Sunday, September 8, 2013

2 Interpreters, 450 Descendants (Part 1)

Samuel de Champlain
I bet not many of you can trace a translator in your family tree as far back as the 17th century, but I know a lady who can trace two of them with documented certainty. What's more, she knows of 450 other relatives, all documented.

How so? Because of a feature of French Canadian (FC) society that is perhaps unique. Until the 'Quiet Revolution' of the 1960s, FC society was solidly Roman Catholic. Long before the start of modern government population records, all births, deaths and marriages in the community were meticulously recorded in the parish registers. It was so too in France, but there many of the records were destroyed or damaged in the period of the French Revolution and in wars. No such cataclysm affected the FC registers. Not even the British takeover in 1763, because the Brits, in order to win over the FC settlers, assured them they could go on practising their religion freely and they kept their promise. Eventually, in the 20th century, the parish records were microfilmed and consolidated into collections that have greatly facilitated genealogical research.

Let's go back to the beginning.

When the Breton navigator Jacques Cartier discovered the St Lawrence river for the French in 1534-35, and with it the land that is now Quebec, he found native Indian peoples along its shores and he realised at once that he would need interpreters. After all, he'd been an occasional interpreter himself. So he tried to get some of his sailors and some Indians trained for the task, but it was a failure. This post, however, concerns a slightly later period.

The French colonisation of the St. Lawrence valley, part of what they called Nouvelle-France (New France), didn't take place till the following century. The architect of the new colony, sent by the master strategist Richelieu, was an outstanding administrator named Samuel de Champlain. He founded Quebec City in 1608. He also appreciated the value of interpreting and set out to raise it to Professional Expert level.
He created"an institution of resident interpreters (interprètes-résidents) in the new colony. Young French adventurers were placed with the Indian tribes with whom the French traded; they lived among the natives dressed like them, hunted, fished and took part in their everyday lives. Through daily contact with the Indians, the interpreters became familiar not only with their language but also with their way of thinking. They were highly effective intermediaries between the native population and the European settlers and merchants, serving as guides, explorers, diplomats and traders.
But besides those professionals, most of the colonists had some contact with Indian languages and many of them were called on to interpret in daily dealings.

Our story really begins when Etienne de Lafond emigrated to Canada in or about 1642. He came from the small village of Saint-Laurent-de-la-Barrière in the Saintonge region of western France (part of today's Charente-Maritime); you can find it with Google Maps. We don't know exactly why he left his native soil but Canada was then, as now, a land of opportunity. He was a carpenter, and since most of the French buildings in New France were of wood he had sure employment. He prospered and acquired a great deal of land.

He married three years later and had eight children, the eldest of whom was Jean de Lafond
As a young man, Jean went on voyages with the [Jesuit] missionaries and he became involved in the fur trade with the Indians. It enabled him to learn several languages and to act as interpreter when required.
Interestingly, Jean's second wife was a Huron Indian, Catherine Annenontha, who had been brought up as a Catholic by the Ursuline nuns at Quebec City. There weren't enough French women in the colony to go around. So he was the first of the two interpreters.

To be continued.

  • Florent J. Héroux. L'histoire généalogique des Familles Lafond, 1645-1995 (History and Genealogy of the Lafond Families). New Liskeard: Privately printed, 1995. The author of this admirable work of genealogical precision and documentation can be contacted at
  • Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsworth. Translators through History, revised edition. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2012. Jean is an expert on the history of interpreters in Nouvelle-France. It was from his early thesis (Les interprètes sous le régime français, 1534-1760, Université de Montréal, 1975) that I first learnt about them.

 Samuel de Champlain. Source: Explorers Wiki.


  1. Thank you a lot for take the time for such a good information.
    Keep sharing this type of posting with us.. Thanks

  2. This article is quite interesting and I am looking forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

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