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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