, the last name established the occupation or other traits of character. Often surnames are joined or connected to other surnames. In this situation, once you have established which other surnames may be related to the one you are researching, it is then necessary to systematically look through all those other names.

You will often recognize these joined names by the addition of the word (dit) between both names; for example in my family research the name ‘Legault dit Deslauriers’ was found.

Dit Names[edit | edit source]

The dit names were legal and official. Sometimes the dit name was just added to the surname; at other times it replaced the surname, then reverted back to the original surname in later generations. Although the dit names existed for two centuries, they disappeared during the 20th century.

The dit names were used to identify different lines in large families. But not all large families used this method of identification. For example the surname Tremblay is from a very large family, but they did not use dit names. But the family name Rivard has 12 different dit names.

How did dit names get established?

  • The dit names often came from the name of the country, city, town, French province, or parish the individual family was from. For example Daigle dit l’Allemand was from Germany.
  • Sometimes the given or first name became the dit name: descendants of Germain Gauthier could become Gauthier dit Germain.
  • Soldiers often took on the name of the regiment as a dit name.
  • Short surnames were sometimes added to the first name: Gaston Guay dit Gastonguay.
  • And sometimes mother’s surnames were added as dit names.

Unfortunately, another problem which frequently occurs is a change in the spelling of the name. Often the priest or individual recording the event simply wrote the name as it sounded. A good example of this was found in my own family research; the name Legault was written out as Lego.

As far as given or first names are concerned, they can also cause some problems. Just like today, some people did not like their given names, so they would use another name. Nicknames were also often used.

When you find an entry which has a different given name than the one expected, but all other information that fits, verify the information through another source document. Your good detective skills may prove worthwhile.

An online list of dit names is provided by the American-French Genealogical Society. They also have an online list of Given names Variants.

For detailed information regarding surnames and given names, these books may be appropriate:

  • Laberge, Claude, Dictionnaire étymologique des noms et prénoms de France.
  • Jetté, René, and Micheline Lécuyer, Répertoire des noms de famille du Québec des origines à 1825 (Montréal: Institut généalogique J.L., 1988).

This book lists surnames found in Québec with suggestions as to which names to check as dit names or names that have simply been changed through the years. You should also consult the 7th volume of the Tanguay dictionary. A partial list of last names is included. Also see the Jetté dictionary.

So when you can’t find the name you are looking for, try sounding the name out for a variety of spellings. If that does not bring results, try looking under all names associated with the family name you are researching. Be creative.

Family Associations[edit | edit source]

Many family associations have been formed over the years to group family members together.

Family associations are instrumental in helping you find missing links in your family tree.

Often newsletters are prepared for the association with updates from different branches of the family. Family reunions are organized. Family information and treasures are often displayed in a special genealogical room. And a storytelling time is often arranged. This can be interesting to add anecdotes and stories to your family history.

Contacting a family association for the surname you are researching can be quite rewarding. For more information on family associations and for a list, contact:

Fédération des familles souches québécoises
650, rue Graham-Bell, Bureau SS-09
Québec, Québec G1N 4H5
Mailing address:
C.P. 10090 Succ Sainte-Foy
Québec, Québec G1V 4C6
Telephone: (418) 653-2137

Le Centre de généalogie francophone d’Amérique
Several family associations have their URLs listed on Le Centre de généalogie francophone d’Amérique website.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Research: French Canadian Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.