Were Crypto Jews in Early New France Settlements?

by David Dugas

From HaLapid, Summer 2006


The story of Esther Brandeau, known to many as the first person of Jewish origin to set foot in New France, exemplifies the situation that many possible Jewish emigrants faced when they arrived in this northern land, today known as Quebec.   Esther Brandeau was the daughter of David Brandeau, of Bayonne, France.  Esther, disguised as a boy, Jacques La Fargue, arrived in Quebec on the ship “The St. Michel” in 1738.  Esther remained true to her Jewish faith and was eventually returned to France in 1739.   But she did remain for about one year and numerous attempts to convert  and welcome her into French-Canadian Society were made.


The question that remains is, were there others?  How many others did come and eventually convert to Catholicism?  The presence of Sephardic families throughout Latin America is well documented and recorded.  Next to no official documentation on the presence of Jews in New France exists.   New research from a variety of angles is hoping to dispel the myth that Jews did not come; exploring the possibility that they came in substantial numbers to this new land, far away from the persecution that existed for them in Europe. 

The existence of Jews in France dates back to Roman times.  After the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, thousands of Jewish captives arrived at Bordeaux, Arles and Lyons.  Through the middle ages, their fate was often tied to the ruler at the time and many Jews were forced to move from region to region based on the politics of the day.  Unlike Spain, this was not a golden age for Jews living in France.  Nevertheless, they existed and thrived until 1305 when Phillip IV the Fair expelled 100,000 Jews from France.  They were allowed to return in 1315 under Louis X.  Large numbers of “Marranos” came to southwestern France in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.   They settled many cities; Bayonne, Peyrehorade, Bidache, Bordeaux and La Rochelle in the southwest.  They also settled in Rouen.  Their numbers were large but eventually dwindled.  Where did they go?  Many used France as a way stop to other more established Jewish centers like Amsterdam.  But many others also assimilated into French society; and some believe, made their way to New France. 

So how can researchers determine whether there were Jewish people of France that made their way to New France?  Approaching this difficult task has been a raison d’être for Deborah Jensen, head of the Canadian Anusim DNA project at Family Tree DNA.  Jensen hopes to combine genealogical and historical research along with Y-DNA and mtDNA results of French Canadians to demonstrate the presence of Jewish ancestry in New France, one day giving them their rightful recognition among the first settlers.

The research has yielded some surprises, including a possible Ashkenazi heritage among some of the first settlers.  Take my family for example.  My first ancestor, Jean Ducas, came to New France from the deep southwest of France, so far south, his listed origin was only a few miles from the Spanish border.  The surname Ducas is quite rare, but mainly considered of Ashkenazi origin, a name carried by some Jewish families originating from the Rhine region of France.  The DNA testing confirmed a middle eastern heritage for my paternal line, haplogroup J2 which is the most common haplogroup assigned to Jewish people overall, 23% among Ashkenazi and 28% among Sephardim.  But further research into the surname showed it was most likely linked with these families of Alsace.  Many of the Jewish families of Alsace were merchants and had been living and trading all along the routes of St. Jacques Compostelle  (The way of St. James).  The name Ducas appears in records in Nimes, Toulouse, Auch, Pau, Tarbes, St. Jean de Luz and Tudela, those in Nimes and Toulouse found in the 1808 census of Jews.  These families were also identified by Juan Carrasco Perez, Professor at the Public University of Navarra as likely of French origin, even though many were living in Navarra, Spain. 

The DNA testing also showed a series of DNA results indicating middle eastern origins among other families from more northern areas of France, like the historical province of Perche.  Many of the surnames bare a striking resemblance to common Ashkenazi surnames of today.   There is also the case of the Gautron dit La Rochelle family test which came out as a 100% match to the “Levite Modal Haplotype” in haplogroup R1a.  Seeing as the LMH shows its origins in Eastern Europe, why was this ancestor carrying the same DNA markers in La Rochelle, France?  R1a is relatively rare in Western France.  Many of the J2 results show a close or exact match to other well-known DNA markers like the “Cohen Modal Haplotype.” 

There are also some common Sephardic surnames found in French Canada like Rodrigues, Dassylva, Miranda, Cardinal among many others.  DNA test results for one Rodrigues participant also indicated a Middle Eastern origin, haplogroup E3b.  Overall, French Canadians show about 14% Y DNA in haplogroups J, E3b and G, DNA groups associated with the Mediterranean and Middle East.  These numbers can be seen as quite average for a country like France which is also a Mediterranean country, but given that many of the settlers of New France came from northern France, they could be considered significantly higher than average. 

In 1808, France issued the “Decree of Bayonne” which forced Jews to take and keep a single surname.  This decree lead to many census lists of Jews from all over France and gave Deborah Jensen and her team an excellent window into which names were taken and which bore a resemblance to names found in French Canadian society.  The task in the months ahead will be to find participants with surnames found on these lists to submit for a DNA test.  Should the results show an affinity with Middle Eastern groups, then the hard work of proving a Jewish background can begin.  

The settlement of Sephardim in France along with their seemingly quiet dispersal coincides time-wise to the settlement of New France.  Furthermore many of the settlers of New France came from cities like Rouen, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Bayonne, cities with known Sephardic settlement and subsequent dispersal.  The project has its hurdles.  Names were often changed to assimilate with French society and records on the movement of Sephardim in France are sparse.  Many people don’t see the settlement of Quebec as having a significant founding Jewish population; maybe it is not a very popular theory in some circles.  Deborah hopes to eventually show conclusively, combining this historical and genealogical data with DNA, that many of French Canada’s first settlers shared a Jewish ancestry, one that was suppressed in a region essentially run by the Catholic Church.

Society For Crypto Judaic Studies