By Ted Como
The descendants of some French Canadians who occupied Fort La Presentation before the British took it over in 1760 may be found in Ogdensburg today. Are you among them?
Select three members of long-time Ogdensburg families and odds are the ancestors of one of them spoke French. USA.com reports that based on census data, about 33 percent of Ogdensburg residents are of French ancestry. Massena has 35 percent and Edwards, 37 percent. The New York State community with the heaviest French as first ancestry population is Tupper Lake at 56 percent.
If you’re a genealogist who recognizes French surnames and “dit” names, a look at an old Ogdensburg phone book or city directory bears out the abundance of French genes among city residents.
A dit name is an alternate surname added to a family surname for various reasons, including to indicate a family’s origin, for instance, Andre Jarret dit Beauregard where Beauregard refers to the ancestral home in France. Some dit names originated from military service where they were required to aid in identifying soldiers killed in action.
The word “dit” is a French form of the word dire, which means “to say,” and in the case of dit names is translated loosely as “that is to say,” or “called.” Therefore, the first surname is the family’s original surname passed down from ancestors while the dit name is a name the person or family is called by or known as. Some dit names distinguished different branches of the same family.
You may never learn the origin of a dit name. For instance my mother’s grandfather was born Louis Rudolph Pitre in 1868 at Portneuf, Quebec. But when he emigrated to Ogdensburg in 1892 he changed his name to Pitre dit Cayen. His son, after whom I was named, was born with the surname Cayen and the historic Pitre surname was lost. Other “anglicized” dit names in my family include Hunault dit Deschamps where the last name became Dishaw; Mechin dit Asselin which became Ashley and Sureau dit Blondin which became Brown.
How do you know if you are of French Canadian ancestry? Interview your parents, grandparents and other family members to gather as much information as you can on their full names, dates of birth and location, and that of their grandparents, etc. If you’re serious about your family genealogy you’ll need software to save this information and build on it. The best is Family Tree Maker from mackiev.com/ftm/. It’s $80 but as you build your family, it searches searches Ancestry.com (if you’re a member) and FamilySearch (Mormon Church) for family connections which is the fastest way to build your genealogy.
Once you begin building your tree you can trace your ancestry using census data and free online resources. Most French Canadian immigration took place after 1830 mainly involving young adults fleeing poverty, unemployment or hard work on the family farm and seeking a better life. Between 1840 and the early 1900s some 900,000 fled Canada to work in New England’s factories, mills, fields and logging camps.
The best place to search your surename is Ancestry.com but it’s expensive at around $300 annually. However, the Ogdensburg Public Library offers free access to Ancestry on its public computers. The second best research point is FamilySearch.org, a huge database of surnames with free access.
It will take a lot of time and effort to build your French Canadian ancestry but you need only tap into a family line. Catholic churches in New France recorded every birth, marriage and death, which database is entirely searchable through Ancestry as are annual Canadian census reports beginning with 1851.
You will find a list of thousands of dit names and the original surnames they’re attached to at tinyurl.com/yxeybsrp. Here are some other useful sites to research surnames: genealogie.quebec, prdh-igd.com, afgs.org, genealogysearch.org, ogs.on.ca, and myheritage.com. If I can be of help, email me.
– Ted Como is a member of the board of the Fort LaPresentation Association. You may contact him at email@example.com.