Dit Names – Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins

The “Dit” Names
Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins

My first ancestor to Nouvelle France was Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins.  He arrived around 1700. More about him late but first I wanted to focus on the “dit” name.  Why was Michel Robineau known as “Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins”.

First, 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, especially in the French military.  Why this type of nomenclature is not also used in the English military to distinguish Smith’s and Jones, etc. is still a mystery.

As in most things dealing with history, the question as to why the French followed the practice 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 practice. 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.  The dit name was an identifier. One would know immediately which troupe someone belonged to because of the types of dit names given.

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.  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

There are several other sources that describe the use of “Dit names”.  These include:





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.

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 and 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.

How did Michel get tagged with Desmoulins as a dit name:

1) 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 Moulins.  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:


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 for about ten minutes.  I thought he might have taken the name of one of the three leaders of the French Revolution (Camille Desmoulins) because 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.

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.

This is where my theories are for the time being.


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2 Responses to Dit Names – Michel Robineau dit Desmoulins

  1. Alan Campbell says:

    Isn’t speculation grand!