In our little book, American Merchant Seamen of the Early Nineteenth Century : a Researcher's Guide, we explain that, in researching a mariner, one must follow the vessel to find the man. It is just as true when researching French mariners. However, it is not easy, for two reasons in particular:
- It is difficult to know on which vessel, or more likely vessels, a mariner sailed, and
- It is not easy to track the movements of that vessel
For French vessels of the Revolutionary and First Empire period, there is the added difficulty of a lack of records. This is partly because much was lost in the chaos of the Revolution and, at the end of the First Empire, much was destroyed to prevent retaliation by the returning Bourbon king and his supporters.
In addition to the research possibilities we outline in that chapter, there are a couple of books that are especially helpful in tracking French naval vessels.
Dictionnaire des bâtiments de la flotte de guerre française de Colbert à nos jours (The dictionary of french naval fighting ships), by Jean-Michel Roche, is a whopper of an achievement. Naval enthusiasts will thrill at the many facts given in each little essay concerning a vessel: where and when she was built, how many guns she carried, in what battles she fought, what was her demise. The value for those researching a single man on board is that, where possible, each essay also gives the vessel's whereabouts in certain years. Sailors were boarding and leaving vessels all the time. If you have traced an ancestor to a vessel but then lost him, the list of places where she was (admittedly, a very short list, usually) can help you to pick up his trail again.
French Warships in the Age of Sail 1786 - 1862 : Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. The title says it all. This is a prettier book than the Dictionnaire des bâtiments, with illustrations, ship plans, a nicer typeface and better layout altogether and resembles Winfield's other books, on Royal Navy vessels. And, of course, it is in English. French Warships covers a much shorter time period than does Dictionnaire des bâtiments, eighty years as opposed to well over three hundred years. The essays about each vessel cover the same material in both books. French Warships has the vessels arranged by class, a vast category that we, Dear Readers, have not memorized, so one spends a lot of time with the index. Dictionnaire des bâtiments, is purely alphabetical, and so, much easier to use.
For some time, we have been researching a particular vessel, the French naval frigate of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Incorruptible. Apparently, there were at least five American seamen serving on her, and we would like to verify that. Here is the essay on her in French Warships :
This is what Dictionnaire des bâtiments has to say about her:
So, the French work gives more detail of her career. From this, we surmise that our American seamen boarded her at Flushing.
A third useful work, found all over the Internet is Troude's Batailles navales de la France, written in the 1860s. The charming, literary style and lack of an index make "Find" options a god-send. From this, we learned a bit more about the Incorruptible's battles against Royal Navy vessels and, crucially, the name of one of her captains: Billiet.
Knowing a captain's name is incredibly helpful when searching for a vessel online. Typing "Incorruptible" will bring a load of nonsense results. Adding words such as French navy vessel, or those words in French, is not much better. Typing, "Incorruptible" and "Billiet" however, gets very precise results.
Lastly, the archival finding aid on Naval Campaigns:
which came up in those last results, gives many more captain's names and more of the Incorruptible's career and locations. We now have many more avenues for researching our mariners, and more places to seek a crew list that might show their names.
©2022 Anne Morddel