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April 2010

Birthday Party With a Gift - Fête d'anniversaire avec un cadeau

Blog Birthday 1

 We confess to being stunned, but there it is: The French Genealogy Blog has been going for a year. We are quite chuffed to have so many readers who contribute such nice comments, ideas, suggestions, and would like to thank you all. Therefore, we offer a little gift to all who would like it.

We have put together a five page checklist of what research on your French ancestor to do on your own before you contact a genealogist to work for you in France or with French records elsewhere. It is our hope that Preparing to Research an Ancestor in France will enable anyone to put together a very complete and well organized file, whether to present to a professional genealogist or to have ready before a research voyage. 

To receive your copy of  Preparing to Research an Ancestor in France, please send an e-mail requesting it to this address : amerigen AT    We will send it as a PDF attachment by return e-mail.



©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Lace Caps Lead Home

Postcard Normandy 3 



We have tried to impress upon people researching French ancestors that they must have three pieces of information to make a beginning: a name, a place and a date, preferably for a birth, a death or a marriage. Why, you ask? There is no centrally indexed collection of records or data available to genealogists that would enable a nation-wide, department-wide, or even municipality-wide search for a person. Many of our readers use to search US federal censuses and expect to find a similar resource available for French records. No. Thus, those requests for a "Jean Martin born in France around 1800" would require a team of researchers in more than one hundred locations, searching innumerable parish records one by one. It will never happen.

Which brings us once again to the happy sleuthing through family mementos and detritus for any little hint as to whence came that French ancestor. Today, we look at coiffes, those delicately crafted lace and cotton caps that were once a lady's joy to wear, showing both her skill and her regional pride. Perhaps a home-knitted scarf of the colours of one's favourite football club would be the modern equivalent. 

Like any bit of folkloric dress or traditional costume, the coiffes had styles that were unique to regions or even to specific villages. The shape, structure, materials and lace patterns all together can identify the place of the cap's origin, and thus possibly that of the wearer. The old postcard above shows some of the traditional coiffes worn in Normandy. Below is the utterly unique coiffe of the Bresse area of eastern France:

Postcard Bresse (Saône et Loire) 2

(We honestly do not know what to make of the fellow next to the coiffe wearer, or of his own coiffe. )

Should you be so lucky as to have inherited a French coiffe or a picture of your immigrant ancestor wearing one, studying it could help identify her place of origin. A few simple points to know:


  • earlier coiffes tended to be made of linen, while by the end of the 19th century they were more often of cotton
  • lace was always expensive; the more lace, the costlier the coiffe
  • there were coiffes for different occasions, and every day coiffes

Three of the best sites we have found for further explanation are 

Postcard Nord-Pas-de-Calais small

It may take a bit of work and writing to experts about your coiffe, but if it yields the name of a village for where to begin your research, it will have been worth it.


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

French Military Explained - Early 18th Century

Ludovico Magno

When confronted with all things administrative, hierarchical, spread-sheetish, we suffer from instantaneous and severe brain fog. Just such a fog-inducer is the usual type of explanation of all of the regiments and battalions and what-nots of an army. However, in French genealogy, one really does need to know a bit about all of that.

"Oh, no! Not more military! Why? Why?" We fear we hear you cry. Well, in France, the military archives are rich with genealogical information and go back quite a while, so it is worth it to understand enough to be able to find an individual's documents, and then to know what they mean. We have tried to give guidelines on where to look but, except for our discussion of Les contrôles de troupes de l'ancien régime,  those have so far been for nineteenth and late eighteenth century records. 

We now have found The Spanish Succession, a jim-dandy site by Maarten Folkers that explains the French army, along with the armies of half of Europe, as it was from 1700 to 1715. It does so in beautifully simple, clear and concise English prose. The aim of the author is not French genealogy, but  "to be the prime reference for the era between 1700 and 1715, a time dominated by the War of the Spanish Succession", and it achieves this admirably.  

In the panel to the left of that site, under Forces, click on The French Army. This brings a page of unbearably, eentsy print, which grows larger when clicked on. The entire structure of the Army is explained, and each regiment's history is given. The same is done for the French navy, with every ship named. Lots of footnotes and sources are given, allowing one to check veracity and pursue a line of thought further.

If you are lucky enough to have an ancestor who is documented as having been in the French Army or Navy during this time, will be a great help in putting that ancestor's life and military career in context. Without brain fog.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Medal of Saint Helena

Napoleon little

La Grande Armée was Napoleon's great fighting machine of over half a million men. French, Belgian, Polish, Austrian, they were brought together for an assault on Britain that never happened. Instead, they marched, oh so slowly,  on Moscow, took it, could not keep it, and marched back, dying by the tens of thousands. As many as 400,000 died on that campaign.

In 1815, the First Empire came to an end. There followed a string of different types of government. The one that concerns us here is the Second Empire of Napoleon III. It was he who, in 1857, thought it would be nice to give a medal to the survivors of La Grande Armée, who would have been between sixty and ninety years of age by then.  The Medal of Saint Helena (being named for the isle of exile where Napoléon died) was created specifically for them. Anyone who could prove that he served in the army in any capacity received the medal in a case, along with a certificate.

For French genealogy, the multilingual website dedicated to listing all of the recipients is a treat. It has almost 200,000 names of medal recipients and a simple search facility for surnames. This is a collaborative site, with interested folks sending in more information. We like the photographs that people have sent in of ancestors proudly wearing their medals. 

If you have a male French ancestor who was alive in 1857, it is worth checking this website for him. Even if he is not there, the site is a fun read.

You can see a very good image of the medal here.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Modern Baptism Registrations vs. the Acte de Naissance

 Modern Baptism Records pic
 Registre des Actes de Baptême de l'Eglise de Jacques de Haut Pas, Paris.  

Archives de Paris (D6J 7360)

Quite often, when a researcher is dissatisfied with a modern (eg. post-Revolutionary) French birth registration, un acte de naissance, he or she will begin to insist that the baptism registration for the same person will provide more information. It may, but usually will not. Since no one ever seems to believe us, we thought we would make a comparison here.

First, a clarification: before 1792, the only form of birth registration was the baptism registration. These pre-1792 registrations, registres paroissiaux,  are held in the Archives départementales and often are online. Since 1792, all births are required by law to be registered with the officier d'état civil at the mairie of the town where the child was born. Baptism is optional. Thus, pre-1792, the best birth documentation will be the baptism; after 1792, it will be the acte de naissance.

For our comparison, we have chosen Ernestine Minart, born the eleventh of November, 1895 in the 5th arrondissement (borough) of Paris and baptized in the local church of Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas on the sixteenth of November. Here is her baptism entry in the church's register book for 1895 (click on all images to enlarge them):

Minart baptism 

Registre des Actes de Baptême de l'Eglise de Jacques de Haut Pas, Paris.  

Archives de Paris  (D6J 7360)

It gives:


  • the date of the baptism
  • the child's name
  • the date of birth
  • the names of both parents
  • the parents' address
  • the godparents' names
  • the godparents' addresses
  • signatures

To find sweet Ernestine's acte de naissance, we go to the website of the Archives de Paris (in the panel to the left) and click on the archives numérisées line:

Archives de P

 That takes you to where you can look at maps or the actes d'état civil:


 Choose the latter. From there, is the choice to go to the tables décennales or straight to the actes d'état civil

Table ou actes

Knowing all ready the name, date and arrondissement means that the tables décennales are not really necessary. Do not skip looking at them for there, one can often find siblings. Fill out the form:


The search brings up seventeen pages. Ernestine is on page seven, at the top:

TD Paris sample 1

  On page six, at the bottom, is a possible brother, Charles:

TD Paris sample 2

Finding a possible sibling like this cannot usually be done with the modern baptism records. Each register book often does have an alphabetical index at the back but, as it is only for that year, it is not as useful as the tables décennales for locating others of the same surname born in the same decade.

The baptism gave Ernestine's birth as the eleventh of November, and the table décennale shows the twelfth. The latter should be the date of the registration, and the one to be used in the search box for the acte d'état civil:

EC search



Remember to type the date the European way: day/month/year. This brings up 29 pages and Ernestine is on neither the eleventh nor the twelfth; her birth was registered on the thirteenth, saying she was born on the eleventh. Ah well, we found her. 



Paris birth ex



Here is the information offered by the acte de naissance with the marginal notes:



  • the full name and sex of the child
  • the date and hour of birth
  • the place of birth
  • the father's name, age and profession
  • the mother's name, age and profession
  • the fact that they were married
  • their residence
  • the identity, in glorious plenitude, of the officer who made the registration
  • the names, ages, and addresses of the two witnesses
  • signatures
  • when, where and to whom Ernestine was married
  • the date and place of her death

For genealogical purposes, the acte de naissance is much, much more useful. The baptism registration will help to complete documentation on a person, of course, and there is always the chance with any document of the discovery of something completely new, but it cannot compare with the acte de naissance. 


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French Military Records - Les recensements militaires

Soldiers and flags small

The French military is well documented and military conscription records going back to 1716 can provide that oft-promised wealth of information on a man. As with all documentation in France, the focus of the records' content differs from the ancien régime (pre-Revolution) to the modern era (post-Revolution, with all its republics and empires); those of the former giving more information about nobles and officers, and precious little about the ordinary soldier, while those of the latter striving to document everyone.

For those descended from male French immigrants, there is a not very strict rule of thumb concerning military service and immigration:

If they went to North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were more likely to have done so as a part of their military service. If they went during the 19th century, they were more likely to have done so in order to avoid military service, especially if they were aged twenty or younger at the time.

The military census records - les recensements militaires - are the 19th century conscription records. At times, the name of the forms changed, but their function remained the same: to register and evaluate for service young men as they reached adulthood, usually the age of twenty.* Information in these censuses can include:

  • Full name
  • Level of education
  • Profession
  • Residence
  • Date and place of birth
  • Physical description: height; the colour of hair; eyebrow and eye colours; chin, forehead and mouth shapes (very entertaining, these : "round", "average", "flat", "bulging", etc.); and any scars or distinguishing marks
  • Parents' full names
  • Decisions as to placement in a regiment
  • Medical details, occasionally

Not bad for "wealth", eh? 

The nineteenth century names for the military censuses:

  • From the Revolution, through the Napoleonic Wars, until about 1815, these records were called the Listes du Tirage au sort. Each year, young men were called to report for service and were given a number indicating their ability to serve. A "bad number" -- mauvais numéro -- (in the eyes of the conscript) was one that indicated excellent soldier material. (It was permitted for a conscript  to pay someone to take his place, and this is duly noted in the record.) Some departments, such as Paris and Tarn, continued to use this name, even when the function changed from every man being automatically sent into the army to some being held as reserves. 
  • From 1815 to 1867, the name was Listes du contingent, giving the same information.
  • From 1867, they were called the registres matricules. This is the name most commonly used for them on the websites of the departmental archives.

The military census records are found in the departmental archives under the series R. The waiting period to view the records is 120 years, counted from the date of birth. (The stated reason for this long wait is the inclusion of private medical information.) The entries on individuals are chronological, according to when the young man showed up at the bureau. As with the actes d'état civil, ten-year indices, tables décennales, have been written, being an alphabetical listing of the conscripts which gives their enlistment numbers. With this number, one can find the conscript's individual entry in the registre matricule.

Thus, to find your nineteenth century French ancestor's military census record: 

  1. You must know where he was born, for this  -- and not the town of his residence -- is where he was supposed to go to the conscripts' bureau. (Those who were overseas could report to a local embassy or consulate, which would then forward a completed form to the town of birth.)
  2. You must know when he was born. He could report any time between his twentieth and twenty-first birthdays. If he was all ready in North America before he turned twenty, he almost certainly neither reported nor served. If he did not emigrate until he was thirty or so, there is a good chance of finding him in the registres matricules.
  3. Find the correct department for the town of birth. In series R of that department's archives will be the registres matricules. Many of the departmental archives are now putting online at least the tables décennales if not the entire registres, so check in the panel of links to the left.


For additional help we highly recommend the Nouveau Dictionnaire Militaire, published in 1892 and an excellent guide to military terminology of the time. It is found on the wonderful and still free Internet Archive, from which the entire book can be downloaded in PDF format.

Bonne chasse!
©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy





*This was not necessarily the age of legal majority.