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August 2020

Did Your Ancestor Sign an Employment Contract, (contrat d'engagement), to Go to Louisiana?


On occasion, we are the recipient of cries for help from some of you, Dear Readers, seeking what you may imagine to be a large and central collection of all employment contracts signed by French nationals three hundred years ago to work overseas, leaving France for a few years or forever. Such a collection does not exist, either in the physical or the electronic world. It is important for us, as researchers, to understand why. 

Genealogical researchers work, primarily, with archival materials and, secondarily, with library materials. If you are experienced with both, you will know already that the fundamental reasoning of their arrangement are at opposite ends of the information management spectrum. Library materials are (or were, when books were on shelves) arranged in order to facilitate retrieval by a user. All was aimed at enabling a researcher to find books by the name of the author, by the title of the book, or by the subject matter of the contents. On the shelves, materials were arranged by the subject matter, allowing for serendipitous discoveries of similar works on the same subject. The purpose of archives is to document the activities of an entity, such as a government or company. Thus, all materials are arranged according to the creator, within a structural hierarchy, the activities of the creator and the date created. Provenance, the source and original ownership of the documentation, is all. The researcher must be able to search and to imagine possibilities in the two systems, in the one, to think of all related subjects in order to find a helpful book, in the other, to know how an organization was structured and what it did in order to know what part of it created a document, why and when.

Quite simply, the grand overseas exploitation corporations and chartered companies of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not have employment offices or human resources departments, so few of them had a place where employment contracts were signed (except for a few of the top directors). This means that, even when they began keeping archives, few of them had contracts to archive. Recruitment agents went around France, to poor villages, to prisons, to orphanages, seeking workers and potential colonists, and the contracts, if any, were signed locally, with a local notaire. Thus, the structure to look at is not national but local and not of the company but of the local notarial études, or offices. Because no notaire wrote such contracts exclusively but, like with all of his work, as the occasion arose, no notaire will have had a separate collection of employment contracts; they will be filed in chronological order with all of his other notarial acts.

If your ancestor signed a contrat d'engagement, finding it will require some work, but much has been published in this area, so it will be easier as time goes on. There are certain details you must gather about your ancestor, if possible:

  • His or her or their full name
  • The name of the vessel on which they voyaged
  • The port of arrival
  • The port of departure
  • The place of birth
  • If from a prison or orphanage, the name of the institution
  • If in the military, the name of the regiment
  • Their rank or profession

Information is scattered, but the most complete archives on the earlier companies (Compagnie des iles de l'Amérique, Compagnie du Mississippi, Compagnie de la Louisiane, etc.), are with the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM) and they have very detailed finding aids that can be searched in a number of ways. Some of the documents have been digitized, but not many.

The archives of the Compagnie des Indes are gathered in a dedicated museum with much online, including passenger lists. The Archives nationales in Paris also have an enormous amount of private papers and contracts relating the the Compagnie des Indes, so do not forget to search there. These are all, for the most part, archives documenting the operations and correspondence of the companies and may have little by way of contracts with individual seamen or bakers or farmers.

The search will have to go deeper but no need to repeat the work done much better by others. Think libraries and books again.

A few contracts have been discussed and listed on blogs and websites, especially the excellent Blogue de Guy Perron, an archivist at La Rochelle, the port from which many early engagés departed.

If your ancestor engaged to go to Canada before arriving in Louisiana:

If these do not have your ancestor, then you must take your details, gathered as recommended above, and try to find the notaire who would have drafted his or her contract. Michèle Champagne explains the procedure, such as it is, in her article,  "Les Français en quête du Nouveau Monde : les Iles d’Amérique et la Nouvelle-France, espoir du XVIIe-XVIIIe s. Quelques pistes pour retrouver ses ancêtres en terre d’Amérique", (never accuse the French of succinct titles).  The responsibility for recruitment was handled differently over the years. In the early years, recruitment agents, who haunted fairs, markets and other crowded places where young men might gather, were from the Navy, (Marine), the companies and merchants. Later, the merchants handed the job over to the captains of the vessels that would sail for the companies.

  • Contracts were generally signed during the winter, when it was easier to convince men without work to go to warmer climes. Recall that, in the midst of this time, the year 1709 was one of the harshest ever recorded in France, leading to a disastrous harvest throughout the country in 1710. This, in turn, resulted in a rise in the price of wheat to a level that most people could not afford and there were food riots in Paris and elsewhere. The harsh weather continued with a period of extreme cold and rain lasting until 1717, during which there were floods each year from 1710 to 1712. The poor and malnourished struggled to survive in the best of conditions, but during this period, in the reign of Louis XV, famine killed many. A few years in a tropical swamp, with pay, may not have seemed a bad idea to some.
  • The average length of time contracted was three years, but it could have been as long as seven years.
  • Contracts could be with the chartered company, with a plantation owner, with a farmer or with a merchant. Thus, though your ancestor may have sailed on a Compagnie des Indes vessel to Louisiana, he or she may not have signed the contract with the company. People who went with no contract at all, and who were not forced to go, were termed passagers libres, meaning not that they voyaged at no charge but that they were free to decide their employment and destination on arrival. Some, who were too poor to pay their passage and too unqualified or unsavoury for the recruitment agents, went as indentured servants.

All contracts were drawn up and signed in front of a notaire, who kept a copy. The trick is finding the copy, which requires knowing where your ancestor was recruited and before which notaire he or she signed.

  • The port of departure was the most likely place for a contract to have been signed. La Rochelle was the main port of departure for the New World and Lorient became the main port of departure for India. Certain notaires in such ports had offices right by the docks and they most often wrote the contrats d'engagement.  Mme. Champagne includes a list of notaires in the department of Charente-Maritime (where La Rochelle is located) known for writing such contracts during the seventeenth century. For another city, look at the map of the location of notaire's études (most of the Departmental Archives have now produced such a map) and find those closest to the docks.
  • The contract may have been signed in the town where your ancestor was born or in the nearest large market town. There, it is harder to know with which notaire to start unless it is clear that one specialized in work for the chartered companies and their contracts.
  • Then, if the archives have not indexed the répertoires, the chronological lists of acts written by the notaires, it may be a long chore of reading through each of them covering the year or so before your ancestor's departure. An increasing number of Departmental Archives have digitized the répertoires and put them online.
  • Once the reference to the contract has been found, note the date, number, the name of the notaire and the name or number of the étude in order to request a copy from the archives.

Piece of cake, no?

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Wallis-et-Futuna, a DOM-TOM Research Example

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These tiny islands turn out to be quite dynamic when it comes to helping people with their genealogical research. There is a quite determined effort to protect and to preserve the history of the country's families and to help people to know more about their families. 

In 2018, France TV reported that two women from the cultural service (under which come the archives) of Futuna set out to gather oral and genealogical histories from every family on the island. They discovered that most people interviewed did not know generations further back than their own grandparents. Using this primary information, one of the researchers began tracing each family through the baptismal records of the Catholic mission, which began in 1842. This is a good fifty years earlier than the civil registrations that can be viewed on the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM), the starting point for any DOM-TOM research.

The following year, after all the research was digitized, the results of the genealogical research began to be promoted and the research extended to requesting living people to send in copies of their own and their family's documentation in order to complete the goal of researching and documenting the genealogy of every family of Futuna. The cultural and archives service's own website has an excellent graphic explaining the procedure by which one may request aid from and contribute to the genealogy service:


Wallis and Futuna genealogy service

There is a form to download (télécharger) and complete for joining the project. It asks for genealogical information, such as it may be known, and the reason for the request.


There is also a list of documentation to provide that can be downloaded. Documents required are the livret de famille and copies of as many civil registrations as possible. 


Note that this is somewhat different from researching one's more distant ancestors. French law protects the privacy of individuals much more so than in many other countries. If requesting information about people still alive or about whom the documentation is less than seventy-five years old, one will have to prove the familial relationship. Additionally, the documents provided with the request will become part of the collection on Futuna families. According to the fine graphic of steps in the procedure, the service will then verify the documentation, perhaps ask for more, and then be in contact.

A very fine project, we opine.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


DOM-TOM Genealogical Research

Colonial Guadeloupe

Following on from our previous post, which was about Overseas France, we present here the basics of genealogical research relating to those departments and regions. These come from the superb research guide produced by Bernard Vuillet of the Archives nationales.  

Parish and Civil Registrations / Actes d'état civil

As stated in that earlier post, all DOM-TOM research begins with the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM) which have digitized and put online all of the microfilmed parish and civil registrations held concerning these territories.

Notarial Records / Les Actes des Notaires

Duplicate copies of notarial records created in the territories were made from 1776 to 1912. These are held at ANOM and at each territory's Departmental Archives, with a microfilm copy of them being held at the Archives nationales in Paris. Additionally, there may be notarial records relating to families living in the territories (then colonies) written in France during their visits. Those in Paris will be in the Minutier Central and, with luck might turn up in a search via the Salle des Inventaires Virtuelle. Those elsewhere will be in the local Departmental Archives. In all cases, one must know the name of the notaire to be able to search for the records.

Land Title Records / Les Titres de Propriété

Increasingly, Departmental Archives are putting online the registers of land title, the hypothèques, as they are known. Keep checking their websites to see what is available. Duplicates of those made during the nineteenth century are held at ANOM. The original land grants will be held at the Departmental Archives, while files about them are held at ANOM. ANOM also hold the records concerning these lands in vacant inheritances.

Census Returns / Le recensements

Dating from as early as the seventeenth century, these are held in ANOM, with a microfilm copy at the Archives nationales in Paris. Apparently, the Departmental Archives of La Réunion have an excellent collection as well.

Colonial Personnel / Le Personnel colonial

These are primarily indices and lists. As with other archives, these are held at ANOM, with microfilm copies in the Archives nationales in Paris. Some of the Departmental Archives also have copies.

Passenger lists / Les Listes des Passagers

These are difficult. One must know the date of departure and the port of departure. Some general passenger lists, from 1749 to 1886, are held, yet again, at ANOM, with copies at the Archives nationales in Paris. The Departmental Archives responsible for the major ports of departure, (Le Havre, Rouen, Caen, Nantes, Saint-Nazaire, Bordeaux) hold what passenger lists have survived. The naval archives for the ports of Brest, Cherbourg, Lorient, Rochefort and Toulon also have passenger lists.


Clearly, the ideal would be to go to ANOM in the south of France, and then to some of the overseas Departmental Archives. Alas, most of us cannot manage such travel and it probably would not be permitted in these times of a pandemic anyway. However, an enormous amount of documentation has been digitized by ANOM, not all of it easy to find. Some years ago, we wrote of the secrets hidden there and how to search for them.

The research may be difficult but, in some ways, these records contain more genealogical information than do records on those who remained in France. Good luck!

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Understanding Overseas France for Genealogy

Commerce Musee

The coronavirus pandemic continues to work its change on all aspects of our life. We wear a face mask when we go out; voyagers have medical tests when they arrive in France; voyagers from some countries of rampant infection may not enter Europe; there is much debate and confusion about cures and vaccines. Hiding out at home, even though we are no longer confined or locked down in France, seems to be not only the safest but the most peaceful option at the moment. While hiding out, we have been continuing to listen to various podcasts, lectures, webinars, and such, all on the subject of French genealogy, and it has come to our attention that many of those given by non-French presenters do not understand at all Overseas France. The old acronym, DOM-TOM, seems to baffle them. We have heard such definitions as "France's colonies" (France no longer has colonies), "an old region of France" (wrong) or that tell-tale, indistinct mutter (normally heard in school children's presentations and something of a surprise in a "professional" webinar) that indicates that the speaker has no idea at all of what he or she is talking about and hopes that the listeners will somehow not notice the garbled noise, or will perhaps blame their own hearing for the sudden loss of coherence (for shame).

DOM-TOM stood for départements d'outre-mer - territoires d'outre-mer, (Overseas departments and overseas territories). The current terms are départements et regions d'outre-mer (ex-DOM) and collectivités d'outre-mer (ex-TOM) and the general term for all is now territoires. The new acronyms DROM-COM have not really caught on, so look for both. The people who live in Overseas France together constitute about four per cent of the population of France.

The first group are fully and completely a part of France, in the way that Hawaii and Alaska are a part of the United States, and include:

  • Guadeloupe
  • Martinique
  • Guyane
  • Réunion
  • Mayotte

The second group are territories under the ultimate authority of France, much as Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and  includes:

  • Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon
  • Saint-Barthélemy
  • Saint-Martin
  • Wallis-et-Futuna
  • Polynésie française (French Polynesia)
  • Nouvelle Calédonie (New Caledonia)

Read more about them on Wikipedia in English and in French. Read the government's point of view on the website of the Overseas Ministry,  Ministère des outre-mer. For news coverage of all things overseas, read the excellent articles on Outremers 360˚

Begin your genealogical research with the digitized parish and civil registers on the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (Overseas Archives). To go deeper, contact the geographically appropriate genealogy association.

No more indistinct muttering.

©2020 Anne Mortddel

French Genealogy