A couple of years ago, the brilliant archivists in the Archives nationales produced a superb advice note on how to research émigré ancestors in France's National Archives, entitled Rechercher un émigré de la Révolution (1789-1825).1 (Note that the word émigré simply means emigrant. English speakers who use that French word mean only those people fleeing France during the Revolution, from roughly 1789 to 1799. When French people use the word alone, it can mean anyone who emigrated at any time for any reason from anywhere. To refer to the same group as meant by the English speakers in French, one must specify that one is referring to emigrants of the Revolution by saying so: émigrés de la Révolution.) As this fine advice note is in French, we summarize it here for our Dear Readers who may need a bit of a hoist over the language hurdle.
The authors begin by giving a bit of historical context. From 1789 to 1800, approximately one hundred fifty thousand French people left their country secretly, or at least without authorisation. (We add this point ourselves since some of them left with so much baggage and made so much noise about it that their departures were common knowledge.) Some had the time to sell up and leave with money, most did not and abandoned all.
The Revolutionary emigrations were in roughly two waves. Those who left before 1792 tended to be aristocrats and counter-revolutionaries. Those who left afterward, forming the second wave, were fleeing the increasing violence and then the Terror. As things calmed down, the government tried to lure them back and some did return, making for something of a first wave back. The second wave of return was, of course, after the defeat of Napoleon and at the establishment of the Restoration, in 1814.
The research advice has four sections:
- Key points for genealogical research
- Administrative and judicial processes and documentation in the archives
- Emigrés in various private documents
- Taking your research further...
The Key Points for Genealogical Research
Diligent, nay, stupendously heroic archivist Marthe Robinet worked throughout the 1940s extracting details from nearly twenty different archive series about émigrés and creating an informational card about each one. One card, mind you, that a user can pull to find a list of every archival document in the National Archives about that particular person. At the moment, these are not online, but it looks as if they may be soon. To see them, one must go to the archives and view them on microfiche. Part, but not all of the source material is indexed online, and a few of the actual dossiers may be viewed online.
Administrative and judicial processes and documentation in the archives
There are a vast number of police surveillance files concerning émigrés, and files of cases brought against them, of the confiscation and sale of their property, of judgments against them, of laws passed about them, of their trials, lists of their names, files on their counter-revolutionary activities. Then, there are files on their return to France, the restoration of their property, of their amnesties and removal from lists of criminals and traitors. None of these are online.
Emigrés in various private documents
This group encompasses the many seized papers and documentation of the émigrés, their own private archives, notarial records relating to them (some of which have been indexed and abstracted). Only a very few of these are online.
Taking your research further...
Departmental Archives (see the list in the panel to the left), municipal or communal archives, the Diplomatic Archives, the military archives and the Paris police archives, all can have more on individual émigrés. The archives of the countries to which they went can as well. The paper ends with a wonderful bibliography of works about émigrés.
This is the briefest of summaries. Do click on the link to read the advice paper in its entirety. Though little is online, an enormous amount will come up in a search on a name on the website for the finding aids of the Archives nationales. Recall that we explain here how to go about ordering the material.
1Archives nationales (France), 2016. Fiche rédigée par Isabelle CHAVE, Cécile ROBIN, Zénaïde ROMANEIX, Emmanuelle RONDOUIN et Aurélia ROSTAING, avec la collaboration de Sylvie LE GOËDEC. Remerciements à Philippe BERTHOLET.