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French West Indies Research - Les Antilles français

Saint Martin

While many of you, Dear Readers, have been vaccinated, we in Europe are still waiting. Supplies are low and tempers are short. We remain convinced that, had the European purchasing department hired a few French notaires skilled at writing French marriage contracts, not a company in the world would have had the tiniest bit of wiggle room or would have been able to renege on a single delivery. Those marriage contracts constitute an undervalued weapon, we opine.

While awaiting a vaccination and also a proper springtime, we have been deeply and intensely concentrated on researching families of the French West Indies, in particular, the minuscule island of Saint Martin. As ever, with French overseas research, one begins with the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM). On their website's map showing the locations for which they have digitized parish and civil registrations, one can quickly navigate to Saint Martin.

Navigate

Once a selection is made, one is presented with a brief history of the territory in relation to the administration and documentation. Here, we learn that Saint Martin was divided between The Netherlands (who call it Sint Maarten) and France in 1648 and its administration placed under that of Guadeloupe in 1723, forming a part of that department until 2007, when it became a French Territorial Collectivity. We see that the online parish and civil registrations for Saint Martin date from 1773 to 1907, and we are invited to select a town, of which there are not many.

Select a town

It quickly becomes clear that the delightful range of years applies only partially and to only two towns. Marigot records range from 1773 to 1861 and Saint Matin town records range from 1860 to 1907. The other towns have very few records indeed.

Quite serious problems in tracing a family arise from the obvious reality of life at the time: few in their daily lives paid attention to the boundary between the French and Dutch sides of the island. The French register entries are filled with mentions that a person who was married was "born on the Dutch side" or his father "died on the Dutch side". For the researcher, since the French and Dutch bureaucrats seem not to have shared copies of registers with one another, this means that people disappear from and reappear in the records. 

For help with Dutch records, we turned to the excellent blog on Dutch genealogy by Yvette Hoitink, to find her post, "Netherlands Antilles data available online", with a link that still works and instructions. (Most helpful as we do not read Dutch well at all.) Researching here helped greatly to piece together a family that lived and registered itself on both sides of the island.

Another great help is the remarkable work of a Dutch fellow calling himself "Archives Man", Bert van der Saag. Mr. van der Saag has many more interests than genealogy or archives and they are all on display in an overabundant employment of the deceased software, Flash. We marvel at a mind that can work amongst blinking, brightly coloured images of dancers and soldiers, type fonts of all sizes in all colours with all kinds of highlights, with a few news stories and photographs added, yet his does, and very well. He has extracted data from the registers of the Dutch Antilles and typed it all, in detail, producing PDFs for Births/baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths. These he generously shares at no charge. One can search for a name in a PDF in a way that one cannot on digitized microfilm. Using Mr. van der Saag's extracts together with the online images, much can be achieved. His most recent PDF covers Saint Martin deaths from 1909 to 1937, taking us later than the records on ANOM. He also sells books.

To further one's knowledge and to ask specific questions, one needs to read more and to connect with others researching the same region, even island. Some years ago, Augusta Elmwood left the helpful comment:

"Anyone looking for Saint-Domingue information (or any French colony anywhere in the world) should check the website of the Généalogie et Historie de la Caraïbe, guided by the tireless Philippe and Bernadette Rossignol and their equally dedicated 'equipe'."

It is, indeed, a fine resource for this research, with articles, links, advice and, so precious, surname lists for their website and articles. They have a small but useful amount on the French West Indies and Saint Martin, including transcriptions of early census returns and a fabulous set of photographs of the entire finding aid to passenger lists to and from the colonies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Lastly, the website (which is ghastly) of the Museum of Saint Martin has a few hidden treasures, the most useful of which are scans of notarial records from the études (offices) of the notaires of Saint Martin. Here can be found wills, death inventories, long lists of slaves giving their names and ages, and many more civil contracts. Excellent resources here.

This is not an easy part of the world to research. The library and archives of Saint Martin do exist but have no website. The link in the list to the left on this blog takes one directly to the ANOM website. The archives of Guadeloupe have a website but no digitized records are on it. The above methods described may be the only way to find the documentation of a family who lived there. Of course, if cruising can ever again be done safely, a cruise ship that stopped at all of the French Caribbean archives towns might not be a bad idea. Let us look forward to that.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

 

 

 

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