Notary and Court Records
While Parish Records are the starting point for researching an individual and his or her family members, Notary Records, and to a lesser extent, Court Records, are the most comprehensive records available for most individuals living in New France, especially for those individuals involved in the Fur Trade. New France was divided into three government areas: Québec, Trois-Rivières, and Montréal. The information below describing the Civil Practice of Law in New France was taken from Marcel Trudel, Introduction to New France (Pawtucket, Rhode Island: Quintin Publications, 1997 – First American Edition, pp. 215-218.
Civil Practice of Law in New France
The Coutume de Paris:
The Coutume de Paris refers to the customary laws practiced in Paris, France. The laws were written in 1510 and revised n 1580. In 1627, the Compagnie de Cent Associés chose to follow the Coutume de Paris in New France. However, other law systems were introduced into New France during the 17th Century. In 1664, Louis XIV established that the Coutume de Paris would be used exclusively as the Laws of New France; these laws governed every action taken by a French Canadian from birth to death during the French Régime.
Individuals who provided legal services to New France’s Residents during the French Régime
Louis XIV prohibited attorneys from practicing in New France in 1678 in order to avoid prolonged trials. Although Plaintiffs and Defendants could represent themselves in a law suit or trial, some individuals could not appear in a court proceeding in person; others felt that they did not have the expertise necessary to prepare the court papers or pleadings that Judges used to make a decision in a law suit. These individuals hired or authorized a legal practitioner to represent them in a law suit. Theoretically, Legal Practitioners were familiar with the practices in the court systems; they drafted legal documents and acted as attorneys.
Notaries drafted the legal documents used in a civil practice of law. These specific documents are described below. Notaries also practiced as legal practitioners. Two types of notaries practiced in New France: royal notaries and seigneurial notaries.
Royal Notaries: The Intendant appointed royal notaries and authorized him to practice over a specific geographic area. The royal notary had jurisdiction over the entire government area (Québec, Trois-Rivières, or Montréal) or in a smaller area.
Seigneurial Notary: The seigneur appointed the notary who practiced within the seigneury. His jurisdiction was limited to the seigneury. Typically, he only charged half the fee charged by a royal notary for a similar document or contract.
Legal Fees, Legal Knowledge, and other Professions Practiced: Notaries were scarce and poorly paid, therefore, legal knowledge was not considered absolutely necessary. Considering the pay, some notaries practiced another profession. Some notaries were shoe makers, cabinet makers, innkeepers, surveyors, bailiffs, or doctors.
Parish Priests and Missionaries: In the absence of a notary, parish priests and missionaries were authorized to draft marriage contracts and wills.
Commandants or Their Representatives: Although not discussed by Trudel in Introduction to New France, Commandants or their Representatives also drafted legal documents. Examples of these documents drafted from 1706-1710 in Detroit are contained in Le Détroit du Lac Érié – 1701-1710, Volume 1, by Gail Moreau-DesHarnais and Diane Wolford Sheppard, and Volume 2, by Suzanne Boivin Sommerville – see https://fchsmi.ens-10.com/cpage.php?pt=43
Notaries Practicing in the three Government Areas of New France during the French Regime
Thanks to a massive digitization effort by Bibliothèque et Archives nationales Québec (BAnQ) and Family Search, images of the summaries or indexes to the contracts as well as the actual contracts drafted by New France’s Notaries are now available for viewing and downloading on your computer. Click on the links below to access the lists of notaries practicing in Montréal, Québec, and Trois-Rivières.
Types of Notary Documents – the list is not exhaustive
Business Agreements: many of these contracts or agreements apply to the fur trade, especially those marked with an asterisk. These types of contracts were also used in other business relations. See the Fur Trade Page on the FCHSM website: https://fchsmi.ens-10.com/cpage.php?pt=22
- *Engagements or hiring contracts
- *Obligations or business loans
- *Formations of business relationships such as partnerships, companies, corporations, associations
- *Dissolutions of business relationships such as partnerships, companies, corporations, associations
- *Leases of the fur trade at a particular post or fort
- Leases of property and livestock
- Sales and exchanges
- Land grants or concessions
- Real estate purchases and sales
- Building construction
- Purchase of church benches
- Marriage Contracts: see Suzanne Boivin Sommerville’s articles and presentation about Marriage Contracts on the French-Canadian Culture, Heritage, and Traditions Page on the FCHSM website: https://fchsmi.ens-10.com/cpage.php?pt=14
- Gifts and donations
- Estate Inventories
- Appointment of Guardians for minor children
- Powers of Attorney
- Ratifications of an agreement
Fill in the boxes under “Mot(s) ou expression(s)” by using an individual’s name and click on “Recherer” at the bottom of the page. The results of your search will appear in a table in French. Google Chrome will translate the table, but not the details for each record. Click on an individual summary and you will be taken to a summary of the document. In the upper right corner of the summary document, you will see a box which reads “Voir la collection”. Click on that box and a new window opens which contains and image or images of the original documents. These images are in French.
Appellate Courts in New France:
The Conseil souverain and Conseil supéreur functioned as the appellate courts in New France. Seven volumes have been published which contain their decisions. These decisions can be downloaded from the following links:
Pierre Joseph Olivier Chauveau, Jugements et délibérations du Conseil souverain et Conseil supéreur de la Nouvelle-France
Vol. I: 18 September 1663 to 29 October 1675 – Table of Contents, p. 1015
Vol. II: 15 June 1676 to 1 January 1686 – Table of Contents p. 1055
Vol. III: 7 January 1676 to 19 December 1695 – Table of Contents, p. 1095
Vol. IV: 9 January 1696 to 22 December 1704 – Table of Contents, p. 1123
Vol. V: 2 January 1705 to 23 December 1709 – Table of Contents, p. 1065
Vol. VI: 7 January 1710 - to 22 December 1716 – Table of Contents, p. 1225