Dit Names – Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins

The “Dit” Names
Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins

I have been looking recently into why our first ancestor to Canada (around 1700) (for most of us Robineau’s) chose Desmoulins as is “nom de guerre” (Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins). I have several theories at the moment, which do you like best?   You can also feel free to provide new ones.
The other interesting fact is that while Michel’s children would be Robineau dit Desmoulins, over time some kept the Robineau name and others kept the Desmoulins/Dumoulin name. So, we have “Desmoulins/Dumoulin relatives out there who have a common link with Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins.

But first here is a little background on “Dit: names.

“Dit” names have many origins. Many were originally the “nom de guerre” adopted by the troops in a specific military company.
The French word dit translates in English to the word ‘said’. What does this mean?, well, different things to different researchers. The term dit to some researchers is translated to a.k.a., also known as; to some it translates as ‘nickname’; some translate it as ‘alias’; while others translates it as ‘distinguisher’.

The most popular explanation is that the French in New France took or were given a dit name as a way to distinguish themselves from one another.

Dit names where an additional name given or taken by someone by which they were or could be also known as. This practise was historically used by the French and the Scots.

As in most things dealing with history, the question as to why the French followed the practise of using a dit name is controversial. The reason it is controversial is that there does not appear to be any hard and fast rules as to when and why people followed this practise. Here are some of the common reasons dit names where given or used:

To distinguish one person or family from another
To demonstrate the point – in a small town there are two John Smiths who happen to be cousins therefore, they come from the same immediate family. Both are tailors, which is the family business. To distinguish one from the other, one of them added to his name John Smith dit Taylor meaning John Smith the tailor. The other changed his name to John Smith dit Tremblay because he lived near a grove of Aspens. Aspen wood in French is Tremblay. Distinguishing between the two would have no longer posed a problem.

Soldiers – Decreed by law
It is often said that dit names were given to soldiers in New France to distinguish one from another with-in the same troupe. Soldiers under one commander might have been given dit names which all began with a particular letter of the alphabet, such as in the Dugre Company – the soldiers were given dit names that all began with the letter D; another troupe might have all had names of parts of the body. Between 1764 and 1768 the soldiers from the Casaux company where all given dit names of vegetables, such as Lalétue, Lachicorée, and Lecerfeuil and so on.

The dit name was an identifier. One would know immediately which troupe someone belonged to because of the types of dit names given.

In 1716 it became a requirement that all soldiers be given a dit name. What is most interesting is that in New France a dit name could be passed down from father to son and often was. On the other hand, this was not done in France. A soldier’s dit name in France was a personal thing. The son would not have taken his father’s dit name.

Was it a peculiarity of the French military?  Maybe it was to help identify soldiers, but if so, why did the English not have them.  They would need some like “Smith dit …”  or “White dit…”, etc.

To pay respect
Some people took the family name of the person who raised them. There were a fair number of casual adoptions in the 1600 to 1800 hundreds often due to the mother dying during the birth of one of her children. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for a woman to have taken-in the child or children of her dead sister for instance. The child would, according to French law, have kept their family name but often would tack on their adoptive father’s last name as a dit name.

To show where one came from
The standard prefix in a French name showing origin or referring to a place is ‘de’ as in Jacques de St. Dennis which means Jack from St. Dennis. However, some people in New France would add a dit name and not a de name of a place or location such as Henry Beauclerc dit Normandie who was the son of William the Conqueror.

Paying religious homage
The population in New France was Catholic. Non-catholics were not allowed into the colony. The first and only – attested to – Jewish person to set foot in New France was 20-year-old Esther Brandeau; she actually entered the colony disguised as a boy named Jacques La Fague. It was not long before she was found out. She was given every opportunity to convert which she refused, so she was sent back to France. There was a Jewish person who was hired by the Hudson Bay Company, Ferdinande Jacobs, and came to Canada in 1732. However, Hudson Bay was under England’s rule and not a part of New France; therefore, in this case, Ferdinande was allowed to stay.

In 1627 the Catholic missionaries in New France were concerned that some Huguenots were making their way into Acadia and convinced Cardinal Richelieu to add a clause to the charter of the Company of New France which said that the only people who could settle in New France were “natural-born French Catholics”.

Some people took dit names as a way to pay homage to their favourite saint such as François St-Jean or Michel St-Pierre and the like.

The above description was primarily taken from: http://www.catudals.com/2011/05/dit-dite-names.html

In the mid-1800’s the “Dit” names seem to fall out of style.  Why?
The dit names started disappearing around the time of the Confederation (1867) in official records (i.e. census) without any law being passed to this effect. All records were kept by the clergy in Quebec at that time (baptism in lieu of birth record) no civil marriages.. Instructions were sent by bishops to parish priests to discontinue the use of dit names and to uniformise family surname usage (at least that is the theory).  And in 1850, that method would have been very effective.

But now, back to the question.  How did Michel get the “Desmoulins” “dit” name.

It was randomly allocated to him by his military superiors;
Could be, but that would cut this discussion pretty short and not be as much fun.

2) It represents his character, perhaps he was a “Don Quixote” type;
Was he an adventurous guy.  Based on the research done to date he seems to have been a farmer living around Montreal, not exactly Quixotic.

3) He grew up in a neighbourhood called “Desmoulins”
Not as far-fetched as it seems.  Michel was baptized at St. Roch church in Paris.  Around the St. Roch church there used to be a hill that was actually leveled  about 20 years before he was born. That hill was called “Butte des Moulins”.  So growing up they might still have been calling the area Butte Des Mounlins.  It is not a big leap to Michel choosing Des Moulins as his nom de guerre.
This is my favourite explanation.
For further details go to:http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butte_des_Moulins

4) He was a fan of a Desmoulins.
There was a Desmoulins who was popular in the late 1600’s around Paris and he chose that name .
This was a great possibility fro about ten minutes.  I thought he might have taken the name of one of the three leaders of the French Revolution (Camille Desmoulins) becasue he was a fan. Unfortumately, the French Revolution happened 60 years after Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins died in 1737.

5) That is where he came from.
Michel was baptized at St. Roch parish in Paris, but that does not mean he came from Paris.

There is actually a town in France called Esmoulins. Is it possible that although Michel may have been born in Paris his family may have been from Esmoulins (about three hours from Paris). Thus Michel Robineau from Esmoulins would be Michel Robineau de Esmoulins or Michel Robineau d”esmoulins (Desmoulins). It is a stretch since in the 1600?s people did not generally move very far from where they were born..

Of course, Esmoulins is 3 hours from Paris… today!.  The distance is about 300 kilometers.  Travelling 300 kilometers in the mid 1600?s would have been considerably more than three hours of travel.  This might be a case of “Theory…Busted”

6) It was a landmark near where he lived in Nouvelle France
This was another promising theory for about twenty minutes.  Michel’s farm was around Montreal and his military unit may have been in Terreborne (north east of Montreal).  In Terreborne there is an island called “Ile des Moulins”.  Sounds great, but my research indicates that the island did not get named Ile des Moulins until the 1800’s.

Feel free to suggest other theories.

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10 Responses to Dit Names – Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins

  1. Jean Dumoulin says:

    Hi, having done some research as well I came to adopt your 3rd possibility as more probable. As you say these names sometimes characterized the person from the place they were. The “Butte des moulins” was destroyed but there is still a Des Moulins street nearby the St-Roch parish and this street was already there when Michel was born. Maybe he was living in this street… What gets me to believe more in this possibility is that Michel’s father, Simon was married to Anne Larcher (as per Michel’s wedding declaration). On an old plan of the streets of Paris, around 1700, we can see houses and who was living in those houses. One was written as occupied by Mr Larcher and was not that far from Des Moulins street….so my guess so far is that DesMoulins was representative of where he was from.

  2. de ,la, de la,, du, des ,D’. frit . van , and son
    All can be shown as the family or off spring of a person . When surnames became law mainly for poll taxes this had already been in practice. it can also show a kind of history of such or a combination of families IE; des Moulin la Marche de Falaise

    Du Moulin is primarily Norman to include Flemish .at least in the beginning .

    Dit is used to elevate the name amongst others to separate if you will .

    Kind of like SIR or Mr. or Mrs. are used today but as a family and not an individual .

    • Roger says:

      Yes, that is one of the many interpretations of Dit names.Thanks for sharing.

      • You are welcome :
        Another aspect to look at is in the name .
        Such as
        des Moulin
        du Moulin

        The dit Desmoulin of France also went by the name of Mills . They were known as the Lords of Rochefort .

        The majority of this group left France by the 1600s and quit a few made it to Canada by then .

        This is considered to be the Lomer Guerrie line also called the younger
        and as such we get Desmoulin (s) instead of des Moulin
        This line can be linked with the du Moulin of Maline known as the lords of Millinghem and also the Van der Moellen .
        So yes to elevate above others would be a correct statement in this line anyway………………..

        Michael Mullen

        • Roger says:


          Actually, the area around where he was born was called “Buttes des Moulins” because of the mills. I have been in contact with a “Desmoulins” who is from the same line as mine. His great..great…great grandparents gave up the Robineau part of the name and kept Desmoulins.

          Roger Robineau

          • Interesting:
            I suspect my line gain the name some 400 -600 years ago thru adoption or even outside marriage.
            And as time past we became Mullen from du Moulin around 1700.
            But as so many portray it always has to be some famous person . This causes a lot of confusion !
            In any case I can go back about 12 generations . And somewhat intrigued of this family name we have …………………………………………………………….
            The older :

            Basically Alsace……………………………………………..

            Michael Mullen

          • Roger says:

            This is what makes this addiction to genealogy so much fun. So many questions and possibilities. There is even one theory that the name Robineau was originally Robinovitch and somewhere in the 1500/1600 it was changed to escape persecution.


          • So How would you change that to Desmoulin ?????.

            Well , just think …………

            Michael Mullen

          • Roger says:

            No, i have no shred of evidence pointing in that direction. My first ancestor was Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins. It is relatively easu=y to get to Desmoulins that way.

          • I understand this frustration very much.
            I do know the text book version is not in line with actual events.
            I can say in general that there is two main families of Moulin Usually called the younger and the older . Why I am not sure but I do believe there is more than one Moulin family and all are not related .
            I find my kin more or less out side of France and this is due to religion .
            Which this can get very confusing because of how the name changes .
            Now don’t laugh but I was brought up thinking we were Irish but after years of studying we are of French decent . we also went by the name of Mollen and Maline and this is as late as 1734 .
            So I still am scratching my head when it comes to an ancestor named Wolfgang ( 1613).
            Thank you for your time and comments………………………………..
            Try looking at a Jacques dit Dumoulin or Philippe du Moulin 1416 -1480
            Interesting these “Dits ” are ………………………………………………………….

            Michael Mullen

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