Are you ready to learn more about your ancestors who lived in Quebec? Notarial records can provide you with the little details to understand more the life of your ancestor.
Whether you’re just getting started or have been exploring those records for some time, our 10 Things to Know can give you the answers you need.
What’s the earliest notarial act that you will find? As early as 1621, someone was designated to record private transactions between individuals. The oldest notarial acts are land transactions written by Jean De Lespinasse in which Robert Giffard grants lands to Jean Guyon and Zacharie Cloutier in February 1637. Notarial acts are accessible up to 1935, on Ancestry or at local centers of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. More recent acts can also be consulted with restrictions in Justice Hall or at a notary’s office.
The more details you know about your ancestor, the better your chances will be of finding a notarial act at Ancestry, although you may be able to find an ancestor with just a name and a place of residence. Be careful – too many details could leave you with too few search results. Remember that surnames can be written different ways (e.g. Degagné, Desgagnés, Degagnés, etc.).
3. Other Records
Other records may contain valuable information that will make your search simpler. Rather than searching right away notarial records for an ancestor who lived in Quebec, try first to find as much information as possible in church and census records. These records will provide you details, such as place of residence and age, and that will help you narrow your research in notarial records.
4. Notarial Records are Unique to Quebec in Canada
In fact, it is not only notarial records that are unique to Quebec, but the civil law system vs. the criminal law system differed as well. In its early stage (1608-1763), Quebec was known as New France, being a French colony in North America; the civil and criminal legal system was following a French model called “Coutume de Paris.” When New France was ceded to the British in 1763, the “Coutume de Paris” was maintained for civil law and British common law was introduced for criminal aspects of justice. At the time of the Confederation in 1867 when Canada was created, both legal systems were kept for Quebec. Therefore, civil laws are different in Quebec from the other provinces, including the presence of notaries, their powers and responsibilities.
5. If You Want It To Be Legal, Go See Your Notary!
Only transactions or agreements written by a notary had legal value in Quebec. There was usually a notary in each village or in a village nearby. In large cities, such as Montréal, Québec or Trois-Rivières, people tended to do business with one notary or its associate or successor all their life. There is a wide variety of notarial acts, the most common being sales, leases, marriage contracts, indentures, agreements, and inventories.
6. Can’t Find a Marriage in Church Records, Look for the Marriage Contract Written by the Notary
Quebec church records are one of the most well preserved archival collections in the world. However, this does not mean that they are complete, as some registers were either lost or burned (e.g., all church records for Hull before 1887). Since marriages in Quebec church records are key documents to establish a lineage, their absence can cause difficulties. Note that almost all couples in Quebec had a marriage contract drawn by a notary a few days before the religious ceremony; this contract usually includes the names of the parents of each spouse, or the names of former spouses in case of a second marriage.
7. Missing People: You Can Find Where They are in Proxies or Inventories
The St. Lawrence River with all its affluent was the perfect highway into the continent. It is not uncommon to lose track of a relative (e.g., the brother or the sister of your ancestor). This relative may have migrated to another Canadian province or even to the United States. Their new place of residence may have been recorded in a notarial act, usually in a “procuration” (proxy) by which this relative grants power to another individual to handle his business or represent him in a transaction. Also, if he was entitled to a share of an estate, his name and place of residence could be mentioned in an inventory or other estate transactions.
8. Do You Want to Avoid Going to Court? Ask Your Notary to Write an Agreement!
In order to avoid going to court for small disagreements or issues, your ancestor may have chosen instead to seek the advice of his notary and tried to reach an agreement with the other party—whether another person or a company. This is why you will find very often those types of agreements called “Accord” or “Constitution” in notarial records. One of the conditions of the agreement can be an amount of money as a settlement.
9. Everybody is Equal During the French Regime When it Comes to Settling the Estate. Wills are Exceptional!
One thing to keep in mind when searching notarial records between 1608 and 1763 (a period called French Regime for Quebec) is that everybody was equal and entitled to his share as heirs to an estate. In other words, the oldest son was not the sole heir of his father or mother; the belongings and the properties (land and/or house) were divided in equal shares among the children. You may still find wills for that period, for example, when someone without direct descendants gave his belongings to religious communities.
10. Various Types of Notarial Acts
There are various types of notarial acts, mostly written in French. To help you better understand their content and their value for your genealogical research, here are some definitions:
- Accord: Agreement or settlement regarding almost anything.
- Achat: Purchase of a property. Similar to a sale.
- Bail: Rent of farm, land, or buildings.
- Cession: Transfer or assignment of property.
- Concession: Land grant.
- Constitution: Establishment or settlement of something.
- Contrat de marriage: Agreement between future spouses a few days before the religious ceremony.
- Convention: Agreement.
- Déclaration: Statement acknowledging an act that took place in the past.
- Donation: A gift a person freely makes of his property, often in return for stated conditions.
- Engagement: Labor contract or an agreement to take an apprentice or to hire a person for a specified job.
- Inventaire: List of all the belongings and properties after the death of an individual.
- Marché: A business agreement or contract between two or more people.
- Obligation: An agreement between two or more stating the amount of money borrowed and conditions for repayment.
- Partage: Sharing or partition of goods, usually following the “inventaire”.
- Procès-verbaux: An official statement.
- Procuration: Power of attorney.
- Quittance: A discharge from a debt or obligation.
- Ratification: A statement made by a second person accepting a decision, very often for a sale of land.
- Renonciation: Surrender of a claim.
- Requête: A petition.
- Société: Partnership or association.
- Testament: Will
- Transport: Transfer of property or of an amount of money.
- Tutelle: Guardianship.
- Vente: Sale. It can be for land, house or any other goods. Rights and claims on a property, estate or inheritance could also be sold.
 Many definitions were taken in French-Canadian Sources. A Guide for Genealogists published in 2002 by Ancestry.
Learn more about our new collection of Quebec, Canada, Notarial Records, 1626-1935 collection with these helpful research guides—English (US) version and French version.