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February 2014

The Last of the Grognards May Include Your Ancestor


Fusilier français

The French have affectionate nicknames for their soldiers of various conflicts. Those who fought in the First World War are known as poilus, which means shaggy. Those who were veterans of Napoleon's Old Guard are known as grognards, or grumblers.

Frédéric Mathieu is a historian who has trawled many sources:

  • The National Archives
  • Departmental Archives
  • Old newspapers, both national and regional
  • Legion of Honour files
  • Municipal and Communal Archives
  • Military personnel files
  • Muster lists
  • Medal of Saint Helena files

With all of the above he has built a website of the last grognards, Les Derniers Soldats de l'Empire, which can be searched on a number of criteria:

  • Nom (last name)
  • Prénom (first name)
  • Lieu de naissance (place of birth)
  • Date de naissance (date of birth)
  • Dernier lieu d'habitation (last place of residence)
  • Date de décès (date of death)
  • Recherche dans tous les champs de la base (search across all fields)

We did a sample search or twelve, putting different countries in the Dernier lieu d'habitation field. Angleterre brought nothing, as one would expect, but so did Mexique, Australie and Pologne.  Better luck was had with Belgique, which brought almost twenty names; Etats-Unis brought seven names, Pays-Bas brought just one. If your family has -- as so many seem to do -- a story of an ancestor who "fought with Napoleon", this could be the place where you at last track him down.

Mr. Mathieu has also written a book that is a collection of over five hundred reminiscences about Napoleon: Napoléon, les derniers témoins. A timely publication it is, too, for the two hundredth anniversary of the end of the First Empire is upon us. Mr. Mathieu, being a man for anniversaries, it might seem, has also published works about the poilus, in time for the hundredth anniversary of the First World War. Not that we are the least bit superstitious, but how nice not to be at war just now! 


©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


How the French See Their Ex-Colonies in North America


Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 13.47.33

Just now, on France 3, the show Le Grand Tour, presented by Patrick de Carolis, is airing an episode entitled "When America Was French" (Quand l'Amérique était française), with visits from Quebec to Louisiana. For those of you with French ancestors, it is an interesting opportunity to discover how your distant cousins see you and your history. 

There are discussions of Cartier, Champlain, whaling, the Iroquois, les Filles du Roy, genealogical research, the sale of Louisiana, jazz, fishing, etc. The way French is spoken in Quebec is explained; the way it is spoken in Louisiana requires subtitles. The music, very cloying, is most intrusive. The entire episode may be seen for a fee here. Short extracts may be seen here (some of you report that this does work in North America). One by one, sections of it may be seen on YouTube here.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Read the comments to this post by clicking here.

Identity versus Genealogy versus Privacy



Goodness! The many, varied, and quite passionate replies and comments which we have received concerning the previous post are quite a surprise. To our mind, there seems to be some conflation, particularly as to identity and genealogy, hence, some definitions here:

  • Identity, not in the sense of sameness but meaning personal identity, our sense of self, is determined by our genetic inheritance, our teaching, and eventually, ourselves. One can change one's identity, as we once changed our name; one can change one's appearance rather extremely these days; one can change that first point of definition, one's sex. In short, identity, for those in the modern, Western world, can be very much self-created and mutable. 
  • Genealogy, as we wrote in the last post, is history, and history is fact, documented, verifiable fact. We cannot change who our grandparents were, whom they married, who their parents were. When we attempt to do so, we are being dishonest, either with the world or, worse, with ourselves. 
  • Privacy, as we have written before, is a rather new concept and one, sadly, that may turn out to be short-lived in our modern society. The Shorter OED gives five definitions, none of them very clearly touching on what some of you Dear Readers seem to have meant, which would appear to be something along the lines of: having some part of our lives that is not available to the general public to see, scrutinize or examine.

Modern science and technology have affected all three of the above, and intensely.  Identity is increasingly controlled by governments and, thanks to electronic storage and the publicity of the Internet, it is more and more difficult to make a new beginning and escape the past.

Genealogy was once a pastime but is now a business, a very big business, thanks -- again -- to the Internet and the thousands of websites giving access to the kinds of records that, though public, were once viewed only by the people involved and their close family: birth, marriage, divorce, death records and much more. Each of the businesses that runs those websites is taking advantage of the Internet to make the pastime so many of us enjoy much more rewarding for us and profitable for them. Probate and heir research is a branch of professional genealogy that is remarkably lucrative and that is dependent upon the maximum amount of personal data, including DNA profiles, being open to public access.

Privacy as a concept had barely got off its feet, with people only recently accepting an idea so simple as the one that what consenting persons do in the privacy of their home is private, for example, before the Internet and its abuse by some individuals, companies and governments made it obvious that privacy may now be impossible. 

Personally, we think that every person has a right to form his or her own identity in a way that enables that person to become the most decent human being possible, that every person has a right to a private life free of unwarranted surveillance and that that private life should include personal data, and we think that the people in the business of genealogy should recognize those rights and respect them. 

As more and more family histories, public and private documents, personal data, DNA profiles, lineages, genealogies, etc. are put online, the pressure each of these three issues puts on the other will intensify. It will require clarity and compromise to find a solution. We would hope that those seeking to establish their identities would not seek to falsify genealogies to do so. We would hope that those attempting to correct family histories riddled with blunders would respect the privacy and identities of the members of that family as they go about it. We are a BCG Certified Genealogist and we love the research of a family's history as much as anyone else, but we are quite ready to accept that some of what have hitherto been freely available documents and data about living or recently deceased people should no longer be so, that our professional access should be curtailed in order to protect the privacy of others. We would hope that other genealogists would think the same, but it would seem not to be so.

The December, 2013 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (vol. 101, no. 4) opens with an editorial entitled "DNA Standards" that is signed jointly by the editors, the much respected Melinde Lutz Byrne and Thomas W. Jones. Its conclusion is, frankly, shameful. After admitting that professional genealogists should have been more involved in establishing standards for the ethical use of DNA test results for "acceptable linkages to individuals", the authors conclude that, for genealogists, "Anticipating and circumventing laws that would prevent responsible researchers' access to DNA data should be a priority." It most certainly should not. Responsible citizens do not seek ways to circumvent the law and responsible professional organizations do not urge their members to do so. 

We are approaching a time when because some of the most important details relating to family that each and every one of us learns about ourselves, the things that ally us to a social group, a tribe, an ethnicity, a race, the things that make us less frightened in the face of the immensity of the universe because we know our family's little bailiwick in history, are now no longer private and are sold and resold, we are at risk of losing the personal. Now is not the time for self interest; it is the time for cooperation in the name of decency and of consideration of others.

 Click here to read the comments and further discussion of this post.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Dream State of Genealogy


Jeanne d'Arc


"Just consider this. Is not the dream state, whether the man is asleep or awake,

just this -- the mistaking of resemblance for identity?"


A.J. Jacobs is a glib and witty writer. We do not know the man but the personality he presents in what we have read of his writing is what our grandfather would have called that of a "card". He writes best selling books; he is an editor at large for Esquire Magazine; he gives TED talks, and he has written a little Op-Ed piece about genealogy in the New York Times Sunday Review that is drivel. It is cheerful, it may be tongue-in-cheek, but it is drivel.

Under a title that coyly recalls an iconic if biologically incorrect American children's book , "Are You My Cousin?", Mr. Jacobs tells of his enthusiastic pursuit of relatives via collaborative family trees found on the Internet. He writes that these family trees -- the results of many people uploading their family trees and linking them with those that have common ancestors -- constitute a "controversial revolution" that is going on within the "previously staid world of genealogy". 

He also writes that he is aware that with these massive, collaborative trees there are issues of "accuracy, privacy and ownership of data" but that he is in favour of the effort to create a "collaborative, global family tree, despite its flaws" for two reasons: one, "it would be an unprecedented record of humanity" and two, "people will be nicer".

There is so much elision of reason, such a cavalier disregard for honest genealogy in this piece that we could do a series of posts elucidating its many flaws, but will instead point out just one, which is the one we see as being the most serious, e.g. the disparagement of and disregard for the requirement of accuracy.

Mr. Jacobs compares the insistence on the part of the "staid genealogists"  for accuracy and their scorn for the scores of family trees on the internet that are not sourced, (some of which border on fantasy, claiming descent from King David or Joan of Arc, for example) as being comparable to the thinking of the publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, while the creators of the one, big, collaborative family tree are like the contributors to Wikipedia. His implication seems to be that collaborations online are the wave of the future and they get better with time, which is rather like saying "Get those scholars out of the way so that the uneducated can waste years attempting to reinvent the wheel." 

Genealogy is history, family history, and history is based on fact. There is no room for mere assertion. There is no option to replace fact with opinion. To do so is to open the door to the alteration or denial of facts, and that is revisionism, which is vile. It is vile because it presents a lie as historical truth. Revisionists say that the Holocaust or the Rape of Nanjing did not occur.

A global family tree that contained inaccuracies would not be "an unprecedented record of humanity"; it would be gibberish. Such a family tree, if it were riddled with mistakes, would not make people "nicer"; having no recourse to truth, they would bicker and dispute with one another incessantly. The befuddlement that results from a failure to strive to know the truth leads to a life lived in the dream state, with no connection to reality, and that is a life that might as well not be lived at all.

Mr. Jacobs writes that he is building his family tree (it would seem to be entirely from those submitted by others) in order to set a Guinness World Record by having the largest family reunion in history (the title currently belongs to a French family). Of course, if Guinness -- as they should do --  were to require a fully sourced genealogy confirming the true relationship of all of those people at the party, he may run into trouble. Mr. Jacobs also plans to write a book about his work with collaborative family trees, which we can only hope he will term as fiction. 

© 2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Read the comments to this post here.

French Opinions of RootsTech 2014


Lafayette and Washington

Oh, Dear Readers, we have been away too long! We had forgotten what it is like to be in America and to witness the impressions that visitors have of it. Usually: "It's so BIG!" then: "People are so friendly (but they do not really mean it when they say to go to their home any time)". We have not been back, but we have seen a short video that unintentionally reveals much about cultural differences.

This year, RootsTech was attended by some rather prominent French genealogists:

Admirable people all and unquestionably expert in genealogy. What delights us is their video, a summary of their visit to RootsTech, in which it is their comments not on genealogy but on personal experiences and encounters at the conference that are so charmingly uproarious.



  • "It's enormous! But really for amateurs."
  • "The size is impressive. This hall must be a few thousand square meters! It's gigantic!"
  • "There are the basic subjects that could be of interest to anyone, but there are also very specialized subjects covered here and to a very high level."
  • "I did not learn anything new," (recall that these people are all highly qualified on the subject of genealogy and it would be surprising if they did find something new)
  • "But I got a lot of good ideas, especially about different ways to use certain websites."
  • "There must be twelve thousand people who have come here, but it does not feel crowded."

More use of the word "gigantic" and comments on needing to speak English well, followed by modest self-deprecation as to the latter.

  • "People are so nice!" ("It's true," our oh-so-Parisian daughter, who is studying in North America, commented when we showed her this video. "Even the secretaries are nice here. I never met a nice secretary before.")
  • "The head of FamilySearch personally spoke to me and explained the site to me and I didn't even have a meeting scheduled with him." (Poor Europe will never have a classless society, we fear.)
  • "And they are all in just their shirts or even T-shirts!" (Note that only Guillaume is wearing something so informal as jeans. Designer. Ironed.)
  • "They are so relaxed!"
  • "You can talk to anyone. People will even approach you in the street when they see you are wearing the RootsTech badge."
  • "Even in the lift/elevator!" (Astonishment. Idle conversation with a stranger is not done  -- as we noted here -- and certainly not in the uncomfortable proximity of a lift!)
  • "And what do you think of the food?" (Much scoffing laughter. Be serious, please.)
  • "But the French are liked here. Every time I spoke, and they heard my strong accent, people said 'You are French!' "

 As one says here, c'est adorable. Enjoy!

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Read the comments to this post by clicking here.