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July 2019

More Letters Home to France

ChicouLetters Home

The thermometer in our poor, parched garden has gone over its top number. We do not know the precise temperature, but it is over fifty degrees Celsius (not Centigrade, merci Monsieur H.) For this, instead of traipsing the world, we could stayed in our natal California and simply moved to Needles (where, we note, some five thousand fools, madmen or rheumatics have inexplicably chosen to reside). We abhor the heat and feel most blessed to have a stone house with a ground floor that  remains cool no matter what kind raging fireball is encircling the house. Somewhat oddly, being trapped in a cool dark room hiding from a heat wave is not all that different an experience from being snowed in during a blizzard. There are those who watch a screen, those who play patience, and those who, like us, rummage about in notebooks and folders of ideas and projects that we thought were brilliant but never got around to really exploring.

We came across a small family archive we had bought a couple of years ago at brocante (flea market) for less than five euros. The little bundle of papers presents quite a family history and one feels saddened to come across it orphaned in such a way. The head of the family, Jean Chicou, was a bailiff in the department of Corrèze and there are many letters that he wrote to the court for his work as well as documents confirming him in his official post. There are a few receipts, mysteriously saved from the family accounts.  There is a collection of letters and court records from as early as 1821 and continuing through the 1860s deal with his children and their inheritance from him.

We began to search for this family, using Filae.com and the website of the Departmental Archives of Corrèze. The documents gave so much information that we soon had identified seven branches of the Chicou family.

They produced some wanderers who wrote home. in 1865, Joacem Chicou, perhaps a merchant seaman, wrote to his parents in Donzenac from Bombay, informing them that he now lived in Le Havre. It seems he had run off from a job in Paris as an apprentice for, a month earlier, he had written them that he hated his job and he hated his aunt. A daughter, Marie, married and moved to Bordeaux, then to Asnières; dutifully writing to her parents three or four times per year for thirty years. They saved many of her letters and those from her son, taught to write to his grandparents respectfully.

Another son, Jean-Baptiste Chicou, born in 1849 (his birth appears in the Donzenac registers), emigrated to California in about the 1860s or early 1870s. He lived first in San Francisco, then in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties. He married, raised a large family and died in California, apparently never having returned to France for a visit. (A quick look on Ancestry showed him with his wife, Clemence, and their many children living in Oakland for the 1900 census.) Two letters from him to his brother, from 1873 and 1874, tell of his work taking horses from San Jose to the mountain pastures. The letter from 1873 describes an attack by Native Americans and the battle that ensued, in which he was wounded by an arrow. 

Chicou 1873

In both letters, he complains that his brother does not write back. He writes that he wanted to send a thousand francs to his mother so that she could visit him in California but she never responded. Either he gave up writing or they did not save his other letters in he way that they saved Marie's, for there are no more from California.

Many of you Dear Readers, responded enthusiastically to our earlier post about a letter home to France, sharing your own epistolary discoveries. We do not come across such letters very often but when and if we do find more, we shall share them here.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Article Review - Women in the French Military Archives

Military Woman

Some years back, we reviewed here the stellar tome on genealogical research using France's military archives, written by the archivists at the Service Historique de la Défense,  (SHD) Sandrine Heiser and Vincent Mollet. Inexplicably, when we listed some of the chapter headings in that review, we neglected one on a subject for which we have, of course, a rather natural affinity: women in the French military. We may have missed "Votre ancêtre était ...une femme" ("Your ancestor was a woman") because it is only three pages long, with half of those pages filled with photographs, or we may have to confess that we missed it because our work was not up to standard that day, for which we apologize with bow and scrape. Happily, Madame Heiser expanded on that chapter in an article written for the Revue Historique des Armées (it may be downloaded as a PDF). For those who cannot read French but have women to research, we give here a summary. 

Madame Heiser divides her subject into nine categories:

  • Femmes militaires et filles débauchées - "Military Women and Debauched Girls", are covered by a small group of archives, just one carton, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and concerns mostly women who were spies or who served in the army disguised as men. This carton also includes cases against those camp followers who were prostitutes, the "debauched girls".
  • Cantinières, vivandières et blanchisseuses - "Canteen-keepers, sutlers and laundresses", including not only the women who did these jobs but the wives of any men who did them, from 1791 to 1900. There is no index to the names of the women included, so a researcher would have to spend some time reading the files.
  • Les femmes « pensionnées » ou « décorées » - "Women Who Received Pensions or Military Decorations". Those in the category above, as well as widows of men in the military, often had to petition for a pension and the records of those petitions are in this group. 
  • Mères et épouses de militaires - "Mothers and Wives of Men in the Military". Would it not be grand if this were an archive of all such women, and with an index as well? It would, indeed, but it is not. Madame Heiser explains here that these women may be discovered by reading a soldier's individual service record. It is true, as she says, that the details are rich and there are often, in a man's file surprise bonus documents, but in no way is there such a collection about these women; they are incidental in the information about the men.
  • Les femmes « personnel civil » - "Women Who Were Army Civilians", a large group of many thousands of women, mostly employed during the two World Wars. The archives of all Army civilian personnel are held at a facility in Châtellerault, described here.
  • Agents secrets et espionnes  - "Secret Agents and Spies", a series dating from the eighteenth century and including the file on the infamous and unlucky Mata Hari.
  • Vers un statut militaire - "Toward a Military Status". Here, Madame Heiser explains that women could not join the Army in any capacity until 1940 and that their files are held along with the men's, divided only according to the branch of the military in which they served.
  • Des femmes militaires témoignent - "Women in the Military Bear Witness". Within the archives oral history collection are many accounts by women, especially of but not exclusively of their service in the Air Force.
  • À Pau, 100 000 dossiers de femmes - "At Pau, 100,000 Files on Women". In the city of Pau is the Central archives concerning modern military personnel (CAPM), all those born before 1983, and many of them are women. 

Most of these archives are not online but the finding aids, increasingly, are. By studying those, you may be able to narrow your search enough to request copies from the SHD. Otherwise, you may have to hire a researcher. Unfortunately, now is not the time. The SHD at Vincennes is closed for the month of August and the website is down, yet again, for maintenance. Plan to tackle this in the autumn.

There is a pair of battered, blue binders filled with old, typed finding aids at the SHD in Vincennes that are probably our favourite books in the whole place. They cover the series in GR Y, all of the oddities that fit nowhere else in the vast system. Many of the archives described above are in GR Y, containing the stories of remarkable women. We do hope one of them is an ancestor of yours.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

 


Letters Home to France

Book stall

Yesterday was the national holiday, la fête nationale, of the 14th of July, or Quatorze juillet, which English speakers like to call "Bastille Day". It is a summer's day of picnics and parades, the Marseillaise and fireworks. It is also a day of book fairs and flea markets, both of which we are quite fond. It is at these that we have found so many wonderful examples of documents to be able to exhibit for you here. On occasion, we also find letters home from those who have emigrated from France, such as this.

Letter home cousine

It had no envelope but was folded, addressed and sealed.

Madame Darius

It was written on the 16th of July 1827 and postmarked in September, from New Orleans. The writer, a Madame Porter, addresses her cousin, Madame Darius, in Toulouse, whose letter she had just received. It is not an exciting letter, Dear Readers, and it is filled with grammatical and spelling imperfections, but it is intriguing nevertheless.

Madame Porter had made a visit to Paris and writes that she had found her native country to be sad and dull outside of that beautiful city (a comment such as that leads one to suspect she could only have been a Parisian). She tells of how she wept that she had not been able to go to Toulouse to see her cousin. She had travelled to France without her children and she writes of her joyous reunion with them on her return to New Orleans. That return voyage had been becalmed for two weeks in insufferable heat off Saint Domingue, during which time there had been a case or two of yellow fever aboard and a sailor had died. Most accommodatingly, Madame Porter gives the name of her vessel when she mentions the sailor's death, the Nestor, and so, we can find her arrival in the "New Orleans, Passenger List Quarterly Abstracts, 1820-1875", on the 22nd of June 1827, where she is listed as "Madame Widow Porter", aged thirty-nine.

There was only this one letter from Madame Porter in a basket of old papers. Did her cousin, Madame Darius, save many and they were lost or does this one hold some mysterious significance we will never understand? Perhaps one of you, Dear Readers, may be a descendant of either of these ladies and can tell her story.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


On Obsession, Genealogy and a Great Book

War

Obsession can be a deep and dark cavern into which we crawl, an emotion in which our will, normally a fairly useful aspect of our personalities, becomes crazed, over-energetic, absurdly concentrated on one point. Losing our clarity, we are dragged down and deeper into that cavern. Other of those emotions that are, at their core, pure selfishness, such as passion and desire, become distorted and subverted to obsession, until it is all that remains in our character. Like some ghastly auto-immune disease that has driven our immune systems berserk so that they destroy our health, obsession is a madness that destroys our sanity. We are blinded to all but the focus of our obsession. Worse, our perception is so distorted that we imagine that see what is not present and we fail to see what is flagrantly before us, and in our obsessive pursuit, follow the hallucination, bewitched by its imagined beauty and perfection, sometimes tripping and falling flat over the unperceived reality. In such a way can the thrill of genealogical research go a bit haywire at times, and we confess, Dear Readers, to have been in that cavern of late, avoiding all animate and inanimate diversions from our determined pursuit, aided in self-justification by the quite horrific heat wave currently toasting France.

As we hinted in our last post (written a while back now, we blush to say), we have been on the hunt for a particular employee of the Ministry of War during the Revolutionary years in France. We had found his personnel file, filled with praise and salary disputes from two hundred years ago, but we wanted more. As any genealogist will say, once we have correctly identified a person, sometimes we want to understand him or her. We want to know, for example, why an ancestor left a pretty village and embarked on an expensive and frightening journey just to struggle and die on a vast and cruel prairie or on an arid and windy stretch of Patagonia. Why did they leave? The question leads, naturally, to an exploration of the lives and worlds that they left, seeking to find the one thing, a push or a hope, a cause, a reason, that will help our minds, encased in our modernity, understand on the human emotional level, that seems not to have evolved much, who they were. In this way, genealogical research slips into historical research and in this way, our hunt for and identification of the bureaucrat took us to a remarkable book on history that, were we not somewhat obsessed, we might have found to be, as our grandmother used to say, “dry as dust” but it isn’t Dear Readers, it really is not.

War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France 1791-1799, by Howard G Brown, is a work of superb scholarship based on extensive archival research. It is also, thank heavens, quite easy to read. Unlike the more popular histories of the Revolutionary era, such as Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, this work studies intensely a single aspect of the complete societal inversion that was the Revolution, in this case, the struggle between one part of governmental administration, the Ministry of War, and the flailing, shifting, central authority for control of the French Army, itself in no great state of order. We stumbled upon this book because the name of our man of interest appears a couple of times in the text, and so it appeared in an Internet search via Google, (that disturbingly dangerous and excessive stimulant to obsessive research). Happy discovery.

Dr. Brown explains the background of the Ministry of War just before the Revolution and how there had already been efforts to reform it as well as the development of the central government through its various stages after the Revolution. He gives a rather thrilling account of how the sans-culottes, the extremists of Revolutionary thought in Paris, took over and dominated the Ministry of War, making it a rival to the government for power. As one might imagine, control of the Army at such a time was crucial. He explains clearly how the revolutionaries’ abolition of royal power and creation of legislative and executive powers that were separated gave the Ministry of War an opportunity to reinvent itself with “considerable independence”. The tension between the Ministry and the successive executive arms of government was extraordinary and Dr. Brown conveys it with style and clarity. This was a power struggle largely hidden from public view, which was, naturally, directed toward the guillotine or the War in the Vendée, or the invasions by foreign armies. It is astonishing to read of how the Ministry of War, during the sans-culottes phase, was more radically revolutionary than many parts of the revolutionary government. Through numerous purges and restructuring of the Ministry, the executive acquired and consolidated control of the Ministry and the Army. Then came Napoleon.

We have lived in this beautiful country of France for over fifteen years now and have exulted in its history and culture, yet we remain flummoxed by the strange French mentality that is permeated with bureaucracy. Reading this book, we have begun to apprehend how bureaucracy became the tool to control the masses, how paperwork, certificates of proof, stamps of authority, duplicates, triplicates, deadlines for submissions, and all the other bureaucratic requirements became the boulder with which to crush the violent impulse out of each and every individual. Yet, as Dr. Brown makes clear, this was not exactly the intention: “While the state élite was aware of the importance of ensuring good administration to increase legitimacy, it never openly embraced bureaucratization…as a means of stabilizing the exercise of state power.”

Many have pointed out that France’s Revolution prefigured the Russian Revolution. Perhaps France prefigures more. Some see France’s indifference to and immunity from the way in which the rest of the world’s ethics and mores are defined and daily redefined by the masses’ surges and swells of opinion swirling about the Internet as backwardness, but it could be the opposite. It may be that we will all become exhausted by the incessant change and power of popular opinion and opt for the French solution of attaining stability through bureaucracy. It may be that Vladimir Putin’s recent comment that liberalism is obsolete and populism (those surges and swells of opinion) is now what governs us omitted the third and final stage, which is that, since the chaos of populism will inevitably lead a society to a desire for political and social stability, and since France has shown how very stabilizing bureaucracy can be, a (now, technologically enhanced) bureaucracy is our future.

One learns so much from genealogy.

 

War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France, 1791–1799

Howard G. Brown

Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1995

 

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy