Updated on 29 November 2021
Reading time: 4 minutes
At the very beginning of the 17th century, a few pioneers, mainly peasants and artisans from a rural area of Normandy known as the Perche, left France and crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life. These first settlers established the colony of Acadia on the land surrounding the shores of the St Lawrence River. New France, as this land was once called, would soon become Quebec and Canada.
Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors from the Perche
Millions of Canadians and Americans have French-Canadian ancestries, and maybe you’re one of them. Many well-known celebrities can trace their family roots back to this particular region. Take Céline Dion for example, with her noticeably heavy Quebec accent. Her ancestors are from Normandy. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau himself, is a French-Canadian descendant too, as well as actor Ryan Gosling and director Xavier Nolan. If you connect the dots between their surnames and history itself, they are actually of Norman descent like many other Canadians and Quebecers. With a family tree that goes back to the Perche, having been the point of departure for many French emigrants to Quebec, Canadian culture is deeply rooted in French and Norman culture today.
Tourouvre, The Home Town of many Percheron settlers in New France
When visiting the Church of Saint-Aubin in Tourouvre in the Orne département of Normandy, visitors may be surprised to find two unusual stained-glass windows. One depicts the departure of a local boy, Julien Mercier, for Canada around 1647. The other illustrates the visit of Honoré Mercier to Tourouvre in 1891, Prime Minister of Quebec and great-grandson of Julien. Combined with plaques recalling the emigration of Percherons to Canada, these artworks document the history and heritage of the first settlers of Canada and Quebec.
The adventure of 27 pioneers
To understand the fascinating story of these immigrants, try and picture the typical countryside of Normandy, its rolling hills, woodlands and hedgerows with villages such as Tourouvre, La Ventrouze, Mortagne-au-Perche, Verneuil-sur-Avre and Autheuil scattered across the landscape, punctuated with typical bell towers.
From this haven of greenery, 27 men, women and children would set out on foot in the spring of 1634 towards Dieppe, 200km north, led by Robert Giffard, an apothecary doctor. Arriving in the coastal town, they discovered the sea for the first time when boarding a 30m-long merchant ship to undertake the great voyage. After two months of sailing across the Atlantic, they settled on the shores of the St Lawrence River and anchored in front of the future capital of New France, Quebec City, near the home of Samuel de Champlain. He was considered the ‘Father of New France’. Today, their descendants account for an estimated 1,500,000 people in Canada and many more besides across all of North America.
A lucrative fur trade business
Early days were challenging for the first Percherons who emigrated throughout the 17th century. Several attempts at founding settlements on these territories by the French had previously failed. Jacques Cartier had begun the first expeditions to the Gulf of the St Lawrence River in the 16th century and fishermen from Brittany and the Basque Country sailed the shores of Newfoundland to fish for cod and hunt whales. In fact, it was the lucrative fur trade business with the indigenous people that allowed these first emigrants from Normandy to settle, found colonies and open the continent to exploration.
The legacy of French surnames of Percheron origin
Surnames carry history, traditions and identity. Interestingly, the first 27 Percherons have played a major role in the civil status of Canada and have impacted the surnames globally! The carpenter Zacharie Cloutier is the ancestor of almost 80% of the French-speaking Quebecers. Familiar surnames like Tremblay and Gagnon amount to half a million people in the whole province today. The Guyons are the Dions’s ancestors in America, including singer Céline Dion. Juchereau, Drouin or Boucher are also typical ancestral surnames passed down from generations and are very widespread today in Canada.
If you have French Canadian ancestors, you most likely have distant cousins in Normandy!
Musée de l’émigration française au Canada
15 rue du Québec, 61190 Tourouvre-au-Perche
+33 (0)2 33 25 55 55
Entrance ticket: €5
Reduced rate: €3
Free for children under 9
Haut-de-Perche Tourist Office: tourismehautsduperche.fr (in French)