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The Dagenais surname Chronicle of Our Branch of the Family in North America Frederick Dashner Each ancestor has a life story to tell that, because they lie in a line of descent that ends with u…

The Dagenais surname

Chronicle of Our Branch of the Family
in North America

Frederick Dashner

Each ancestor has a life story to tell that, because they lie in a line of descent that ends with us, we would like to hear. The following is a narrative of such a line, pieced together in the spirit of exploring the historical continuity of a surname. 


A good starting point in the Dagenais genealogy, therefore, is the surname itself, which is rooted in Agenais, a former province of Ancien Régime France. Located in the southwest part of the country, the region has a long and colorful history stretching back to its origins as Gaulish Aginnum and Roman Civitas Agennensium. It was fought over by various kingdoms and political entities for much of its 2000-year history. The region today constitutes virtually the entire French département of Lot-en-Garonne.

The French prefix de (d’ in its shortened form before a vowel) means “from”, and thus the construction d’Agenais indicates something or someone from Agenais. As is the case with the origin of many French surnames, people removed from a region and living elsewhere would have been referred to with their forename, the de prefix, and the name of the region they had left. Over time, many of these constructions became formalized as surnames.

The administrative seat of Agenais in ancient times was the city of Agen, as it remains today. Residents of the city are also referred to as Agenais or Agenois, and the same use of the d’ prefix was likely used to refer to a person who had come from this town. Some may wish to point out that use of the uppercase De or D’ in French can also indicate nobility, and there was indeed a Compte D’Agenais (Count of Agenais) for several centuries until the French Revolution in 1789.

Nevertheless, it is far more logical to assume the connected uppercase D in Dagenais arose out of simplified spelling over time than to attempt to claim an historical descent from nobility for which there is no historical evidence. A few of the early recorded spellings of the surname in fact use the lowercase d’. The surname Dagenais, therefore, means simply “from Agenais province” or “from among the people of Agen”.

Over the last four centuries, the surname has been recorded as Dagenais, Dagenez, d’Agenez, Dagenay, d’Agenais, Dageney, Dagenest, Dagenet, and Dagenets, all of which sound identical in French. Explanations for the various spellings include poor transcription, widespread illiteracy, and personal preference. Because of the rural roots of most early immigrants to Québec and the harsh environment they lived in, several generations of Québecois had no formal education and therefore simply did not read or write.

The adaption of anglicized forms like Dashner and Dashnaw for many U.S. members of the extended family evolved out of an attempt to “sound” more American, as was the case with immigrants from many countries. The wide variation in spelling has made historical research all the more difficult. For the sake of clarity, the spelling Dagenais will be used exclusively here.

Much of the genealogical information from the early 17th century on in Québec, as in France, can be gleaned from the baptisms, marriages, and deaths recorded in Catholic parishes. This is fortuitous because civil records for much of this period are sparse.

As a rule, dependable entries in church registers are available from 1579 on, although some baptismal records are available from earlier periods. The physical location of individuals in time and information about them is therefore inextricably bound to their association with a parish and will be mentioned repeatedly in conjunction with the life events of the individual in question. Individuals not associated with a parish, for whatever reason, are much more difficult to trace and often fall from the record completely.

The first Old World mention of the surname Dagenais in this line is a reference to Renaud Dagenais of the parish of Saint-Sauveur in the port city of La Rochelle in the old French province of Aunis about 250 km from Agen. Today, the city lies in the département of Charentes-Maritimes (17 in figure 1) on France’s west coast. An early transcription error would render him Arnaud Dagenais in many North American genealogical documents.

Renaud Dagenais’ residence in La Rochelle with his wife, Andrée Poulet, in the early 1600s demands some speculation as to why a move away from Agenais might have been made. Regardless of whether the family relocation to La Rochelle was made by a single individual or took place gradually over a few generations, there are some historical and intertwined motivations for such a move.

Agenais in the 15th and 16th centuries, like most of rural France, was almost completely agricultural, and the remnants of the European feudal system had hung on there, as in much of France, much longer than in the northern parts of Europe. The usual arrangement, where a seigneur, or noble, owned the land and the local peasantry was employed to work it for a percentage of the harvest, had been in existence for several centuries.

These peasants, almost universally poor, uneducated, and largely restricted to the land they worked, were in many cases closer to serfs than to citizens and led lives with little opportunity for social advancement. Their percentage of the harvest was enough to keep them alive but was rarely enough to allow for the accumulation of sufficient capital for significant social mobility.

Prevented from owning land, they were kept in check physically by the king’s soldiers and morally by the church. There were also tradesmen, petty merchants, and the clergy in the various towns and villages who managed to live somewhat above the fray, however, and the likelihood of a Dagenais attaining the rudimentary education and capital necessary for a move to La Rochelle lies with the merchant class. The fact that Renaud Dagenais and his eldest son are later recorded as merchants in La Rochelle lends credence to this line of thought.

A second motivation would also likely have been the fact that the Agenais region had seen intermittent warfare for a period of over 200 years until 1453, control over the area having been passed between France and England several times during this period. It was permanently attached to the French crown only in 1592, just a few years before Renaud Dagenais’ appearance in the record.

Regardless of the reason for leaving Agenais, the 250 km distance between Agen and La Rochelle was a well-traveled route, both by land and by water. The large Garonne River runs through Agen to Bordeaux, where a short sea voyage or overland trip north to La Rochelle was readily available.

To be continued...

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Comment by David Dagenais on October 18, 2016 at 8:20am

Jean-Francois Dagenais

Is this blog still active?

I'm beginning a history of the Dagenais branch that migrated from Quebec to Connecticut, but I don't have easy access to any official documents. I am depending on second-source information and personal contacts. I note that you have done a lot of work on the history, going back to France and proceeding through Pierre I and Pierre II in the seventeenth century. Thanks for your hard work.

I'd like to stay in touch as I develop my appreciation for my forebears and I look forward to reading more of your material.


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