Paper trails of the Eastern Townships settlers


A collaboration of Marlene Simmons,
August 1999

 
 Today, in our computerized world, we all leave a wide paper
trail, there are lots and lots of documents involving our births,
marriages (if we tie the knot) and eventually our burials.  But our
ancestors lived in far different times and we have to accept that as
we build our trees.  Not everyone left an easily followed paper trail.

 Now as you all know, Quebec family and non-criminal law
works under the French Civil Code and not British Common law.
So that means that churches were responsible for collecting what
we consider vital records--baptisms, marriages and burials.

 Under the Code, each church was expected to keep two
registers, one to stay in the church, the other to be deposited
annually at the local courthouse.  The courthouse book became
the civil record.

 One obvious problem comes right to mind when you read that,
doesn't it?  These priests and ministers were men of faith, not all of
them had great clerical skills ... and so not all the registers are
exact copies.  Occasionally pages stuck together, so sometimes
records were not copied from the church version into the
courthouse version.  Sometimes copying errors were made, so
dates don't match.

 Most of the microfilm to which we have access here in Quebec
is the civil copy of the church register.

 In the earliest days of settlement in the Townships, only two
churches were allowed to keep civil registers--the Roman Catholic
Church and the Church of England or the Anglican Church.  But
many of the people who first settled the Eastern Townships came
from the New England States either as Loyalists or simply as folks
looking for a better life.  They didn't practice either of these faiths
because many of the settlers in New England were "dissenters",
Protestants who had split away from the Church of England to
become Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.

      Some of them turned to circuit riders, American preachers for
the dissenting faiths who came from New York, Vermont, New
Hampshire and performed baptisms, marriages and burials and
took these records back with them into the United States, leaving
no trace behind in Quebec.

 Others ignored the fact that their faith was technically "illegal"
and practiced it anyhow.  And so you find something such as the
Dunham Steward's Register, which is an accounting book for a
start up church, but which also contains baptisms and even a few
burials between roughly 1806 and 1821 which were performed by
elders of the church.  There is no civil copy of these records
because technically that church had no legal status.  The book
itself sits at the United Church Archives at Bishop's University in
Lennoxville, Quebec.

 The government recognized the problem and in 1804 it passed
a law legalizing all past marriages in Quebec performed by
dissenters.  But no provision was ever made to record these
marriages in an organized way.

 In the District of St. Francis (east of Lake Memphremagog)
there was such a severe shortage of Anglican clergy that in 1825
the government again legalized all previous dissenter's marriages in
that region.  And again, they're not recorded in a civil form.

 So folks, I *know* you don't want to hear this, but for some
early Townships settlers you are not going to find a marriage record
in Quebec, even though you *know* they were married, and
probably in Quebec.  They may not have been married through a
church which was legally allowed to keep registers, or the record of
their marriage may be squirreled away south of the border.  I'm not
telling you to stop looking, I'm just trying to make you aware of the
situation.

       Dissenting churches were gradually granted civil registers
between 1829 and 1853, but it was a slow process.

 Today, in our modern world of mass transit and speedy
communication, we forget how isolated a place the early settlers
entered.  Roads as we know them were almost non-existant.  Mrs.
C.M. Day's "History of the Eastern Townships" speaks of blazed
footpaths through heavy forest full of wildlife.

 Waterways were a major mode of travel.  That's why some of
the earliest records for the tiny settlement of St. Armand (just north
of the Vermont border, near Lake Champlain)--records from the
1780's--are hundreds of miles north in the registers of the Anglican
Church at William Henry (Sorel).

 Look at a map and you'll see Lake Champlain empties into the
Richelieu River, and at the juncture of the Richelieu and St.
Lawrence Rivers sits William Henry.  It was a British garrison,
many of the St. Armand folk were Loyalists who had taken shelter
there, and they maintained their connection to that church thanks
to the missionary efforts of Rev. Doty.

 Today, with our good diets and great health care system,
children sail through diseases such as chicken pox, whooping
cough, scarlet fever, mumps.

 But I've read through some 200,000 church records and I can
tell you it was not always so and these extremely communicable
diseases killed children, killed lots of children.  Diseases we don't
see today--diptheria, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis (consumption)
even small pox--our ancestors saw them and they ran through
communities like a hot knife through butter.

 From these church records I know that people buried their dead
fast because they wanted to stop the disease spreading, and they
didn't always wait for a minister to show up because the nearest
minister was days away.  Some ministers record in their registers
that they have come to pray over the graves of children buried the
previous fall without clergy because of severe illness.

 How many families just said a few words at the side of the
grave in the family burying ground on the farm and left it at that?
>From the number of gravestones which I have indexed for which I
can't find a corresponding church record, I have to say quite a few
... and what about the families who could not afford gravestones,
or who put up wooden markers which eventually disappeared?

 It's not just private family burying grounds, either.  Some
ministers record in their registers that people have been buried in
the church cemetery without clergy.  How many ministers watched
these burials and never bothered to record them in their registers
because technically they were not involved?  All food for thought.

 Not everyone got their children officially baptized.  This may be
because there were no clergy about who practiced the family faith.
I see *alot* of adult baptisms in Protestant church records in the
Eastern Townships.  Religious conversions?  Perhaps.  But I
wonder how many of them were just people never baptized at all.

 Not all Protestant faiths believe in infant baptism.  The Baptist
faith, for instance,  waited until a person was considered old
enough to make an informed choice, so many children of Baptist
families who died young don't leave behind a birth record.

 Some were registered, their birth noted in the church book, but
not every family made the effort.  Many baptisms into the Baptist
faith only record the person's name and the date of baptism--
particulars such as date of birth, age or parents' names are not
considered important and are not entered.

 There are alternative ways to piece together families, of course.
 The census is one, notarial records are another.  There's a
background article about notarial records on my site because
under the Civil Code notaries handled all the non-criminal aspects
of the law.  But I have taken up enough of your time.

 What I want to leave you with is the idea that genealogy is
history writ small, history up close and personal.  It is *very* hard
to document folks prior to the 1830's, some records exist but there
are massive gaps.  To trace your ancestors you have to go back
and understand the times in which they lived, the attitudes they
brought with them, the geography around them, the legal and
religious systems which affected their lives.

 Many of them were people struggling to make a subsistence
living and they weren't as concerned with leaving a good paper trail
as we would have liked them to be.

 But if it were easy, would genealogy be as much fun? ;-)

Best wishes
Marlene Simmons
http://www.virtuel.qc.ca/simmons/
 

 

(note: Marlene Simmons is a professional genealogist and is not related financially to the QuébecGenWeb)