People of many nationalities, when they emigrated from one country to another, retained their cultural identity but often cut their legal ties with the country of origin. They kept their songs, their recipes, their religions and festivals, but let slide their continuing documentation back at home. This may have been to escape a past or it may have been too difficult to maintain contact in the days before the Pony Express or airmail or e-mail. The French, however, stand out as emigrants who often could not let go of being documented, and this is most useful to the genealogist researching them.
After the chaos and upheaval of the French Revolution, the Code Civil, first published in 1804, provided order to civil life. To this day, it represents more than law to many French; it seems also to provide the psychological comfort and security of structure and boundary. The civil register entries that replaced the pre-Revolutionary parish register entries are used over and over again to document and confirm a person's legal existence. One must show a recent and certified copy of one's birth register entry for any number of aspects of civil life: to marry, to attend school, to get a job, to take a driving test, to get a passport, to get an identity card, to buy property, to sell property, to open a bank account, to take out a loan and, especially, to prove one's parentage when the time comes to inherit.
The Code Civil took in to account that some few French might wish to leave the blessèd hexagon but never that they would cease to be French. Article 48 of the Code Civil (Book1, Title 1) states that any civil register entry of a French citizen in a foreign land shall be legal, were it to have been entered according to French law by diplomatic agents or consuls. The consular registers were to be maintained in duplicate, with one copy to be sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the end of the year. With slight changes and updates, the law and procedures are the same today and are prominently displayed on the website of the Ministry of Europe and of Foreign Affairs, as it is now known.
Both copies of the consular registers of the nineteenth century are held at the Archives diplomatiques at the Ministry's branch at Nantes, for that is where all such foreign registrations of French citizenry are maintained. One copy has been microfilmed and that may be viewed also at the Ministry's main archives centre of the Archives diplomatiques at La Courneuve, outside of Paris. To date, no copies are available online. If you know some details as to name, parents' names, date and place, you may request a copy of the register entry, at no charge, online. This link is to the version that is almost in English.
For the researcher, especially one seeking the origins of a French immigrant ancestor, these register entries can be invaluable. We have reviewed here, the book written by the archivists at the Archives diplomatiques that explains, in French, how to use the archives. We give our own discussion of how to use them, in English, here.
However, it is important to note that this registration could not be enforced. There were many French emigrants who did not register their marriages or the births of their children in the new country. We have encountered:
- A French gold miner who went to California and seems never to have registered his marriage or his children at the French consulate.
- A deserter from the French Army after the fall of Napoleon who went to New York, (which was at that time filled with such deserters and also with French monarchists determined to hunt them down,) who lived a long life there, married and had a number of children, and who chose not to register these events with the French consul in New York.
At the same time, we have found, among those who chose to register:
- A man from the southwest of France who registered his marriage in New York and who insisted that it be entered in the marriage register of his home town in France, which it was. Once that was done, however, he chose not to register the births of his many children.
- A couple from Alsace-Lorraine who had migrated to Saint Petersburg in Russia registered the births of all of their children (two of whom later emigrated to the United States) with the French consul there.
The primary (though certainly not the only) reason for registering seems to have been to ensure one's inheritance to any property in France, followed by, as in the case of the couple from Alsace-Lorraine, the desire to protect one's French citizenship when the emigration was exile. Those who did not register could have been anything from bridge burners, to crooks on the lam, to political refugees, to people who simply forgot.
In such research, you may end up with more questions than you had when you began.
©2021 Anne Morddel