Even though notarial records are not yet a heavy presence on the internet and so are not easy to research without visiting the Departmental Archives where they are physically located, they are simply too valuable to ignore. The key reason for this is that notaires, being government or royal employees, were not at the service of their clients alone and could not draw up whatever a client may have requested; they had to draw up a document that was legal, with the identities of those named provable, which is why the collective word for such documents is actes. In many cases, identity had to be proven with copies of birth, marriage and death documents, or by witnesses, all details of which a notaire would note in the acte.
Too often, we research a particular generation of a family and do not branch out or continue up or down the line enough. This is understandable, for tracking all documentation of all in a line can be exhausting and, when the people are not closely related, suddenly and perhaps unfairly boring. (Though rare entertainment can be had from such discoveries as in the photo above, which surely lost someone his air of pomp for the day.) However, we cannot recommend enough the taking of a dose of whatever provides courage and carrying on with the hunt, and we give here a case in point as to why.
For some months, we have been researching a family from Normandy, the land of cows, camembert and calvados. Every member of every generation seemed to have produced large families. Finding out what happened to each of them called for a temperament both methodical and childishly optimistic. In the 18th century, they had acquired, a bit at a time, quite a lot of land. After the Revolution, none wrote wills, allowing the state to determine how to divide the property equally among all heirs. Some of these records survived and some did not; swathes were blown to bits during the Allied bombing of Le Havre in 1944. We doggedly have been paging through the indices to notarial records for the numerous towns and villages where the family lived, checking each document, however trivial it seemed, in which the surnames we sought occurred.
The document that proved a stunner of a bonanza was a sale of a patch of land by a great nephew of one of those we were researching. He was a hundred years later than the time we were researching. He was the only child of a second marriage and the sole heir. He was not a farmer and he did not want the land. His father had inherited a part of it and had added to what he had inherited. Apparently, included in the whole were parcels belonging to aunts and uncles that his father had farmed, paying them a share of the profits. In order to sell, he needed to have their permission. In order for their permission to be of value, he had to show that they were part owners and how that was so.
As we turned to page two of the acte de vente, the sale document, we fell upon the family's genealogy outlined for four generations. Given only to show land ownership and the right to sell were:
- the names of the seller's parents
- the names of his father's first wife and their deceased children
- the names of all of his father's siblings and their spouses
- where the sibling and spouses were deceased, the names of their children, who were the next heirs in line
- the names of his father's parents, from whom he and his siblings inherited
- the name of his father's grandparents, who had been the original purchasers
In all cases, dates and places of births, marriages and deaths were given, as were residences at the time of the document's writing.
This is the kind of work that explains why notaires have acquired impressive genealogy collections and why probate research still dominates French genealogy. It is what make notarial records so wondrously treasured by family historians and so very worth the slog.
©2011 Anne Morddel