Letters Seized - Was One From Your Ancestor Held in a French Prison by Napoleon?

File Cover - Letters found on James Betts

Two English seamen, James Burns and James Betts, were on the Neptune when she was captured by the French privateer, Subtile, on the 26th of November 1809. The Subtile sent her boat with five men to board their prize, the Neptune. Suddenly, the wind changed and the boat overturned, throwing all five men into the water. Three managed to get to the overturned boat and cling to her. The two others drowned. Burns and Betts rowed out the Neptune's boat and saved them. "Even though they were the enemy, we had not lost our humanity," Burns wrote later.

All were taken on board the Subtile, which then sailed to Calais. The captain of the Subtile, Tucker*, wrote a letter describing how Burns and Betts had saved three French seamen and, therefore, should not be made prisoners of war. The port authority at Calais also wrote a letter to the same effect. To no avail. They were sent to the prison depot at Arras and, some time later, Betts ended up in the punishment depot at Bitche.** Burns seems to have spent the rest of the wars at Arras but Betts was released and sailed home from Morlaix on the cartel ship, Elizabeth, in January 1813 (see the released prisoners passenger lists discussed here).

Before Betts left the prison at Bitche, in about mid-December 1812, he must have offered to take with him some letters from other prisoners. He seems to have passed though the prison at Sarrelibre (now Saarlouis in Germany) and picked up some more letters. He then appears to have passed through the prison at Verdun around Christmas and picked up one more letter there. By the time he arrived at Morlaix, he had nearly ninety letters from British prisoners of war to take back to Britain and deliver or post. The letters never arrived. The French authorities took them from Betts at Morlaix.

They have been languishing in the Archives nationales for many a long year, where we stumbled upon them last spring while pursuing our bête noire, Thomas Mansell. We were finding nothing on Mansell and decided to look at a carton identified, curiously, as "uninteresting letters from English prisoners" (archives code: F/7/4240). Oh ho! They are not uninteresting at all to our mind. They are most revelatory about a group largely unknown, being ordinary soldiers and seamen, rarely officers and none a civilian prisoner, held in the two easternmost prisons, about which the Admiralty prisoner of war records (found on FindMyPast.co.uk) have little to say.

Unlike the numerous prisoners' diaries and accounts published after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, almost all of which concern life at a single prison, Verdun, these letters were not meant for publication and so, do not contain the tedious and repetitious self-praise or the understandable resentment at the treatment endured of those books. These letters are to parents, siblings, wives, business associates and they are filled with longing, with reassurances that the prisoner is well, with Christmas wishes. Some report the sad news of the death of a fellow prisoner.

Not only are they of interest to anyone studying prisoners of war, they are of great interest to any of you, Dear Readers, researching a British ancestor held prisoner in France. This is especially so as they show relationships and acquaintances. We photographed them all and give you here a list of the names of the letter writers and the addressees. We have retained the men's spellings of their own names and of the addresses.

Abbott, William to his parents, address: Mr. James Abbott, No. 2 New Road, Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, London
• Absolon, David to William Absolon, Jr., address: Mr. David Absolon, Yarmouth, Norfolk [includes a note from Robert Capp to his parents].
• Bailey, Joseph to his mother, address: M.M. Newton, Scots Square, Blanket Bow, Kingston Upon Hull
• Baker, Michael address: Mr. Thomas Wilkinson, Church Street, North Shields, Northumberland
• Banfield, William to his brother, Mr. Francis Banfield, address: care of, W.B. Banfield, Shipwright, Saltis [Saltash] Cornwall
• Banfield, William to Miss Mary Nichols, address: Frisco [?], Saltis [Saltash]
• Barber, James to his father, John, address: John Barber, in Norton near Lauden [?] in the County of Norfolk. Included in the letter from John Smith.
• Barrass, Thos. to his father and mother, address: Mr. Saml. Barrass, Kells-field near Gateshead, County Durham
• Barrett, John to his wife, Frances, address: Mrs Barrett, care of Mrs McDonald, Harrald Cross [now Harold Cross], Dublin, Ireland
• Bellarby, Edward to his wife, address: Mrs. Elizabeth Bellarby, Wood Street, Sunderland, Durham
• Berrell, Peter, address: Mr. Edward Galagher Cruelsant [?] to care of Mr. Thomas Caleman, Nort Quay Drogheda County Louth, Ireland
• Berry to. his mother, address: Mrs. H. Berry at Mrs. Wilson's near the king and Queen, Rotherhithe, London
• Berry, to his brother and uncle, address: Mr. Tho. Berry, Limehouse bridge Dock, London
• Bishop, ? to Mr. Robert Symes, address: Burton nr. Bridport, Dorsetshire
• Bond, J to his sister, address: Miss Elizabeth Bond, West Teingmouth, Devon
• Bond, J. to his father and mother, address: Mr. Samuel Bond West Teingmouth, Devon, England
• Brangan, Thomas to his sister Ann address: Anne Brangan, no. 100 Abbey Street, Dublin, Ireland
• Came, Richard to his wife, address: Mr. Richard Came, Newton Abbott, Devon, England
• Capp, Robert to his parents, included in a letter from David Absolon to William Absolon, Jr. address: Mr. David Absolon, Yarmouth, Norfolk
• Cargill, John, to his mother, Emily, care of James Cargill, address: Scoran-Burn, Dundee Angeshire, Scotland, North Britain
• Cargill, Laurence to his mother and father, address: Mrs. Cargill, Ballast Hills, Newcastle on Tyne, England
• Cavanagh, James to his wife, Margaret, address: Mrs Barrett, care of Mrs McDonald, Harrald Cross [now Harold Cross], Dublin, Ireland
• Colquhoun, H. to his sister, Miss Ann C. Colquhoun, address: Arran Castle, By Saltcoats, Scotland
• Cook, Peter to his mother, address: Mrs. Jane Cook, Appledore, Near Bidford, Devon
• Davis, D. with a message for his brother Mellorgan [?] Davis, address: Ship and Castle Swansea
• Dods, John to his father, address: Capt. James Dods, Samuelston near Haddington, N.B. [Scotland]
• Douglas, John to his mother, address: Mr. John Willers [?], no. 22 Thistle Street, Edinburgh
• Douglas, Thomas to his father address: Mr. Alexander Douglas, Links of Kirkaldy, Fifeshire N. Britain [Scotland]
• Farquhar, George to his brother, address: Mr. Alexander Farquhar, Post Master, Wick, Caithness, North Britain [Scotland]
• Franklyn, J. to his mother, address: Mrs. Franklyn, Kelvedon, Essex, England
• Franklyn, John to John Wolfe Esqr., address: Wood Hall, near New Frost [Forest?], Essex, England
• Fromayne, William to his wife, Mrs. Mary Fromayne, address: no. 17 William's Street, New Passage, Plymouth Dock, Devon
• Gray, Robert to his sister, Miss Sarah Gray address: Capt. Henry Pennal, Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey Kent
• Haltridge [?], Capt. Charles, address: Mr. John Cramsie, Merchant, Belfast, Ireland
• Hancock, Able to Miss Ann Davies, address: Barnstable, Devernshire, England
• Hancock, Robert to his brother, address: Mr. William Hancock, Barnstable, Devernshire, England
• Heard, Th. to his brother, address: Mr. Gl. [?] Heard, His Majesty's Dock Yard, Sheerness, Kent, England
• Hemson, William to his uncle, address: Capt. William Sharland, Teignmouth, Devon
• Hernaman, Francis to his sisters, address: Mr. Thomas Nicholls of HM Hurd Tender, Eliza & Jane, Plymouth, England
• Hernaman, Francis to his wife, Betsy, address: Mrs. Francis Hernaman Junr., Appledore, Devonshire, Englan
• Herring, James to his brother, address: Mr. George Herring, Sterlingshire, Falkirk, Scotland
• Hirst, James R. to his wife, address: Mrs. J. Hirst at Mrs. Robert Halls, Bay Street, Port Glasgow
• Imrie, George this mother, address: Mrs. Ewing, [unclear word] Hynd, Dundee
• Jerh. [Jeremiah?] Ryett [Byett?] to his brother, address: Mr. Willim Bur, no. 161 Near the Horse Ferry, Rotherithe, England
• Lackey, Peter, to his mother, address: Mr. Peter Lackey, Wright overgate, Dundee
• Lander, George to his wife address: Mrs. George Lander, Passage of Cork, Ireland
• Leigh, Gideon to his father and mother, [this letter is written in French], address: Monsieur Philippe Leigh, Paroisse de St. Britade, Jersey
• Litson, John to his wife, address: Mrs. Mary Litson, 33 King Street, Bristol
• Maillard, Daniel to his mother [this letter is written in French], address: Capt. Daniel Maillard, Glatney, Island of Guernsey
• Maryon, G. to his parents, address: Mr. Maryon, no. 34, Prinus, Leicester Squ, London
• McCarthy, Jeremiah to his father, address: Mr. Charles McCarthy, Healy's Bridge, Cork, Ireland or Elsewhere
• McCarthy, Jeremiah to his friend, John Adams, address: Seaman on Board HMS Defiance, Channel Fleet or Elsewhere
• Meall, James to his parents, address: Mr. James Meall, Yarmouth, Norfolk
• Milne, Thomas to Mr. Andrew Lunnen, shoe maker, Kirrymure [Kirriemuir], North Britain [Scotland]
• Milne, Thomas to Mr. John Ferney Junr., Merchant, address: Leith, North Britain [Scotland]
• Morris, William to Ann, address: Miss Blanchard, Scarborough, Yorkshire
• Mortimer, Robert C. to his mother, address: Mrs. Mortimer, care of Mrs. Searle, wife of Captain Searle R N, Somerset Place, Strand, London
• Nazeby, Tho. to his brother, James, address: Mr. James Nazeby, Blythe, in the County of Northumberland
• Nazeby, Thomas to Smith and Family address: Capt. Edward Smith, Queen Street, no. 32, or Elsewhere, London
• Nazeby, Thomas, to his father, address: Blyth in the County of Northumberland
• Norris, Henry to his brother, address: Mr. Jonathan Norris, Meldrum House, Old Meldrum, By Aberdeen, Scotland
• Ord, James to his wife, address: Mr. James Ord, Banff, Scotland
• Ormiston, John to his wife, address: Mrs. Jane Ormiston, Lynn, Norfolk, England
• Parker, William to his uncle, Mr. Robert Parker, address: Drawing Master near the Turnpike Gate, Stonehouse Road, Plymouth
• Patie, Wm to his brother and W. Walker, address: Mr. W. Walker, no. 11 Lower Cornwall Street near St. Georges in the East London, England
• Patterson, John, address: Messrs. Ormmanny [Ommaney] & Druce, Navy Agents, Norfolk Street Strand, London
• Portious, J. to his sister, address: Jenny Portious, Stenhouse Muir, By Falkirk, Stirlingshire
• Prior, Joseph "son of Elizabeth Prior" to his brother, sister and uncle, address: Mr. Joseph Aldridge at the repository Little St. Martin Lane, Cherring [Charing] Cross, London
• Rowlinson, R. to his wife, address: Mrs. Rowlinson, attn: Mrs. Joseph Shornts, 11 Plattfield Street, Blackfryars Road, London
• Short, Ralph to his wife, address: Great Grimsby Lincolnshire
• Show, James to Mr. Alexander Henderson, address: Mr. Samuel Henderson, Portarpittle [Port o'Spittal?] care of Mr. Hugh McCrea, Merchant, Portpatrick, N.Britain. [Scotland]
• Simpson, Wm to his wife, address: Fellan near Newcastle upon Tyne County of Durham
• Skelton, John to his wife, address: Mrs. Skelton, Hebbron [Hebburn] Read house High South Shields, Durham
• Smith, George, to his sister, Mary, address: Mary Smith, Red Lyon, no. 120, Long Milgate, Manchester, Lancashire, England
• Smith, Hugh to his mother, address: Ann Smith, Rahcail in County Limerrick, Ireland
• Smith, Hugh to Wm. Wilson, Esq. address: Nantenon, in the County of Limerick, Ireland
• Smith, John to his father, address: Mr. William Smith, Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England. [includes a note from James Barber for his father John Barber in Norton near Lauden [?] in the County of Norfolk]
• Stephen, William to his father and mother, address: Mr. William Stephen, Ship Builder, Aberdeen, N.B. [Scotland]
• Stephen, William, to his brother, David, address: Mr. David Stephen of Aberdeen to the Care of Mr. Ritchie, Iron Monger, Edenburgh, N.B. [Scotland]
• Stephens, Benjamin to his mother, address: Mrs. Jane Stephens, Mumbles, near Swansea, South Wales
• Stewart, William to his parents address: Mrs. H. Stewart, Midwife, Kirkaldy, Fifeshire, N. Britain [Scotland]
• Taylor, John, Capt. from Verdun, address: Major General Macleod[?], Depty adjutant General Rl Artillery, Woolwich, in the care of Mr. Drury, artillery officer
• Taylor, Wm. to his brother, address: Mr. John Teylor Jun., Teingmouth, Devon
• Thomson, Robert to his brother, address: Mr. James Thomson, Messrs. Beckwith & Co., Liverpool
• Tullage, William, to his wife and daughter, addressed to: Mrs. Blunden, Lydd, Kent, England
• Viney, James to his mother and to Miss Sarah Viney address: Little Hampton, England, Sussex
• Wallace, David to his parents, address: Mr. William Wallace, Shore St. Andrews, Fife Shire, N. Britain [Scotland]
• White, John address: Mr. John White, Sign of the Swift Brig, Smith Street, Guernsy
• Whiteway, J to Sarah, address: Mrs. Jos. Whiteway, Ringmore, Teignmouth, Devonshire
• Whiteway, Jos. to Mr. Robert Hyne, Merchant, Dartmouth, Devonshire
• Whitfield, Thomas, to his brother and sister, at either of these addresses: Mr. Robert Parker, Drawing Master near the Turnpike Gate, Stonehouse Road, Plymouth or to Mr. Richard Mills, Windmill Street, No. 60, Plymouth Dock
• Williamson, George to his wife, address: Capt. Geo. Williamson, Aberdeen, North Briton [Scotland]
• Young, Andrew to his brother, address: Mr. David Young, Eastburnwind, St. Andrews, Fifeshire, North Britain [Scotland]
• Yowart, Michael to his wife Mary address: Mrs. Yowart, 21 Aston Street, Poplar, near London

We do hope some of you may find your ancestor amongst them.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*Captain Tucker would seem to have been from an interesting family in Calais, founded by one John Tucker of Deal: "John Tucker, Esq., of Calais, a descendant of an ancient family in the county of Kent, but outlawed for following the Stuarts into exile. ["A literary and biographical history, or bibliographical dictionary, of the English Catholics from the breach with Rome, in 1534, to the present time" - Gillow, Joseph, 1850-1921 Volume 5 p.138 archive.org/stream/a583126605gilluoft#page/138/mode/2up/search/tucker]"

https://gw.geneanet.org/azerty7?n=tucker&oc=&p=john

**Their story of the rescue is in the prisoner file on Burns at the Service Historique de la Défense, ministry of War archives, file number Yj 40.


Last of the Summer Reading: Mutinous Women

Mutinous Women

Years ago, when we were enjoying a lazy afternoon in the Arsenal branch of the Bibliothèque nationale, we came across some remarkable and fascinating lists of women prisoners sent to Louisiana in the early eighteenth century.

Genevieve Hurault

We knew there was a story there to be told, and in the newly published Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast, Joan DeJean tells it very well and very passionately. Essentially, women were rounded up in Paris by the police and imprisoned on false charges, then marched to the coast and loaded onto vessels and banished to Louisiana, where the descendants of those who survived live today. DeJean does more than tell their individual stories. She places them and their fates within the context of the histories of France and Louisiana to explain why they were sent there. The French economy at the time, the rise of the charlatan John Law and his Louisiana project, the French Indies Company (Compagnie des Indes), the wicked prison matron at Salpêtrière, the hopeless colonial administration, etc. are fully described so that the reader can understand the social, economic, legal and political forces that ruled these women's lives, (almost certainly something that they themselves never understood).

DeJean has "taught courses on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France at Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she is Trustee Professor. She has done research in French archives since 1974, primarily in the archives of Parisian prisons held in Paris’s Arsenal Library. It was in the Arsenal that, a decade ago, she came across the earliest documentation describing the arrests and deportations of the Mutinous Women who helped found and build New Orleans." (as per the University of Pennsylvania page about the book.) The depth and breadth of the research is most impressive. To piece together the stories, DeJean had to traipse back and forth across Paris, west to the coastal archives and down to the south of France. She had the help of many researchers in many locations, according to her acknowledgements. Yet, even with help, it would not have been easy, as we know from our own visits to many of the archives facilities on her impressive list. Another reviewer called this DeJean's "archival virtuosity" and we cannot improve upon that exquisite term.

As a history of early Louisiana, as a history of forgotten women, this is a fascinating tale told with excellence, but perhaps the reader is clubbed with the hammer of indignant outrage at injustice a bit too often and a bit too hard? At times, DeJean seems not to be writing as a historian but as a crusader. Her intention seems to be not only to cleanse the reputations of these women of calumny but nearly to canonize them. As she tells it, they all were victims of injustice, none of them committed a serious crime, none was a prostitute. Yet, by her own account, one of them, Anne Françoise Rolland, looks to have lived a suspiciously greedy and dishonest life in Louisiana (see p. 349). She implies that the initial "seditious revolt", e.g. something along the lines of a prison riot, in Salpêtrière, never took place or at least was exaggerated, when, in fact, there was a rebellious event during which the women prisoners took to shrieking en masse, long and loud, attempting to drive their jailers mad. DeJean tells the story of suffering and injustice so well and thoroughly that she does not need to remind us, on nearly every page, that this was wrong; it induces in the reader a sense of being patronized by the author.

Nor, surely, is it necessary to overstate, in every case possible, that some of the women rose higher in status in Louisiana than the people who had denounced them in France could ever have hoped to do. She does this so often that it ceases to point out the very real stamina, intelligence, creativity, diplomacy and diligence of these women but seems to be taunting some snob whose presence is not evident to the reader.

Concerning those women whose own parents asked the police to lock them up because they were recalcitrant, while DeJean expresses the natural shock and disgust that any modern person would sense at such parental cruelty, she fails to state that this was a common practice in France at the time, used by parents against children of both sexes, relatives against one another, neighbours against each other, and anyone else who had a grudge against someone. The entire system of Lettres de cachet was monstrous, and not at all uniquely applied to these women. Why leave that out when she explains so much else so well?

Small but niggling points indicate the publisher's failure to provide a decent editor and proofreader:

  • a bourgeois de Paris was not a financier, and Amboise Jean Baptiste Rolland, the father of the Anne François Rolland above, may have had the right to use the term (p. 115)
  • Jeanne Mahou's husband Laurent Laurent died on 14 August 1737 (p. 230); though she remarried quickly, it could not have been on 27 January 1737 (p. 231)
  •  two or three times, paragraphs are repeated

Do not be put off by these stylistic oddities. On the whole, Mutinous Women is a wonderful work of scholarship that expunges three hundred years of lies from these women's life stories.

 

A PDF list of women who sailed on the Mutine can be seen on the website Mémoire des Hommes here.

A very nice map of early New Orleans, showing where some of the women  lived, can be seen here.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French Jewish Genealogy - Ancien régime Geography Is Important

Hexagon of modern France

When researching Jewish genealogy before the French Revolution, the reach back into the past is long, well into the Medieval era. Borders were different then and France looked quite different, not at all like the "Hexagon" (above) of today. Prior to the final expulsion of 1394, Jewish people were permitted to live only in specific places. These might have been certain towns, within which they may have been limited to just a few streets for residence and work. They endured long years of persecution and previous expulsions, but lived throughout France. It is important to note that, in 1394, the country looked more like this:

France in 1328

 

Quite a bit less than modern France:

France-map-1328

This makes the map below, claiming to show French Jewish communities at the time of the expulsion, quite misleading, as a significant few of those supposedly French Jewish communities were not within the France of that day.

French Jewish before expulsion of 1394

 

The expulsion, in all its horror, was successful, in that no known Jewish families remained in what was then France. However, their communities just outside of France did survive, as can be seen in this map.

France-silhouette-map-1328

If you are working with only a modern map of France, you will have the impression that the three main areas of Jewish communities:

  • The Southwest
  • Alsace-Lorraine
  • The Papal States and Provence

survived the expulsion within France. That would be wrong, because they were not within France at the time of the expulsion and so, if this is not putting too fine a point on it, were Jewish, of course, but not French. The areas in black in the map just above were controlled by other powers:

  • By the English in the far northwest and the southwest region of Aquitaine
  • A tiny bit in the south belonged to the Kingdom of Navarre
  • The Holy Roman Empire held the northeast
  • Free Burgundy, Savoy and the Papal States owned all the rest of what is now eastern France

Paris, as ever, was a special case. Though no Jewish people were supposed to be living there, most likely they were. Robert Anchell, in his fascinating article on "The Early History of the Jewish Quarters in Paris", maintains that it is unlikely that Jewish people were ever, at any time since the Medieval Era, absent from Paris. He points out that they certainly must have been very discrete, for there is almost no documentation of Jewish people in Paris for nearly 300 years after the expulsion.

For research purposes, in each of the three main regions of Jewish communities there were different laws, rules, languages, customs and attitudes, making for different search methodologies today. Firstly, the language differences:

  • The Southwest received many refugees from the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, so many of the surviving documents of the region are in Spanish
  • Alsace was part of the Holy Roman Empire for eight hundred years, while Lorraine was an independent duchy that was then governed by Stanislas of Poland. In both regions, the documentation is as much in German and Latin as in French.
  • The Papal States or Comtat Venaissin, did not become a part of France until 1791, but Provence was annexed in 1481. The documentation can be in French or Latin

In all locations Jewish documents may also be in Hebrew.

For each of these regions, some of the best research may be done at the relevant Departmental and Municipal Archives. Some of these have been uploading onto their websites some very interesting Jewish materials. These are the departmental and municipal archives relevant to the specific regions:

  • Southwest:
    • Departmental Archives: Landes, Gironde, Pyrénées Atlantiques
    • Municipal Archives: Bayonne, Bordeaux
  • Lorraine:
    • Departmental Archives: Moselle, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, Vosges
    • Municipal Archives: Metz, Nancy
  • Alsace:
    • Departmental Archives: Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin
    • Municipal Archives: Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Colmar
  • Papal States / Comtat Venaissin:
    • Departmental Archives: Vaucluse
    • Municipal Archives: Nîmes

Do visit those websites and start exploring!

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Signature of the Freemason?

 

Chemin des Araignées

 

Since we outgrew the pastime of sitting in the tree house with playmates and throwing fragrant, blue eucalyptus pods at children down on the ground, we have not had much interest in the tangled-web ways of secret societies. There are many, however, who never quite made it out of the tree house and the tribalism of childhood.

There is a flurry of discussion among a group of French genealogists just now -- though it has come up many times before this -- about a particular sign added to signatures and what it could mean. The sign is one we have come across as well and we, too have been puzzled by it. 

1782a

1782b

1782c

 

The sign is of two slanted bars with three dots between them. Though the number of dots may vary, three is more common. The above signatures were all made in 1782 by three brothers. The general consensus, but by no means the definitive ruling, among French professional genealogists is that this sign indicates the person was a Freemason. This is apparently because the Freemasons were also known as "The Brotherhood of Three Dots", or Les Frères Trois-Points, and because they reputedly had a triangular arrangement of three dots tattooed onto themselves.

However, this triangular arrangement is the very reason some genealogists think that the sign on the signature does not indicate the person is a Freemason, because the dots are always in a line, never a triangle. Occasionally, there are two dots, or five or seven or even twelve. Some of those who think this is a sign of Freemasonry believe that the number of dots indicates the level achieved in the society's hierarchy. We have seen also the bars with no apparent dots, as in this example from 1756:

1756

Opponents to the theory point out that there are some departments in France where no signatures with this sign can be found at all, yet Freemasonry exists throughout France. Alternative possibilities that they posit are that the sign may indicate:

  • that the person held a public office, such as mayor,
  • that he held an important post such as a bailiff or notaire,
  • that it indicates something to do with the military,
  • that he was a Compagnon du Tour de France,
  • that the sign was just a way to clean the pen nib before signing

Many say that the sign was not used until after the Revolution. Clearly this is not the case for the examples above come from a few years before the Revolution. Current French Freemasons have been questioned about the sign (which, by the way, seems to be no longer in use) and they, too, are divided as to whether it indicates membership in their society or not, though Jean-Frédéric Daudin, author of l'ABCdaire de la Franc-Maçonnerie, insists that it is, indeed, a mark to indicate Freemasonry. Yet some Freemasons say they have never seen it used in their lodges.

UPDATE: Lenora Gobert details a quite interesting theory of just how the signature dots represent Freemasonry here.

The uncertainty is such that it may be taken as a possible clue. Should you find the mark among your ancestors' signatures, it may be worth pursuing. A few Departmental Archives have in their holdings, in Series M, the archives of some Freemason lodges and their activities. The only way to know is to look. If you do, by all means tell us what you find.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


French Commercial Genealogy Loses Its Independence - and It's a Pity

Paris pont mask

We used to praise the high quality of the indexing at Filae. No more. The last few weeks have seen the addition of indexing as messy, lazy and idiotic as the sort of thing one finds on Ancestry or in the infamous indexing of the Drouin collection. It is most disheartening. Now, one finds birth register entries for which the indexer said the daughter was the father, marriages with the wife named as the mother-in-law and, where the indexer was in doubt, everyone named as every relationship.

What possible use is wrong information to anyone? How will users who cannot read the original French document (as in the case of the indexer, apparently) be able to correct these mistakes? The money-grubbers will always say that speed is more important than efficiency, that it is more important to get the material online, even riddled with mistakes, than it is to take the time to do it well, but they are wrong. For every hour that incorrect information is available, people who are researching their family histories are incorporating and perpetuating wrong information in their genealogies. Such commercial cynicism makes a mockery of every genealogist's efforts to find a document the historical truth about a family, and risks dragging the reputation of genealogy as a discipline back down to where it was in the 1920s, when fabricated evidence was rife and family vanity, not family history, was the goal.

That Filae let this happen is almost certainly because its founder, Toussaint Roze, has completed the sale of the company to MyHeritage. The collapse of quality at Filae would seem to indicate that he lost interest in the company a few weeks ago, when the sale became inevitable, as we discussed here. In his announcement of the sale, he boasts that new and greater things are to come at Filae from the MyHeritage takeover. Barring an extensive metamorphosis at MyHeritage and a complicated and expensive programme to correct the mistakes at Filae such as we described above, Roze's promises are blather.

Once again, Dear Readers, the paying customer is merely the punter, the fool to be parted from his money with the cheapest product possible. We strongly and sadly recommend that you NOT renew your Filae subscription for more than a month at a time, as you watch what was a great little company go down the tubes and its services become next to worthless.

Rumours are that Roze is betting that the French law prohibiting DNA testing for the purpose of genealogy will change soon and, when it does, he will be in place with MyHeritage ready and able to take advantage of the new opportunity. We wonder just how big that new opportunity will be. One likely reason for the French lawmakers' opposition to the tests stems from the Civil Code which, from 1804, has expressly forbidden a person to search (just to search, mind you) for the identity of his or her biological father. (Ponder, for a moment, Dear Readers, just what this means.) That law and all that relates to it must change before any anti-DNA genealogy test law can change. We suspect that, if these change, it will be by very small degrees.

We also wonder just how big the market will be, just how many French people will want to have such DNA tests. It is currently something of a fad to take the tests illegally, as we reported here, but the interest is only rarely in genealogy. It is more of a party game to see who is "more French", with distinctly racist overtones.

Left in the dust after the sale of Filae to MyHeritage was Geneanet, which owned forty per cent of Filae and which had hoped to form a single, Francophone genealogy powerhouse from the two. That, actually, could have been something quite wonderful for French genealogists, but it is not to be. Its dreams in tatters, Geneanet announced, in what is surely one of the saddest of such announcements ever written, that it has been purchased by Ancestry. We have made our complaints about Geneanet's messy website in the past, and have praised the efforts to improve it, though it still has some way to go. Merging with Ancestry, the behemoth of indexing disasters and indifference to them, will be no improvement for the quality of Geneanet.

These two sales are very sad events indeed, for neither will bring improved service or quality to those of us researching French genealogy. 

UPDATE: In learning to live with the situation as it is, we have listened to the Legacy Family Tree webinar about the filae collections as they appear on MyHeritage here. If you are committed MyHeritage users, this will be of some help to you.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


Summer Reading - Books to Help You Find Your French Mariner Ancestor's Vessel

Vessel

In our little book, American Merchant Seamen of the Early Nineteenth Century : a Researcher's Guide, we explain that, in researching a mariner, one must follow the vessel to find the man. It is just as true when researching French mariners. However, it is not easy, for two reasons in particular:

  1. It is difficult to know on which vessel, or more likely vessels, a mariner sailed, and
  2. It is not easy to track the movements of that vessel

For French vessels of the Revolutionary and First Empire period, there is the added difficulty of a lack of records. This is partly because much was lost in the chaos of the Revolution and, at the end of the First Empire, much was destroyed to prevent retaliation by the returning Bourbon king and his supporters.

 

In addition to the research possibilities we outline in that chapter, there are a couple of books that are especially helpful in tracking French naval vessels.

Dictionnaire

Dictionnaire des bâtiments de la flotte de guerre française de Colbert à nos jours (The dictionary of french naval fighting ships), by Jean-Michel Roche, is a whopper of an achievement. Naval enthusiasts will thrill at the many facts given in each little essay concerning a vessel: where and when she was built, how many guns she carried, in what battles she fought, what was her demise. The value for those researching a single man on board is that, where possible, each essay also gives the vessel's whereabouts in certain years. Sailors were boarding and leaving vessels all the time. If you have traced an ancestor to a vessel but then lost him, the list of places where she was (admittedly, a very short list, usually) can help you to pick up his trail again.

French Warships

French Warships in the Age of Sail 1786 - 1862 : Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. The title says it all. This is a prettier book than the Dictionnaire des bâtiments, with illustrations, ship plans, a nicer typeface and better layout altogether and resembles Winfield's other books, on Royal Navy vessels. And, of course, it is in English. French Warships covers a much shorter time period than does Dictionnaire des bâtiments, eighty years as opposed to well over three hundred years. The essays about each vessel cover the same material in both books. French Warships has the vessels arranged by class, a vast category that we, Dear Readers, have not memorized,  so one spends a lot of time with the index. Dictionnaire des bâtiments, is purely alphabetical, and so, much easier to use.

For some time, we have been researching a particular vessel, the French naval frigate of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Incorruptible. Apparently, there were at least five American seamen serving on her, and we would like to verify that. Here is the essay on her in French Warships :

Incorruptible - Winfield

This is what Dictionnaire des bâtiments has to say about her:

Incorruptible - Roche

So, the French work gives more detail of her career. From this, we surmise that our American seamen boarded her at Flushing. 

A third useful work, found all over the Internet is Troude's Batailles navales de la France, written in the 1860s. The charming, literary style and lack of an index make "Find" options a god-send. From this, we learned a bit more about the Incorruptible's battles against Royal Navy vessels and, crucially, the name of one of her captains: Billiet.

Knowing a captain's name is incredibly helpful when searching for a vessel online. Typing "Incorruptible" will bring a load of nonsense results. Adding words such as French navy vessel, or those words in French, is not much better. Typing, "Incorruptible" and "Billiet" however, gets very precise results.

Lastly, the archival finding aid on Naval Campaigns:

  Download FONDS MARINE CAMPAGNES. Inventaire de la sous-série Marine BB 4. Tome premier AVERTISSEMENT

which came up in those last results, gives many more captain's names and more of the Incorruptible's career and locations. We now have many more avenues for researching our mariners, and more places to seek a crew list that might show their names.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Summer Reading - Two Books for Those Researching a French Naval Ancestor

Les Marins Fr

The pandemic was a horror and the lock-downs around the world caused suffering to many; about this there can be no dispute. Yet, amongst those fortunate enough not to fall ill, some turned to creativity and productivity while confined. Les marins français, 1789 - 1830 : Étude du corps social et de ses uniformes is such a lock-down creation. It  is a treasure of a book, with lovely illustrations of uniforms and weapons, and a remarkably clear explanation of the changes in French naval uniforms during a most fraught period in French history. The author, Eric Shérer, is a Vice-Admiral in the Navy and a life-long collector of all things naval. He came to writing history through his collecting and this is his third book.

Shérer 's structure is logical, giving two chapters to each time period, the first on naval ranks and responsibilities, and the second on the uniforms of those ranks during that period. We translate the chapter titles:

  • Sailors at the End of the Ancien régime (with a very good explanation of naval conscription)
  • Uniforms of Sailors at the End of the Ancien régime
  • Sailors During the Revolution
  • Uniforms of Sailors During the Revolution
  • Sailors During the Consulate and First Empire
  • Uniforms of Sailors During the Consulate and First Empire
  • Life on Board Ships in the Fleet for the Marines and for the Crew
  • Naval Staff at the Arsenals
  • Sailors of the Coast Guard
  • Uniforms of Sailors of the Coast Guard During the Consulate and First Empire
  • Sailors During the Restoration
  • Uniforms of Sailors During the Restoration
  • Naval Uniform Buttons from 1786 to 1830
  • Bibliography and Archival Sources

Even if you cannot read French, the charts and illustrations are incredibly useful. It is a thorough study and will greatly inform your research into your French naval ancestor.

Les Marins français 1789-1830 : Etude de corps social et de ses uniformes. Eric Schérer. 2022. 50€, ISBN: 978-2-7587-0241-2

 

 

Dictionnaire

France really excels at biographical dictionaries. They are well-researched, well-sourced, well-structured (straight-forward alphabetical listing by surname) and very useful. This one, Dictionnaire des Marins français,  runs to five hundred forty pages and covers documented naval personalities of note from as early as 1341 to 1931. The biographical essays give the date and place of birth, career details, and date and place of death. If you are lucky enough to have an illustrious naval ancestor, the essay on him will delight you and possibly aid your research. For the rest of us, the real use of this book is in helping to follow the career of an ancestor who served in the French Navy, for here, you may find your ancestor's commanding officers and, through the essays about their careers and movements, work out where your ancestor was as well.

Dictionnaire des marins françaisEtienne Taillemite. 2002. ISBN: 978-2847340082

 

Using these two books, with our highly recommended further reading, could break down your brick wall concerning your French Navy ancestor.  In our next post, we tell how you can track the vessel on which he or she may have served.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


France's Heat Wave - La Canicule

Canicule

It seems that every summer, we are writing about hotter and hotter weather. This year, with not only heat waves but a long drought, has been catastrophic for France, with massive wildfires in numerous places blazing out of control. Our home is not close to the current fires, but it is close enough that we have had days of our skies filled with smoke. Once again, we are wearing masks, this time to be able to breathe without choking. It is heart breaking and frightening to watch new reports of forests burning and then to go outdoors and see trees and all plant life withering and dying.

It has been a long time coming. France has had disastrous forest fires caused by drought before, in Landes in the 1940s, in Charente-Maritime in the 1970s, in 1989, in 1990, in 2003, in 2009, in 2016, in 2017, last year, and now. There were droughts and heat waves before but now they come more often and are more extreme.

Hot in Paris

And they can be deadly. Not only do people die from the heat, but from disease, as the water warms and more bacteria lives in it, especially that which causes dysentery. The historian, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has written much on the history of the climate of France and how it has affected people. It was disease from the limited, warm, filthy water that killed half a million in France in the heat wave of 1636. In 1705, another series of heat waves led to the deaths of 700,000. The drought and heat waves of 1718 and 1719 were so severe that "clouds of Saharan grasshoppers" swarmed central France. Modern water purification has ameliorated the catastrophes somewhat; still, in 1911, 40,000 people died from heat and/or disease and 15,000 in the heat wave of 2003.

Much of his research for the book On the History of the Climate of France from the 14th Century, involved looking not only at recorded temperatures but at parish registers for recorded deaths to determine the effect of climate on mortality rates. His charts are useful for the genealogist who may come across a cluster of deaths in a family, especially the babies, during a short period. Grim reading.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Does a Baptism Date Imply a Date of Birth?

Baptism

We recently received an e-mail from Madame L asking:

"As I’ve been searching through Filae and Geneanet for records, there are times when I’ve found a baptism record but not a birth record for an ancestor. ...  My past practice has been to use the month and year of the baptism for the month and year of the birth. However, ... I’m not so sure if that's the right course to take.

I searched through the country of France section on the FamilySearch Wiki and found under the Church Records topic that infants whose families were of the Catholic faith were typically baptized two days after they were born.

My question is this: If I’m only able to find a baptism record for one of my ancestors, would it be best to put the word “about” followed by the baptism year for the birth year or to continue putting the month and year of the baptism for the month and year of the birth?"

We feel that this reveals the curse of genealogy software that is deeply ethnocentric. Ideally, one would like to be able to simply put the baptism date without have to guess as to the birth date. Usually, with such software, it is also not easy to enter an explanatory note about religious customs or ceremonies that can take place quite a bit later than a birth. For example:

  1. Anabaptists/Mennonites, of which there were and still are, many in Alsace, did not baptize their children until the children could understand and consent; this was often at about the age of 15 years.
  2. Catholics in small parishes typically baptized the child on the day of birth or the next day but many things could have caused that to be different: people on remote farms had to wait for an itinerant priest to pass by to baptize the children; wealthy families sometimes postponed the baptism (or performed a second baptism) until all could gather for a large celebration; and there were many other such situations that varied from FamilySearch's "typical" Catholics, baptized two days after birth.
  3. Some Protestants baptized in secret in their own religion, at times, and then, at a later date, had their children baptized as Catholics to ensure their full rights.
  4. Jewish people did not regularly baptize their children, of course, but boys were circumcised, normally within ten days of birth but, again, people in remote places had to wait for an itinerant rabbi to appear. Again, like Protestants, some Jewish people, especially in Bordeaux, had their children baptized in the Catholic Church, often years after birth, to ensure their full rights.
  5. Families that had left France and whose children were born outside of the country (such as émigrés, or colonials) often would have them all baptized anew in the French parish when they returned, and all entered into the civil registers as well, just to be sure. This could have been years after their births.
 
All of these examples could show a baptism date quite different from a birth date.
 
It is worthwhile to remember that, from 1792, with the advent of civil registration, Church registers of baptism ceased to have legal validity. Additionally, while civil registration of a birth became obligatory, baptism ceased to be so. Thus, after 1792,  the one replaced the other as legal records of identity. People could and did, of course, continue with religious ceremonies, but as France no longer had a state religion, those religious records were considered purely private and of no legal value.  On the whole, it is not necessary for the purpose of identity to search for baptism records where  civil birth records can be found. We explain more about the difference in an earlier blog post here.
 
Coming back to the original question of how to note a date of birth based on a baptism, we repeat one of the many golden rules of genealogy: Never Assume. If you do not have a birth date, you must not invent or guess one. If you have a baptism date, note it as what it is: a date of baptism only. Do not try to make a baptism equal a birth.
 
We have spoken.
 
©2022 Anne Morddel
French Genealogy

One Reader's Research Methods

Bourgogne

Every so often, one of you, Dear Readers ,shares his or her research methods with us and we like to pass them on to the rest of you. So much of genealogical discovery is serendipitous, that, truly, one never can know what might help to open a door hitherto locked. Today, we share with you the methods of Monsieur W.:

"I was born in Liverpool, England and always wanted to know who my ancestors were as a child but growing up in the 1950s and up to 2000 it was quite difficult as there was no internet and if one was lucky may have had a family tree passed down by elders, but unlikely.

Ancestral research started for me over 10 years ago with one name in a very small amount of names in our Ancestry.com site by my sister in law so I decided I would focus on the name and see where it led me, the name was BETHANCOURT and as it sounded French it sounded like a good place to start. I went online into google search engine and started to research the name and as I had sent off for the marriage certificate it gave me the name of my 2nd Great Grandfather and his place of birth etc, so again I went into google search engine and it lead me back to his parents who lived on Gran Canaria Island, Spain. I then found there were others online also researching the same family line as me so I emailed them and many responded.

One of the people who responded turned out to be a genealogist who lived on Gran Canaria and he assisted me in taking my Bethancourt line further back and also all the related families via marriage etc, this person turned out to be my 14th generational cousin on numerous lines and he was good enough to guide me. I then came across two other people who were genealogists on Gran Canaria, who also turned out to be my cousins and they too assisted me. We have written an article about my Bethancourt ancestor also. Many of my Canary Island Ancestors headed to Louisiana.

How did I discover my French ancestry? My 3rd Great Grandfather who was in Louisiana married a French lady whose family name was REMONDET who arrived from Crugey, Cote d'or, Bourgogne, France. So I now started to explore my French ancestry and it led me to Alsace & Lorraine and several other areas of France.

How did I find all this information? A lot of reading and TIME

I started by focusing on one line at a time to develop it as far as possible

I then used Google search engine and looked for names on there and looked for others who were researching the same names and contacted them. We shared information together

I looked for articles online, books where my ancestors' names were mentioned and if in French or Spanish I copied and pasted the text and then used a translation tool.

I found a French site which listed all towns in France and found the ones where my ancestors lived and looked for their names and marriages etc.

I have been able to find living descendants of my ancestors all over the world and correspond with several of them, some in France and Spain

So by starting with just one name that caught my eye has led me to build an extensive tree with numerous family connections globally and i'm still building my tree every day.

All I can suggest to you is this, Ask family if they have information , names, dates , photos, birth certificates etc etc first. You need a starting point and this is the basis of building your tree. Then you need to spend time researching, never give up as the information is out there you just need to find it. The internet has made it so much easier to find ancestors, so use it.

I've contributed to a book about my fathers side of our family and co-written an article about my 4th Great Grandfather on my mothers side which has been published.

I hope this may inspire at least one person to develop their tree and find their ancestors

Many thanks, Monsieur W.!

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy