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July 2013

Book Review : Vos ancêtres à travers les archives militaires


Ancestres militaires

We live in a strange time, to be sure, and our pursuit of genealogy is not entirely free of that strangeness. The French government has recognized that personal data is a new resource, and it may be taxable. Our names, our addresses, our professions and preferences, our family, what we read, eat, buy, where we go on holiday, all, all is for sale. As individuals, we usually give away this data  -- and with it our privacy --  in exchange for free use of certain Internet services or for shopping discounts or other such trivia. Often, it is taken from us surreptitiously. Occasionally, it is used to commit a crime; more often it is sold in bulk. There are days when we find the whole process a little too close to cannibalism.

What remains of the personal data of our ancestors is what we, as genealogists, hunt and are willing to buy. The miners of personal data of the dead for genealogical purposes sometimes move a bit too close to that of the living. We admire greatly Kenyatta Berry, President of the Association of Professional Genealogists, for her recent editorial cautioning genealogists against letting their research enthusiasms take them too close to violating the privacy of living people. 

The technology that has turned our private lives into a commodity that is bought and sold by others is the same used by those claiming to protect some country's national security by harvesting those same private details. The recent dust-up at the Service Historique de la Défense is really a dispute between proponents of those two uses -- marketing for profit vs. hoarding for national security -- of a collection of antiquated personal data. Data that was collected about those doing their military service is now for sale, and genealogists are generally the buyers. Let's face it: in time, the data collected by the Prism programme will not pay for its own storage and, in one form or another, will be marketed for profit.

In spite of the military archives at Vincennes being currently closed and some of the websites still down, it would seem that the free market view of getting the personal data in the archives to turn a trick will prevail over national security view of keeping it in a burqa for our protection. Proof of this may be seen in last November's publication of a short and perfect guide to researching one's ancestors in France's military archives.

Vos ancêtres à travers les archives militaires is published by the Service Historique de la Défense. At 133 well-illustrated pages, it is concise but very informative. Chapter headings include:

  • Your ancestor was an officer
  • Your ancestor was a junior officer, a soldier or a seaman
  • Your ancestor was a fisherman or in the merchant marine
  • Your ancestor was in the air force
  • Your ancestor was in the national police (gendarmerie)
  • Your ancestor was a non-combatant
  • Your ancestor was wounded in action
  • Your ancestor was a prisoner of war
  • Your ancestor received a military pension
  • Your ancestor was tried by a court-martial
  • Your ancestor served overseas
  • Your ancestor served or was a victim of the Twentieth century's wars
  • Civil registrations and military burials

Each section gives a pithy and precise set of directions for how to use the archives pertaining to that category. There is a list of useful addresses and there are tables that explain military recruitment and the maritime administrative regions. As always with French publications, the index is dismal. It is a handbook that is ideal and indispensable. Since most of the SHD is inaccessible at the moment, you might study this book to hone your military research skills while you wait for the archives to reopen.

Vos ancêtres à travers les archives militarires

Sandrine Heiser and Vincent Mollet

Paris: Service Historique de la Défense, 2012

ISBN: 978 2 1112 9051 8


2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


"Mastering Genealogical Proof" and French Genealogy - Part 3


U - Very Long climb

 The third chapter of "Mastering Genealogical Proof" discusses Thorough Research, the first element of the Genealogical Proof Standard. Dr. Jones seems to be writing as if dealing with a strange batch of researchers who have asked "How much is enough?", a question that can stem only from those who are either

  1. Confused about conclusions that can be drawn reasonably from a body of evidence with those that must be absolute, indisputable and unchangeable TRUTH, or
  2. Lazy

To our mind, thorough research means identifying, locating and examining all possible resources, being perfectly aware that many will be missed, making it an ongoing process, followed by a phase of analysis during which it is discovered that most of what was found cannot be used. Dr. Jones gives six criteria for this process, putting the reduction at the beginning.

The discussion of Chapter Three on Dear Myrtle's MPS Study Group went over the above points and spent much time on Dr. Jones's terms and definitions, as well as on the value of different types of sources. None of these concepts would be very different in relation to French genealogical records. One obvious difference in Chapter Three, however, is the Table of "Suggestions for Identifying Sources to Answer Genealogical Questions" (page 25) for it covers sources of use mostly to those researching ancestors in the United States, such as the National Genealogical Society's "Research in the States" series. 

After about the first hour of the online discussion, there was some talk of the directive by Dr. Jones that "authored, derivative works must be replaced by originals and primary information." We cannot stress this enough when it comes to those early twentieth century, American authored works about French records. They were usually written with glory in mind and with qualifying for membership in a lineage society as the motive. In nine cases out of ten, it is our experience that, while their research in American records may be exemplary, as to French records they simply cannot be trusted.

The most extreme case came to us not long ago when Madame B. asked us to help verify claims made in a lineage file which she had purchased from an American lineage society (some of them, to their shame, sell photocopies of their members' application forms and supporting documentation without those members' consent). Written by one Leonardo Andrea, a well-known genealogist in his day, it made utterly false claims as to the French ancestry of a man named Peter LeBoon, who probably was French, and who died in South Carolina. We looked at the original parish registrations online and found that no date of birth, marriage or death, nor evidence of the family in the supposed town of origin (Rochefort) appeared. Not a single one of Andrea's claims -- and there were many -- about the man, his wife, his children or his parents could be verified in the parish registrations online on the website of the relevant Departmental Archives.

Andrea's sources for his French "facts" were almost all untrustworthy for they either had "disappeared" or were books to which he had written the relevant contribution, as in the case of "Old Southern Bible Records". Some sources seem to have been fabricated and certainly were not substantiated, such as a "war record" from France and a tombstone in Rochefort. In fact, the entirety of the French ancestry seems to have been fabricated, though this has not prevented its being spread all over the Internet, of course. Clearly, Andrea and others of his club never imagined that their work concerning French documentation could or would be checked. We find the cynicism of such boldly told untruths perhaps no more than the lineage society deserved, but chilling nevertheless.

We cannot urge you enough, Dear Readers, never to trust lineage society files, insofar as they concern French genealogy, and to check -- as Dr. Jones suggests -- every fact gleaned from every authored, derivative work. 

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy




"Mastering Genealogical Proof" and French Genealogy - Part 2


U - Very Long climb

The second chapter of "Mastering Genealogical Proof" deals with definitions and categorisations: of source, of the information sources contain, and of the genealogical evidence that can be drawn from the information. It agrees with Chapter One of Elizabeth Shown Mills's "Evidence Explained", but for the addition of the category of "indeterminable information", e.g. that which appears in a source, apparently out of the blue and certainly unattributably.

We read the chapter. We did the homework and are ashamed to say that our scribbles for that, wending their way around the margins, looked about the same as they did when we were a tot in school. We listened to Dear Myrtle's discussion group and panel on Chapter Two. There, we were told of an interview with the book's author, Thomas W. Jones, on the Blog Talk Radio's "The Forget-Me-Not Hour" by Jane Wilcox, so we listened to that too. (And, life on the Internet being such as it is, we also wandered off topic to watch Neymar and Fred knock out Spain in the Confederations Cup. How we should love to see the beautiful game triumph once again over the coarse, "go for injury" form the game takes in Europe.... The children call this Jackson Pollock style of concentration "multi-tasking".) 

As we read the chapter and listened to the discussion and interview, we realized that the application of the categories of information to French documentation is in some ways much easier and in others a bit tougher. The essential differences between French documentation and American records (the latter being the focus of the book), aside from language, are two:

  • Civil, as opposed to parish or religious, documentation in America went from almost nothing in the earlier years to documents with an increasing amount of information. In many places, birth, marriage and death records were not kept until the mid-nineteenth century. Remoter places without churches or other religious establishments had no parish records either. In France, in spite of a few revolutions, there has been a steady recording of births or baptisms, marriages and deaths or burials since the sixteenth century.
  • In America, each state, once it decided to record information about individuals, determined what to record and how. There can be at least fifty different types of birth registration, and many more when the differences at the county level are taken into consideration. In France, the department is merely an administrative division, not a separate state with its own rights that is part of a federation. France is a republic with one and only one government, directed from Paris and the directives carried out at the departmental, arrondissement and communal levels throughout the country. Thus, all civil registrations at any one time follow the same format. Historically and still today, that format for a civil registration generally contains a great deal more information than a civil registration does in America.

This means that a researcher in America has to deal with a lack of civil registration that must be supplemented with other types of documentation (such as tax records, court records, etc.) and that much of the documentation, especially if it were created in a remote area with little administration,  may not be trustworthy.  Thus, much of the emphasis of the Genealogical Proof Standard is on the quality of the source and the source of the information. In France, however, civil and legal documentation tends to be more trustworthy for the simple reason that one always has had to show a document to make a document, e.g. to show an authenticated and official copy of one's birth registration or baptism registration (or now, one's identity card) to enroll in the army or to marry.

Primary, Secondary and Indeterminable Information

This requirement enhances the trustworthiness of French documentation -- by the criteria under discussion -- significantly. One panellist, Kathryn Lake Hogan, recounted a tale of a man who, on applying for a marriage license, gave an incorrect name for his parent. This would be unimaginable in France as both of the couple must present official copies of their birth registrations in order to marry, and those birth registrations give their parents' full names.

Just after that (at about one hour and eight minutes on the counter) moderator Myrtle asked the panellists if any of them could think of a source that contained more than one of the types of information, being primary, secondary or indeterminable. We would suggest that information of an indeterminable source (coming from an informant that cannot be determined as either primary or secondary) would occur rarely if ever in French documentation and that most French documentation would be a mix of primary and secondary information.

The French marriage registration of the nineteenth century exemplifies a source with mixed categories of primary and secondary information. The standard format contains the following information:

  1. The date, time and full location (commune, canton, arrondissement and département) as written by the officer recording the event, as well as his full name, honours and title. (This can often be the lengthiest part of the registration, providing little genealogical information, unless one is researching the officer's family.)
  2. The full name and title of the groom, his profession, his residence, if he is living with his parents or not, if he is of the age of majority or not, his date and place of birth, the full names of his parents, their professions and whether they are living or not. If a parent has died, the date and place of death will also be given. Whether or not a parent is present will be stated and if not, why not. Whether or not the parents give their consent to the marriage will also be stated.
  3. The same information as in no. 2 will be given for the bride.
  4. The dates and locations of the posting of the banns and whether or not that resulted in anyone opposing the marriage.
  5. Possibly, there will be a statement as to if there were a marriage contract.
  6. Confirmation that the marriage section of the Code Civil was read to the couple and that they agreed to it, both verbally and by signing the register, and that they were thus as married, their names being given again.
  7. The names, professions, ages, addresses and relationship to the couple of the witnesses. 
  8. Signatures or marks of all those named: the officer, the couple, their parents or guardians, the witnesses.

The primary information in the above would be numbers:

  • 1, for the officer is giving the date and location and information about himself 
  • 4, either partially or completely, for the banns would have been posted in the place of residence of each of the couple, at least one of whom would have lived in the place where the marriage was performed. Thus, the same officer would have posted the banns of at least one of the couple, making this information primary. If the other of the couple lived elsewhere, the banns would have been posted there as well and this reported to the officer, making the information secondary
  • 6, for the officer recording the marriage is also the one performing it
  • The signatures

The secondary information would be numbers:

  • 2, for though the groom is present, with his parents, and though he has presented a copy of his birth registration and, if a parent has died, a copy of the death registration, the person recording that information is the officer
  • 3, for the same reasons as above
  • 5, for if there were a marriage contract, in order for the regime it specified to cover the marriage, the officer would have had to have seen only the proof of its having been registered, not the contract itself
  • 7, for again, the officer is recording what the witnesses tell of themselves, even if they have to present forms of identification

Obviously, because of the documentation that would have been presented to the officer, and because of the presence of the couple, their parents and their family, much of the secondary information is nearly as good as primary. If, as sometimes occurred, one or both of the couple were born in the commune where they married, the officer may have been in the same post at that time and may have been the recorder of their birth in the register, which would make much of the information in numbers 2 and 3 primary.

Vagueness and lies are rare in French civil registrations. False documentation is almost non-existent, (though we have heard tell of a baron who, on divorcing his wife, rather inconsiderately had fabricated a false Livret de Famille or Family Book, containing no children when in truth he had four; it was a crime of passion that fooled no one). Finally, primary and secondary information often occur in the same source.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Another Chef-d'oeuvre by A Dear Reader

Reader Monsieur G. has submitted links to his long, two-part article about Basque Benedictines in Oklahoma and Los Angeles. We find it to be well researched and that it makes excellent reading. For any of you who have Basque roots and a Benedictine in your family tree, this article will be interesting and could help you to further your research.

Click on the link in the new list in the column to the right, just below that stylish "Categories" cloud list. 

Many thanks!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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What Is Happening to France's Military Archives?


Chateau de Vincennes

Put your military research on hold, Dear Readers, and we cannot say for how long. Since February, a large number of records and files at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) have been unavailable for reasons of relocation and filming. The Reading Room, where one does one's research, is to be closed for the entire summer ( 29 July to 29 September) during a large removal and consolidation programme. The archives are not expected to be fully back in service until the end of 2013, (as per the SHD notice no. 1, June, 2013; will there be a no. 2, we wonder). Worse, their website has been hacked and shut down a second time, just a few weeks after it was restored following its first hacking assault. 

What on earth is going on at Vincennes? On the one hand, representatives of the SHD are increasingly present at genealogy conferences. At their large and well-attended stands, they present materials on and explain how to research in the military archives of France. However, there is a price to be paid for this increasing popularity, it seems, especially if staffing were not increased to cope with the increase in demand. We used to be able to go there to research once or twice per week; now, we are lucky if we can get a place once every two months. The overload is obviously putting pressure on the normally genial staff who now are often seen to squabble behind their desks. But this is the military, and the plot thickens.

Something is so awry at the archives headquarters, that it is beginning to be discussed in the general press, which must pique the generals somewhat. General Olivier Paulus (since the SHD site is down, the link is to his page on LinkedIn) has been the director of the SHD since August of 2011 and has just been removed from his post, mid-way through his three-year term (Il a été limogé, a term we explain here). They took away one of his three stars, too, something that smacks of vengeance toward a man who clearly likes his medals. 

General Paulus

Also booted were his second and third in command, the civilian archivists, François Gasnault and Karine Leboucq. Essentially, the issue seems to be that Paulus thought much of the archives, especially those of the oral history section, were full of military secrets and should not be available to anyone, genealogist or military researcher. In fact, he thought that their existence should not be revealed by being listed in the archival finding aids. Insiders said that Paulus's actions had "Weakened" the SHD. The archivists took the view that all archives are part of France's cultural heritage and should be, sooner or later, available to researchers. Apparently, their disputes were dramatic to the point of being worthy of cabaret performances. The top brass, behaving like a dragon with an itch, fired the lot. Their replacements have not been announced; a date for the launch of a renewed and - one can only hope - better protected website (and should we suspect irate archivists or researchers of the hacking?) has not been announced.

Now is not a good time to research your ancestor in the French military.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy