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February 2012

January 2012

French Immigrants to Mexico

Beurre small


Two hundred years ago, Mexico won its independence from Spain and not long afterward, French immigrants started arriving. Whole villages of them swapped cold, damp winters and lovely if rank cheeses and butter for hot, damp summers and vine-ripened chilies. 

While there were individuals who went before, most went in groups during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the beginning, they went primarily to four locations: Jicaltepec, San Rafael, Coatzocoalcos and Minatitlan, in groups organized by companies created for the purpose. The first hundred sailed on the Amérique in 1829, arriving the following year at Coatzocoalcos. More arrived. Dozens died in ghastly and primitive conditions, for the companies that sent them made little or no preparations for their arrival. Still, they continued to arrive, especially after the Franco-Prussian War.

There were Basques, Burgundians, Franc-Comtois, Savoyards and almost the entire village of Barcelonnette, the last group having been given the rather perky nickname of their village name "les Barcelonnettes". Most stayed, but many, especially of the earliest groups, decided to move on and the next port of choice was often New Orleans. (For those of you researching French ancestors who arrived in New Orleans from Mexico, take note.) Much has been written, in French and Spanish, about these immigrants. Some of the best works are:

  • Emigration française au Mexique by Jean-Christophe Demard. - Contains complete passenger lists. Hard to find.
  • Aventure extraordinaire d'un village franc-comtois au Mexique, also by Demard -- A complete study of those who went from the village of Champlitte to Mexico. Many biographies of settlers and interviews with their descendants.
  • Peregrination des Barcelonnettes au Mexique by Patricia Gouy
  • a series of four articles by Magdalena Le Prévost in Le Petit Journal

 There are some fascinating stories here.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 * Monsieur S.  sent these informative links:

Barcelonnette, France is known for it's Maisons Méxicaines, because not only did the people from the Barcelonnette Valley go to Mexico in large numbers many returned with vast fortunes and built huge houses in the valley.  Thus prompting more youngsters to go "Amérique" et "Méxique"  There is also a strong connection of Barcelonnettes in Louisiana.  Much has been done to preserve this shared culture by La Sabença de la Valeia.  So Barcelonnette is the name of the town, in the fact the whole valley and also the appellation of the residents.   Lots of them went to Mexico City and there are about 5,000 french-speaking Mexicain Barcelonnettes there today.  I learned this from a 2006 symposium held at LSU in Baton Rouge.




All You Need Do Is Ask


From time to time, we get a bee in our bonnet, as is wont with genealogists. This particular bee is one of those shared by the many people whose interest in the French settlers of Natchitoches, Louisiana, was -- like mine -- aroused by Elizabeth Shown Mills's fascinating historical novel: Isle of Canes. In it, one settler she names is Jean Baptiste Le Comte (or Lecomte).

Le Comte was a real person, a soldier from France who was sent to Louisiana and then stayed. He married Marguerite Le Roy, bought land, owned slaves. He had numerous children. He died in 1784, seemingly never having returned to France. Documentary evidence about his early life is scarce, to say the least. He is mentioned in Glenn R. Conrad's The First Families of Louisiana, as having been on the General Roll of Louisiana troops and as being among those discharged on the 15th of September, 1763 (about seven years after he married).

We were curious to know where in France he was born. As he was not an officer, there is no pension file on him in the military archives at the Service Historique de la Défense. Military records on rank and file soldiers are difficult to search if one does not know where the man enlisted or was conscripted. That avenue of research seemed closed for the time being.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Louisiana was French. Births, marriages and burials were recorded in parish registrations, registres paroissiaux, exactly as they were in France. Marriage registrations almost always give the date and place of birth of both parties, and the names of their parents. We thought that it could be simple to track down his place of birth via his marriage registration. Jean Baptiste Le Comte's marriage registration, however, is just about indecipherable, especially the part that relates to his origins:

LeComte marriage personal info

It seems clear enough that his parents were Claude le Compte and Anne Combe. He seems to have been a "native of the parish of St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge in the diocese of St. glaude". 

Thus began a long, frustrating and at times rather humourous search for that parish and diocese. Surely the diocese was Saint Claude, we presumed. Yet, when we checked the list of parishes for that diocese, there was no "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge" or anything close to that. We wrote to the archivist of the diocese, who responded after a few weeks, telling us that there never had been any such parish. 

Hours of manic googling brought Saint Martin de Cormeilles-en-Vexin, in Normandy. Could this be it? Not really. That parish was in the diocese of Pontoise. It would be stretching the truth of the bad handwriting too far to try to make "St. glaude" read as Pontoise and to assume that Le Comte forgot to say Cormeilles but did say "graingrouge".  That is the very mistake many genealogists  -- in France and elsewhere -- make when they are desperate for an answer, and it is interdit.

We attended a genealogy fair which had members of cercles from all over France present. We diligently wandered from one booth to another with Le Comte's marriage registration, asking paleographers to decipher it, asking if anyone knew of a Saint Glaude. Everyone wanted to help, but we reached no definitive answer. One of the best suggestions was that "graingrouge" was a corruption of grange rouge, or red barn, and that perhaps it was a name of a property and not part of the parish name. No one knew of a Saint Glaude. 

We approached the table of the cercle for Franche-Comté in eastern France, where the diocese of Saint Claude is located. Again we showed our paper and asked if they knew such a saint or diocese. All enthusiasts, a small group rushed to read the registration, carefully reciting each word aloud. In unison, when they got to "Saint Glaude", they burst out laughing and slapped one another's backs, nodded, and passed around the regional wine they were offering. (Tasty.) "Saint Glaude" they kept repeating, causing them to collapse into hilarity all over again. The joke was that the local pronunciation of Claude sounds like Glaude to an outsider, a non-Comtoise, which that priest in Louisiana clearly was. Oh yes, they assured me, if anything confirmed that Le Comte was a Comtoise speaking, two hundred and fifty years ago, it was that pronunciation of their diocese.

So, it seemed likely that Le Comte was a Comtoise, but from which parish? A rush to the computers ensued, as everyone searched their lists of old and new parishes. No one had anything resembling "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge". The laughter died away. One by one, people gave up and wandered off. The die-hards kept the wine close and pounded their keyboards but found nothing in their databases and grudgingly gave up as well.

We left the fair, satisfied that we had a diocese of origin at least, but we still desired to find the parish where Le Comte was born. We thought it unwise to return to the Saint Claude diocesan archivist and insist that he check again for "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge". We embarked on another route. France-Comté includes the departments of Doubs, Jura, Haute-Saône and the Territory of Belfort. The diocese of Saint Claude is today in Jura but in the eighteenth century was larger and extended into Doubs and what is now Rhône. We decided to write to the archivists of the Departmental Archives of Doubs, Jura and Rhône, including a copy of the marriage registration and begging their assistance. Generally, though they will not do research for people, they will try to help and guide researchers in the right direction.

Only one archivist bothered to respond, but she provided gold. Writing that her entire staff had been baffled by the parish name "St. Martin de Vecin graingrouge" and all had been determined to solve the puzzle, making it an institution-wide hunt, she then wrote that they had found it. The word beginning with V was not Vecin or Vexin, nor was it a word on its own at all. It was part of the following word. The name of the parish is Saint Martin de Vaugrigneuse. It was an exceedingly tiny hamlet next to the village of Cornod in Jura. 

Given the uniqueness of the parish name in all of France, we think we can say with reasonable certainty that Jean Baptiste Le Comte was from that hamlet of Saint Martin de Vaugrigneuse, that he grew up looking at the lovely chateau of Cornod, and that something made him prefer the sultry clime of Louisiana to the cold mountain weather of Jura. Our numerous and intensive research efforts did nothing to bring about this discovery. All we had to do was ask the right people, which we highly recommend to you all.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


A Couple of Books on French Surnames

Nom de famille cover

We have received in our mailbox this week the suggestion that we read the article on the Learning Center by Juliana Smith entitled "Searching for Common Surnames". We thought it contained rather good  advice and suggestions and had the idea to see what comparable advice may exist on French surnames. We have touched on the subject, albeit obliquely, in our posts on and on surnames that come from métiers. Now, we review two books on French surnames that have been out for a while. 

"Les noms de famille et leurs secrets" by Jean-Louis Beaucarnot, was published in 1988, a hefty number of years ago in this age of internet genealogy. Yet, since what it discusses is historical and goes back many centuries, its value remains constant. Beaucarnot is a well-respected genealogist and has published a couple of dozen books on genealogy, all in French. The book begins with the grievously erroneous impression on the part of the author that Dale Carnegie was a psychologist but then races on authoritatatively on the subject of the history and categories of origin of French surnames. As to the latter, he gives the following:

  • Names that have Germanic origins (recall that Charlemagne was a Frank who spoke no French)
  • Names from the Bible
  • Names that are corruptions and derivations of Biblical names
  • Names that are combinations of forenames
  • Names that indicate a family relationship
  • Names that indicate a person's work
  • Names that indicate a person's appearance or character
  • Names that come from nature
  • Names that are anecdotal
  • Names that indicate a person's geographical origins
  • Names that stem from a local dialect

Each category is described and one or two examples given. A few paragraphs of lists follow, with little discussion of each name. The thrill of naming, of finding the right and most euphonious word for a creature's or person's identity, that Adam may have had seems not to have been held by M. Beaucarnot, for whom the subject seems a great bore. While he gives a bit of information about a few names, this is by no means a complete dictionary of names, nor is it a full history of French naming. Aimed at the amateur, it falls betwixt and between the two and is neither useful nor entertaining.

However, a few pages before the end, things pick up, with a spiffy little section on practical method. There is a list of the one hundred most common surnames in France, with Martin at the top. Then, there are a number of truly handy hints helping one to recognize the geographical origin of a name. For those with no idea of where in France their ancestors may have originated -- and whose ancestors did not bear the surname Martin -- this section can be of some use.

Marie-Odile Mergnac has also written a string of genealogy books, among them the fine "Ma Généalogie de siècle en siècle". Her book on the subject of surnames  -- "Trouver l'origine de son nom de famille" -- is much shorter, more recent, more to the point, lifts about eighty per cent of its content from Beaucarnot, and is essentially a bibliography of recommended books. She, too gives the history of naming and the same categories for name origins. She, too, gives a list of the one hundred most common  French surnames, still with Martin at the top. She adds a bit of discussion of changes wrought by the Revolution and the abolition of slavery, but her value is not in the discussion at all; for that Beaucarnot is much better. Mergnac's book is useful for its lists of other books on names of various regions.

Dense subject, surnames, so you may want to get both, and many more besides. 

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Magic Box at the Archives départementales de Paris

Fichier sign

Genealogical research on those who lived in Paris being difficult, we like to tell of any and all tools that may be of help. We have found another magic box. In the Archives départementales de Paris is a fine creation of the archivists: an alphabetical card index of all the names that appear in court and some other records held in the archives, the fichier général des noms de personnes. It is quite a large collection that fills many, many drawers, forming part of the divider between two rooms. 

Fichier AD Paris

 As so many of the birth, marriage and death records of Paris were destroyed in the nineteenth century, this card index is most useful. For each name, there may be only one card, or there may be two or three cards for a more important personage with references to many documents. A sample card, on one Patrice-Thomas-Nicolas Dromgold, a priest at Chartres, can be seen below. The card tells that he died at an abbey in 1789 and indicates that there was no will and there were no heirs, succession vacante. The card also gives the call number -- DC6 32 -- for the original document, which can be requested. 

Sample card

 In this case, the orginal documentation is in a bound volume of the Lettres de Chancellerie (the high court of the pre-Revolutionary government, the ancien régime).

Bound volume


The entry concerning Dromgold is the fourth on the page.


Sample page

These may be small gleanings  but every little bit helps in genealogy.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

A Visit to the Mairie of Excideuil

Excideuil mairie

We have been conducting research in the regions and came to the realization that, while we have oft mentioned the importance in French genealogy of the mairie -- the town hall -- and their archives, we have not yet told of a visit to one. We now do so.

Recall that the mairie for each commune (French for a community, town, village, arrondissement, etc. and NOT meaning an ashram, religious or utopian group living arrangement) is where one set of original parish registers are kept and where civil registrations are initially recorded and one set of the registers kept.  The other sets are in the Departmental Archives of the department in which the town is located.  The value of the set kept at the Departmental Archives is that, when one does not know the commune, they are easier to search, especially now that so many have websites with images of the tables décennales and of the registers. The websites also mean that the records can be searched via the internet. The value of the mairie's set is that they may have been updated, as new information dwindled in. The failure of each is that the set in the Departmental Archives is not ever updated and that few communes have their archives online.

We visited the mairie of the town of Excideuil, in the department of Dordogne. There, we found a standard interior, with the obligatory bust of Marianne, symbol of La France, and the equally obligatory portrait of the current president:

Inside mairie

 As is customary with French civil servants, the staff were quite officious, brusque and, authoritaire, as one says in France, which means so much more than simply authoritarian or bossy. Someone who is being authoritaire is being insufferably schoolmarmish in its worst form of frustration, tyranny  and mediocrity. Yet, when we said we were keen on genealogy and would like to see the registers, smiles broke out where snarls had been, kindness and consideration exuded where rudeness was before. We were welcomed to view the cupboard where the registers, dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, were stored, along with office supplies and a couple of comfy cushions:

Cupboard of registres

Proudly, rebound registers were offered for our viewing. We chose one that had not been rebound, a parish register from 1774. It was placed on the table that held pamphlets detailing benefits for senior citizens, and we were encouraged to take our time.

Excideuil registre

This graciousness that erupts for genealogical researchers has been the norm, in our experience, at most mairies. We hope that you may have the opportunity to visit a mairie for your research, for the discoveries can be important and the staff gratifyingly helpful. As we explained in our post A Double Sens, should you be in a position to contribute information on an individual who appears in the registers, allowing for updating the record, it would be considered as equally generous. If you cannot visit, most will reply to postal requests for copies of registrations.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy