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May 2013

Did Your Ancestor Die a French Prisoner of Napoleon's Enemies?


Grenadier blessé


Oh, Dear Readers, we have had a good six weeks of rain, wind and cold, cold storms. It is a sodden spring, one that has people hauling out those tired refrains along the lines of "this is the wettest spring in sixty years!" It may or may not be, but it is wet enough. This has been good for the seriously depleted water tables that were so low last year that many departments were on water rationing last summer. This rain has also been excellent for vegetation, which currently makes much of France look quite like a jungle. It has, however, been hard on the humans who, trapped indoors for more than forty days and forty nights, have begun to feel like the prisoners about whom we write again today.

Conversely to the subject of the last post, your ancestor may have been in the Corsican's Grande Armée and been taken prisoner by one of France's enemies during the First Empire. He may have died while imprisoned. Finding out when and where he died can be a hopeless task. If, however, you know the department in which your soldier was born, there may be a hope after all.

The annotation in the margins of civil birth registrations did not begin until the late nineteenth century, so any death documentation will not be found on the birth registration of the soldier who died during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). However, in the relevant Departmental Archives, there will be series R, Affaires militaires, (military affairs), which cover not only conscription and administration, but prisoners of war. In some departments, local officials made a list, as best they could, of their citizens who had died as prisoners of war in an enemy country, or in hospital. The structure of the list varies from one location to another, but they all give basic information:

  • Name
  • Place of birth or residence in the department
  • Rank and regiment
  • Date of death
  • Place of death

Click on the example below to see the names of men from the arrondissement of Bellac in Haute-Vienne who died in Mannheim, Salzburg, Castalla, Zamora, Colmar, Neuf Brisack (Neuf-Brisach), Dargun, Metz, and the close to home city of Limoges.

Prisoners and Wounded Dead

Without such a list, discovering the time and place of death for these men, so far from home, would be very difficult. From this list it is also possible, using the details about rank and regiment, to then locate the soldier's military service record and conscription list entry. Using the birth date and place, you can then locate the the civil birth registration.

These lists -- where they exist --  are held in the Departmental Archives, in Series 2R. We have not yet encountered any online, but it is only a matter of time.

May you find your man!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Your Isle de France Ancestors

  La Bourdonnais


If your French ancestors passed through what was from 1715 to 1810, the French possession of Isle de France and what is now Mauritius, it is now, after a fashion, possible to search the archives of that distant locale online. But oh! Dear Readers, prepare yourselves. 

The National Archives of Mauritius are in the process of digitising and putting online their holdings. Their website announces that they currently have over half a million images online, which may be seen at no cost. Well, perhaps at no financial cost, but your patience will be sorely taxed.

  • Firstly, the site is best used with Mozilla Firefox as the browser, though we have managed with Safari. 
  • Secondly, one must register. The registration is silly. One is not granted immediate access but must wait a day or two for an e-mail confirming that one has been accepted. It is all rather like joining a London club.
  • Thirdly, whoever designed the database and search programme should be handed a revolver and told to do the honourable thing. The site seems  to be a conversion of something meant for internal use and archives management, not for the general public to search the holdings.

In any case, the best way is to go to the page entitled "Home" and to click on "Search our database". One is taken to the search page of "Gargantua" and  must log on, once permission is granted. Complex searches fail. We recommend that you simply put in the surname of your ancestor. Individual pages will come up, including actes d'état civil, notarial records and correspondence. 

The holdings are quite rich, though accessing them is primitive. Our sympathies go to the National Archives of Mauritius and our hopes go to you, Dear Readers, to have a successful search for your ancestors.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Enfants trouvés et nourrices - A Letter From a Dear Reader



In response to our recent post about wet-nurses and the Bureau du Direction des Nourrices, we have received a fascinating letter from our Dear Reader, Madame B, which we give here in full, with many thanks:


I can't tell you how much I enjoy receiving your emails and reading your articles. They are always so interesting and informative and some have led me to discover some fascinating information about my French ancestors.

I thought you might be interested to hear about what I have discovered about my ancestors’ interactions with nourrices.

My great, great, great grandfather François P……. was an "enfant trouvé"- abandoned as a one day old baby in the tour of the Hospice de Grasse in April 1811. As you know the tour was a round, wooden, cylindrical turntable built into the wall of the hospice and was specifically designed so that mothers could leave their unwanted babies anonymously in the care of the hospice. Francois’s birth record gives a very detailed description of what he was dressed in: “the child was swaddled in an old piece of black material, an old scrap of brown material, a shirt, an Indian bodice, olive coloured with a leafy/flowery design ....... there was no mark on his body to identify him by- amongst his clothes was found a note carrying these words "the child was born on the second April 1811 - not baptised".

A few days later, according to the Departmental records, he was placed with a nourrice in the commune of Saint Pierre, Alpes de Haute Provence.  François appears to have stayed in Saint Pierre for most of his life. After the death of his first wife he married my great, great, great grandmother Marie H…... You can imagine how surprised I was to discover that she too was an abandoned child from Grasse. She had been abandoned when she was 6 and was placed with a nourrice  in Aiglun. I have read that the wet-nurses were only paid to look after the child until they were twelve years old - after that I would imagine the child was expected to work to pay for their keep. Indeed one of the archived documents shows the payments (approximately 50 francs per year) that were made to Marie's nourrice until she was twelve years old.

Your article says that certain places were considered to "produce women excellent for the occupation". Saint Pierre certainly seems to have been one of these places. I had read that abandonment of babies was commonplace in the 1800's and was considered preferable to infanticide. However the 1846 census of Saint Pierre was a revelation to me. Of the 199 residents in this tiny commune a QUARTER of them are recorded as being enfant trouvé/enfant abandoné/ enfant naturel etc. Although none of the women are described as nourrices, that is clearly what they were - with some of them looking after large numbers of abandoned children. In this census, the household  headed by Joseph Blanc and his wife has five foundling children with them originating from the hospices of Grasse, Draguignan, Toulon and Marseille, aged 14, 13, 7, 3 and 5 months) . They are all called Blanc -  it is not because they are living with Joseph Blanc but because of their status. ALL of the enfants trouvés of Saint Pierre are referred to as "Blanc" which, as well as meaning white can also mean "blank" or "nothing" (according to my wonderful Collins Robert French dictionary).

Many of the official records relating to François and Marie and their children state their names as Blanc - which as you can imagine complicated my research given that I was looking for the name P…….!   What has also struck me is the distinct possibility that the many people who today carry the name BLANC may very well have an ancestor who was abandoned as a child as my ancestors were.

François and Marie had two boys and two girls (one of them being my great-great-grandmother Marie Marguerite P…..) The boys died in infancy and their mother died young leaving François and his two young daughters. By the age of thirteen, my 2 x great-grandmother and her sister were no longer living with their father - I think they had moved on to find work. Indeed at the age of fifteen Marie Marguerite was working as a domestique in Draguignan.


Unfortunately, she fell pregnant at seventeen and removed herself to Toulon to give birth to my great-grandfather Octave. She was unmarried and destitute and after nursing Octave for 10 days she gave her baby up to the care of the Hospice of Toulon. According to his abandonment record Octave was placed with a wet-nurse called Josephine Maurin in Puget Rostang, Alpes Maritimes. I have a document which details the sets of clothes that were given to Josephine for Octave and the cost of these outfits.  There is also a note that his first baby clothes were those that had been provided for another child who had died shortly after being placed with Josephine. What a sad contrast to the brand new clothes I lovingly dressed my new- born babies in. Octave remained with Josephine until the payments from the state ceased. Aged almost thirteen (and still under the jurisdiction of the State until the age of 21) he was sent back to Toulon. His record shows his various placements from ages twelve to twenty-one.

Before I started researching my French family three years ago, all of this (very much abbreviated) history was completely unknown to my family. My mother knew nothing of Octave's past, or of the mother and family he had never known. We did know that he became Deputy Mayor of Hyeres les Salins and was a much respected figure in the community - a huge achievement for someone with such a disadvantaged youth. Thanks to articles like yours I have been inspired to delve into my ancestors’ fascinating and difficult lives and have found so much more than I ever dreamed was possible. There are still many more mysteries and I am slowly trying to unravel them.

Once again, thank you for such wonderful articles. I look forward to reading many more and maybe they will help solve my remaining mysteries! 

Kind regards,

Madame B



Once again, thank you very much, Madame B!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Was Your Ancestor's Private Journal Preserved?


Le livre des vacances

Sad to say, the long-used and perfectly respectable term for a person's written thoughts not intended for publication, "private writings", has been binned and such writings renamed by people who should know better as "egodocuments", giving the terminology of a certain philosopher of mind whose fundamental theories on relationships have been largely debunked rather more prominence than we should like to see. But there it is. "Egodocuments" are now a field of historical research, with a couple of French historians from the Sorbonne -- Jean-Pierre Bardet and François-Joseph Ruggiu -- leading the way.

Why should those researching their French ancestry give a zut about this new and obscure corner of academic pursuit? Because private writings include diaries, travel journals, various manuscripts, commonplace  books, personal meditations, memoires and the like. And because many of these have ended up in archives. And because Messieurs Bardet and Ruggiu run a team of people who are working on locating every such document in every archives facility or library in France, and listing it on their website, Les écrits du for privé. Not only are the documents listed, their location and description are given, they may be searched on the website by many criteria. They have not been scanned, but partial transcriptions are given.

If you come from a line of those who have the uncontrollable need to write their thoughts, hopes, fears, sermons, reasonings, meditations, then you could find an ancestor's scribblings here. There are two ways to search the collection, the division apparently being based on who provided the funding, an oddity which may indicate that all too common academic malady, testiness, somewhere. 

  • Base de repérage - built in partnership with the Archives de France and showing their strict divisions of archival territory. One searches first in the archives hierarchy: national, departmental or municipal, then, many useless clicks later, in a list of locations.
  • Inventaire analytique - built in partnership with the Agence nationale de la recherche and allowing for searches on names, regions and subjects.

We did a simple search for anything written by a woman in Franche-Comté. It brought "Personal Notes on Religion and Education" by an anonymous woman in Jura, writing in the late nineteenth century to her daughter. It is signed by two priests. There is a partial transcription. Another search brought the "Memoires of Madame Meslier de Rocan, née Barbe Henry d'Aulnois, written by herself and dedicated to her daughter" name her sisters.

The site has glitches. If the search has too many results on the Inventaire analytique, there is an error message repeated for each result not shown, it seems, that is extremely annoying. Still, the value is that there are quite a lot of names and family relationships in these documents, and this website could be of some slight help to the genealogist.

Why not give it a go?

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Few French Emigrants


French emigrants

It is a cold and wet spring here in France, and the First of May was rather gloomy. It is good weather for going to the archives or trawling genealogy sites on the Internet, not so lovely for visiting cemeteries or brocante fairs. Indoor weather, essentially, preferably with a cup of Lapsang. 

Sipping that Lapsang, we were admiring the online exhibition about immigration from Europe to America entitled "Leaving Europe: A New Life in America", originally created by the Digital Public Library of America, but which we were viewing via the fabulous culture website, Europeana, on the exhibitions section. This is so very much our kind of eye candy.

We were brought up short, however, when we read that "Countries like Belgium and France weren’t major players in the migration streams."*   Well, really! That seems a surly way to say that most French were happy at home. Those who were unhappy enough and brave enough to emigrate, and who tend to be the ancestors of you, Our Dear Readers, were clearly of a rare and, we like to think, exalted -- or at least demanding -- group.

The website of the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration, which is mostly about immigrants to France, has a single page about the waves of emigrants from France:

  • Early immigrants to Quebec in the seventeenth century
  • Those who went to Mexico in the nineteenth century
  • Basques went to Argentina and Uruguay
  • Bretons went to Newfoundland
  • People from the provinces of Maine and Anjou went to Canada
  • Vine-growers went to California
  • Alsatians to the United States (who get special mention for having taken le savoir-faire français to that primitive land)
  • The some 300,000 French now living in London (Sid among them)

It is interesting that they make no mention of the Protestants, the émigrés who fled the Revolution, or the political exiles of the tumultuous nineteenth century. History is written by the winners, as the saying goes.

"Major players" or not, the French certainly have contributed to global migration over the centuries.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


*Page 3 of "The Homeland of Migrating Groups - Western Europe" section of the exhibition.