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December 2010

Qui êtes-vous?


Ah, the Fête de Saint Sylvestre, which is what the French call Amateur Night. It is also called Réveillon de Saint Sylvestre or Réveillon nouvel an. A réveillon is a big, elaborate, all-the-stops-pulled-out dinner at midnight. No réveillon would be imaginable without champagne and we came across the ad above in the 1924 edition of "Quit êtes-vous?", an elderly French version of Who's Who.

Back in the days before we tried to crush our very Californian heart, mind and soul into the Gallic mould, we experimented with publishing a biographical dictionary in San Francisco. We met our friend and colleague, who was to become our co-publisher, in an oil engineering firm where we had become employed unintentionally, believing when we applied that it was a Japanese entertainment company. (We were quite shocked, our first day on the job, to see photos of oil rigs instead of manga on the walls.) The work was stunning, in the sense that it had the effect on the mind of being hit on the head with a padded mallet every day.

Mindless chores, silly journeys to a massive photocopying machine the only justification for which was its terrific rhythm, a timid, English rose of a boss, a nut-case survivalist supervising her, such was our introduction to the corporate world. We whiled away the time working out tap dancing routines to the photocopying machine's beat. We met our colleague while she was composing a drum solo on one of those clunky old typewriters that had magnetic cards. It is our experience that boredom leads to creativity. As our friendship blossomed over margaritas in nearby Seamus McGovern's Bar & Grill, we hatched a number of get-rich-quick schemes.

We had just completed library school and had learned of the scorn had by research librarians for most biographical dictionaries and especially for "Who's Who". The term "Who's Who" was well-known but had not been copyrighted. A smarter person would have skipped the plot we hatched and simply copyrighted the term. Instead, we decided to bring out our own volume, "You Will Be Who", based primarily on the demographic theory of P.T. Barnum. We got a business license and the impossible: a post office box in San Francisco (our friend wore a garden party hat and flirted like a starlet). We typed out two hundred letters and forms on the mag-card typewriter,  inviting promising folks in all professions to complete the forms and send in the twenty bucks, and posted them. Then we went back to Seamus McGovern's and joyously drank up the profits that never rolled in.

The principle of biographical dictionaries remains about the same as in our scheme. They are outrageously unreliable, facts are not checked, those whose names are entered usually have paid for the privilege, and many different publishers of differing quality use similar titles. This is as true in France as elsewhere.

Bear in mind also that French culture has not traditionally embraced the worship of celebrity, making some even more inclined to fib on their forms. France is not a country where courageous and hardworking nobodies could make fortunes. It is an ex-aristocracy where those who flaunted their wealth and power had their heads forcibly amputated; a punishment that in later times was commuted to bludgeoning by the tax-man. In France, (but for the odd Elvis-imitator) those who show off are those who wish to possess wealth; those who possess it try to hide the fact from the authorities. 

A biographical dictionary almost never should be used as a reliable genealogy source. Nevertheless, it could be a starting place for the gleaning of a few hints that would then have to be verified by a more trustworthy source. So, googling -- especially in the books category -- in a broad search on the terms:

  • Qui êtes-vous?
  • Who's Who in France
  • Dictionnaire biographique
  • Annuaire biographique

will bring some interesting books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The standard tidbits of information that they tend to contain are:

  • Full name (usually the truth)
  • Parents, spouses, children (occasionally untrue or partially true)
  • Lineage or family background (often pure bushwa)
  • Place of birth (beware of non-existent chateaux) 
  • Education (almost always exaggerated or false)
  • Career (early part usually false; more recent part exaggerated)
  • Publications (value of which are usually inflated)

 Occasionally good for genealogy; always good for a laugh.

Bonne année!

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Martinique Parish and Civil Registrations Online


The people at ANOM (Archives nationales d'outre-mer) are working at a snapping pace and now have the parish and civil registers of Martinique online. Over forty towns, or communes, are included, and registrations go back to 1666. In addition to the birth, marriage and death records are divorce and enfranchisement records.  

Very exciting news and one wonders what will be next, for with Martinique, the category of Antilles-Guyane is complete. The categories that remain to be put online are:

  • Afrique - only Algeria is online, and there are nine more collections in this group
  • Amérique du Nord - we are betting this will come last. It includes Canada, Louisiana and Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon
  • Asie - French India, which is a very large group and Indochina
  • Océan Indien - Réunion, Île Maurice, Madagascar, Mayotte, the Seychelles (our bet is that this will be next)
  • Océanie - New Caledonia, New Hebrides, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna


Nice holiday gift from the national archives. Enjoy!

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Technorati Profile

A Database of Basque Emigrants to Argentina


From 1856 to 1913, an emigration agent for the Bordeaux Colson Agency, Guillaume Apheça, kept excellent records of his work. For some reason, when he retired, he took them home. He died in 1919. His registers were discovered in the house nearly ninety years later. 

An Argentinian branch of the Basque Euskal Association has finished transcribing all of the 15,000 names and the entire list can now be searched on the parent association's website. It can be searched by three different criteria: name, town of origin (there are 268 towns in the list), or year of departure (1856 to 1913).

Each entry has the following information: 

  • Register number
  • Card number
  • Year of departure
  • Date of departure
  • Town of origin (with a little Google maps image)
  • Name (including maiden name) and first name(s)
  • Age (this is often blank)
  • Sex
  • Ship's name (occasionally blank)
  • Port of departure (occasionally blank)

The website has many other pages about Basque culture and emigration. It is tetra-lingual, in Basque, French, Spanish and English. (Click on one of the little flags in the upper right corner of the page.) Bear in mind that there were many tens of thousands more from the region who emigrated whose documentation has not survived. Still and all, this is a fine new resource, not only for specific searches, but to gain a better understanding to Basque name structures and localities.

For all those who believe they have a Basque name in the family, give it a try!

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Technorati Profile

The Continuing Debate On Privatisation of the Archives



We have written a fair amount on this before. Now, France Culture has interviewed genealogists at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on the subject. The first half of the podcast linked below is an interview with Pierre-Valèry Archassal, professor of paleography and a member of the International Academy for Genealogy. The second half moves on to a different story: new developments in philosophy.


"Questions d'époque" Podcast 2 December, 2010


Archives de Catholicité - Baptisms and Marriages

Baptism sweets U


When the French government secularized the registration of births, marriages and deaths, by creating the actes d'état civil, they also required the parishes and dioceses across the country to deposit in the newly created departmental archives the registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials that had been kept by priests for over two hundred years. That does not mean that the Catholic Church of France stopped maintaining registers of catholicity.  Copies are still deposited with the departmental archives, but the originals are usually retained  by the parish. 

In French genealogical research, there is a slight roadblock concerning more recent generations in that the civil registrations may not be made available to the public. The law states that birth and marriage registrations may not be seen until seventy-five years after the event. It used to be one hundred years and some departmental archives adhere to this old rule. For those researching in the last hundred years, this is a problem. 

Additionally, the websites of the archives are not putting up parish registers made after the Revolution, for those are considered private records. (Those made before the Revolution were done so at the orders of the King and so, were government records.) In no case will the departmental archives do research and send a copy of the records. 

Parish and diocesan archives may resolve both issues. They will provide recent records and they will send them to you. One must write a letter. One must include a self-addressed,  stamped envelope, as well as two French first-class stamps per document requested. (Buy them online from La Poste.) Rarely, one must be prepared to write a cheque (in euros -write back negotiating a deal with stamps). One must be prepared to justify one's request, even to be rebuffed testily. 

There is no centralized archive  of registrations of catholicity. Each diocese maintains its own and generally their archives contain records only from the present back to 1900. The parish archives will contain anything older. The information that must be provided is:

  • Year of birth
  • Year of baptism or marriage
  • Residence at the time of the baptism or marriage
  • Parish in which the event took place, and the church

A map of the current dioceses of France can be found on the Church's website. By clicking on a diocese, one is taken to its website, where the parishes can be found (not always easily.) The website of the Association of Church Archivists, Association des Archivistes de l'Eglise de France,  has in the panel to the left of their welcome page the Annuaire des Archivistes Diocésains, the directory/address book of all the diocesan archivists in France.

 Bonne chance!

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy