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March 2010

Les Détenus - Napoléon's British Civilian Prisoners

Détenus list 



We have been spending quite a lot of time at Vincennes lately, where we came across a little oddity in the archives' collection: a number of files devoted to individual cases among the détenus

At the start 1803, most unusually, Britain and France were not at war. Napoléon was busy taking over Europe with some pretty fancy military strategies, which did nothing to intimidate those proud cross-channel tourists, each visiting and sneering at the other's country and considering that activity the acquisition or extension of a cultural education. Then, each side stole ships and cargo belonging to the other and, from the 18th of May, Britain and France were once again at war. 

On the 23rd of May, 1803 Napoléon signed an edict that was quickly carried out "to detain every male Briton between the ages of 18 and 60 then on French soil, whether 'service' or 'civilian'. No exceptions were made."* Actually, it was simpler and went further than that: every Briton in France or in territory held by France was arrested and interned.  This included women and children (as listed in the document shown above), even British spouses of French citizens. These people were at first referred to as "hostages" and later as detainees, or détenus. In some rare cases, they were allowed to return home or  -- if they had manufacturing skills -- to go on a sort of work-release, but the majority remained in camps until they died or until 1815 or so, after it all was finally up with the Corsican. 

Of the many thousand détenus, only about one thousand seemed to have been interesting or vocal enough to have merited a specific file. Some of these files contain a single document, others as many as sixty, and all tell a story.


  • John Cobham Pennie begged for his liberty because of failing health
  • James Payne had worked in the Imperial library. He died in France and his detained widow struggled to gain his estate.
  • Maria Bowater was the widow of Admiral de Graham, who had served Louis XVI and was beheaded for it, as was her son. She had returned to France during a moment of peace to settle her affairs, and was detained.
  • John Synge Blount, doctor, for some reason thought his friendship with the actor Kemble would gain his release.
  • Richard Gutch, hatmaker, hoped that his skill would gain him permission to work outside of prison.

John Goldworth Alger tells the tale with some spirit: Download Napoleon's British Visitors and Captives 1801-1815  (Beware! Very long to download as it is the entire book.) He gives a list of detainees, but it is certainly not exhaustive. No one knows just how many there were, how many died in France, how many married and stayed on, how many children were born in captivity.


Fascinating small corner of Anglo-French genealogy.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*Lewis, Michael. Napoleon and His British Captives. London : George Allen & Unwin, 1962. P. .20

Update - The Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM) Put More Online


Tropical hut 


We have written previously about the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer and how to use it to search the records of Algeria. Now, records for a number of other ex-colonies have been added. No, not Louisiana or Pondicherry; bit champing must continue in that regard. What have been added are the parish and civil registrations (registres paroissiaux and états civils) for the idyllic locales of:


  • Ile Royale - (now Cap-Breton) - parish registrations for the years from 1722 to 1758, for the commune of Louisbourg and its hospital.
  • Saint-Domingue - (Haiti) parish and civil registrations for more than forty communes from 1666 to 1809.
  • Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon - two tiny islands with three communes' worth of parish and civil registrations from 1763 to 1883.
  • Sainte-Lucie (St. Lucia) - parish registrations of thirteen communes from 1751 to 1789
  • Guyane (French Guiana) - Parish and civil registrations from 1677 to 1900 for over forty communes, five hospitals and a prison.

Keep an eye on this site, as it continues to add to the online collection of registrations. Surely Louisiana cannot be far off?

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Les Archives Diplomatiques

Archives Diplomatiques Road small 



Gone are the days when one could mosey to the Diplomatic Archives in Paris for a morning's research and then spend the afternoon gazing at the works of the Impressionists at the nearby Musée d'Orsay. The archives have been moved to a brand new, not quite finished site in La Courneuve, a suburb to the north of Paris and perhaps not the place to make this timid little archives-loving mouse feel safe. (Then again, there are those who feel the same about the wisdom of placing a NARA facility on the San Andreas fault). 

Nevertheless, we chose a sunny day and off we went, taking the RER B to La Courneuve - Aubervilliers, wandering around under dark and gloomy railway flyovers a bit lost for a while, and finally stumbling down an unfinished pavement to our goal. Understandably, the security is rather like that at an airport. At the entry gate, one's bags pass though an X-ray machine and one's self passes blushingly through a scanner. Across a courtyard is the entrance to the building and we were directed to the Salle d'Inscription, where new users register and receive a little plastic, reader's card. Photo identification is required but registration is free. 

From there, one moves to the usual type of locker room for storing all excess luggage, as only papers, cameras and pencils are permitted within the readers' rooms. Keep out your passport. The lockers are also free, a first in our experience. Then, there is yet another desk, where one must hand over the passport or identity card, the reader's card is scanned and a visitor's pass is issued. Finally, there is another security passage -- a turnstile --  with guard, that opens with the visitor's pass. From leaving home to this point took us two hours and we were ready for a cup of tea but there was none.

Why bother? Well, the Archives Diplomatiques are probably of interest most to those researching French ancestors who worked in the Ministère des Affaires étrangères, for here one can find their complete personnel files. Here also are the civil registrations, the actes d'état civil, for French citizens born, married or died outside of France who registered these events with the embassy or consulate, and some passport files. These are particularly useful for those researching any of the French families that moved to the Middle East after the Revolution but kept their French nationality. (See our post on nationality.) All consular correspondence can also be found here, if one is researching an ancestor who would have had extensive contact with the diplomatic corps.

The facilities within are deliciously new. Spacious, clean, very attractive, the rooms for readers encircle the first floor. The sense of air and space is, indeed, a luscious change form the stuffy, cramped, 19th century rooms that look like a Sherlock Holmes film set which -- for that very reason -- we so adore. The procedure is to go to the room of finding aids and look up the correct code for a document on the internal index system.

Archives Diplomatiques Finding Aids Room

Tallyrand Screen

The code will reveal whether it is to be the original document  or microfilm. Much is microfilmed. Then, take the code and go to the Salle des Microfilms, and here things do not go so well. One must present oneself to the président de la salle, a sort of room monitor, and hand over one's reader card and be assigned to a microfilm reader. A bank of cabinets along the wall contains the rolls of film. There are thirty microfilm readers, one third of which are purely manual and reflect onto an aluminum plate. Two readers have printers. 

We were unlucky. Eight microfilm readers were not working, including the two that could print copies, and a very desperate repairman was doing his best to mend them. As the room was full to capacity and the repairman looked set to have a breakdown, we knew that there was to be no research success for us that day. We surrendered and went to look at the books for sale. It took thirty minutes to buy one book because the price list could not be found and the computers all froze. We went back out through all of the security gates, back down the unfinished road, back into that spooky passage and took the long ride home for that cup of tea we by then quite frantically needed.

These are teething problems. The Archives Diplomatiques opened just last September. The library of over 430,000 works on many, many aspects of diplomacy and international relations opens today. It is clear that more machines are on order and all these minor problems will be solved. The staff were intelligent, the service was unusually pleasant, even friendly. Some speak English. The subject matter here may not apply to many of those researching French ancestors but for some, these archives will bring the odd Eureka! moment, to be sure.


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy 


The French Expeditionary Force -- l'Expédition Particulière


There is a tiresome, anonymous little platitude that roams the internet nether regions of spam that reads something along the lines of "If it were not for the super-Americans helping during the Second World War, you French would be speaking German." Though one rarely sees them sinking to tit-for-tat-ism, the French can reply: "Were it not for the French Expeditionary Force helping during your Revolution, you would still be a colony."  

Briefly: the French Expeditionary Force consisted of over 5500 men serving under the lieutenant-general Rochambeau (in the picture above). It arrived in Rhode Island in 1780, marched across Connecticut in the summer of 1781 and joined Washington's forces on the Hudson. The combined forces joined up with more French under Lafayette, to surround Cornwallis at Yorktown, for whom any escape or assistance by sea had been negated by the French navy, under de Grasse, in the Battle of the Chesapeake. The British surrendered, the United States became independent, all thanks in large part to the French. (The Office of the Historian of the Department of State gives a more detailed version.)

How to find those ancestors who fought in the American Revolution? They are well documented, often more so than are the American soldiers with whom they fought. 


  • One of the best books on the officers has the book-within-a-title title of Dictionnaire des officiers de l'armée royale qui ont combattu aux Etats-Unis pendant la guerre d'indépendance 1776-1783, suivi d'un Supplément à Les Français sous les treize étoiles du commandant André Lasseray, by Capitaine Gilbert Bodiner. Bodiner uses original military records from the archives at the Chateau de Vincennes. He refers to the works of others, such as Balch's The French in America during the War of Independence and Contenson's La société des Cincinnati de France et la guerre d'Amérique (1778-1783) and corrects some of their mistakes. For each officer, there is a biography which contains family information, a description of the man's military career, bibliographic references to him, and the references to his files in the archives of the Service Historique de la Défense at Vincennes, which is also a co-publisher of the book.
  • And if one's ancestor was not an officer? It is more difficult but not impossible. To find genealogical information on an ordinary soldier, one must know his regiment, company and commanding officer. With that, one can then look him up in the Contrôles de Troupes in the archives. These were registers of each soldier, usually giving some aspects of his physical appearance as a form of identity. They also give the soldier's full name and place of birth. The contrôles were well established by 1716 and were produced in duplicate, one copy staying with the regiment and the other being sent to the court of the King. The four volumes of Les contrôles de troupes de l'ancien régime cover all of the pre-Revolutionary military, not just those who fought in the American Revolution, and list the companies for each regiment, the commanding officers and give the archival codes for finding the documents at Vincennes.
  • If you have only a name and no regiment, company or commander, there is, on Gallica the book  Les combattants français de la guerre américaine, 1778-1783 in its entirety. This book gives the names of combattants in both the army and the navy, their rank and town of origin. It has a most imperfect search facility for the document (click on the tiny tab to the left on which is written vertically Module de recherche). It really has not been well scanned and checked, for a search on the name Martin will bring up Jean, Nicolas, and all sorts of others, along with a few Martins. You could get lucky and find your man, or you could spend the next few years of your life reading down all those lists.
  • A bit narrow, this, but if you are descended from a soldier of the Périgord region, there is, again on Gallica, an article entitled Combattants périgourdins de la Guerre américaine (1778-1783) by Joseph Durieux in vol. 24, 1907 of the Bulletin de la Société Historique et Archéologique du Périgord, which lists all men from that region who fought in the American Revolution.
  • Finally, LaFayette GenWeb has a database of many of the French soldiers, but it is not infallible. We tested it with a few names of known combatants and it turned up nothing. Nevertheless, it is useful and has more information, including the names of the regiments and of the ships involved.

Bonne chance!


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Departmental Archives of Seine-Maritime

AD Seine-Maritime

We went on a little research junket to Rouen recently, and spent a few days in the Archives Départementales de Seine-Maritime. This is one of the most modern of archives facilities, with nice carpets, beautifully arranged finding aids, banks of shiny new terminals and microfilm readers, and some very jazzy printers. Over the past five years or so, the archives have been running a major programme to scan and index not only the états civils, but census records, photographs, land records, succession registers, and not one image is available in the internet. To view the records, one must visit the archives. So we did, and will do so quite a few times more in the near future.

One of the most important collections here, so far as descendants of emigrants are concerned, is that in sub-series 6P and 7P. From the end of the 1600s, lists were made and kept of the crew and passengers for every boat - whether naval, merchant, fishing or pleasure - that sailed from Le Havre or Rouen. They are arranged chronologically, then by the vessel's name, and all have been microfilmed. Indices have been made that allow for a search by year and destination. 

As an example, to search for a person who sailed from Le Havre to New York in 1840, it is not necessary to search through the hundreds of lists for that year. The index of destinations for 1840 showed that only eight ships sailed to New York:


  1. Maria
  2. Alexandre
  3. Graville
  4. Carolina
  5. Antigone
  6. Gustave
  7. Trois Frères
  8. Persévérant

That makes the search much easier, though it is still a hard slog with the microfilm reader. The archives are on the river, within easy access of public transportation. Entry and use is free, but one must register first and present a form of photo identification. Photocopies are 30 centimes each. It is required to put all but cameras, papers and pencils in one of the lockers provided. These require a €1 coin, which is refunded. All is new and elegant, making for a very nice working environment, which is, in part, why these archives are very popular and crowded. Go early to get a seat with a terminal.


Les Archives Départementales de Seine-Maritime

Quai Jean Moulin

76101 Rouen Cedex

métro:    Joffre Mutualité

tel: 02 35 03 54 95



©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Les Cercles Généalogiques and Minitel




 The Minitel Headache

About a century ago, in our youth, we wore a different hat and wrote on a different subject. One of our columns was on the then quite innovatory Minitel. That article is not online, and was undoubtedly too flippant anyway, so this link is to an excellent description of it on Absolute Astronomy. As it says there, Minitel "is considered one of the world's most successful pre-World Wide Web online services." France was completely web savvy before the web existed. 

Minitel began in 1982. Everyone who wanted one was given a free terminal, which operated on the telephone lines. All businesses had Minitel sites and there was a booming Minitel commerce. Many cercles also set up Minitel sites and data bases, the biggest probably being GENLOR, which had over a million extracts of parish and civil registers for the region of Lorraine. These databases charged a fee by the minute and brought in a tidy income in their heyday.

The web killed Minitel, and it has been a long, slow death, riddled with the  -- this time inappropriate -- thinking of résistance. Minitel still exists. Its website says that it can be accessed via the internet. Don't you believe it. In spite of a site full of promises, the download does not work on 32 bit or 64 bit PCs; it does not work on Windows Vista or Windows 7; and it certainly does not work on anything Apple ever produced.

 We like dinosaurs and were keen to give Minitel its last days of glory (and to get to GENLOR), so we went to the local France Telecom shop. Yes, indeed, they told us, it is still possible to rent a Minitel terminal and use it with the telephone line. No, it will not work if the telephone line has broadband; you must put in another telephone line. The penny for that was too pretty and our enthusiasm drooped. Yet, a number of cercles adhere to Minitel, simply because they do not have the volunteers (or the heart, perhaps?) to re-enter all of that data onto a new website. What will happen to all of that fine work when Minitel finally rolls over with its paws in the air is anyone's guess at this point.

Is time running out for and technology running away from the cercles? No, for they are clubs of enthusiasts still. Inevitably, creative minds find new ideas and projects. Some cercles are reaching beyond the basic birth/marriage/death information, and this is to the good. In Cantal, the cercle is building a website and database on emigrants from that region and is actively encouraging contributions from all over the world. In Le Havre, cercle volunteers are indexing over 40,000 maritime records and passenger lists of vessels that left that port in the last 120 years or so.  

However, not all cercles have a stash of emigrant records. With the final demise of Minitel and the possible agreement of the Archives de France with FamilySearch that would put all of France's microfilmed parish and civil registers online for free, their income will be drastically reduced and they will be able to undertake fewer projects, which is a pity. If you want to do your good French genealogy deed for the day, join a cercle or two.

 ©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Genealogy Groups - Les Cercles Généalogiques

24 hour clock

France has a large number of quite dynamic local genealogy associations, filled with knowledgeable volunteers.  In each department, at least one genealogical association will have formed. There will sometimes be quite a few. As with most clubs, they are entirely voluntary, understaffed, and enthusiastic. They can call themselves associations, unions, centres généalogiques, etc., but the older term is cercles, and we will use that here.

The cercles function like any club in that they charge an annual membership fee and produce a monthly or quarterly publication. They also go much further. Generally, once you join a cercle, you are asked to provide a list of the surnames you are researching, along with your family tree so (numbered according to the Soza-Stradonitz system). This information will be published in the Bulletin, and the trees kept in an ever growing library of members' trees.

Each cercle usually also has in their library genealogy and history books specific to their department and region. A member may request a lookup in these. You may also request the annuaire des familles étudiées par les membres, the directory of families being researched by members, and contact other members pursuing the same line of research. The publications also have a questions or small ads section, where members ask for help on specific research points. Many but not all cercles now have websites, where the directories and questions may appear. 

The umbrella organisation for the cercles is the Fédération Française de Généalogie. To find a cercle for a particular department, go to their website and click on the box on the left that says "je recherche une association". This brings up a list of the departments in numerical order. The departmental structure, with its numbering system that links post codes with license plate numbers and with identity card numbers, also applies here. Select one and you will then see a list of all associations for that department (that are members of the FFG).


One of the most significant efforts made by the cercles, begun long before the internet or the microfilming on the parish and civil registers, has been to extract and publish the data from the registers. This has been a monumental amount of work over the years. Some cercles sell the extracted information in little booklets. Many -- but by no means all -- make that extracted data available via Geneabank, which serves as a central index to all of the data contributed by all of the member cercles.   

To use Geneabank, you need to be a member of one of the member cercles. On joining the cercle, each member is given a certain number of Geneabank points for the year. The points are used to make and view the results of the searches. Finding your ancestors in the extracted data gives also the date and location of an event such as a birth or marriage. With that, you can then go to the archives online and quickly retrieve the right record, or you can request of a volunteer to please make a copy the next time they go to the archives. (They will usually do this for other members, asking only for stamps in payment for the copies and postage.) 

Geneabank is a major boost to cercle membership. If all of the microfilmed records were to be made available on FamilySearch with its powerful indexing, as discussed in the last post, Geneabank would probably be dead within a month, taking down a few cercles with it.

Next post: Les cercles and Minitel.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Update: We are most honoured that this post was accepted for the First Edition of the California Genealogical Society's "Carnival of Genealogical Societies - Doin' Things Right"