Background Information About Quebec

Photo: William Notman, I-33938, McCord Museum
These backgrounders will help you better understand the sequence of important events, land grants, and civil law in Quebec that may lead you to finding important records for your family history research. 
Birth, Marriage and Death Records
Up to 1759, the non-native population in Quebec was predominantly Catholic, since no Protestant churches were permitted, and nearly 95 percent of our European immigrant population at the time came from France.
Since 1765, the part of the population that is considered French or Francophone has maintained itself at 80 to 85 percent Catholic. The other ethnic groups generally kept their religions. This is an important point because up to 1993, Quebec's official vital statistics are classified by religion.
The vital statistics of Quebec were maintained by the Catholic Church (for the Catholics), and after 1765 (for the non-Catholics) by the ministers and rabbis. Civil marriages have only been permitted since 1969. This all changed in 1993 with changes to the Vital Statistics Act.
On one hand, we have the Catholic registers where the marriages are almost always present and complete and are often found indexed in an assortment of repositories. On the other hand, the early non-Catholic registers are often missing the names of the parents, at least up to the 20th century.
The principal tools used by Quebec genealogists are those of the Catholic Church's marriage records, mostly in repositories that have been classified by county. Some databases, such as the Loiselle and the Drouin, contain between 500,000 and one million names.
Counties in the Eastern Townships
The Eastern Townships of Quebec are roughly bounded between the 45° and 47° latitude, and 70° and 73° longitude in the southeastern part of the Province of Quebec, south of the St. Lawrence River, north of the New England states, and east of the Richelieu River.
There are numerous mountains, rolling hills, river valleys, and very good farm land in the Eastern Townships. The area was predominately English speaking in its early years and many United Empire Loyalists settled here.
There are twelve counties and 87 townships in this part of Quebec. Over the years there have been some name changes, and the list below provides the names of the counties in 1978. In recent years, the government of Quebec has consolidated administratively and renamed many areas in the province. For that reason, some counties no longer retain their original name and, for example, now appear as Brome-Missisquoi instead of the two separate counties, Brome and Missisquoi.
Counties and Townships of the Eastern Townships c.1978
Horton, Bulstrode, Blandford, Stanfold, Arthabaska, Chester, Tingwick, Warwick, Simpson
BROME Farnham, Brome, Bolton, Potton, Sutton
COMPTON Westbury, Bury, Lingwick, Hampden, Ditton, Auckland, Clifton, Compton, Eaton, Newport, Hereford
DRUMMOND Grantham, Wendover, Simpson, Kingsey, Durham, Wickham
FRONTENAC* Adstock, Forsyth, Dorset, Marlow, Risborough, Spalding, Ditchfield, Louise, Clinton, Woburn, Chesham, Marston, Whitton, Winslow, Gayhurst, Aylmer, Lampton, Price
MEGANTIC Somerset, Nelson, Inverness, Leeds, Thetford, Coleraine, Ireland, Halifax
MISSISQUOI** Dunham, Stanbridge, West Farnham,
RICHMOND Melbourne, Cleveland, Shipton, Windsor, Stoke, Brompton
SHEFFORD Milton, Roxton, Ely, Stukely, Granby, Shefford
SHERBROOKE Orford, Ascot
STANSTEAD Magog, Hatley, Barford, Barnston, Stanstead
WOLFE Wotton, Noth & South Ham, Wolfeston, Garthby, Stratford, Weedon, Dudswell
* Some include Frontenac in what is now called the Eastern Townships, and some do not. Some of the references of the late 1800s include the Counties of Beauharnois and Chateauguay, but they are definitely outside the pale in any recent standards, being instead part of what is usually referred to now as the Chateauguay Valley.
** The seigneuries of St. Armand East and West were also in Missisquoi County, and in later years, were called parishes.
Notarial Records
In the Quebec civil law system, wills and land transactions are normally handled by a notary, rather than a lawyer. In the rest of Canada, it is a lawyer who typically handles wills and land transactions.
The notary keeps a copy of all files, or greffes, as long as he/she practices. Upon retiring, the notary turns over the files to their successor. When a notary dies, the files are transferred to the courthouse. About 100 years later, the last record is transferred to an archive.
There are printed guides available at QFHS and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec that list all notaries who have ever practised in Quebec, including the years they practised and the archival centre where their records have been deposited.
When searching for a notarial record, keep in mind that you may encounter three different county names:
  • Land registry county;
  • Electoral county name; and
  • New, recently introduced Regional Municipality county names.
Seigneurial Land Holding System
French Regime
During the French Regime, land holding was held in accordance to the seigneurial system:
  • the king owned the land, and in turn,
  • granted it in large blocks to the seigneurs,
  • who in turn rented it in smaller parcels to the habitants. 
The seigneurs, who could also be a religious order rather than an individual, paid the king rent, and were responsible for:
  • colonisation and development,
  • defense,
  • local government.
​The habitant had to:
  • serve his " corvées," a few days work a year to the seigneurs; either on his farm or on communal property, e.g., roads,
  • pay his rent, " cens and rentes," a blend of money and produce or animals,
  • required to use the seigneur's mill to grind his grain, " banalite."
While arrangements were made to transfer the use of land/buildings, other than by direct inheritance, "lods et ventes" were due the seigneur. (Remember the king owned the land.)
The system was feudal, paternal, hierarchal, and was fixed by law. Generally, with exception of the religious orders, private/free enterprise colonisation did not work, and the king stepped in by bringing out settlers directly from 1663 to c.1700.
With time, the province was divided into Administrative Districts or Gouvernements. Each Administrative District was sub-divided into Parishes. Each Parish had a "curé" (priest) as its religious head and a captain of militia as the local authority in civil and military matters.
Each district, except the Gaspé, had seigneuries. In 1760 the Gouvernements were:
  • Quebec City,
  • Trois-Rivières,
  • Montreal.
​See Paroisses et Missions du Quebec, Hormisdas Magnan, 1925, which provides the history of each parish and the names of the towns, counties, etc., of Quebec. The Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec in Montreal owns various collections of Seigneurial documents.
End of the Seigneurial System
Quebec Act of 1774
Following the British acquisition of New France, and the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1763 some adjustments were necessary to the Seigneurial (land holding) system. In the legal arena, English criminal law was adopted, but it was found necessary to retain French civil law, and these facets were recognized in the Quebec Act of 1774.
Lower Canada and Upper Canada Created in 1791
Following the American Revolution, the large influx of Loyalists from the US created major problems of adjustment between two quite different peoples in terms of their systems; legal, religious and social. This problem was partially solved in 1791 by splitting Quebec into two parts: Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario). Many of the Loyalists settled in the Sorel area, Eastern Townships, and some in the Chateauguay Valley areas, where an early attempt at a Crown grant scheme, instead of the Seigneurial system, was made.
Seigneurial System Abolished in 1854
From 1763 to 1791, various schemes were tried to move from the Seigneurial system. Finally in 1854, it was abolished, and all land became freehold, not without problems, and more years were to pass before it was finalized.
Printed guides are available at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec of those who held land under Seigneurial tenure when the system was abolished.
In the conversion process, the land identification also had to be rationalized and a renumbering took place.
Under the British system, acquisition of Crown land was by petition to the Governor, stating the reason for a grant. Generally a petition, when found, will give more genealogical information than the subsequent patent or deed, which will give, however, a land description, location and acreage.
In Quebec, List of Lands Granted by the Crown in the Province of Quebec from 1763 to 31st December 1890, arranged by townships within counties, and indexed by grantees, was published in 1891 by order of the Quebec Legislature. Records of subsequent transactions are the responsibility of the Ministère de la Justice, operating through the Bureaux d'enregistrement of the various judicial districts. (There are currently 55 different land record offices. While you can do your own research, there is an hourly rate charged, and you will require an address, i.e., street or lot and concession.)
Researching Quebec Land Records
QFHS owns a copy of List of Lands Granted by the Crown in the Province of Quebec from 1763 to 31st December 1890 in our Library, and our volunteers can do searches for you.
Reading the preamble in the List of Lands Granted by the Crown in the Province of Quebec from 1763 to 31st December 1890 provides insight into the problems encountered in the transition from the French to the English land grant system, and the deals that occurred. All the major/fraud grants are listed and you may find one of your ancestors listed there. In addition, it may help with your understanding of the land granting process at a particular point in time after 1763.
It has been said that in Ontario it is easier to find a land record than a person, and in Quebec, it is easier to find a person than a land record. Recognizing the historical background, with all its changes, the underlying truth of this statement for the earlier period becomes evident.