Family legend has it that William Genoe, born ca. 1810, was of the French aristocracy. When it became unsafe for the aristocracy in France, he was sent by his parents to live in Ireland. There, he met a commoner, Sarah Ray, while giving her horse riding lessons. He fell desperately in love with her and they were married. Because she was a commoner, William’s parents disowned him. He and Sarah – a fierce, determined sort – made their way to Canada where they were granted land and started life anew. They were successful farmers, raising a large family, and lived the remainder of their lives together in Canada.

It’s a great tale…but how much of it is true? Could the story have changed and been distorted over time? Could it even be a complete fabrication – the product of a romantic, overactive imagination?

Perhaps by looking at the history of the Genoe family in Canada and Ireland, we can determine whether the favourite family tale is indeed fact, or if it’s fiction.

Canadian Records:

Let’s start with what we know about the Genoe family in Canada.

We started with Canadian Census records. William and Sarah are first found on a Canadian census in 1861 (Library and Archives Canada) in Artemesia Township in the County of Grey in Ontario. In this record, William “Geno” states his place of birth as Ireland (not France), and his age as 54 years. His occupation is farmer. His wife Sarah, also lists her place of birth as Ireland and her age as 48 years. Their religion is recorded as Church of Ireland. In the census they have 7 children listed with them ranging in age from 4 to 20 years. All of the children list Upper Canada (Ontario) as their place of birth – indicating that the family has been in Canada since at least 1841.

Subsequent Canadian Census records, all in Artemesia township, support the information found in the 1861 census – that both William and Sarah were born in Ireland, William in around 1810 and Sarah in 1814. The census records do not give any clues as to where in Ireland they were born.

The last census in which William “Genore” can be found is 1891. He is listed as age 76 years and as a widower (as he was in the 1881 census). He is living with one of his married daughters and her family. Not only does he report his birthplace as Ireland, but the birthplace of both his parents is recorded as Ireland as well. Sarah’s final record in a Canadian census is found in 1871.

The information from the Canadian census records cast some doubt on the family tale of French aristocracy. And based on the records we can start to build their family history.

  • William Genoe (born c1810 – died between 1891 and 1901), born in Ireland

  • Sarah Ray (born c1814 – died between 1871 and 1881), born in Ireland

  • They arrived in Canada from Ireland before 1841.

  • They had at least 7 children.

Moving on to search other Canadian records for William and Sarah was largely unhelpful. The Canadian death and burial records failed to reveal any records for either William or Sarah and it’s uncertain when they died or where they are buried. No immigration or arrival records could be found.

A Crown Sale Grant to “William Genoe the Elder” (one of his sons was also named William) was found, granting William 90 acres in Artemesia township, dated the 4th of February 1873. This grant would have come almost 20 years after they arrived in Artemesia.

However, further searching of the Canadian records did indirectly reveal some more information about William and Sarah – including more children. In addition to the 7 children found in the 1861 census, an additional three daughters were discovered. And it is the eldest daughter, Jane, who revealed more helpful information in unravelling the story of William Genoe and Sarah Ray.

Unlike the rest of her family, who is missing from the Canadian census in 1851 (which was actually enumerated in 1852), Jane is found in that census record. She is 16 years of age and listed as an “assistant” living with a family in Northumberland County – a different area of Ontario. And unlike all of her siblings who were born in Upper Canada, her birthplace is listed as Ireland. This means that William and Sarah were still in Ireland in 1836, narrowing down their year of immigration to somewhere between 1836 and 1841.

Based on Jane’s location in this census, local records (Hope Township Census Returns: 1837, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1844, 1845, 1846, 1847, 1848, 1850) were found that indicated this area of Ontario – Hope Township – was where the entire family had lived in Canada prior to Artemesia township. Further examination of the birthplaces of all William and Sarah’s children in baptismal and birth records indicate they left this area for Artemesia in about 1852 (which may explain why they are missing from the 1851/52 census record). When they left, Jane must have decided to stay.

But that isn’t all Jane’s records had to tell. After she married, she eventually made her way to the opposite end of the country (as detailed in subsequent Canadian census records). She eventually died in British Columbia in 1921 at the age of 85 years. Her death record (British Columbia, Division of Vital Statistics) reports her date of birth as 1836 and her year of immigration to Canada as 1837.

No further information is revealed from the Canadian records of William, Sarah, and their children, but there were still Canadian records of others that could help. Family lore also dictated that the name of William’s father was Robert Genoe and suggested William had at least two brothers, Moses and David. Based on the family tale we wouldn’t expect William’s father Robert to have come to Canada, yet a Robert Genoe living with a Moses Genoe is found in the 1851/52 Canadian census in Carleton County, Canada West (Ontario). Robert lists his age as 75 years and his birthplace as Ireland. Moses, aged 25 years, also lists his birthplace as Ireland (as does his wife Jane). But the children of Moses and Jane, ages 1 and 3 years, were born in Upper Canada (Ontario). This would indicate that Moses, Jane, and Robert immigrated to Canada from Ireland by 1849, if not earlier. No death record can be found for Robert, but he doesn’t appear on any subsequent Canadian census records (meaning he likely died between 1852 and 1861). No death record can be found for Moses, but his wife is listed as a widow in the 1871 Census. A death record for one of Moses’s sons, Robert was found and listed his father’s birthplace as County Antrim, Ireland. If this was indeed William’s father and brother, it cast further doubt on the tale of French aristocracy. And to test the relationship, DNA testing of descendants of both William and Moses was performed, and confirmed that William and Moses were indeed related – likely as brothers (based on the amount of DNA shared in their descendants).

Irish Records:

Having exhausted the information that could be gleaned from Canadian records, it was time to turn to records from Ireland in an attempt to shed some light on the old family tale.

But this endeavour brought some unique challenges. There is very little in the way of census records for Ireland in the 19th century. And the records that are used as census substitutes are often specific to counties within Ireland. Unfortunately, the Canadian records didn’t reveal a county of origin for the Genoe and Ray families. It was a good bit of luck however, that Genoe is not a common name in Ireland.

In an effort to determine which county William Genoe and Sarah Ray were from, a search was undertaken on RootsIreland, an online subscription-based service offering Irish genealogical records. And here, daughter Jane was once again the key. A transcription of her baptismal record (Cavan Genealogy via, listing her parents William and Sarah Genoe was found. Jane was baptised in the Church of Ireland in Knockbride Parish, County Cavan on the 21st of February 1835. (Note that Jane’s death certificate stated her birth as 1836). In addition, the record listed their address as “Leafin” a transcription error of Seefin townland.

No marriage record could be found for William and Sarah on RootsIreland so a search of the Church of Ireland parish registers with the help of Cavan Genealogy was undertaken. Although the chances of finding anything seemed to be slim, their marriage record was found. William Genoe and Sarah Ray were married in Bailieborough Parish, County Cavan (not far from Knockbride Parish where their daughter Jane was baptised the following year), on Tuesday, April 15th in 1834. Bailieborough is listed as Sarah’s parish, and William’s parish is recorded as Knockbride. William signed his name, while Sarah signed with her mark “X”.

No baptismal records for William or Sarah could be found (but Church of Ireland records for the Bailieborough and Knockbride parishes do not exist before 1824). However, the fathers’ names for William and Sarah had been passed down through the generations – Robert Genoe as William’s father, and James Ray as Sarah’s father.

With this location, timeframe, and other information in mind, additional Irish records were searched.

The Genoe family (albeit with different spellings) was found in the Tithe Applotment books (compiled between 1823 and 1837 to determine the amount paid in tithes to the Church of Ireland). Robert “Jenno”, William’s father, was found in an 1827 Tithe Applotment Books record (National Archives of Ireland) living in “Cefinn” in Knockbride Parish, County Cavan. Both Robert and William “Jenni” are found in an 1833 Tithe Applotment Books record for Seefin, Knockbride Parish, County Cavan (Knockbride: A History, E. Markey & J. Clarke, 1995). The Ray family was not found in the Tithe Applotment Books in County Cavan.

Looking back even further to the Flax Grower’s List (a list of persons to whom premiums were given for sowing flax seed in the year 1796), it does not contain any listings for Genoe but does include a James Ray of Bailieborough. This could be Sarah’s father, but this isn’t certain.

An 1833 record of Arms registered with the Clerk of the Peace for County Cavan (National Library of Ireland) did not contain any entries for Genoe but did list a James “Wray” of Greaghnamale, Bailieborough, County Cavan. He was the owner of one gun, registered at Shercock, County Cavan in 1832.

Estate records in both the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland covering Knockbride and Bailieborough (Lord Garvagh, William Greville, Edward Groome, and Hodson) did not reveal any entries for the surnames Genoe or Ray.

Graveyard inscriptions for Knockbride Cemeteries did not reveal any Genoe or Ray graves. Bailieborough Church of Ireland Cemetery does have a listing for Ray (4 upright marker stones), but not for Genoe.

Griffith’s Valuation (a property tax survey carried out in the mid-nineteenth century between the years 1847 and 1864) did not contain any entries for the surname Genoe (or its various spellings) in County Cavan. A James Ray was found in Griffith’s Valuation ( living in the townland of Pottle Lower Bailieborough in 1857. Whether this is Sarah’s father (or perhaps a brother) is not certain. We know that William and Sarah had already left for Canada prior to Griffith’s valuation.

Because William and Sarah left Ireland prior to civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths they are, not surprisingly, not found in these records. The first complete census records for Ireland are from 1901 and although a number of Genoe families are found in and around County Cavan, whether they have a connection to the William Genoe in question, is uncertain

The Facts

Putting together the information found in both Canadian and Irish records, the family story becomes a little more complete:

  • William Genoe and Sarah Ray were both born in Ireland. Exactly where in Ireland is uncertain although William’s brother, Moses was reportedly born in County Antrim. According to various census records, William’s parents were also born in Ireland.

  • William Genoe and Sarah Ray were married on the 15th of April, 1834 in Bailieborough, County Cavan, Ireland.

  • Sarah Ray’s parish was Bailieborough while William Genoe’s parish was Knockbride, County Cavan.

  • Prior to their marriage, William is found in 1833 occupying land in Seefin Townland, County Cavan as is his father Robert. Robert had been occupying land in Seefin since at least 1827.

  • Following their marriage, their daughter Jane Genoe was baptized in Knockbride Parish on the 21st of February 1835. This contradicts Jane’s death record, which appeared to be off by one year with a reported date of birth of 1836. At the time of the baptism, William, Sarah and Jane are living in Seefin.

  • William, Sarah and their daughter Jane left for Canada in 1836 or 1837 (based on Jane’s death record as well as the dates and places of birth of the remaining 9 Genoe children).

  • The family settled first in Hope Township in Ontario until around 1852 when they made the move to Artemesia Township in Ontario (where they were eventually granted land from the crown).

With all of this information in hand, it is time to have another look at the family tale. Could William Genoe have been French aristocracy sent out of France to safety in Ireland?

Likely not – for a few different reasons. William was actually born after the French revolution (and before later revolutions and unrest in France). The timing is unlikely. If William had been French aristocracy he would likely have been Roman Catholic. But according to the records we have found, he was Protestant. It seems unlikely that Sarah Ray, his wife, would have been in a position to take riding lessons and it’s unlikely they met in this way. And finally, if William had been disinherited by his parents, he probably wouldn’t be found living beside his father in Ceefin townland, in Knockbride Parish, County Cavan in the 1830s. The Canadian census records further confirm that he was unlikely to be French aristocracy, listing William’s place of birth (and that of his parents) as Ireland.

But before dismissing the family tale as fiction, it’s worth considering whether there could have been a basis of truth to it. Could someone in William’s family (his grandfather, great-grandfather, of even someone further back in the family) have come from France?

There was a particular group of people known to flee France for Ireland (amongst other countries). They were known as Huguenots – French protestants who as early as the 1560s were persecuted in France because of their religion. And some noble families in France did convert from Catholicism. The Edict of Nantes in 1598 brought an end to the religious conflict between Catholics and protestants in France, and ensured the Huguenots could legally live there with the freedom to worship according to their beliefs. But in the mid 1600s under the reign of Louis XIV, life again became difficult for the Huguenots and in 1685 the Edict of Nantes was revoked. Catholicism was once again the only legal religion with severe punishments for those not observing the faith. Many French Huguenots, preferring exile to abandoning their faith, fled France.

Although some Huguenots arrived in Ireland in the early 1600s, the majority arrived starting later in the 1600s and into the 1700s. This immigration of French protestants to Ireland was encouraged by Irish parliament in the late 1600s, but the Huguenots were required to align with the Church of Ireland (even though Presbyterianism was more closely linked with the Huguenot faith). This resulted in Huguenots becoming a variety of different faiths, depending on whether or not they chose to conform.

It’s not hard to imagine that the Genoe family was one of the Huguenot families arriving in Ireland. This would actually lend itself well to the family tale. Over time “Huguenot” became “aristocracy” and William took the place of an earlier ancestor.

There are some clues that the Genoe family could have been Huguenots from France. Genoe is not a common name in Ireland, and a French origin to the name, such as Geneau, is possible. The Genoes that were (and are to this day) in Ireland are concentrated in and around County Cavan and as late as the 1911 census were of a variety of different faiths (Catholic, Church of Ireland, and Presbyterian). Of interest, a post on a now defunct genealogy message board asked for information on the family of Moses Genoe and in the post the family was described as Huguenots from France. Unfortunately, the contact address associated with the post is no longer available so no further details could be found.

Looking for parents, brothers and sisters of Moses Genoe. He is thought to have brothers William and David. The family were Huguenots who left France due to presecution[sic] of Protestants and migrated to Ireland, younger ones came to Canada early 1800's. Could be spelt Geno, Genoa or Genoe.

Was William Genoe the descendant of French Huguenots who fled France? It’s difficult to confirm this theory. Huguenot records in Ireland are relatively rare (please note that Huguenot records have not yet been searched) and we lose the trail of the Genoe family in Irish records at William’s father, Robert. But it is an intriguing theory – and gives new life to a family tale.

Additional Information
Date of Birth 1810 (circa)  
Date of Death 1896 (circa)  
Father (First Name/s and Surname) Robert Genoe  
Spouse (First Name/s and Maiden/Surname) Sarah Ray, daughter of James Ray  
Place & Date of Marriage 15th April 1834, Bailieborough Church of Ireland, County Cavan  
Number of Children 11  
First Child Jane Genoe, baptised 21st of February 1835 in the Church of Ireland in Knockbride Parish, County Cavan  
Names of Children Jane, Letitia, William, Margaret, Mary Ann, Sarah, Susannah, Robert, John James, Thomas, Richard  
Names of Siblings Moses, possibly David, others?  
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