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February 2021

"Female Ancestors Are Hard to Find", They Say, But Not If They Were French, We Assure You

Women - Bretagne (Carhaix et Huelgoat)

This year's RootsTech has launched, with many dozens of talks on more than genealogy, all of them online this year. Topics cover everything from food to folklore, costumes to customs, search strategies to scrapbooking, and the dreaded, bouncy, motivational talks. At least, we dread them. We have many failings, Dear Readers, (most shamefully, our vile, cataclysmic and near-cannibalistic rages) but lack of motivation is not one of them. Yet, for all of the choice, we could not find at first glance a presentation to captivate us, so we returned to one from last year, the very fine "Finding Your Elusive Female Ancestors" by Julie Stoddard. Ms. Stoddard makes a number of good points, and includes some research skills, such as creating timelines, always looking at original documents and analyzing them fully (here is how we do it), that should be employed in all genealogy research, but her focus  is on the difficulty of researching women in the United States.

Researching women in France is quite different, so we thought that we might give you something of a comparison between the skills proposed by Ms. Stoddard for researching your American female ancestors with those necessary for researching your French female ancestors. The fundamental difference lies in the customs concerning a married woman's surname. In America and the English tradition, when a woman married, her surname legally changed to that of her husband; in France, since 1792, it did and does not. In America, when Jane Smith married John Brown, her legal name changed to Jane Brown, or Mrs. John Brown. If John died, she became Widow Brown. In France, when Jeanne Martin married Jean Larue, her legal name remained Jeanne Martin, with the added status of "wife of Larue" (femme Larue or épouse Larue), written in full: Jeanne Martin, épouse Larue. If Jean died, her status changed but her name did not. She became Jeanne Martin, widow Larue: Jeanne Martin veuve Larue. Thus, there is no such thing as a "maiden name" in France; there is only a person's name. What of Madame Larue as one finds? This is a customary usage but not a legal name. Additionally, in France, women could and did sign documents, using their legal names.

Do not be fooled, Dear Readers. This preserving of a woman's birth name as her legal identity is not an indication that France was somehow more advanced concerning women's rights. No, it is a country as backward in that respect as any other; the female revolutionaries who fought for women's equality during the Revolution were beheaded and their writings buried; in modern times, women were not enfranchised until 1948.  The difference comes from the French (and very Latin) concept of family. A woman was part of her birth family. Any dowry she received came from the family; they may have retained rights over it; they may have expected it to be returned were she to die. Yet, she also belonged to the new family she was to create with her husband and they may have been controlling their family's assets in relation to their own children. As a widow, she might have carried on the family business in her own right (this happened especially with shipping families, it seems). Knowing her identity was essential and practical. How, in terms of genealogical research, are these differences manifested?

Ms. Stoddard lists the types of records most likely to result in a successful search for a woman's name in America, and how to use them for that purpose:

  • Vital records, being birth, marriage and death records
  • Census returns
  • Family trees found online
  • Cemeteries
  • Probate records
  • Social Security records
  • DNA tests

Looking at their French equivalents, one can see that their usefulness in researching women is not at all the same.

  • The French equivalent of vital records are the actes d'état civil, acts of civil status. These date from 1792, when civil registration replaced church parish records as legal documentation of people. These are hugely useful in tracing a French female ancestor's life. A marriage act, acte de mariage, will give a woman's full name, both of her parents' full names, and her date and place of birth. Thus, one marriage act can reveal not only the bride's name but the names of her mother and of the groom's mother as well. Birth registrations, actes de naissance, generally give the legal names of the father and of the mother as well as their marital status. Thus, a child of the couple above would be registered as, say, Samuel Larue, born to Jean Larue and his wife, Jeanne Martin. Death registrations, actes de décès, are always in the legal name of the person, so a woman's death would be, for example registered as: Jeanne Martin, wife (or widow) of Jean Larue. If known, her parents names and the place of her birth would be included. Most commercial genealogy companies in France have structured their initial search pages to allow for exploiting all of this detail in the civil registrations.
  • Census returns are recensements (with other terms used over the years) in France. They began in 1836, except for in Paris, where they did not begin until 1926. Married women are enumerated under their legal names. Thus, one would see the Larue family listed as:
    • Larue, Jean, head of household
    • Martin, Jeanne, his wife
    • Larue, Samuel, their son
    • Larue, Jacques, their son
    • Larue Marie, their daughter
    • Boule, Louise, widow Larue, mother of the head of household

The great headache with the French census is that most are not indexed. Filae.com has indexed two, that for 1872 and that for 1906, and they are working on others. Though there is less indexing of censuses in France than in America, it is generally of a much higher quality, yielding much fewer preposterous results.

  • Family trees found online posted by French people tend to be slightly better at citing sources than those found online in America. The best source for French family trees is Geneanet.org. As Ms. Stoddard recommends, so do we: verify every single source.
  • Cemetery photographs or jaunts to view family plots are recommend by Ms. Stoddard to help you to find a female ancestor. This would not be very successful in France, especially outside of Paris and other large cities. French cemeteries tend not to have graves of individuals but family tombs. (Once again, the family is more important than the individual.) These tombs often have no more than the family surname engraved upon them. Some will have listed the names of those within, some not. Where they do, the lists may not be complete. More valuable for research than the cemetery or grave stone is the cemetery register, maintained by the town hall. Because so many cemeteries in France have been moved or destroyed and because untended graves are emptied and the plots resold, hunting through cemeteries will not yield much information. The register books of interments, however, are permanent records and might help with genealogical research. Those of  Paris are online, but this is still quite rare. Geneanet has a fair collection of photographs of  grave markers and tombs, but it is still quite small.
  • Probate records in France are increasingly online on the websites of the Departmental Archives. Again, in these, a woman will appear under her legal name. The records online relate more to the legal transfer of title to property because of a death and the legal registration of a will. Wills are not found online. These are complicated to search and are more useful in the hunt for unknown relatives. One would not begin the search for a female ancestor here when she is so easy to find elsewhere.
  • Social Security records. Beware, here, for they are not what you think in France. La Sécurité Sociale is the term for the French national health system and those, being medical records, you will not be able to touch for love or money. In America, one's Social Security number, like it or not, functions almost as a national identity number. France does issue national identity cards, la carte d'identité, and you will not get your hands on a collection of those either.
  • The last category, finding relatives and thus, common ancestors, with DNA testing is a conundrum, fraught with difficulty, and partially illegal in France. However, so many people skirt the law, take the illegal test and put their results up on foreign genealogy websites that, if you are so inclined, you might give it a try. Where this will be extremely helpful in tracing a woman or a man is where either or both chose not to be named on a child's birth registration.

 

We are grateful to Ms. Stoddard for her excellent presentation and that it has inspired us in this discussion. Good luck finding your female ancestors!

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


The Best Posts for the Letter A in the 2020 Challenge A-Z

Letter A

As promised, we bring you what we consider to have been among the better contributions to the 2020 Challenge A-Z, beginning with those of the letter A. We base our selection not only upon quality but upon what we consider may be useful to you, Dear Readers. Thus, many quite charming but too personal essays are omitted. All are in French.

 

Catherine Livet's blog, Becklivet, is a personal blog about researching her own family's genealogy. Her submission for the letter A is entitled Androgyne and tells of a child's sex  given incorrectly on a birth registration. She exhibits the faulty registration, covered with marginal notes showing the modifications made to legally change the sex, so that the person could marry. The post is brief and very clear and covers something that could cause any of us to stumble during our research.

 

Brigitte writes the respected Chroniques d'antan et d'ailleurs - Voyages sur les traces des ancêtres de mes enfants, on which she submitted the post A comme Apothicaire (A for Apothecary). This is a long a thorough study of one apothecary. It is well-illustrated and has a list of links at the end so, even if your French is not very good, you should be able to garner some good ideas from it. Most valuable, to our mind, is her discovery of a couple of delightful, seventeenth century directories of apothecaries in Paris and Nancy. An excellent piece of genealogy writing.

 

Maïwenn Bourdic writes d'Aïeux et d'Ailleurs, généalogie et archives, with a strong emphasis on World War I research. She wrote A comme Absent militaires (A is for Away or Missing Military Personnel). She discusses in detail and with examples a specific series in the National Archives, Dossiers des absents militaires (1846-1893), the files on those military personnel who went missing during that period (which includes the Franco-Prussian War). Click on that link to see the PDF finding aid, which lists all those who were declared missing and the documentation that was submitted by their families for the declaration. With the codes, one can then request a copy of the file. Many of you, Dear Readers, have ancestors who were from Alsace-Lorraine. If they seemed to have served and disappeared, you may find them here. There are also quite a number who went missing on Napoleon's campaign in Russia in 1812. Madame Bourdic's blog is full of such discoveries that she shares. Highly recommended.

 

This year, we noticed that many more departmental and municipal archives joined in the challenge. Many of them chose to put their contributions on their facebook pages so, if you know the town or village of an ancestor's origin, look on facebook to see if the archives have a page. They often write about local citizens and history and your ancestor could be included. Some, such as the Communal Archives of Savigny-sur-Orge, even translated their posts into English!

As we read through the many fine posts, we will continue to share those we like best with you, Dear Readers.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

 

 


Calling All Caribbean Genealogy Experts to Solve a Puzzle - and Our Own Theory

Colonies en Amerique

Dear Readers, we do hope that at least on amongst you may be able to help us with this puzzle, sent by Monsieur S.:

I am looking at records of French ancestors  from the Caribbean [specifically, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Trinidad] in the 1700s. One of the ancestors, upon marriage, adopted a second surname identical to that of his paternal grandmother. He became Francois Sellier Foucour [also Faucour], and passed this surname down to his descendants, while his brothers (and their descendants) remained simply Sellier.

In looking through the records of births, marriages, and deaths, I noticed a few other times when a marriage record shows the groom with a more complicated "double name" than his father in the same record. What I also notice is that the marriages where the name addition occurred also involved a dispensation because first cousins were marrying.

Was there some sort of practice of the groom adopting a surname that combines those of both common paternal ancestors in the case of cousin marriages in the French-speaking Caribbean (or elsewhere, for that matter)? I have tried to google to see if there are articles on this surname phenomenon, but have not found any discussion of it.

I have seen the adoption of a wife's surname in German records, where the groom was marrying the sole female heir of a farm and positioning himself to take over the farm eventually, but nothing like that is happening here. In my case, the Foucours lived nowhere near where the marriage was taking place. It's also not a surname from the wife's family. Nor is it some physical descriptor to try to distinguish individuals. And there are no other Francios Selliers in the area, creating a need to tell them apart.

What do you think is the reason for the name change from Sellier to Sellier Foucour? Any thoughts you have on the phenomenon and my guess at what is happening (but not an understanding of why) would be welcome.

 

Hitherto, we have not come across this. Have any of you done so, Dear Readers? Can you provide an explanation? Has it to do with land ownership? Has it to do with the strong Spanish influence in the region leading to the adoption of the Spanish custom of using both parents' surnames as their child's compound surname?

If you know the reason, please do write in the comments below. 

Merci bien!

 

REPLIES RECEIVED WITH SUGGESTIONS, SUSPICIONS, ETC.:

In addition to the Comment below, we have received these by e-mail:

 

From Monsieur L, a very interesting link:

Hi Anne,

I had a quick look at your query and you might be interested by the following link (Spécificités anthroponymiques antillaises : les noms de famille des Martiniquais d'ascendance servile).

 

From Monsieur S:

Dear Anne

The reason is obvious. This is a very popular coutume (custom?) among Spanish people, whereas , even today, most people in Spain have a double name , the father name and the mother's father name or "patronym. I use "father name" because , the mother, (today, officially) keeps her "patronym", even when married. In your example, you might call them, Mr and Mrs Sellier, but they remain by law Mr Sellier xxx and Mrs Faucour yyy. where xxx is Sellier' mother name and yyy FAUCOUR mother's name.

So the grandmother was called Mrs Faucour , but she was "the wife of" Mr FAUCOUR, married or not.

Very useful when dealing with genealogy!

Another potential reason to be identified is whether they had interest to be considered of Spanish origin and not french, as Sellier suggests.

Spanish ? because of local government, now, Faucour may suggest a well known family, more than a simple Sellier. ‌

I have also seen, at the end of the 19th century, 100% french people adding a 2nd name in Louisiana, only for differentiation.
I know some simple "Soulié" in New Orleans who managed to be called Soulie xxxxxx between 1890 and 1910.

The "Etat Civil " was taken on declared name at birth or death , until late; so easy to change or modify. ALL THE MORE IF YOU WERE A MIGRANT !

I hope I could help you.

PS OTHER customs in other countries, obviously.

for example : family names Russians and Polish = Romanov and Romanova
first name if the father is (say) Alexei for Alexander , his son might be Sergei Alexandrovitch Romanov and his daughter Irina Alexandrovna Romanov (or Romanova in some places)

Our Own Theory

We have read all of the comments, suggestions and linked articles to the above. Nothing quite seems to fit the situation described by Monsieur S. , at least to our mind.

  • The articles tend to be more about the names chosen by liberated slaves in Martinique, which does not seem to apply here.
  • The suggestion of Spanish influence and the well-known double surname tradition of the Spanish occurred to us as well. However, if that were the case, surely all members of the family would have followed the tradition as well. Additionally, the maternal name should have come form the groom's mother, surely, and not his paternal grandmother.
  • The proposal that the double name could be a "dit name" again does not really apply. A "dit name" is, essentially an "also known as" or, literally, "called". It is an alternate name, a custom that became a legal name. In the case of Monsieur S, the name change is clearly legal. Again, it applies only to one couple, not the siblings, whereas "dit names" tended to apply either to all branches of a family in a particular location, or each branch took a different name to differentiate itself form the others. Neither of those options happened here.
  • Monsieur S. himself mentions and rejects the German case wherein a groom may adopt his wife's name if she were the sole heir to a family farm, in order to keep that name's link with the property. 

We think this last may come closest to our own theory. Many years ago, we knew a family with quite unusual names. They explained with the story of a maternal aunt was the last in her family to carry on the family surname. It weighed on her mind that, when she would die, their line of that name would die out. When her sister's son was about to marry, she offered him a proposition: if he would change his surname to hers, so that he and his children would carry on the name, she would leave him her not inconsiderable fortune. The young man did so, and changed his surname to hers, which was Stone. He and his wife took the homage further and named their children Rocky, Pebbles, Petra and Cairn (this was California in the early 1970s). The fortune was duly inherited. The name lived on within the family. All were happy.

Could it be that, in the case of Monsieur S, the Foucour family, at the time of the marriage, had run out of sons to carry on the name?  It would be a simple thing to examine the family tree to find out if this were the case, though it would not, of course, prove a motive but merely provide a possible cause for one. The next step would be to see if, in the other cases he mentions, sons there were missing as well. This theory might also help to explain why it happened with marriages between cousins that required dispensations. Like Mr. Stone above, the groom would be of the same line as the name, through his mother, making those obsessed with its preservation a bit more comfortable about giving it to him.

Do let us know, Monsieur S., what your examination of the family tree reveals. Do the brides all have a dearth of uncles and brothers?

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy