What is meant by an 'habitant' who lived in New France in the XVIIth & XVIIIth centuries?

+4 votes

While in the most general sense an 'habitant' in New France was understood to mean an 'inhabitant', it is my view that an 'habitant' was often understood to mean a tenant farmer or an independent land owner.

As in Un propriétaire foncier indépendant:

En Nouvelle-France, aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, les habitants sont des propriétaires fonciers indépendants qui exploitent une habitation. C’est un statut avec des obligations et des privilèges correspondants. Par exemple, au début de la colonie, seuls les habitants avaient le droit de faire la traite des fourrures à petite échelle. La traite était interdite aux engagés, aux volontaires et aux soldats. Les habitants se distinguent de la main d’œuvre agricole engagée (domestiques) et de ceux dont le séjour sur une terre est considéré comme temporaire (laboureurs, manœuvres, employés saisonniers).

Which would seem to exclude an 'habitant' from being a hired hand, a soldier, a volonteer, a domestic helper or a temporary worker. This would also seem to exclude children? What about individual members of religious orders who vowed to not own property including land?

When Noël Langlois is said to be in his burial record an 'ancien habitant de ce pays', is he meant to mean by the priest to a river lot owner or an inhabitant?

WikiTree profile: Noël Langlois
in Genealogy Help by Living Lambert G2G6 Mach 1 (12.6k points)
edited by Isabelle Martin
Edited to fix the centuty numbers in the thread title.

For the record, note the following recent exchange of comments in Françoise Grenier's profile:

On 11 May 2018 at 17:05 GMT Claude Lambert wrote:

The quintessential link between Canadiens, habitants and cultivateurs: Histoire de mots, Go Habs Go ! Les Habitants : plus qu'un surnom, une légende ! par Élisabeth Laflamme, Printemps 2002, Québec français, pp. 103-105. See especially p. 105.

On 11 May 2018 at 10:48 GMT Gaston Tardif wrote:

To use the language of the time (17th century) as we should, we ought take concern for the following:

"Nous rencontrons ici, pour la première fois avec certitude, une spécification du sens premier d'habitant en Nouvelle-France: le terme désigne les gens établis au pays. Il ne s'agit plus seulement de Français qui habitent le pays, et qui sont susceptibles de repartir, mais de Français qui s'y fixent, et d'une façon plus définitive, qui s'y "habituent". Cet élément de fixité, de permanence, qu'acquiert le mot habitant dans la charte de 1627, nous le retrouvons dans des documents subséquents." And even read further: Essai sur l'évolution du mot Habitant. page 383

On 10 May 2018 at 18:47 GMT Claude Lambert wrote:

I'm sticking to Jean Talon's interpretation in 1666 census.

In the 1666 census' enumeration for Beauport:

  • Robert Giffart [sic] is seigneur de Beauport but not an habitant.
  • Denis Simon is escuyer, sieur de la Trinité but not an habitant.
  • Nicolas Juchereau is sieur de Saint-Denis, habitant.
  • Claude de Berman [sic] is sieur de la Martinière & juge prévôt du dit Beauport but not an habitant.
  • Paul Vachon is notaire but not an habitant.

On 10 May 2018 at 18:31 GMT Danielle Liard wrote:

see page 385 and 386 of that document, the term gets used for the seigneurs as well, and the residents of Québec also. Since our man Noël Langlois was an early colonist, those are the most applicable sections. The word did mainly signify just inhabitant.

On 10 May 2018 at 17:50 GMT Claude Lambert wrote:

There is a most interesting treatment of the habitant issue in Konrad Fillion's 1970 article Essai sur l’évolution du mot habitant (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles).

There can be no question of the nearly synomymous relationship that exists in the XVIIth et XVIIIth between the terms habitants, Canadiens and cultivateurs.

On 10 May 2018 at 16:21 GMT Claude Lambert wrote:

Noël Langlois' family is listed as follows in the enumeration for Beauport of the 1666 census:

- 1666 - Noël Langlois, 60, veuf, habitant ; Jean, 16 ; Noël, 14 ; Jacques Masson. 20, et Abraham, 15, domestiques engagé

Each tête de famille is termed an habitant if he is a tenant farmer and/or if he has a non-habitant métier.

The census' ÉTAT GÉNÉRAL DES HABITANTS DU CANADA EN 1666 title suggests that in a more general way all people enumerated were collectively termed 'habitants' ;

17 têtes de familles of homes enumerated in the Hausse & Basse Ville de Québec are termed habitant.

19 têtes de familles of homes enumerated for Beauport, incl. Noël Langlois,, are termed habitant only. 9 other têtes de familles are not termed habitant but some other métier.

Some of the people in homes were enumerated as domestique engagé.


P. S. Saying 'So I think too much has been made of this word.' is a rather subjective opinion

Certainly, it is a subjective opinion.  Mine in this instance.  Trying to determine what a person who used the word meant by it exactly centuries after the fact is an exercise in mind-reading.  Because it gets used by all sorts of people, not just the census takers.  Priests regularly used it in records for all religious acts.  What did each of them really mean when they used it?  It's all guesswork centuries later.
Given that the onus is on all of us dealing with these pre-1700 issues, somehow, Danielle, this response is less than satisfactory
Genealogy is an art, not a science, we do the best we can with the evidence we have.  Attaching this much significance to a single word, to my mind is counterproductive, since the original definition is just ''inhabitant'', and depending on who used it, might have been applied differently, but we can't know it after the fact when all we have are bits and pieces of a puzzle.  Only the dictionary makers stopped and pondered the definition of words, and it was not something widely broadcast back then.

When I die, I don't want my obit to describe me as a garden-variety Canadian but by my profession.

By the same token the expression 'ancien habitant de ce pays' is surely an effort on the curé's part to leave this solemn event with a bit of special elegance and decorum.

Thus it  is easy to imagine that the word 'ancien' imparts wisdom and dignity.

The word 'habitant' imparts to Noël Langlois the notion of ownership and industry and not some generic garden-variety inhabitant. 

And the expression 'de ce pays' suggests that Noël Langlois was not always an 'habitant' from New France reinforcing the notion that Noël Langlois came from France before becoming an 'habitant'.

In this sense it is a lot more importance for New France 'habitant' to connote ' independent land owner' than a faceless inhabitant.

This is my parting three cents comment to the question.

I don't know what happened to that last comment, which was signed in error as 'anonymous' instead of me . . .
Probably not logged in, sometimes we get logged out automatically.  Bug in the system I think.  I agree that the ''ancien habitant de ce pays'' denotes respect, he wasn't dead since he remarried, may have moved on to other activities.

3 Answers

+8 votes
by Living Tardy G2G6 Pilot (774k points)
Hey! and lets not forget it is the name source for the famous National Hockey League team, the "Montreal Habs".
nice summary there Herbert.  :D
Merci, Danielle.
+6 votes

In 1666 census it is used in the definition of resident .  For example:


that is the first mention of the word in that census.  They are in the city.  And include the sovereign council members.  Later in the same page we find:

:Jacques Grimaur, 28, habitant ; Jacquette Le Doux, 26, sa femme ; Francoise, 6 mois.

Just a bit further in the page:

:Denis Guyon, 33, fermier ; Elizabeth Boucher, 20, sa femme ; Jacob, 3 ; Mathurin Girard, 20, domestique engagé.
:Eustache Lambert, 48, marchand ; Marie Laurence, 34, sa femme ; Gabriel, 8 ; Eustache, 7 ; Marie, 4 ; Jean Adam, 22, menuisier engagé ; Thomas Lefebvre, 24, Pierre Bergereau, 60, André Bergereau, 23, et Gabriel Boyferon, 23, engagés ; André Robidou, 26, matelot.

I think the word was used in all possible senses, either inhabitant or resident or farmer.  So I think too much has been made of this word.  It may simply have been put there when there was no other profession to tag them with

by Danielle Liard G2G6 Pilot (694k points)
Notice one of the people is termed ''Fermier'', ie farmer.  There was a particular system known as ''Bail à ferme'' ie lease to farm, whereby a title holder, whether owner of the land or someone who had it as a concession, would hire someone else to farm the land in return for a share of the produce or other compensation.  Fermier was not an owner but a true lease-holder.  A tenant farmer in fact.


In justification to my G2G question I quoted encyclopediecanadienne.ca excerpt for 'Habitant' article (note your comment about 'nice summary there Herbert.  :D') which terms the 'habitant' as An Independent Landowner (Un propriétaire foncier indépendent). 

According to the seigneurial system the habitants did indeed traffic in land with all the loss or gain risks associated with real estate as long as the censitaire (tenant) agreed to pay rent and interest known as cens and rentes to the respective seigneurs.. 


The habitants were also obliged to convert so many hectares per year (1 ha /yr?, in theory) of their land concession from virgin land to arable land.
anybody had to do that last, even the seigneurs could lose their title if they did not get the land put into use by one method or another.
The impetus for seigneurs was to recruit new habitants who would in turn develop more arable land. Robert Giffard wound up with several seigneuries other than the seigneurie de Beauport that he started, which represented 1/7th of total Canadian seigneurie land, and which remained largely undeveloped for lack of habitant concession grants. It took the Juchereaus more than 20 years (from 1635 to 1658) to start giving habitant concessions from seigneurie de Cap-Rouge cum St-Augustin / seigneurie de Maure. The first St-Augustin church was not built until 1694.
Take another look at Carpin's book on the establishment of the colony.  Explains why really.

Carpin is of little help in answering my question.

See instead Benoît Grenier's thesis (28 août 2000). Devenir seigneur en Nouvelle-France : Mobilité sociale et propriété dans le gouvernement de Québec sous le régime français,

Occupation: Achitecte 2, Arpenteur royal 1, Boucher 1, Capitaine de malice 6, Charron 2, Défricheur 1, Échevin 1, Habitant 15, Lieutenant de milice 2, Maître chirurgien 1, Maitre entrepreneur 1, Maître maçon 2, Menuisier 1. Total des occupations 38. 

I was referring to Carpin in relation to the point about the time it took for them to get people to occupy their land, low immigration basically.

And nice little study there, he does indeed raise the point the the term habitant was used variably.
+6 votes
« Un habitant » was also used to identify those that stayed and lived in la Nouvelle France as opposed to those who were returning or could return to France.

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