In France, to search for records on an ancestor, all is tied to where the event occurred: where the person was born, where married, where died, where buried. You need to know the commune or town for events after the Revolution, and the diocese and parish if before. Once you have the place, you can begin your research. The information will be in the Mairie (Town Hall) of the village or commune or city where the event happened. If the information is very old, it will be in the Archives Départementales of the département where the event occurred. The same holds true for old parish records, which are all held in the Archives Départementales.
What if you have only a name and no place of birth in France? What can you do? It will not be easy.
1) Most definitely, comb through everything that may be in your family's possession about the person, absolutely everything, and make a list of every detail. Turns of phrase your French ancestor used can be of help if they were regional, as many expressions are. Clothes from the old country in photos may help, if any trace of a traditional regional costume appears. A book, a Bible, a sword, a medal, all could be clues. All the old stories handed down in the family need to be recorded, using the teller's wording exactly, for events in stories will turn up in history books.
2) Next, find every record in the new country relating to your ancestor and get the original copy. An index mention from Ancestry will not do. You need to see the original to glean every tiny bit of information it may contain, such as a middle initial, the name of the ship of arrival, an occupation, an earlier version of the spelling of the surname, etc.
This will NOT solve your problem; it may only point you in the right direction.
Géopatronyme is a website in French designed to help those tracing a surname or nom de famille. It has a search facility for you to type in a name. You will then get a map of France showing where the name most occurs. The data used comes from a number of sources including statistics of numbers of births per surname in a location. These come from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (I.N.S.E.E.) and cover those born after 1945 and still living in 1970.
The biggest loss from this group is the 1.3 million dead of World War I and the more than half a million dead of World War II. The data base also does not include those born in Alsace and Lorraine, nor those in France's ex-colonies or possessions. As you can see, it is not ideal, but it is all there is for the time being. If your ancestor were a person with a unique name, you may be able to find the département from which he or she probably came.
For example, the name Mabire reveals a map with all listings in the northwest of France, most in Manche and a good number in Seine-Maritime. So, Manche is where you would start looking, town by town, parish by parish. However, if you type in Leconte, you get occurrences in two thirds of France, with a large number again in Manche. Put a space between Le and Conte and it is quite a different picture, with Manche, Seine-Maritime and Paris having the majority of people with that name. That gives you three places where you might begin your search.
The rest of the website is a rehashing of statistics about French names based on data pulled from national statistics and old telephone directories. You can check:
- Which names have "disappeared" in that there were in the data from 1891 to 1940 but not from 1941 to 1990. (Many of these look to have been misspellings.)
- Unusual names, weird names, obscene names (this is a fun list to read if you know some French slang).
- The law concerning names (More on what I like to call the French "name police" in a future post.)
- A list of "New names" (the reverse situation of the first bulleted point)
- A long, scholarly historical discussion on names in general by language and region
- spelling statistics (somebody was playing too long with their computer programme here)
The site is free. It has numerous books for sale and summaries of birth and death information. It also links to www.genealogie.com
, which is not free.
All in all, Géopatronyme is not very useful, but if you have no information at all, except a name, it could get you started. As always, good luck.
©2009 Anne Morddel