Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 6

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

American Documentation

Private Papers of United States Consuls

Many consuls’ private papers and correspondence are preserved. In some cases, these are more complete than the official correspondence, in some cases less so. There is no way of knowing until one looks.

Seamen in LorientSource: Letter from Aaron Vail. Jonathan Russell Papers, Hay Library, Brown University
 

This image(click on it to see a larger version) is of a list of American sailors written, in French, dated 1810, by the American consul in the French port of Lorient, Aaron Vail, to the French authorities, and this copy was sent to the American consul in Paris, Jonathan Russell. The sailors had been on the crew of the vessel Good Friends, captain Winslow Harlow, of Philadelphia. The vessel had been seized by the French. The mariners’ names are listed, with the amount of money Vail had advanced them:

Thomas Read, seaman

Richard Powell, seaman

William Tomlin, seaman

Joseph Wilson, seamen

Peter Steele, cook

Vincent Ashmely, apprentice or ship’s boy 

 

Finding Private Papers of US consuls

To know who was a consul or consular agent at any given port during the early nineteenth century, look up the port on the website Early American Foreign Service Database. (http://www.eafsd.org/)

Use Google and a few other search engines :

“[consul’s name] private papers”

“[consul’s name] family papers”

“[consul’s name] archives”

Remember to search the consul's name both as given and in reverse, e.g. "Aaron Vail" and "Vail, Aaron".

The papers may be in the Library of Congress, in National or State Archives, in university libraries or a private archive. Be prepared to enter into correspondence to request copies, if you cannot travel to do the research in the papers. Quite a few examples have been digitized as a part of the two hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812 and you may get lucky enough to find a letter from your ancestor online. 

 

Prize cases, or "libels"

During the era of privateering, a captured vessel was termed a "prize". It was taken into a port of or allied with the nationality of the privateer. In port, the prize would be judged as good or bad. If a "good prize" the privateers and their backers kept the loot; if a "bad prize", the vessel and its cargo, or compensation, were returned to the owners. For the privateer, it was crucial to man the prize with a good crew, headed by a "prize master", who would get it to a friendly port as fast as possible, not only to be able to sell the cargo before it might rot, but to evade the prize vessel being recaptured by another vessel and taken home as her prize. The original crew of the prize vessel became prisoners. 

In the judgement of prize cases, senior members of the privateer crew were interrogated, to know exactly what procedures were followed and when. If you are seeking a man who could have been a mate or a lieutenant on a privateer, you may find his testimony in a prize case. If you know that your seaman was on the capturing vessel, then you will want to request the file of the prize case from the NARA branch closest to the port where the case was tried. The following image is of the first twenty entries in the archives finding aid for the files held at NARA Boston. The prize case files for New York have been digitized and can be found on www.Fold3.com.

Mass Prize cases

Source: Index to Massachusetts Prize Cases, NARA

Finding Out About Prizes Taken

As you hunt for the vessel, know that:

  • Reports of captures may be in newspapers, such as Niles’ Weekly or Lloyd’s Register
  • Reports of the sale of the prize vessel may be in newspapers
  • These reports give the location port where the vessel was taken and the case judged
  • You can then search the finding aids of the archives facility holding the records of that port
  • Mention must be made here of the impressive work by Greg H. Williams, The French Assault on American Shipping, 1793–1813 A History and Comprehensive Record of Merchant Marine Losses (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London : McFarland, 2009), which attempts to list and describe every case of of an American vessel captured by the French, through to the final resolution of claims. Unfortunately, it contains many errors, so any facts must be verified.

 

District and Circuit Court Cases

In regions with busy ports, there were many cases of seamen taking masters or shipowners to court for failure to pay wages, for brutality or for other complaints, as this finding aid listing cases shows. Note how many seamen's names appear.

Mass District CourtSource: Index to Massachusetts District Court Cases, NARA Boston

 

Finally, for researching New England seamen, one must explore the Mystic Seaport Databases (https://research.mysticseaport.org). They are constantly putting more online. We recommend that you explore:

  • The four databases of crew lists from New England
  • The American Offshore Whaling Voyages 

The Mystic Seaport Museum, the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, the Library of Congress and numerous other libraries have ships' log books.

In the next post, we look at French documentation.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 5

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

A seaman who never advanced, never was impressed, never was on a ship that was captured, never married outside of the United States will be very hard to document. For the seaman who became a master or was impressed or was on a vessel that was captured or who married in Europe, there may well be mentions, documents, even whole files about him.

The main geographical areas for archival research on American mariners during the Napoleonic Wars are:

  • The United States
  • Great Britain
  • The European countries to which the mariner may have sailed. France is the example here but the research concepts apply just as easily to other European countries such as Norway or Portugal or Spain

Looking at each in more detail:

American Documentation

We are often trapped into thinking that what is available easily is all that is available. This mistake leads many people to think that the only useful American records on seamen are the Seamen's Protection Certificates, but there is much much more.

Dispatches from United States Diplomats and from United States Consuls

From 1792, consuls overseas were charged with aiding “distressed American seamen”. Distress could have been caused by illness, lack of money, imprisonment, impressment and, quite often, abandonment. The consul or consular agent in a port was the first person the seaman would have tried to contact when he was in trouble. He would have had to prove his American nationality to the consul, and this might have been done with his Seaman's Protection Certificate, if he had one. If not, he would give details of his family and birth to prove his nationality. Some or all of these details, or copies of his original letters, may survive in the consular dispatches. Consuls were also charged with reporting on American shipping in the ports where they were based. Generally, diplomats, the Ministers Plenipotentiary or the Ambassadors, left the aid of seamen to the consuls but, at times, they became involved in a case. Much of their correspondence about the cases survives in the Diplomatic and Consular Dispatches, which were microfilmed in the 1950s and which now may be purchased in digitized format from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

T223 Nantes p40Source: NARA, Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in Nantes, France, 1790-1906. T223, roll 1

The above image is of a typical consul's report on the American vessels that arrived in the port where he was based, in this case, Nantes. It covers the first six months of 1793 and gives:

  • The name of the vessel
  • The tonnage
  • The name of the captain
  • The port from which the vessel sailed
  • The cargo

The first three entries show :

  • On the 5th of January, the Polly, of 66 tons, Captain Wicks, arriving from Boston
  • On the 30th of January, the Eliza, of 110 tons, Captain Hitchins, arriving from Pillou (presumably Pillau, now known as Baltiysk, in Russia)
  • On the 5th of February, the oddly named Goat, of 80 tons, Captain O’Brien, arriving from an unnamed port in Spain.

Most records of vessels name captains, making research of these men easier. If you are tracing a seaman, his name will not appear but this kind of list will help in following the vessel.

Consular correspondence about specific distressed seamen can be incredibly revelatory about the man, as this unfortunately very faint example shows.

HarrisonSource: NARA, Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in St. Bartholomew, French West Indies, 1799-1899. M72, roll 1

This is a letter from R.M. Harrison, the consul in Saint Bartholomew, dated 3rd April 1821, discussing the case of an American seamen. It reads:

“...a man by the name of John Bowen, a native of Warren Rhode Island and a steady orderly person for that class of people….."[seamen had a dreadful reputation]

In this and subsequent letters, the story is told that Bowen and a group of seamen had rowed out in a boat and tried to join a South American privateer then in the harbour but were “chased off by a French Man of War”. They then found themselves far from the harbour and getting hungry. They rowed close to shore at a spot near a village and started shooting at goats for food. The mayor of that village started shooting back at their boat, hitting Bowen in the hip. His comrades sped away, having thrown Bowen on shore, where he crawled to a street and collapsed. He lay there, “without shelter or medical aid”, for many hours until a former shipmate discovered him and organized help. A further letter from the consul to the Secretary of State tells that Bowen lingered for two weeks and then died. If no letter to Bowen's family were sent or survived, if no one knew what happened to him, American records may say, at best, that he was "lost at sea". Here, his sad fate is given in full.

To find both diplomatic and consular dispatches, see the publication: “Diplomatic Records: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications”1986. This may be searched online at "The National Archives : Microfilm Catalog". Digital copies of the rolls may be ordered from NARA at : http://eservices.archives.gov. Sadly, they are not cheap.

American Documentation continues with the next post.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 4

Researching Mariners

Follow the vessel, Look for the man

Where American Mariners Found Work

  • A naval vessel – Many men who became merchant seamen or captains began their careers in the Continental Navy and went to merchant vessels, often unwillingly, when that Navy was disbanded. If on a British Royal Navy vessel the merchant seaman was probably unwillingly on board, having been impressed.  Recall that a seaman would not be found on a United States Navy vessel before the Navy's establishment in 1794. American seamen also were found, albeit rarely, on vessels of the French and Russian navies.
  • A merchant vessel - This offered better pay than a naval vessel, but a much greater risk of being abandoned in a port far from home. Crews were smaller, food was marginally better, and voyages were shorter than naval cruises or patrols at remote stations. Merchant vessels plied all variations of the Atlantic trade routes between the United States and Britain and Europe. 
  • A slave vessel - Some seamen refused to work these vessels and those who did work on slavers tended to continue to do so. Knowing which your ancestor tended to work can help to narrow your search. The most common route followed by American slave ships was the West Africa-Caribbean Islands-United States triangle. However, they also followed a route from West Africa to South Africa to South America.
  • A fishing or whaling vessel - A fisherman was not a merchant seaman but early in a seaman's career, he may have been a whaler or fisherman.  Fishing vessels sailed to the Grand Banks or in North American coastal waters; whaling vessels sailed to Greenland or to the South Seas whaling grounds.
  • A privateer, a "private armed vessel" - Such a vessel operated legally only during a time of war and only with a Letter of Marque or commission from the government. Privateers sailed on short “cruises”, attacking the merchant shipping of the enemy. Seamen usually jumped at the chance to sail on a privateer, for the opportunities for wealth were considerable, though the life was also very dangerous.
  • A prize ship – A prize vessel was a vessel that was captured by a privateer and that must be taken in to a friendly port and sold. It was manned by a crew from the privateer. 
  • A pirate ship -Not very many seamen chose to work on a pirate ship as it was so brutal and the risk of hanging, if captured, was so great. Pirate ships carried no papers and did not maintain crew lists, so information about the men on them is more limited.

When looking for a vessel, bear in mind the key points for its identification and for differentiating it from others with the same name.

  • Name of the vessel
  • Name of the captain/master/shipmaster
  • Name of the owner
  • Type of vessel, e.g. brig, schooner, snow, sloop, frigate, etc.
  • Port from which sailed and port of destination, for any particular voyage

Often, the mention of a vessel will read something like this: "Brig Eliza, Cooper, Antwerp" meaning that the brig Eliza, master Cooper, arrived from Antwerp.

Some types of archives in which you might find vessels:

  • Ship's journals or log books - Many of these are published online by museums and archives
  • Personal diaries of captains and crew - Increasingly, these are scanned and appear online on many different websites. These are quite useful in that they often name other seamen.
  • Lloyd's List, found at www.maritimearchives.co.uk 
  • Newspapers, the Shipping news section
  • Finding aids of archives, libraries and museums

Once you have an idea of his vessel and its voyages, you can look deeper into the archives of the places where a merchant seaman sailed and where you might look for documentation on him.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 3

Researching Mariners

HISTORICAL SETTING - VESSELS IN WAR

Some knowledge of shipping and naval activity during these wars will help in knowing where to seek documentation on American mariners.

1776-1783

American Revolution

  • Both Britain and the United States authorized privateers to attack one another’s merchant shipping. American seamen captured by the British were sent to prisons in Great Britain.
  • Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France, devised a plan to send out privateers manned by Americans from French ports to attack British shipping. His purpose was to take British prisoners who could then be exchanged for American prisoners of war in British prisons. On the whole, it was not very successful.
  • America's Continental Navy was small and relied heavily on French naval aid to win the Revolution.

1785 to 1794

During these years, there was no United States Navy. Hundreds of qualified seamen, lieutenants, navigators, ship’s carpenters, sailmakers, etc. who had been in the state and the Continental navies, were out of work. Many sought work on merchant vessels Others, who saw themselves as career naval men, joined other naval forces, particularly those of France and Russia. Joshua Barney, hero of the American Revolution, left the United States in anger in 1794 because he felt that the position he was offered in the new US Navy did not reflect or properly reward his talents and previous service. He joined the French navy and led a squadron in Saint Domingue, as Haiti was then known, to suppress the Haitian Revolution. John Paul Jones, America's other naval hero, left to serve in both the French and Russian navies.

1792 - 1815 

French Revolutionary Wars, Quasi War, Napoleonic Wars, War of 1812 Europe

Early during this period, the French Navy was nearly destroyed, firstly by its own navy men joining the French Revolution and rising up against the mostly aristocratic officers, and secondly by the losses in the sea battles against the British, including:

  • What the British term the "Glorious 1st of June" and the French call the "Bataille du 13 prairial an II" in 1794
  • The surrender of the Mediterranean fleet to the British in 1794
  • The naval Battle of the Nile in 1798
  • The naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805

After this, Britain's Royal Navy became the supreme naval power in the Atlantic, and impressed more American seamen than ever. What remained of the French fleet was blockaded by the British Royal Navy in French ports, especially Brest, with occasional important escapes. With its reduced navy trapped, France encouraged privateering. French privateers were highly successful against British merchant vessels, and those of Britain's allies, including American vessels. French privateers sailed from any port on the Atlantic coast from Bayonne to Dunkirk, but especially from Brest and Saint Malo, and they included many American seamen on board.

During the Quasi-War, French vessels captured hundreds of American merchant vessels. France was furious that the United States refused to repay the costs of French military aid given to the United States during the American Revolution and also felt that the Jay Treaty of 1795 with Britain was a betrayal of the trust formed during that war and of the Treaty of Amity that the US had signed with France in 1778. Many of the American seamen from the captured vessels were taken to France and jailed.

In the Caribbean:

  • Pirates become well established, easily hiding on all those tiny islands
  • The slave trade was strong, with American and Spanish slave ships dominating
  • Privateering was prominent, as the cargos were so valuable and the local governments so corrupt or weak, the waters were excellent for raiding
  • Increasingly, South American privateers attack Spanish and Portuguese vessels in the region

1808-1833

South American Wars of Independence

What  were known in English as "insurgent privateers" sailed from South American ports and attacked Spanish and Portuguese vessels. After the end of the War of 1812, from about 1815, many of these privateers are owned and manned by Americans, mostly outfitted in Baltimore.

1776-1833

An American Seaman Could have:

  • Served as a young man in the Continental Navy
  • After the war ended, he could have worked on a New York vessel carrying grain to Liverpool, then
  • Changed to an English vessel carrying iron to Boston, then
  • Been captured by a French privateer and taken into Lorient
  • Been released from prison temporarily to work on a French privateer
  • From which he may have been on the prize crew to take a prize vessel to Norway, but on the way
  • He may have been captured by the Royal Navy and sent to prison in England
  • Eventually, he could have been released in 1815, at the end of the War of 1812, and then
  • Gone on a cartel vessel to Baltimore, where he
  • Signed on to a privateer bound for Buenos Aires, after which he
  • Retired a rich man, (or not)

How to find him?

 

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 2

Researching Mariners

HISTORICAL SETTING - A TIME OF WARS

This period was a time of war for much of Europe and the Americas, many of them at the same time. 

  • American Revolution 1776-1783 between the American colonists and Great Britain
  • French Revolution 1789-1799 a French civil war
  • Haitian Revolution 1791-1804 a Haitian slave uprising against French colonists and France
  • French Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802,  between France and the rest of Europe and Great Britain 
  • Quasi-War 1798-1800 between France and the newly formed United States

In Europe, there was a year of peace in 1802, when the  Treaty of Amiens was in effect, then war broke out out again between France and Britain in the:

  • Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815, during which the United States was neutral and trying to profit from the conflict. In the fight against Napoleonic France, Britain expanded the Royal Navy to an unparalleled naval power, always hungry for men. The constant need for more men lead to the press gangs on shore and impressment at sea. So many Americans were impressed and forced to work on Royal Navy ships that this was one of the main causes of the
  • War of 1812, between the United States and Great Britain, which lasted from 1812 to early 1815 and which was overshadowed in Europe by the immense war against Napoleon.
  • The South American Wars of Independence 1808-1833, between the colonies in South American and Spain or Portugal, these wars were, in many ways, sparked by the earlier revolutions and by the Napoleonic conquests of the Iberian colonial powers, and were at their peak after the Napoleonic Wars ended.

During all of these wars, American merchant seamen could be found on vessels of all nationalities and types. Merchant ships of all European nations as well as of South American nationalities included Americans on their crew lists. American merchants traded with belligerents on all sides and the merchant fleet grew quite large, sailing to all Atlantic ports, where shipmasters often left seamen stranded, leaving them to seek work on any vessel that would have them. Primarily during the War of 1812, American privateers with mostly American crews attacked merchant vessels of enemy nationalites, e.g. Britain and her allies. American whaling vessels, based not only in Nantucket and Halifax but in Britain and France, operated in Northern and Southern Atlantic whale fishing grounds.

The next post will look at naval and shipping activity a bit more closely, showing where American merchant seamen were active.

©2020 Anne Morddel

 French Genealogy


Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 1

Researching Mariners

We have been working on this subject for some years and continue to do so. Last year, we published an article in the NGS Magazine, (April-June 2018, pp. 29-34) "Resources for Tracing Impressed American Seamen", which covered part of the subject. For some time, we have tried to interest genealogy webinar hosts in a talk and case study that would cover the subject in greater depth, and even prepared all of the slides, but they felt that there was not enough interest. We do not believe that. So, we have decided to give the contents of the entire talk here, Dear Readers, in a series of posts, for we believe that many of you may be researching ancestors who were Nantucket whalers or merchant seamen or privateers or prisoners of war caught in the mayhem of the  Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

There will be a slight overlap with that article, but not much, as the focus is not limited to those merchant seamen who were impressed.  The example in that article was a man named Ambrose Dodd, a merchant seaman from Marblehead who had signed on to a British vessel, was captured by the French and Held as a prisoner of war. He claimed to have been impressed by the British but was not. However, when the French released him from prison temporarily to crew a French privateer, that vessel was captured by the British and he was, if not impressed, coerced to join the Royal Navy, in which he served until the end of the War of 1812. The case study here will be of the Nantucket whaler, Peleg Bunker, who was among the whalers who moved to Dunkirk, then to Britain, and who worked the fisheries of the South Atlantic, until he, too, was captured by a French privateer and held as a prisoner of war in France, where he died in 1806, just before he was to be released.

Our subject is limited to documenting American mariners, the ordinary seamen, masters and whaling men - in American, British and French archives of the Napoleonic Wars and of the War of 1812. Much of this is online, but most is not. However, archival finding aids are online and it is possible to order copies of the documents you need. British archives tend to send paper copies in the post, while French and American archives tend to send digitized copies by e-mail. To do this research, you will need not only access to the Internet, but an ability to read a bit of French, to decipher nineteenth century handwriting, and patience. We would add here that a certain level of intellectual integrity will also be necessary; there can be no bending of the facts to fit the ancestor, no conflation of similar and misspelt names into one man, no rejection of the inexplicable. By the end of this series of posts, you may well discover that your mariner ancestor was not "lost at sea", and you may be able to document, with some rather personal detail, his extraordinary life.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Municipal Archives of Vannes - a Plethora for the Holidays

Archives municipales de Vannes

 

 

AM Vannes 1

 

AM Vannes 2

 

AM Vannes 3

 

Some mad fool once dared to imply that a holiday that included archives visits was no holiday at all but we differ, boldly and without begging, indeed. If holidays are meant to contain innocent pleasures and perhaps the discovery of new places, then this gallivant through the archives of southern Brittany has certainly qualified for us. The last on the gallivant list has turned out to be the best, like a nice little flourish at the end of a perfect page of calligraphy.

We arrived at the spanking new and spotless Municipal Archives of Vannes on a cold and wet November morning. At the desk, we made our application for a Reader's Card, filling out a form that was longer than usual, and receiving a charming little welcome pack of paper, pencil and a list of rules.

We began with our usual request for Revolutionary era passports. Before we had fully settled into our seat at a table, the archivist wheeled in a trolly laden with cartons. "We thought you might be interested in later passports too," she offered, showing us a carton of passports from 1806 to 1816, almost all of the First Empire period. We were thrilled to our toes. Not only were we very interested in such a rare find of later passports, never, ever had an archivist actually gone so far ass to volunteer a suggestion. This really was service on a higher level of consciousness, we decided.

Vannes passeports

Bear with us, Dear Readers, as we elaborate on the window into a society that such internal passports can be. Recall that they were merely permission to make a specific journey into or out of the town. Many showed the same people passing through again and again, while other people seem to have passed through Vannes just once. Not only are these helpful in genealogical research on an ancestor, but in historical research into the society in which the ancestor lived. Here follows a list of the professions and work of the people requesting passports:

  • bookseller
  • wooden shoe maker
  • pharmacist
  • potter
  • tinker
  • handkerchief maker
  • surveyor
  • antiques dealer
  • saddler
  • brewer
  • contortionist
  • wine seller
  • sail maker
  • clock maker
  • composer
  • drawing master
  • basket maker
  • priest
  • barometer seller
  • musician
  • nail maker
  • day labourer
  • tailor
  • seamstress
  • roofer
  • hat maker
  • domestic servant
  • chandler
  • laundress
  • prisoner just released
  • mason
  • stone cutter
  • merchant
  • spinner
  • tobacco worker
  • acrobat
  • magician
  • portraitist
  • baker
  • pastry maker
  • wood turner
  • post rider (many of these on their return journeys)
  • cobbler
  • wig maker
  • student
  • locksmith
  • glass maker
  • embroiderer
  • lawyer
  • apprentice
  • soldier
  • sailor
  • artist
  • carpenter
  • paver
  • gardener
  • dentist
  • prostitute (fille publique)
  • iron worker
  • draper
  • weaver
  • organ grinder
  • chimney sweep
  • farrier
  • actor
  • surgeon
  • cook
  • plasterer
  • singer
  • cooper

 

Most came from the region, and many from other parts of France; some from as far away as Italy, Brussels, Poland, Hamburg, Prussia, Switzerland, and Spain. Some were refugees. Most of the forms were complete, giving at least a partial physical description. Here is the entry for a sixteen-year old Armand Bescourt, travelling salesman of eau de Cologne:

Armand Bescourt

And here, a full page of entries:

Full passports pagePolice générale-Passeports, 1806-1816. 2J 140. Archives Municipales de Vannes

We were keenly interested in the suggested cartons, one of which held a very rare 1792 register book of volunteers from Vannes for the Revolutionary Army.

1792 Volunteers RegisterAffaire militaires-Enrôlements volontaires. 1H 72.  Archives Municipales de Vannes

The last offering was just as interesting, for it contained something equally rare: a printed leaflet from 1817 containing the names, ages and descriptions of wanted criminals.

Wanted criminalsPolice-Surveillance condamnés, forçats liberés, An 9 - 1855. 2I 147. Archives Municipales de Vannes.

For those whose ancestor may have been such a one, this would be a find, indeed, as would the sad entry at the end, about a lost child.

Missing child


It is these odd bits of ephemera that have miraculously survived wars and clear-outs that can, on occasion, break through a brick wall and that are, so often, our reason for visiting municipal archives wherever possible.

These were old items and, at the end of our blissfully spent morning, our workspace was littered with crumbled bits of leather and paper. The helpful archivist burst forth with a vacuum cleaner and quickly hoovered up every trace of ancient detritus, recalling childhood memories of our belovèd, departed Kate, who frantically exhibited the same behaviour every time someone used an ash tray.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Municipal Archives of Lorient

AM Lorient 1

AM Lorient 2

This town, with this archives, was for the most part destroyed in the Allied Bombing raids of 1943 (you can read here of how the Allies decided that, since they could not destroy the German-built submarine base, they would wipe out the French town instead). So far as our subject area is concerned, this destruction is obvious from the paucity of the archives holdings. Most municipal archives around France have  their administration's precious collection of internal and external passports issued during the Revolution. These are one of the few types of documents that help in tracing people during that chaotic time. The Municipal Archives of Lorient, sadly, have none.

The town's parish and civil registrations, as they have been digitized, cannot be seem in the original but only online (this protection of originals once they have been digitized is normal throughout France). Should a visitor wish to view them, he or she is quite brusquely and officiously waved toward the computer desks and told to "get to work". Cowed, we did so, as did all others who entered, as obedient as schoolchildren being reprimanded by the maitresse. We were discouraged to find the usual helpfulness of French archivists not in evidence.

Then, we began to notice a peculiar pattern. Ever so meekly, supplicants would go to the main desk, saying:

"I've tried and I've tried and I just cannot find my ancestor in the digitized images.". In response, the archivist heaved the great sigh of the long-suffering public servant, impatient and exasperated at having to help these doltish members of the public.

"Give me the dates, places and names that you have and I'll try to get you started." These details in hand, she then whizzed through screens, finding the birth or marriage registration in a trice. "Et voilà," she said with scorn, printing the registration and handing it to the grateful supplicant. "And then, you see, you can find the births from the marriage and the deaths from the Tables décennales," she continued, whisking out printed registrations of more generations as she explained and handing them also to the beaming supplicant.

 "Oh, merci, Madame," the supplicant breathed, practically bowing in gratitude. Turning away from the desk, each such meek and helpless researcher winked at the others in the room. Then, the next went to the desk and pleaded helplessness in the same way as the first had done and received the same scornful and abundant assistance. Thus, though the archivist absolutely refused to do any research for patrons of the archives (which refusal, by the way, is normal throughout the world) quite a number of supplicant patrons walked away, pleased as Punch, with some very fine, free research done for them. 

So, Dear Readers, we recommend the empty Municipal Archives of Lorient highly and suggest that you go there in all haste before the inevitable fall that follows such pride ends this boon.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Service Historique de la Défense at Lorient

SHD Lorient 1

SHD Lorient 2

SHD Lorient 3

SHD Lorient 4

If one is researching the nineteenth century French Navy, the Marine, most websites and, indeed that of the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) itself, warn that there is little reason to go to the Marine Archives at Lorient. Upon arriving at the small facility, right on the lovely harbour of Lorient, one reads in the finding aid that the archives "...were  profoundly damaged by the destruction of the [Allied] bombings of 1943". After explaining that a heroic archivist had managed to send all Ancien régime (pre-Revolution) archives to a more protected storage in a chateau, nearly all of the archives of the whole nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were lost.

Lorient finding aid

(In our posts on the archives at Rennes and Brest, we have discussed the archives losses occasioned by the Allied Bombing of France. For a precise study in English of the bombing of Lorient, we recommend the thesis by Jon Loftus, "The Devastation of Lorient: Why Did the Allies Area Bomb the Biscay Ports in 1943?")

Consequently, when one looks at the lists of archives series, some of the categories are completely empty. Series R for example, concerning colonies, has not a single file in it. The library is quite interesting, having books that we have been seeking for some time but could not find online, in a repository or on the wondrous AbeBooks website of second-hand booksellers. In moments of frustration with the archives, we took many notes on these books. Of moments of frustration, there were many. Some clever soul had decided to rewrite some of the finding aids, assigning new codes to archives cartons as they were listed in the paper of the finding aids but not always to the actual physical object, rendering it lost. It seemed that everything we wanted to see fell into this category: the cartons appeared on the list but could not be found in the store room. This occasioned the calling into the room of ever more senior staff until the Chief Archivist himself came down for a chat. He was politely interested in our research and suggested a dozen more books but could not locate the missing cartons. We noted that, as the staff tried to find a better reference to the cartons on the new SHD website, they had as much trouble as we do with it. (Suffice to say that, while it is much prettier, access to finding aids has been severely reduced.)

This is the archives where the Compagnie des Indes has deposited their collection. Recall that a large part of it is online, particularly crew and passenger lists on their vessels (rôles d'équipage). As once records are available online they are no longer available in the original, this presents us with yet another reason not to go to the SHD in Lorient. This discouragement is rather sad and, if you, Dear Readers, are really hunting something that could be there, do not heed the discouragement. And so it happened that, because we always read the finding aids looking for any of the subjects about which you, Dear Readers, have written to us, we happened upon a list of young Polish officers on Belle-Ile, possibly refugees from the Polish-Russian War of 1830-1831, who received aid in 1833. Clearly written, it gives their names, ages, places of birth, rank, and the amount of aid received. Perhaps those of you who have written of Polish ancestors in France could find one here.

Polish officers in France 1833

So, in the end, the SHD at Lorient may well be worth a visit. Ah, we do love a good junket.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Guest Post - A Very Challenging Brick Wall

Missing parents

We have been sent a case of missing parents by the eminent genealogy researcher, Monsieur B., whose expertise is in Acadian, Canadian and French research. His brick wall is a true conundrum.

Zacharie Viel, Where Are You?

Not only is it important to share one’s genealogical success stories, but it is also important to share one’s frustrations and failures, and the latter certainly characterizes my research into the past of Madelinot ancestor Zacharie Viel. Having found the majority of the ancestries of the various men from France who settled at the Islands, despite my search in over 200+ parish and civil registers in the departments of Manche, Calvados and Orne, France, including the Island of Jersey just off the coast, and various seaport parishes in neighboring Ille-et-Vilaine and Côte d’Armor departments, I have yet to find a birth record for Zacharie, his parents’ marriage record, or the births of any of his siblings. It’s like the man came from France, set sail for Canada, married here, and had a handful of children, before his passing into the annals of history at the supposedly advanced age of 94 years old. One will ask what exactly do we know about him? Other than the following facts, not much else.

From his marriage at Havre-Aubert on 16 May 1842, he stated that he was from Coutances, the son of Pierre Viel and Marie Mière (or LeMière), both of these families being found in abundance in that region of Manche. His father’s occupation is given as a mason. Zacharie’s wife was Bathilde Chiasson, the daughter of Jean Chiasson and Esther Hébert, and of their marriage were born four sons and a daughter. Of their sons, only Honoré, a surveyor by trade, lived into his thirties, dying unmarried. Honoré’s sister, Esther, married in 1885 to Léoni Jomphe, by whom she had seven children, assuring a descendance from her father. Esther died in Bassin on 30 Jun 1949, and with her passing came the end of the Viel surname at the Magdalen Islands.


According to his death record dated 19 Apr 1887 at the undoubtedly exaggerated age of 94 years old, Zacharie was born in France, presumably at Coutances as we have noted, between 1793 (based on that age) and 1812 (based on the ages given by him in the various Canadian censuses of 1861, 1871 and 1881). At his marriage in 1842 to Bathilde, among the witnesses to their wedding appears another French compatriot, Joseph (-Guillaume) Châtel, originally from St-Pair-sur-Mer in the same French department of Manche, and who had two years previously also married at Havre-Aubert on 22 June 1840 the widow of Jean Bourgeois: Marie Deveau, the daughter of Jacques Deveau and Théotiste Lapierre. Undoubtedly, the two men became friends, Joseph having arrived before Zacharie, and thus, Zacharie asked him to be a witness to this important event in his life. Both men lived and died at Bassin.


The census records are likewise not that reliable to pin down his year of birth. In 1861, Zacharie’s age is given as 50 years old (thus born about 1810 or 1811). In 1871, he is given as 59 years of age (thus born about 1812). And finally in 1881, his age jumps to an exaggerated 84 year old (thus born in 1797).


Another fact that makes this search so complicated is that the Viel family also went by the surname LeViel, yet despite all these families which I also inspected, nothing has turned up among them either. Even the name of Zacharie is a rare name in that region, and in my research, I have encountered only a handful of records with that first name contained therein. In fact, the only Zacharie born in Coutances during the timeframe indicated above was an orphaned child (un “enfant trouvé”) left on the steps of the city hospice, born in the city on 21 April 1806. Could this have been him, later adopted by a Pierre and Marie Viel? If so, there are no records to support such an adoption or reclamation “reconnaissance” by his parents.


Another curve thrown into the record by the transcriber is the fact that when they reexamined the child, he was found to be of “feminine” gender (sic), about three days old. So was this child a male or female, or was the gender incorrectly recorded? In addition, other close-sounding surnames from this department have also complicated the search results: Néel and Piel, in particular. At his death at Bassin, Zacharie’s surname was recorded as “Miel”, the husband of Mathilde Bourgeois (rather than Bathilde Chiasson), by Father Henri Thériault, pastor of the parish… another clerical error.


When speaking of “Coutances”, does this mean the city, canton or diocese of that name? Each geographic area grows in size as one moves from one distinction to another, and this has been the fundamental guide for the research I have conducted, and why the number of parish and civil registers consulted has grown extensively. I have searched through and written to the Archives of the Marine in Cherbourg, who had no record of him either. All my posts on the various France message boards have gone unanswered as well. Meanwhile, my search throughout all of Normandy continues.


I am becoming convinced that this Viel family did not live in Coutances but actually arrived there from somewhere else. In my estimation, Zacharie was merely “passing through” the city from some other rural location on his way to North America. The sad part is that he is one of only two French ancestors whose roots I have yet to discover, containing both an exciting as well as frustrating search throughout the entire Normand countryside and seacoast. Finding his connections are the ultimate Madelinot brick wall.

Our hope is that some of you may have solved a similar problem or may be an expert on the name Viel or on the deceptive records of Coutances and that you will help to solve this puzzle. If you should be the one to find the answer, you may write to Monsieur B. directly at: "madelinot22 at aol.com". This is a call to arms, Dear Readers!

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy