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Was Your French Ancestor Actually French?



As soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended and The Corsican was back in his box, large numbers of people from the French Empire decided to leave, and many were determined to get to l'Amérique. Those of us who were reared and educated in said El Dorado were taught that these people awoke one day with a dream to be free and, standing tall (they were always tall) and proud, they strode heroically to the coast, where they met up with the alternative emigrant cliché of the huddled masses, and took ship to New York. There were to be sure some emigrants from Europe whose stories were like that, but there were many thousands for whom the process was quite different.

One must go to Le Havre, a major port and ship building centre. War was good for the ship builders, and the wars had ended. Worse, the empire was grievously shrunk and the market for French warships was firmly closed. Other shipping, ship building and works on expansion of the port were still permitted.  The ship builders of Le Havre, having all ready a major port of embarkation for l'Amérique, saw a way to capitalise on this asset. From as early as 1817, they employed what were essentially emigrant recruiters to go to to the east, to Alsace and Lorraine, and into the German-speaking duchies, such as Baden-Baden, to recruit emigrants to the New World, leaving from Le Havre, of course. 

The emigrants were nearly always the poor or those who had been ruined by the wars or by the peace. The recruiters gave them some money to help them get across France, usually by way of Paris and Rouen.  Before the building of the railways, the journey was by cart, on horseback, or on foot and could take weeks. All of the stopping places along the way charged for meals and nights at inns, naturally. Many of the emigrants were reduced to begging along the way, or to settling in shanty towns at the edges of Le Havre. If the ships were not ready to depart, the wait at Le Havre could deplete the last of their funds.  

Each passenger somehow had to pay the passage, and each had to pass a medical exam, required by the United States government, if l'Amérique was their destination. Those who failed the exam either chose other countries, often in South America, or stayed in the shanty towns until the citizens of Le Havre, pitying them, took up a collection to pay their way to a country that would accept them.

No one seems to have criticised this large-scale enterprise in human trafficking. However, the French government was alarmed at the exodus of labour and at the local and national level attempted to slow it. To be granted a passport, emigrants had to show that they had adequate funds for the journey. To be granted a passport in France, they had to show that they were French. Parasitic frauds began to overbreed at the borders. There were those who would loan funds to be shown to the authorities and to be repaid, with interest, immediately after the interview. There was a bang-up business in false French passports for those crossing France from the duchies in Prussia and Bavaria, and from the Swiss cantons. Some of those territories having been part of the French Empire only a few years earlier added to the opportunities to confuse nationalities.

Thus, when researching your French ancestors, bear in mind that they may not have been French. They may have been from what is now Germany and said they were French in order to be able to get a passport. If their names seem more Germanic or Swiss; if they spoke German, then dig deeper in the documentation. Passengers lists on arrival may say a family was French but from Baden-Baden. Passenger lists from Le Havre may reveal more about the place of origin, taking your research down a different path all together.

A fine book on this subject, and one of the sources of information for this post is: En route pour l'Amérique : L'odysée des émigrants en France au XIXe siècle by Camille Maire.


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy