Alternative Avenues to Seek a French Birth or Baptism

Antique French tools in Lalinde

The French equivalent for "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" is a phrase first written by Nicolas Boileau in 1674: "Hâtez-vous lentement et, sans perdre courage, vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage" ("Make haste slowly and, without becoming discouraged,  set to work on the job twenty times.") Finding a French birth or baptism register entry is generally quite straightforward if one has :

  • The correct name
  • The town of birth
  • The decade of birth

A quick search in the ten-year indices for births in the town on the website of the Departmental Archives (links to them on the left) will give the full name and the precise date. One can then find the entry in the digitized birth register. Usually, that is, but not always. Bad things can happen to archives over the years. In France, as in most countries, some have burnt, some have been bombed, some have been flooded. Where to look when the birth or baptism registers concerning your ancestors have been lost? There are a few possibilities.

  • If the ancestor married, the marriage register entry will have the date and place of birth, as well as the parents' names.
  • If your ancestor married someone from a different town, check the marriage banns for that town that the couple should have posted. The marriage banns also contain the date and place of birth, as well as the parents' names.
  • If the ancestral couple had a marriage contract and you know the name of the notaire in order to find it, that too, with give the date and place of birth, as well as the parents' names of the prospective bride and groom.
  • If your ancestor served in the military, the conscription registers will have the birth details. In some large indices, such as that for the Resistance dossiers, or that for the naval officer personnel files, the date and place of birth are given.
  • If your ancestor were a member of the Légion d'Honneur, the dossier on him or her may well contain a certified copy of the birth or baptism register entry. These are now best accessed through the search facility of the Archives nationales.

Try, try again, even twenty times!

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Bad News for Those Who Use Filae

Bad news face

Ah, Dear Readers, disaster looms. In its usual, myopic fashion, the anglophone world of genealogists writes of the "Big Four" genealogy websites:

  • Ancestry
  • FamilySearch
  • FindMyPast
  • MyHeritage

In terms of using them for French genealogy, we give them the following marks: Ancestry is mediocre to poor; FamilySearch is limited but can have some nice surprises; FindMyPast is irrelevant; MyHeritage is the worst, with next to useless search results, a lack of sufficient search criteria and a catalogue of French records and archives that seems to be empty. Of course, France has two excellent genealogy websites of its own, about which we have written often:

  • Geneanet
  • Filae

The Ancestry and FamilySearch liaison is mirrored by the links between Geneanet and Filae in that the former owns about forty-two per cent of the shares of the latter. We find both to be quite good but in different areas. We prefer Geneanet when searching family trees and original documents that have been filmed. We prefer Filae when doing a quick search based a a few details known about a person. Geneanet is a bit better for eighteenth century records, while Filae is quite strong in nineteenth century records. Filae's great strength is its indexing and its large catalogue of records and archives. Both are exponentially better for French genealogy than any of the so-called "Big Four". Now, the worst of the Big Four, in terms of French research, MyHeritage, is set to take over Filae.

From January, the press has reported that the founder of Filae is keen to sell to MyHeritage but that Geneanet is not at all keen about the deal and made a counter-offer. MyHeritage raised their offer. Last month, Filae accepted the offer from MyHeritage, to be approved at the next annual general meeting later this month. Geneanet still hopes to block the move.

Why would we oppose Filae becoming a part of MyHeritage? We wonder how a company that is so bad at French genealogy can help but debase the smaller one that is so good at it, as it is extremely unlikely, almost unnatural, for a smaller and better organization to improve the larger one that consumed it. In essence, we suspect that MyHeritage will want Filae not to continue as it is but to blend in more with the MyHeritage style. That, Dear Readers, will make Filae, or the catalogue and access to it, much, much worse to use for research. Additionally, in February, MyHeritage itself was purchased by a San Francisco private equity firm, Francisco Partners, that just likes to acquire tech companies. As is ever the case with such entities, it will be interested in profit over quality and will be unlikely to exert any influence to preserve the excellence of a small French company in its vast stable. 

No one could dispute that the founder of Filae, Toussaint Roze, who worked long and hard to create a company with the best search function and indexing of French records, may be tired and of an age to sell up and take the money, or that he has the right to do so. Nevertheless, we gloomily anticipate a rapid deterioration of what was a great French genealogy website.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Notre Douzième Anniversaire! The FGB's Twelfth Birthday!

12th Blog Birthday

We are still in a partial lockdown, here in France. All the more reason to celebrate our blog's twelfth birthday, here at the screen, as usual, but in glittering attire. We never could have imagined that we would carry The FGB on so long but you, Dear Readers, have been abundantly encouraging. Our achievements over the past twelve years include:

  • Over eight hundred posts dedicated exclusively to French genealogy (we have subtracted those early posts on our Identity Wars) And they are all free and without advertisements (donations accepted nevertheless)
  • Over 750 comments from you, Dear Readers (we have subtracted our own replies)
  • A beginner's guide to French genealogy based on our posts was published
  • Nine booklets on specific French genealogy topics have been published
  • Two French genealogy calendars have been published
  • Eight Free Clinic Case Studies have been resolved (we still accept  cases; why not send in your French genealogy puzzle for consideration?)
  • Twelve glorious gowns!
  • Over 910,000 hits (tell others about The FGB and help us get one million)

We cannot thank you enough, Dear Readers, and especially wish to thank our most loyal Patreon supporters. We also would like to thank some of the many fine people who have given space on their websites and blogs to recommend The FGB (we are not including the plagiarists):

Don your own elegant attire and join us in raising a glass of Veuve to celebrate. Let us hope that these dark times will end soon and that The FGB will go on for another twelve years!

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


The Best Posts for the Letters B-E in the 2020 Challenge A-Z

BtoE

Ah, Dear Readers, little did we imagine the enormity of the task we set ourselves of presenting to you the best of the posts submitted for the 2020 Challenge A-Z. It is rather like panning for gold. We have never participated in the Challenge because the rules are quite strict: one must be a blogger, writing in French, and the posts must all appear, Monday through Saturday, in a single month. We would feel faint after the first week. It would appear that it is all as overwhelming for some of the participants as it would be for us. Having to choose a subject beginning with a letter of the alphabet must be perversely limiting, and the resultant titles either lean heavily on names or involve some painful to read contortions of grammar and reason to make a word fit. Nevertheless, the following are those that we think might be of greatest interest to you, our most Dear and Loyal Readers.

 

Once again, Catherine Livet's blog, Becklivet, has come up with a very interesting post, this one on the subject of bigamy. With careful explanation of documents, she explores how one of her nineteenth century female ancestors appears to have been married to one man but lived as the wife of another. Of particular interest is how she refuses to make assumptions or assertions that cannot be proved by the documentation but, instead, presents, describes and documents the conundrum and lets it stand.

 

Geneafinder is a non-collaborative, subscription website built around the subscribers' uploaded family trees. It has links to the websites of the Departmental Archives and to many other free genealogy resources online. It has a regular blog that is rather interesting and that usually covers privacy issues as they arise in relation to online genealogy research. Geneafinder's submission for the letter B used the word Brexit (for anyone who has been completely without global news for the past five years, the word indicates Britain's exit from the European Union) to give a quite brief history of migrants between Britain and France, and then to discuss how to research them in British records online.

 

Sandrine Heiser writes about genealogy in Lorraine on "Lorraine...et au-delà!" Her contribution for the letters C and E introduced an archive hitherto unknown to us, the Centre des Archives industrielles et techniques de la Moselle. She describes how the archives can help with research on the people evacuated behind the Maginot line at the beginning of the Second World War. We learned that companies helped their employees and their families to evacuate separately from the rest of the population and that the documentation for this survives. Very interesting.

 

The coy Jean-François writes Aieux sur le plat which, for the letter E, discussed endogamy. He provides a procedure for compiling statistics on the geographic locations of his ancestors who married only people from within their locale. This is very much an approach to genealogy through the lens of French social history, with its emphasis on statistics and averages as a means to understand group behaviour. The errant individual who had an idea of his or her own to break away from the group (often the type who left and became an immigrant ancestor to many of you, Dear Readers) has no place in such a study (or such a weltanschauung, for that matter) but could be useful to those of you studying the ancestors who did not leave.

 

Sébastien Dellinger is the author of Marques Ordinaires, Généalogie de Moselle et d'ailleurs. His post for the letter E is on Emigrés of the Revolution from Moselle, an unusual and quite specific area of émigré research. Some of his research suggestions are of a more general nature, but it remains an intriguing post.

 

We do hope you will enjoy reading these posts. More letters to follow. One day.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


How Your French Immigrant Ancestor Remained French

Saintonge

People of many nationalities, when they emigrated from one country to another, retained their cultural identity but often cut their legal ties with the country of origin. They kept their songs, their recipes, their religions and festivals, but let slide their continuing documentation back at home. This may have been to escape a past or it may have been too difficult to maintain contact in the days before the Pony Express or airmail or e-mail. The French, however, stand out as emigrants who often could not let go of being documented, and this is most useful to the genealogist researching them.

After the chaos and upheaval of the French Revolution, the Code Civil, first published in 1804, provided order to civil life. To this day, it represents more than law to many French; it seems also to provide the psychological comfort and security of  structure and boundary. The civil register entries that replaced the pre-Revolutionary parish register entries are used over and over again to document and confirm a person's legal existence. One must show a recent and certified copy of one's birth register entry for any number of aspects of civil life: to marry, to attend school, to get a job, to take a driving test, to get a passport, to get an identity card, to buy property, to sell property, to open a bank account, to take out a loan and, especially, to prove one's parentage when the time comes to inherit.

The Code Civil took in to account that some few French might wish to leave the blessèd hexagon but never that they would cease to be French. Article 48 of the Code Civil (Book1, Title 1) states that any civil register entry of a French citizen in a foreign land shall be legal, were it to have been entered according to French law by diplomatic agents or consuls. The consular registers were to be maintained in duplicate, with one copy to be sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the end of the year. With slight changes and updates, the law and procedures are the same today and are prominently displayed on the website of the Ministry of Europe and of Foreign Affairs, as it is now known. 

Both copies of the consular registers of the nineteenth century are held at the Archives diplomatiques  at the Ministry's branch at Nantes, for that is where all such foreign registrations of French citizenry are maintained. One copy has been microfilmed and that may be viewed also at the Ministry's main archives centre of the Archives diplomatiques at La Courneuve, outside of Paris. To date, no copies are available online. If you know some details as to name, parents' names, date and place, you may request a copy of the register entry, at no charge, online. This link is to the version that is almost in English.

For the researcher, especially one seeking the origins of a French immigrant ancestor, these register entries can be invaluable. We have reviewed here, the book written by the archivists at the Archives diplomatiques that explains, in French, how to use the archives. We give our own discussion of how to use them, in English, here

However, it is important to note that this registration could not be enforced. There were many French emigrants who did not register their marriages or the births of their children in the new country. We have encountered:

  • A French gold miner who went to California and seems never to have registered his marriage or his children at the French consulate.
  • A deserter from the French Army after the fall of Napoleon who went to New York, (which was at that time filled with such deserters and also with French monarchists determined to hunt them down,) who lived a long life there, married and had a number of children, and who chose not to register these events with the French consul in New York.

At the same time, we have found, among those who chose to register:

  • A man from the southwest of France who registered his marriage in New York and who insisted that it be entered in the marriage register of his home town in France, which it was. Once that was done, however, he chose not to register the births of his many children.
  •  A couple from Alsace-Lorraine who had migrated to Saint Petersburg in Russia registered the births of all of their children (two of whom later emigrated to the United States) with the French consul there.

The primary (though certainly not the only) reason for registering seems to have been to ensure one's inheritance to any property in France, followed by, as in the case of the couple from Alsace-Lorraine, the desire to protect one's French citizenship when the emigration was exile. Those who did not register could have been anything from bridge burners, to crooks on the lam, to political refugees, to people who simply forgot.

In such research, you may end up with more questions than you had when you began. 

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

 


Only in France

Poisson d'avril Collage

We have always maintained good relations with our numerous step-fathers. Recently, one was musing about the history of mayonnaise. Just the mention of the word history sent us on the hunt and we found, to our joy and delight, that the French take the history of mayonnaise seriously, indeed. It is taken so seriously that the best discussion of the sauce's origins is on the website of the Ministry of Defense. It is not that the Army need defend mayonnaise, but that the claim is that it owes its birth to French military moments.

Either the sauce was created and named in 1756, to celebrate the capture of Mahon, capitol of Menorca, during the Seven Years War, and the name originally was "mahonnaise", or, as the Irish prefer, it was named for Général Mac-Mahon. In any case, a dollop of such silliness will go well with your poisson d'avril.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Paris Commune 150 Years Later

Sacre Coeur

As with many great cities in relation to their nations, Paris is not France. Every once in a while, certain Parisians rise up and rebel against oppression and poverty and, then, the rest of France reacts, with equal excess, with a show of disunity with and disavowal of the rebels. Even today, for almost every demonstration, there will be a counter-demonstration. Perhaps the greatest of these rebellion/counter-rebellion events in French history was the Paris Commune, which was linked to the Franco-Prussian War, both of which were linked to the reaction of the rest of France that was the construction of Sacré Coeur in Paris.

It is one hundred fifty years since the Paris Commune and the press is taking note. We have written about its disastrous effects on Parisian genealogical research:

Should you be interested to read some of the retrospective reports,

Sacré Coeur

 

An absolutely crucial moment in French history to understand.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French West Indies Research - Les Antilles français

Saint Martin

While many of you, Dear Readers, have been vaccinated, we in Europe are still waiting. Supplies are low and tempers are short. We remain convinced that, had the European purchasing department hired a few French notaires skilled at writing French marriage contracts, not a company in the world would have had the tiniest bit of wiggle room or would have been able to renege on a single delivery. Those marriage contracts constitute an undervalued weapon, we opine.

While awaiting a vaccination and also a proper springtime, we have been deeply and intensely concentrated on researching families of the French West Indies, in particular, the minuscule island of Saint Martin. As ever, with French overseas research, one begins with the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM). On their website's map showing the locations for which they have digitized parish and civil registrations, one can quickly navigate to Saint Martin.

Navigate

Once a selection is made, one is presented with a brief history of the territory in relation to the administration and documentation. Here, we learn that Saint Martin was divided between The Netherlands (who call it Sint Maarten) and France in 1648 and its administration placed under that of Guadeloupe in 1723, forming a part of that department until 2007, when it became a French Territorial Collectivity. We see that the online parish and civil registrations for Saint Martin date from 1773 to 1907, and we are invited to select a town, of which there are not many.

Select a town

It quickly becomes clear that the delightful range of years applies only partially and to only two towns. Marigot records range from 1773 to 1861 and Saint Matin town records range from 1860 to 1907. The other towns have very few records indeed.

Quite serious problems in tracing a family arise from the obvious reality of life at the time: few in their daily lives paid attention to the boundary between the French and Dutch sides of the island. The French register entries are filled with mentions that a person who was married was "born on the Dutch side" or his father "died on the Dutch side". For the researcher, since the French and Dutch bureaucrats seem not to have shared copies of registers with one another, this means that people disappear from and reappear in the records. 

For help with Dutch records, we turned to the excellent blog on Dutch genealogy by Yvette Hoitink, to find her post, "Netherlands Antilles data available online", with a link that still works and instructions. (Most helpful as we do not read Dutch well at all.) Researching here helped greatly to piece together a family that lived and registered itself on both sides of the island.

Another great help is the remarkable work of a Dutch fellow calling himself "Archives Man", Bert van der Saag. Mr. van der Saag has many more interests than genealogy or archives and they are all on display in an overabundant employment of the deceased software, Flash. We marvel at a mind that can work amongst blinking, brightly coloured images of dancers and soldiers, type fonts of all sizes in all colours with all kinds of highlights, with a few news stories and photographs added, yet his does, and very well. He has extracted data from the registers of the Dutch Antilles and typed it all, in detail, producing PDFs for Births/baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths. These he generously shares at no charge. One can search for a name in a PDF in a way that one cannot on digitized microfilm. Using Mr. van der Saag's extracts together with the online images, much can be achieved. His most recent PDF covers Saint Martin deaths from 1909 to 1937, taking us later than the records on ANOM. He also sells books.

To further one's knowledge and to ask specific questions, one needs to read more and to connect with others researching the same region, even island. Some years ago, Augusta Elmwood left the helpful comment:

"Anyone looking for Saint-Domingue information (or any French colony anywhere in the world) should check the website of the Généalogie et Historie de la Caraïbe, guided by the tireless Philippe and Bernadette Rossignol and their equally dedicated 'equipe'."

It is, indeed, a fine resource for this research, with articles, links, advice and, so precious, surname lists for their website and articles. They have a small but useful amount on the French West Indies and Saint Martin, including transcriptions of early census returns and a fabulous set of photographs of the entire finding aid to passenger lists to and from the colonies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Lastly, the website (which is ghastly) of the Museum of Saint Martin has a few hidden treasures, the most useful of which are scans of notarial records from the études (offices) of the notaires of Saint Martin. Here can be found wills, death inventories, long lists of slaves giving their names and ages, and many more civil contracts. Excellent resources here.

This is not an easy part of the world to research. The library and archives of Saint Martin do exist but have no website. The link in the list to the left on this blog takes one directly to the ANOM website. The archives of Guadeloupe have a website but no digitized records are on it. The above methods described may be the only way to find the documentation of a family who lived there. Of course, if cruising can ever again be done safely, a cruise ship that stopped at all of the French Caribbean archives towns might not be a bad idea. Let us look forward to that.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

 

 

 


Looking More Closely at How to Use the Le Havre Passenger Lists

Swirl of Travel 1

We have been working rather intensely with the Le Havre passenger lists of late. At the same time, we have received missives of bafflement caused by them. If you are reading this post with interest, we will assume that you have encountered difficulties accessing and understanding the Le Havre passenger lists. We will also assume that you have read our post about them with its update about the wonderful index to them, Désarmements havrais. However, many, many, many of you have written in frustration, having failed to find your ancestor or even the vessel, or even really, to understand how to use the two sites. So, let us try to clarify.

NAME OF THE COLLECTION - Inscription maritime du Havre, Index par bateaux des registres de désarmement, 1750-1876

ARCHIVES CODE OF THE COLLECTION - 6 P 6

WHERE THE COLLECTION CAN BE FOUND ONLINE - on the website of the Departmental Archives of Seine-Maritime (ADSM)

click on "Autre fonds numérisés"

click on "L'inscription maritime"

click on "Cliquez ici pour accéder à l’Inscription Maritime en ligne"

for Quartier, choose Le Havre

for Type de registre, choose Rôles des bâtiments de Commerce

click on Rechercher - That takes you to the collection

WHAT THE COLLECTION IS -  these passenger lists are within a collection of ships' papers, or sea letters, a notoriously messy kind of documentation, even today. Every ship has to carry papers of registration, the crew list, passenger list, insurance, details of every port visited, etc.. In France, in the 18th and 19th centuries, every time a French-registered ship returned from a voyage, all of the ship's papers, which form the administrative history of the voyage, were turned in to the port authority. That is what the surviving collection is : the papers that the vessel brought back. There were other collections. There were papers of ship registrations. There were lists made of the passengers on all outgoing and incoming vessels and these lists were held at the ports. The ports, especially Le Havre, Brest and Lorient, were bombed heavily by the Americans and British during World War II and all of these other collections of passenger lists and ships' papers were destroyed in the bombing. This single, partial, surviving collection was discovered long after the war in a part of a building that was not entirely destroyed. It is very little but it is all that we have.

WHAT THE COLLECTION IS NOT - these are not lists of all passengers who left from the port of Le Havre, only of those who left on French vessels that returned. The papers, including passenger lists, of any vessel that was not French that sailed from Le Havre whether Belgian or British or American or Dutch, etc., will not be included. The papers of any French vessel that did not return to Le Havre will not be included. (Thus, if the vessel were sold after the outward voyage, or if she returned to a different French port, such as Bordeaux or Nantes, she did not return to Le Havre.)

HOW THE COLLECTION IS ARRANGED - Chronologically, by the year and date when she returned. Thus, if your ancestor sailed from Le Havre in 1848, you will look for the ships' papers in the year of return, 1849 or 1850. They are not in alphabetical order, but in the order that they were decommissioned, or désarmé. There are hundreds for each year, each given a désarmement number for that year.

HOW TO FIND A PARTICULAR VESSEL'S PARTICULAR RETURN - carrying on from the above explanation as to where the collection can be found online.

after clicking on Rechercher and arriving at the collection

click on "Rôles des bâtiments de commerce"

click on "Ordinaire (long-cours, cabotage, pêche, plaisance, bornage)"

scroll down the list (it runs to many pages)  to find the year in which your vessel returned to Le Havre

read through the hundreds of pages to find your vessel's désarmement / decommissioning number

The minimum amount of information that you need is: the vessel's name, the year of return and the decommissioning number.

 

Mansart

 

This is where Le Désarmement havrais becomes so very helpful. Not only have they listed:

  • the names of the vessels
  • the destination of the voyage
  • the captain
  • the crew
  • the passengers

They also give, for each return from a voyage for each vessel, the date of return, the decommissioning number and, most preciously, the page number on the microfilm, so one need no longer scroll through those hundreds of pages. For the Mansard, above, that went to San Francisco in 1858, we can see that her decommissioning number is 178, that her papers can be found in the ADSM 6P6 series (which we already knew) register number 209.

Mansart

Further down the same page, the wonderful volunteers of this index give the crew and one can click on "passagers" to get the list of passengers.

Mansart Captain

Here, you see there was only a captain, Auguste Abel Gravereau. Well, of course that cannot be, Dear Reader, and this is when we recall that this index, as marvelous as it may be, is a work in progress. There must have been a crew, we imagine, and there may have been passengers. So, we want to see the original ship's papers to see if there were not more to them or if they were partially destroyed.

Knowing that she returned to Le Havre in 1858, that her decommissioning number is 178, we can go back to the ADSM website, work our way to the year 1858,  and choose the 1858 item (the second one, it turns out, numbers 96 to 190) that will include that decommissioning number:

No 178

Click on the plus sign to see more and you will see that you are at 6P6-209, which is what you know you want from the information given by Désarmement havrais.

6P6-209Click on "Cliquez ici pour consulter le document" to see the images. Then, go straight to page number 637.

Page 637

There, you will see the entire crew list and, further along, on page 642, you can see that there were four passengers.

There can be mysteries, as in the case of the Amitié, which arrived in New Orleans in 1837, and for which Ancstry.com has the full arriving passenger list but for which Désarmements havrais and ADSM have no passengers departing. With such a mystery, read the other documents, especially the last page of the ship's papers, showing all ports visited, and giving some notes, or observations. The Amitié's las page shows that, on the return voyage, she stopped at Plymouth, in England. In the "Observations" column, the note is partially obscured in the binding but it says that she was carrying dispatches, which the captain delivered to the French consul at Plymouth, along with some of the ship's papers. The entry on the right at the top shows the arrival in New Orleans on the 6th of October 1837, with "diverse merchandise" and a crew of twenty and 166 passengers. So, it would seem that Ancestry's passenger list is correct and that the French consul at Plymouth kept the vessel's passenger list, which is why they do not appear here.

Amitié

Now, you are experts!

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


"Female Ancestors Are Hard to Find", They Say, But Not If They Were French, We Assure You

Women - Bretagne (Carhaix et Huelgoat)

This year's RootsTech has launched, with many dozens of talks on more than genealogy, all of them online this year. Topics cover everything from food to folklore, costumes to customs, search strategies to scrapbooking, and the dreaded, bouncy, motivational talks. At least, we dread them. We have many failings, Dear Readers, (most shamefully, our vile, cataclysmic and near-cannibalistic rages) but lack of motivation is not one of them. Yet, for all of the choice, we could not find at first glance a presentation to captivate us, so we returned to one from last year, the very fine "Finding Your Elusive Female Ancestors" by Julie Stoddard. Ms. Stoddard makes a number of good points, and includes some research skills, such as creating timelines, always looking at original documents and analyzing them fully (here is how we do it), that should be employed in all genealogy research, but her focus  is on the difficulty of researching women in the United States.

Researching women in France is quite different, so we thought that we might give you something of a comparison between the skills proposed by Ms. Stoddard for researching your American female ancestors with those necessary for researching your French female ancestors. The fundamental difference lies in the customs concerning a married woman's surname. In America and the English tradition, when a woman married, her surname legally changed to that of her husband; in France, since 1792, it did and does not. In America, when Jane Smith married John Brown, her legal name changed to Jane Brown, or Mrs. John Brown. If John died, she became Widow Brown. In France, when Jeanne Martin married Jean Larue, her legal name remained Jeanne Martin, with the added status of "wife of Larue" (femme Larue or épouse Larue), written in full: Jeanne Martin, épouse Larue. If Jean died, her status changed but her name did not. She became Jeanne Martin, widow Larue: Jeanne Martin veuve Larue. Thus, there is no such thing as a "maiden name" in France; there is only a person's name. What of Madame Larue as one finds? This is a customary usage but not a legal name. Additionally, in France, women could and did sign documents, using their legal names.

Do not be fooled, Dear Readers. This preserving of a woman's birth name as her legal identity is not an indication that France was somehow more advanced concerning women's rights. No, it is a country as backward in that respect as any other; the female revolutionaries who fought for women's equality during the Revolution were beheaded and their writings buried; in modern times, women were not enfranchised until 1948.  The difference comes from the French (and very Latin) concept of family. A woman was part of her birth family. Any dowry she received came from the family; they may have retained rights over it; they may have expected it to be returned were she to die. Yet, she also belonged to the new family she was to create with her husband and they may have been controlling their family's assets in relation to their own children. As a widow, she might have carried on the family business in her own right (this happened especially with shipping families, it seems). Knowing her identity was essential and practical. How, in terms of genealogical research, are these differences manifested?

Ms. Stoddard lists the types of records most likely to result in a successful search for a woman's name in America, and how to use them for that purpose:

  • Vital records, being birth, marriage and death records
  • Census returns
  • Family trees found online
  • Cemeteries
  • Probate records
  • Social Security records
  • DNA tests

Looking at their French equivalents, one can see that their usefulness in researching women is not at all the same.

  • The French equivalent of vital records are the actes d'état civil, acts of civil status. These date from 1792, when civil registration replaced church parish records as legal documentation of people. These are hugely useful in tracing a French female ancestor's life. A marriage act, acte de mariage, will give a woman's full name, both of her parents' full names, and her date and place of birth. Thus, one marriage act can reveal not only the bride's name but the names of her mother and of the groom's mother as well. Birth registrations, actes de naissance, generally give the legal names of the father and of the mother as well as their marital status. Thus, a child of the couple above would be registered as, say, Samuel Larue, born to Jean Larue and his wife, Jeanne Martin. Death registrations, actes de décès, are always in the legal name of the person, so a woman's death would be, for example registered as: Jeanne Martin, wife (or widow) of Jean Larue. If known, her parents names and the place of her birth would be included. Most commercial genealogy companies in France have structured their initial search pages to allow for exploiting all of this detail in the civil registrations.
  • Census returns are recensements (with other terms used over the years) in France. They began in 1836, except for in Paris, where they did not begin until 1926. Married women are enumerated under their legal names. Thus, one would see the Larue family listed as:
    • Larue, Jean, head of household
    • Martin, Jeanne, his wife
    • Larue, Samuel, their son
    • Larue, Jacques, their son
    • Larue Marie, their daughter
    • Boule, Louise, widow Larue, mother of the head of household

The great headache with the French census is that most are not indexed. Filae.com has indexed two, that for 1872 and that for 1906, and they are working on others. Though there is less indexing of censuses in France than in America, it is generally of a much higher quality, yielding much fewer preposterous results.

  • Family trees found online posted by French people tend to be slightly better at citing sources than those found online in America. The best source for French family trees is Geneanet.org. As Ms. Stoddard recommends, so do we: verify every single source.
  • Cemetery photographs or jaunts to view family plots are recommend by Ms. Stoddard to help you to find a female ancestor. This would not be very successful in France, especially outside of Paris and other large cities. French cemeteries tend not to have graves of individuals but family tombs. (Once again, the family is more important than the individual.) These tombs often have no more than the family surname engraved upon them. Some will have listed the names of those within, some not. Where they do, the lists may not be complete. More valuable for research than the cemetery or grave stone is the cemetery register, maintained by the town hall. Because so many cemeteries in France have been moved or destroyed and because untended graves are emptied and the plots resold, hunting through cemeteries will not yield much information. The register books of interments, however, are permanent records and might help with genealogical research. Those of  Paris are online, but this is still quite rare. Geneanet has a fair collection of photographs of  grave markers and tombs, but it is still quite small.
  • Probate records in France are increasingly online on the websites of the Departmental Archives. Again, in these, a woman will appear under her legal name. The records online relate more to the legal transfer of title to property because of a death and the legal registration of a will. Wills are not found online. These are complicated to search and are more useful in the hunt for unknown relatives. One would not begin the search for a female ancestor here when she is so easy to find elsewhere.
  • Social Security records. Beware, here, for they are not what you think in France. La Sécurité Sociale is the term for the French national health system and those, being medical records, you will not be able to touch for love or money. In America, one's Social Security number, like it or not, functions almost as a national identity number. France does issue national identity cards, la carte d'identité, and you will not get your hands on a collection of those either.
  • The last category, finding relatives and thus, common ancestors, with DNA testing is a conundrum, fraught with difficulty, and partially illegal in France. However, so many people skirt the law, take the illegal test and put their results up on foreign genealogy websites that, if you are so inclined, you might give it a try. Where this will be extremely helpful in tracing a woman or a man is where either or both chose not to be named on a child's birth registration.

 

We are grateful to Ms. Stoddard for her excellent presentation and that it has inspired us in this discussion. Good luck finding your female ancestors!

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy