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December 2019

The Municipal Archives of Vannes - a Plethora for the Holidays

Archives municipales de Vannes



AM Vannes 1


AM Vannes 2


AM Vannes 3


Some mad fool once dared to imply that a holiday that included archives visits was no holiday at all but we differ, boldly and without begging, indeed. If holidays are meant to contain innocent pleasures and perhaps the discovery of new places, then this gallivant through the archives of southern Brittany has certainly qualified for us. The last on the gallivant list has turned out to be the best, like a nice little flourish at the end of a perfect page of calligraphy.

We arrived at the spanking new and spotless Municipal Archives of Vannes on a cold and wet November morning. At the desk, we made our application for a Reader's Card, filling out a form that was longer than usual, and receiving a charming little welcome pack of paper, pencil and a list of rules.

We began with our usual request for Revolutionary era passports. Before we had fully settled into our seat at a table, the archivist wheeled in a trolly laden with cartons. "We thought you might be interested in later passports too," she offered, showing us a carton of passports from 1806 to 1816, almost all of the First Empire period. We were thrilled to our toes. Not only were we very interested in such a rare find of later passports, never, ever had an archivist actually gone so far ass to volunteer a suggestion. This really was service on a higher level of consciousness, we decided.

Vannes passeports

Bear with us, Dear Readers, as we elaborate on the window into a society that such internal passports can be. Recall that they were merely permission to make a specific journey into or out of the town. Many showed the same people passing through again and again, while other people seem to have passed through Vannes just once. Not only are these helpful in genealogical research on an ancestor, but in historical research into the society in which the ancestor lived. Here follows a list of the professions and work of the people requesting passports:

  • bookseller
  • wooden shoe maker
  • pharmacist
  • potter
  • tinker
  • handkerchief maker
  • surveyor
  • antiques dealer
  • saddler
  • brewer
  • contortionist
  • wine seller
  • sail maker
  • clock maker
  • composer
  • drawing master
  • basket maker
  • priest
  • barometer seller
  • musician
  • nail maker
  • day labourer
  • tailor
  • seamstress
  • roofer
  • hat maker
  • domestic servant
  • chandler
  • laundress
  • prisoner just released
  • mason
  • stone cutter
  • merchant
  • spinner
  • tobacco worker
  • acrobat
  • magician
  • portraitist
  • baker
  • pastry maker
  • wood turner
  • post rider (many of these on their return journeys)
  • cobbler
  • wig maker
  • student
  • locksmith
  • glass maker
  • embroiderer
  • lawyer
  • apprentice
  • soldier
  • sailor
  • artist
  • carpenter
  • paver
  • gardener
  • dentist
  • prostitute (fille publique)
  • iron worker
  • draper
  • weaver
  • organ grinder
  • chimney sweep
  • farrier
  • actor
  • surgeon
  • cook
  • plasterer
  • singer
  • cooper


Most came from the region, and many from other parts of France; some from as far away as Italy, Brussels, Poland, Hamburg, Prussia, Switzerland, and Spain. Some were refugees. Most of the forms were complete, giving at least a partial physical description. Here is the entry for a sixteen-year old Armand Bescourt, travelling salesman of eau de Cologne:

Armand Bescourt

And here, a full page of entries:

Full passports pagePolice générale-Passeports, 1806-1816. 2J 140. Archives Municipales de Vannes

We were keenly interested in the suggested cartons, one of which held a very rare 1792 register book of volunteers from Vannes for the Revolutionary Army.

1792 Volunteers RegisterAffaire militaires-Enrôlements volontaires. 1H 72.  Archives Municipales de Vannes

The last offering was just as interesting, for it contained something equally rare: a printed leaflet from 1817 containing the names, ages and descriptions of wanted criminals.

Wanted criminalsPolice-Surveillance condamnés, forçats liberés, An 9 - 1855. 2I 147. Archives Municipales de Vannes.

For those whose ancestor may have been such a one, this would be a find, indeed, as would the sad entry at the end, about a lost child.

Missing child

It is these odd bits of ephemera that have miraculously survived wars and clear-outs that can, on occasion, break through a brick wall and that are, so often, our reason for visiting municipal archives wherever possible.

These were old items and, at the end of our blissfully spent morning, our workspace was littered with crumbled bits of leather and paper. The helpful archivist burst forth with a vacuum cleaner and quickly hoovered up every trace of ancient detritus, recalling childhood memories of our belovèd, departed Kate, who frantically exhibited the same behaviour every time someone used an ash tray.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Municipal Archives of Lorient

AM Lorient 1

AM Lorient 2

This town, with this archives, was for the most part destroyed in the Allied Bombing raids of 1943 (you can read here of how the Allies decided that, since they could not destroy the German-built submarine base, they would wipe out the French town instead). So far as our subject area is concerned, this destruction is obvious from the paucity of the archives holdings. Most municipal archives around France have  their administration's precious collection of internal and external passports issued during the Revolution. These are one of the few types of documents that help in tracing people during that chaotic time. The Municipal Archives of Lorient, sadly, have none.

The town's parish and civil registrations, as they have been digitized, cannot be seem in the original but only online (this protection of originals once they have been digitized is normal throughout France). Should a visitor wish to view them, he or she is quite brusquely and officiously waved toward the computer desks and told to "get to work". Cowed, we did so, as did all others who entered, as obedient as schoolchildren being reprimanded by the maitresse. We were discouraged to find the usual helpfulness of French archivists not in evidence.

Then, we began to notice a peculiar pattern. Ever so meekly, supplicants would go to the main desk, saying:

"I've tried and I've tried and I just cannot find my ancestor in the digitized images.". In response, the archivist heaved the great sigh of the long-suffering public servant, impatient and exasperated at having to help these doltish members of the public.

"Give me the dates, places and names that you have and I'll try to get you started." These details in hand, she then whizzed through screens, finding the birth or marriage registration in a trice. "Et voilà," she said with scorn, printing the registration and handing it to the grateful supplicant. "And then, you see, you can find the births from the marriage and the deaths from the Tables décennales," she continued, whisking out printed registrations of more generations as she explained and handing them also to the beaming supplicant.

 "Oh, merci, Madame," the supplicant breathed, practically bowing in gratitude. Turning away from the desk, each such meek and helpless researcher winked at the others in the room. Then, the next went to the desk and pleaded helplessness in the same way as the first had done and received the same scornful and abundant assistance. Thus, though the archivist absolutely refused to do any research for patrons of the archives (which refusal, by the way, is normal throughout the world) quite a number of supplicant patrons walked away, pleased as Punch, with some very fine, free research done for them. 

So, Dear Readers, we recommend the empty Municipal Archives of Lorient highly and suggest that you go there in all haste before the inevitable fall that follows such pride ends this boon.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Service Historique de la Défense at Lorient

SHD Lorient 1

SHD Lorient 2

SHD Lorient 3

SHD Lorient 4

If one is researching the nineteenth century French Navy, the Marine, most websites and, indeed that of the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) itself, warn that there is little reason to go to the Marine Archives at Lorient. Upon arriving at the small facility, right on the lovely harbour of Lorient, one reads in the finding aid that the archives "...were  profoundly damaged by the destruction of the [Allied] bombings of 1943". After explaining that a heroic archivist had managed to send all Ancien régime (pre-Revolution) archives to a more protected storage in a chateau, nearly all of the archives of the whole nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were lost.

Lorient finding aid

(In our posts on the archives at Rennes and Brest, we have discussed the archives losses occasioned by the Allied Bombing of France. For a precise study in English of the bombing of Lorient, we recommend the thesis by Jon Loftus, "The Devastation of Lorient: Why Did the Allies Area Bomb the Biscay Ports in 1943?")

Consequently, when one looks at the lists of archives series, some of the categories are completely empty. Series R for example, concerning colonies, has not a single file in it. The library is quite interesting, having books that we have been seeking for some time but could not find online, in a repository or on the wondrous AbeBooks website of second-hand booksellers. In moments of frustration with the archives, we took many notes on these books. Of moments of frustration, there were many. Some clever soul had decided to rewrite some of the finding aids, assigning new codes to archives cartons as they were listed in the paper of the finding aids but not always to the actual physical object, rendering it lost. It seemed that everything we wanted to see fell into this category: the cartons appeared on the list but could not be found in the store room. This occasioned the calling into the room of ever more senior staff until the Chief Archivist himself came down for a chat. He was politely interested in our research and suggested a dozen more books but could not locate the missing cartons. We noted that, as the staff tried to find a better reference to the cartons on the new SHD website, they had as much trouble as we do with it. (Suffice to say that, while it is much prettier, access to finding aids has been severely reduced.)

This is the archives where the Compagnie des Indes has deposited their collection. Recall that a large part of it is online, particularly crew and passenger lists on their vessels (rôles d'équipage). As once records are available online they are no longer available in the original, this presents us with yet another reason not to go to the SHD in Lorient. This discouragement is rather sad and, if you, Dear Readers, are really hunting something that could be there, do not heed the discouragement. And so it happened that, because we always read the finding aids looking for any of the subjects about which you, Dear Readers, have written to us, we happened upon a list of young Polish officers on Belle-Ile, possibly refugees from the Polish-Russian War of 1830-1831, who received aid in 1833. Clearly written, it gives their names, ages, places of birth, rank, and the amount of aid received. Perhaps those of you who have written of Polish ancestors in France could find one here.

Polish officers in France 1833

So, in the end, the SHD at Lorient may well be worth a visit. Ah, we do love a good junket.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Guest Post - A Very Challenging Brick Wall

Missing parents

We have been sent a case of missing parents by the eminent genealogy researcher, Monsieur B., whose expertise is in Acadian, Canadian and French research. His brick wall is a true conundrum.

Zacharie Viel, Where Are You?

Not only is it important to share one’s genealogical success stories, but it is also important to share one’s frustrations and failures, and the latter certainly characterizes my research into the past of Madelinot ancestor Zacharie Viel. Having found the majority of the ancestries of the various men from France who settled at the Islands, despite my search in over 200+ parish and civil registers in the departments of Manche, Calvados and Orne, France, including the Island of Jersey just off the coast, and various seaport parishes in neighboring Ille-et-Vilaine and Côte d’Armor departments, I have yet to find a birth record for Zacharie, his parents’ marriage record, or the births of any of his siblings. It’s like the man came from France, set sail for Canada, married here, and had a handful of children, before his passing into the annals of history at the supposedly advanced age of 94 years old. One will ask what exactly do we know about him? Other than the following facts, not much else.

From his marriage at Havre-Aubert on 16 May 1842, he stated that he was from Coutances, the son of Pierre Viel and Marie Mière (or LeMière), both of these families being found in abundance in that region of Manche. His father’s occupation is given as a mason. Zacharie’s wife was Bathilde Chiasson, the daughter of Jean Chiasson and Esther Hébert, and of their marriage were born four sons and a daughter. Of their sons, only Honoré, a surveyor by trade, lived into his thirties, dying unmarried. Honoré’s sister, Esther, married in 1885 to Léoni Jomphe, by whom she had seven children, assuring a descendance from her father. Esther died in Bassin on 30 Jun 1949, and with her passing came the end of the Viel surname at the Magdalen Islands.

According to his death record dated 19 Apr 1887 at the undoubtedly exaggerated age of 94 years old, Zacharie was born in France, presumably at Coutances as we have noted, between 1793 (based on that age) and 1812 (based on the ages given by him in the various Canadian censuses of 1861, 1871 and 1881). At his marriage in 1842 to Bathilde, among the witnesses to their wedding appears another French compatriot, Joseph (-Guillaume) Châtel, originally from St-Pair-sur-Mer in the same French department of Manche, and who had two years previously also married at Havre-Aubert on 22 June 1840 the widow of Jean Bourgeois: Marie Deveau, the daughter of Jacques Deveau and Théotiste Lapierre. Undoubtedly, the two men became friends, Joseph having arrived before Zacharie, and thus, Zacharie asked him to be a witness to this important event in his life. Both men lived and died at Bassin.

The census records are likewise not that reliable to pin down his year of birth. In 1861, Zacharie’s age is given as 50 years old (thus born about 1810 or 1811). In 1871, he is given as 59 years of age (thus born about 1812). And finally in 1881, his age jumps to an exaggerated 84 year old (thus born in 1797).

Another fact that makes this search so complicated is that the Viel family also went by the surname LeViel, yet despite all these families which I also inspected, nothing has turned up among them either. Even the name of Zacharie is a rare name in that region, and in my research, I have encountered only a handful of records with that first name contained therein. In fact, the only Zacharie born in Coutances during the timeframe indicated above was an orphaned child (un “enfant trouvé”) left on the steps of the city hospice, born in the city on 21 April 1806. Could this have been him, later adopted by a Pierre and Marie Viel? If so, there are no records to support such an adoption or reclamation “reconnaissance” by his parents.

Another curve thrown into the record by the transcriber is the fact that when they reexamined the child, he was found to be of “feminine” gender (sic), about three days old. So was this child a male or female, or was the gender incorrectly recorded? In addition, other close-sounding surnames from this department have also complicated the search results: Néel and Piel, in particular. At his death at Bassin, Zacharie’s surname was recorded as “Miel”, the husband of Mathilde Bourgeois (rather than Bathilde Chiasson), by Father Henri Thériault, pastor of the parish… another clerical error.

When speaking of “Coutances”, does this mean the city, canton or diocese of that name? Each geographic area grows in size as one moves from one distinction to another, and this has been the fundamental guide for the research I have conducted, and why the number of parish and civil registers consulted has grown extensively. I have searched through and written to the Archives of the Marine in Cherbourg, who had no record of him either. All my posts on the various France message boards have gone unanswered as well. Meanwhile, my search throughout all of Normandy continues.

I am becoming convinced that this Viel family did not live in Coutances but actually arrived there from somewhere else. In my estimation, Zacharie was merely “passing through” the city from some other rural location on his way to North America. The sad part is that he is one of only two French ancestors whose roots I have yet to discover, containing both an exciting as well as frustrating search throughout the entire Normand countryside and seacoast. Finding his connections are the ultimate Madelinot brick wall.

Our hope is that some of you may have solved a similar problem or may be an expert on the name Viel or on the deceptive records of Coutances and that you will help to solve this puzzle. If you should be the one to find the answer, you may write to Monsieur B. directly at: "madelinot22 at". This is a call to arms, Dear Readers!

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



The Departmental Archives of Morbihan

AD Morbihan 1

AD morbihan 2


We have been attempting to visit the Departmental Archives of Morbihan for some years. Let us explain why it has been so difficult, aside from the usual obstacles to travel that the wing-clipping poltergeists of life sprinkle in our path. France is approximately the size of Texas, with a lot more coastline. We like to travel by train. All major train lines historically were separate companies that linked the cities and regions of France to Paris. Apparently, the cities and regions of France never wanted to be linked with one another. Imagine Paris as the hub of a wheel and the train lines to Marseilles or Lyon or Brest or Nancy as the spokes. What one really wants is not a structure comparable to a wheel but one comparable to a classic spider's web, with dozens of lines connecting the spokes. This, but for a couple of rare exceptions, France does not have. Our journey from La Rochelle to Vannes was a tad contorted and took far more time than it would have done had the spider's web model been followed, but we did arrive and, at long last walked through the grand doors of the Salle de Lecture of the Departmental Archives of Morbihan.

The archives are in a very modern, clean, spacious, well-lit, poorly heated building far from the centre of town. Unlike at the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime, there is no wifi for the users. The number of requests one may make is limited to three at a time and twenty per day. Not to worry, the service for retrieving the requested cartons is so slow that it would be impossible to have twenty requests be dealt with in a day. We encountered a system for these requests that we had never seen before. Requests are made through an internal network and the screen is clear and easy to use. Somewhere behind the scenes, small tickets are printed for each request and each put in a fashionable faux leather sleeve. These sleeves are then elegantly arranged on a display stand (see the top photo). Each user then strolls by the display stand like a shopper to see if there be a sleeve containing a ticket with his or her name upon it. Once discovered, the ticket is removed from the sleeve, signed, put back in the sleeve and presented to one of the retrieval staff who scan the bar code on the ticket and fetch the item. A rather laborious system, we thought, but it worked well enough in that we never received an incorrect carton. 

Morbihan ticket

The archivists were most professional and helpful, and had an impressive knowledge of their holdings. We had prepared a long list of codes to request, hoping to find a single file about an obscure case. On the suggestion of the archivist, we requested a different item first. Lo and behold, there, on the top of the first file that we opened, was the very case we sought. We were humbled by the archivist's expertise and had a very successful morning. Then the archivists all went away, to lunch or a meeting, perhaps. The room was abandoned to the retrieval staff, who pretty much abandoned us, the users. Personal telephones were used for obviously personal conversations, while users waited; long, gossipy conversations were had amongst staff near the request desk, their backs firmly presented to the room. Users were ignored with energetic disdain. The service slowed considerably. The remaining users were getting very annoyed. Sighs were heaved, eyes were rolled, feet were tapped. 

For weeks now, a major strike of transport workers and their sympathizers has been planned for the 5th of December. (There are two "strike seasons" in France. Strikes usually take place just before the December festival days or during the August holidays, giving the strikers the opportunity to extend their own holidays while disrupting those of the non-striking public). We wondered if this were the norm or if it were perhaps a work-to-rule afternoon in preparation for the big day? There was a musical hint that the latter could be the case. One does not expect to hear whistling in the Reading Room, ever. Yet, at the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime, workers were softly whistling Colonel Bogey March which may, thanks to a film, have connotations of workers and sabotage. Here, the staff were in the back room, loudly whistling the key melody from the 1812 Overture, not a piece of which the French are particularly fond, escalating our associations from sabotage by the oppressed to the burning of Moscow and the destruction of the French Army. Before this, we had been wondering if archives staff around France would be joining the strike. We now suspect that some will do so.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy