Québec Non-French Settlement (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors  by Althea Douglas M.A., CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Non-French Settlement

Migration Routes

Follow the Water

You can not settle on land you can not get to. Long before the British appeared on the scene, the French established Roman Catholic parishes[1] and granted seigneuries on both sides of the St. Lawrence and then south along the Chaudière, Yamaska and Richelieu Rivers, on the latter, all the way to Lake Champlain[2] .

The Seigneuries

The seigneuries varied greatly in size, but most ran inland, perpendicular to the river fronts. In due course, three judicial districts were established, named for and administered from: Québec City, Trois-Rivières/Three Rivers, and Montréal. Their borders also ran more or less perpendicular to the St. Lawrence. With European settlement came horses and wheels, and these require roads. During the French regime two principal highways from Québec City to Montréal were built in stages (though never fully completed) on either side of, and parallel to, the Saint Lawrence, the chief area of settlement. Others ran along the Chaudière, St. Francis and Richelieu Rivers, and several joined the Richelieu River valley to the St. Lawrence at Montréal. Superhighways they were not; overland travel was slow, difficult and uncomfortable.

The St. Lawrence River, the main highway, was navigable to ocean going vessels for at least half the year as far as Montréal Island. At the westend of the island of Montréal, the Lachine rapids prevented early explorers from sailing further west and fulfilling their dream of reaching China (La Chine). Lachine therefore became the place where travellers or fur traders took smaller vessels or canoes for travel west. Made nervous by the War of 1812, and with lots of unemployed men at the end of the Napoleonic wars, British Army engineers turned to canal building. The Lachine Canal, started in 1818, opened in 1824, was enlarged in the 1840s and again in the 1880s. The Soulanges Canal superceded a number of shallow canals, some built during the French regime. Eventually the system allowed more immigrants to move by water both into the Great Lakes and up the Ottawa river, and more wheat and timber to move down to Québec[3] .

The Eastern Townships

The Saint Francis river flows into the St. Lawrence at Lake St. Peter from the heart of the hilly country that became The Eastern Townships. L’Office de la langue français tried to change the name to l’Estrie, but Québec tourist brochures now refer to Les Cantons de l’est. The Townships (as we shall call them) lie south and east of the river plains of the St. Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers. Fingers of the Green Mountains and White Mountains reach north from Vermont and New Hampshire. Between the rows of hills, small rivers and lakes run north-south across the border with the United States.

In 1791 authorization was finally given for a survey of the lands beyond the back limits of the seigneuries and in “The Constitutional Act of 1791: A challenge for surveyors”, Gilles Langelier describes how “Lord Dorchester dispatched an ‘army’ of surveyors to the four corners of Québec”, not only to establish accurately the border between Upper and Lower Canada, but to verify all titles of ownership of seigneuries, and to create townships and properly survey them[4]. One illustration in his article is a portion of Gale and Duberger’s 1795-1796 “Plan of Part of the Province of Lower Canada,” showing the region north of the United States border and east of Montréal (NMC-57718). It is printed as endpapers in de Volpi and Scowan’s Eastern Townships[5] , and is a map you should know about.

A more modern map of the Eastern Townships is available on the internet.

And a good map showing which townships were in each county in 1871 can be found on the Eastern Townships Research.

Townships, generally about ten miles square, march in regular rows, three deep along the border, then were adjusted to fit around the backs of the seigneuries. Townships were also surveyed west of the Richelieu and east of the Chaudière Rivers, along the Ottawa River beyond the few seigneuries clustered around Lake of Two Mountains (Deux-montagnes) and in the Gaspé Peninsula.

Routes Across the Border

Look at a good relief map of the north-eastern part of the continent and you will see the water routes used by invading armies, refugee Loyalists, and New England settlers:

The routes of entry from the United States were first, the Champlain-Richelieu Route, which was the early route of travel in both war and peace and the natural connection between the Hudson and St. Lawrence valleys. It afforded the only unbroken waterway for boats above canoe size between the two countries.
Secondly, from the headwaters of the Connecticut river, a little farther eastward, several routes into the Eastern Townships converged on the St. Francis river at Sherbrooke. One of these by way of Lake Memphremagog led to the St. Francis valley through the Magog river and also by portage to the Yamaska river. From it, settlers reached both Brome, Shefford, and the western parts of Stanstead Counties. …
The third main route of entry was by way of Lake Megantic and the Chaudière river, which were reached from the State of Maine by the Kennebec river and its tributaries with a portage of a few miles across the height of land[6].

In 1775, Benedict Arnold led his expedition against Québec using the Kennebec route, which took the army to Lake Megantic and down the Chaudiere River to Point Levis opposite Québec[7]. These water routes all run north-south, and

... For a generation following the American Revolution, which terminated in 1783, the international boundary line was only vaguely known, and some considerable settlements were made by people who may have thought they were still in the United States. When the boundary became better defined, these people accepted the new nationality...[8]

Roads Across the Townships

In the 1830s east-west travel was overland and far more difficult.

The main, and indeed the only roads leading from the heart of these townships to the older settlements, are Craig’s Road, which, from its intersection of the St. Francis at Shipton, is open to the settlements of St. Giles; the East and West River Roads of the St. Francis, leading from Sherbrooke to the Baie St. Antoine, on Lake St. Peter; and the road through Hatley, Stanstead, Potton, Sutton, St. Armand, Dunham and Stanbridge to the Settlements of the Richelieu River. By this latter road are opened several avenues into the State of Vermont, with which a constant intercourse is kept up. Some parts of Craig’s Road are almost impassable, owing to swamps and windfalls, and particularly so between the settlements of Leeds and those of Shipton[9].

What a Difference a Railroad Made

The demography of rural Québec changed radically and rapidly with the coming of the Railroads. A new era had begun. The Townships were no longer isolated, but on a direct route from Montréal to the sea.

On Thursday, 21 July 1836, the first railway train in Canada pulled two coaches from La Prairie, on the St. Lawrence, to St. Johns on the Richelieu River. The average speed on that first round trip was 14.5 m.p.h. but it provided a direct link of the water-route to New York. The St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad was incorporated in 1845, to join Montréal and Portland Maine. It reached Richmond in 1851, Sherbrooke the following year, and was completed by 1853. By 1867 the Stanstead, Shefford and Chambly R.R. connected St. Johns/Iberville to Waterloo and Frost Village.

The Montréal and Vermont Junction railroad ran south to the east of Missisquoi Bay, and the Grand Trunk Railway not only joined Montréal to Portland, but also branched north from Richmond and ran through Arthabaska and Megantic counties to Québec City. Branch lines proliferated. By the turn of the century you could get from almost anywhere to anywhere on a train, often several times a day and back.

As soon as the road past the farm led to the village Railway Station, the older children could catch the train to the Model School in the County town, or the Academy in Sherbrooke. Railroads are what moved most people around Québec from the mid 19th century until the 1950s. J. Derek Booth’s two volume Railways of Southern Québec[11]provides a detailed history of the lines with many maps and photographs. For the rest of the province, consult Lines of Country.

Twentieth Century Changes

In the 20th century, the importance of the railways declined as the truck and automobile took over. Railway passenger service became unprofitable after World War II and now only the main freight lines cross the Townships. Concession roads became highways, widened and paved, with corners rounded and hills smoothed. A few still wander off over the hills looking much as they did a hundred years ago, but these backroads now lead not to overgrown farms with old houses showing only traces of past prosperity, but to beautifully restored stone or wooden “heritage homes” set in well-tended gardens. “The Townships” are now prime vacation country for week-enders from the cities; another influx of “settlers” is underway. They drive out on the autoroutes.


  1. See Plate 46, Vol. I, Historical Atlas of Canada.
  2. Richard Colebrook Harris, The Seigneurial System in Early Canada (Madison, Milwaukee and London: The University of Wisconsin Press; Quebec: Les Presses de l'Universite Laval, 1966) Still in print.
  3. For a concise sumary of canal building see "Canals", The Encylopedia of Canada, 6 volumes, editor W. Stewart Wallace (Toronto: University Associates of Canada, 1935-37) registered edition 1940, 2nd edition 1948.
  4. Gilles Langelier [of the Cartographic and Architectural Archives Division, NA], "The Constitutional Act of 1791: A challenge for surveyors", The Archivist-l'Archiviste, Vol. 18, No. 1 (January-June 1991) page 8.
  5. C.P. De Volpi and P.H. Scowan, The Eastern Townships A Pictorial Record (Montreal: Dev-Sco Pul. 1962) Endpapers.
  6. Dresser, John A. "The Eastern Townships of Quebec; a Study in Human Geography:, Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada (Third Series, Section II, Vol. XXIX 1935) pages 93-94. For research in the Townships, this short paper gives an excellent survey of the geographic features and population movements and changes. Do get a copy and read it.
  7. Wallace, Willard M. Traitorous Hero: The Life and Fortunes of Benedict Arnold (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954) gives a vivid account of this wilderness expedition.
  8. Dresser, op.cit., page 93.
  9. Bouchette, Joseph, The British Dominions in North America; or a Topographical and Statistical Description of the Provinces of Lower and Upper Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, The Islands of Newfoundlnad, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton... (2 volumes, London, 1832) Vol. I, page 303. Available in the Rare Book section of many reference libraries. Vol. II has particularly useful tabulations of the Townships surveyed and granted after 1795 in Lower Canada.
  10. Douglas, Althea, "The Township Trap", Here Be Dragons!: Navigating the hazards fround in Canadian family research, A guide for genealogists (Toronto: OGS, 1996).
  11. Booth, Derek J. Railways of Southern Quebec, 2 volumes (Toronto: Railfare Enterprises Ltd., 1985).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.