The Growth of Recreational DNA Testing in France

Illegitimate children

There are times when we do wish that our Internet service providers (as they so inappropriately like to term themselves) had a face, a person at a desk in an office, windowless or not, for then we should be able to place a pistol on the desk in front of said person and urge an act of honour as we leave and shut the door behind us. Alas, we will never hear that shot of honour behind the door and no provider will ever accept responsibility for the failure to provide. So, we are back at our post, posting on The FGB, but cannot say for how long.

We have worked our way though most of the presentations given at La Semaine virtuelle de la généalogie. As ever with such events, virtual or not, quality varies. We shall focus on a subject of interest not only to those outside of France, but increasingly within this country, DNA testing for genealogy. We do this in part in response to a fiery comment which Monsieur Pierre Gendreau-Hétu left on our post announcing the programme of the Semaine virtuelle de la généalogie and which we reproduce here:


"This program shows how spaced out French genealogy is. I'm sorry to break the news, but genetic genealogy has been solving longstanding problems for two decades now! The best strategy the FFG has come up with is to close the conference with guardians of the French orthodoxy regarding DNA data: attention danger! The grand guignol show is not over yet, unfortunately. (Sigh.) Pauvre France! Rich archives combine so powerfully with yDNA data, and amazing results keep coming day in day out in countries likes Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland..... What a French waste in the name of state control! Olivier Henno, commissioner to the French Senate committee on bioethics, assessed the number of tests ordered by French citizens and came up with the figure of one million kits. In 2019. Yet the FFG will still look the other way. This behavior belongs to a bird that is not the rooster. This is called denial and is unworthy of a scientific field. In the meantime, English-speaking universities (Leicester, Strathclyde, etc.) have made genetic genealogy mainstream. France, pays des Lumières? Not in genealogy at any rate. Obscurantism stole the show. France is left with good archival research nonetheless, for sure, even though one can only dream of what could be if it were enhanced with genetics. Just like looking for a treasure without using a metal detector..."


Monsieur Gendreau-Hétu certainly has a point (and he makes  some more in the comments section at the end of this post); there was but one presentation on what the French law terms "recreational DNA testing", given by Brigitte Billard, one of France's more interesting bloggers on genealogy Though the lone talk, it was very interesting. Her entire presentation, "5 questions à vous poser avant de faire un test ADN" (5 questions to ask yourself before taking a DNA test) can still be seen online. We summarize and comment here.

The overall tenor of the talk seems to be one of stern warning. Before taking a DNA test for the purpose of genealogy, one must know that :

  • Such "recreational "DNA testing is illegal in France
  • The fine for such test taking can be up to 3500 euros
  • Prosecution seems never to have occurred
  • If you are seeking a specific ancestor or person, the DNA test will not be enough; traditional genealogical research will be necessary
  • You may have to ask all of your relatives to test their DNA as well, which could lead to ethical issues
  • It could be expensive
  • The privacy of those who test will not be protected to European standards, as corporate headquarters and laboratories of the more popular DNA kit producers are not in Europe
  • All those who test must be prepared to cope with a possibly traumatic discovery of a family secret (e.g. the discovery that a male relative fathered numerous children unbeknownst to his family)

Madame Billard, after such severe and well-informed discouragement, ends on a chirpy and positive note, that DNA testing can lead to some very fun genealogy. There is probably no better explanation of the French situation concerning genetic genealogy at this time than Madame Billard's talk.

To quell Monsieur Gendreau-Hétu's fears that the French are falling behind in the DNA game, there are, as Madame Billard pointed out, many, many YouTube videos of French people taking such tests. Most are quite humourous. Most contain someone being surprised at the test results showing no "French blood". This, in turn resulted in a clip being added to one of them in which a trusted geneticist had to explain that "there is no such thing as French blood" just people who  have lived in France for a long time. Here are links to just a few:


  • A dashing young man who took a test because he wondered if his slightly narrow eyes might not mean that he had oriental ancestors.
  • A charming young pair claiming to be shocked by their test results. (Surely the use of the word is a marketing ploy or are we so jaded in this life that what shocked them seems quite inane to us?)
  • A whole troupe of journalists who took their tests and read their results at the same time. (A bit disturbing, this one, with smugness on the parts of those feeling "more French" and suppressed fury on the part of one who did not like her ethnicity one bit. Unsurprisingly, this is where the geneticist steps in.)


There are dozens more. It is, clearly, quite the fashion to break this particular law in France and to be oh, so surprised at the results. We suspect that this is a barn door that will never be locked again, whatever laws may be passed. 

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


How It's Going at the Gene@Event2020 - La Maison de Généalogie

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We write in a state of virtual breathlessness, Dear Readers, as we bounce from one video presentation to the next at this online French genealogy conference. We thought that you might appreciate a summary of the best that we have seen so far.

Generally, the presentations fall into one (very rarely, two) of three types:

  1. Those that aim to build research skill, to explain a website, to improve one's methodology, etc.
  2. Those that share the presenter's genealogical research, case studies, etc.
  3. Those that are history lectures

The following, listed according to our own classification within the above types, are those we can recommend (Be forewarned that problems with people using just their computer microphones continue. By now, they really all should know to buy a proper headset, but no.) Apologies that we are not qualified to assess the talks given in German or Spanish.


• “S’initier à la généalogie grâce aux associations” by Valérie Arnold-Gautier – The introductory talk by the president of the FFG. Her point is that the many genealogy associations in France have done and still do so much to further genealogy activities that one should begin one’s introduction to genealogy via such an association. Recall that the FFG is a federation of associations, not of genealogists. This will be more pertinent to points we will make in a future post.
• “Mes premiers pas en généalogie” by Isabelle Calone. Everyone has to begin at the beginning.
• “Les ressources disponibles dans FamilySearch” by Sylvain Athénour A very thorough and basic introduction to the French FamilySearch portal and collections. We consider ourselves to be rather expert at using FamilySearch, yet we learned a few new tips from this talk.
• “Comment effectuer des recherches avec FamilySearch” by Sylvain Athénour – Again very methodical, again very thorough, Monsieur Athénour explains every screen and every aspect of searching via the French screens of FamilySearch.
“Présentation du site « Le désarmement Havrais » : les différentes façons de rechercher un marin, un navire, des chantiers navals…” by the creator of the site – Perhaps the gem of the first three days, this talk presents a website that serves as a superb index to the thorny, awkward to use shipping and passenger records of Le Havre.
• “De L’archive Numérisée à la Base de Données, la Data au Service du Chercheur…” [Mémoire des Hommes] – Digging deeper into what is offered on the brilliant military archives website. This is a good thing because, since the site was redesigned, it is not very clear. 



• “De Philippe Leplastre, laboureur Beauceron à Hugues Capet” by François Côme, shows how he used Capedia to trace much of his ancestry, lucky fellow.

• Sur les traces d’une famille d’origine juive polonaise - parties 1-3- par Virginie Drocourt – Part 1 could certainly go in the skills building section. Very thorough.
• “Raconter la vie de ses ancêtres (1914-1945), une Histoire ordinaire d'une famille comtoise pendant les deux conflits mondiaux” par Romain Ecarot. This case study is rather interesting, for the speaker explains how he used local administration documents to reconstruct the life of an ancestor from 1914 to 1945.



(Note for hope: It would seem that the subject of the oppression of women in these two talks is of increasing relevance to family historians. Forcing women to have unwanted children and then depriving those children of legitimacy and/or the prostitution of women both tend to result in genealogical brick walls. Could it be that this passionate hobby of ours will help to end the oppression of women? Now, that would be cheering in these dark times.)

• “Les conséquences de l’illégitimité” par Carole Lejuez. Though primarily an academic lecture, Madame Lejuez discusses quite a lot of the relevant documentation.
• “La prostitution à Lyon au XIXe” par Alexandre Nugues. This is a very nicely done recording of a history lecture presented in the old, pre-COVUD days, to a live audience. Rather nostalgic.


More to come, Dear Readers, but do, if you can, listen to as may ass you can.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French  Genealogy

Coming This Weekend - La Semaine Virtuelle de la Généalogie

Socially distanced

Not long ago, Dear Readers, in these ethereal and electronic pages, we wondered if there might not be more virtual conferences on the subject of French genealogy. Little did we know that plans were already afoot and the announcement soon made that the Fédération française de généalogie (FFG) would be presenting online an entire week of French genealogy talks and a virtual exposition hall with stands and avatars, no less, in La Semaine virtuelle de la généalogie. The announcement that went out only about two months before the event was the call for exhibitors and speakers, which was, to our mind, perhaps cutting it a bit close. At that point, there was no discussion of how, when or where attendees might register. For these reasons, we decided not to add the announcement here on The FGB  until 1) there was a way to register and 2) the talks, lectures and presentations calendar appeared. Both appeared on the website two days ago so we are, at last, pleased to share the news of this online conference with you.

When: 26th of September to the 3rd of October

Where: online, on a newly launched website, Maison de la généalogie:

How to register: Complete the form, currently the only page on the website above; you will receive a confirmation e-mail

What Talks on Which Subjects: The full calendar is here. The opening speech will be by the President, Madame Valérie Arnold-Gautier (and, just to give a sense of how differently the French do these things,  you can hear her warble her invitation to the conference on the FFG's facebook page, which also happens to be the best place to get updates about the event.) A couple of the talks have been presented elsewhere. A large number of talks seem to be more historical rather than genealogical. The one talk in English is by the feted Napoleon expert, Alexander Mikaberidze. Two or three talks are in Spanish and an equal number in German. Many talks are on subjects not covered before and by speakers not included before.

This looks to be quite an energetic improvement on past conferences (and we dearly hope that microphones will be of a better quality than in the past). Keeping socially distant and looking outward (as do the ladies above), see you (virtually) there.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Is There a Statue of Your Ancestor in Paris?

Statue in Paris

Would it not be ever so lovely to be able to see one's ancestor honoured in Paris with a grand monument, a work of art? In these sad times, when the sheer crush of the planet's excessive human population (the antecedents of whom we so enjoy researching) is smothering all so that there is not enough space, not enough air, not enough water, not enough food for our children, and when celebrity is the goal of any poor soul who can crawl to the top of the heaving mass,  how pleasant it is to think of earlier times when accolades were accorded for accomplishment and to find one's own ancestor among the recipients. To be sure, the adage that "history is written by the winners" applies to the erection of statues as well, and many statues in public spaces were erected by vile rulers or generals wishing to honour themselves or their own ignominious ancestors. This is currently going through a period of correction and balance as angry crowds haul down statues and dump them in rivers or smash them to bits.

Schoelcher down

Personally, we do not much mind this emotive vandalism, though our brother in Oregon is outraged and says it is the equivalent of book burning. To this we say: Nonsense. A book contains information that can be read by one or many; a statue is decoration. We rather hope that the demolished statues might be replaced by new statues, perhaps of dolphins or dinosaurs or, dare we say, of one, just one, of the many women who have made important contributions to the betterment of this sorry species that is humanity.

So, Dear Readers, of the many hundreds of statues that remain in Paris, if one may be of your ancestor, here is an excellent website to facilitate the search for it, Les Statues de rue de Paris. It would seem to have been created by George Belleiche (though he prefers to remain anonymous) since all of the contents seem to come from his two books on the subject. The statues are listed geographically, by arrondissement, and can be searched by either the name of the sculptor or of the subject. We wish you a successful search.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


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

Wallis-et-Futuna, a DOM-TOM Research Example

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These tiny islands turn out to be quite dynamic when it comes to helping people with their genealogical research. There is a quite determined effort to protect and to preserve the history of the country's families and to help people to know more about their families. 

In 2018, France TV reported that two women from the cultural service (under which come the archives) of Futuna set out to gather oral and genealogical histories from every family on the island. They discovered that most people interviewed did not know generations further back than their own grandparents. Using this primary information, one of the researchers began tracing each family through the baptismal records of the Catholic mission, which began in 1842. This is a good fifty years earlier than the civil registrations that can be viewed on the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM), the starting point for any DOM-TOM research.

The following year, after all the research was digitized, the results of the genealogical research began to be promoted and the research extended to requesting living people to send in copies of their own and their family's documentation in order to complete the goal of researching and documenting the genealogy of every family of Futuna. The cultural and archives service's own website has an excellent graphic explaining the procedure by which one may request aid from and contribute to the genealogy service:


Wallis and Futuna genealogy service

There is a form to download (télécharger) and complete for joining the project. It asks for genealogical information, such as it may be known, and the reason for the request.


There is also a list of documentation to provide that can be downloaded. Documents required are the livret de famille and copies of as many civil registrations as possible. 


Note that this is somewhat different from researching one's more distant ancestors. French law protects the privacy of individuals much more so than in many other countries. If requesting information about people still alive or about whom the documentation is less than seventy-five years old, one will have to prove the familial relationship. Additionally, the documents provided with the request will become part of the collection on Futuna families. According to the fine graphic of steps in the procedure, the service will then verify the documentation, perhaps ask for more, and then be in contact.

A very fine project, we opine.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


DOM-TOM Genealogical Research

Colonial Guadeloupe

Following on from our previous post, which was about Overseas France, we present here the basics of genealogical research relating to those departments and regions. These come from the superb research guide produced by Bernard Vuillet of the Archives nationales.  

Parish and Civil Registrations / Actes d'état civil

As stated in that earlier post, all DOM-TOM research begins with the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM) which have digitized and put online all of the microfilmed parish and civil registrations held concerning these territories.

Notarial Records / Les Actes des Notaires

Duplicate copies of notarial records created in the territories were made from 1776 to 1912. These are held at ANOM and at each territory's Departmental Archives, with a microfilm copy of them being held at the Archives nationales in Paris. Additionally, there may be notarial records relating to families living in the territories (then colonies) written in France during their visits. Those in Paris will be in the Minutier Central and, with luck might turn up in a search via the Salle des Inventaires Virtuelle. Those elsewhere will be in the local Departmental Archives. In all cases, one must know the name of the notaire to be able to search for the records.

Land Title Records / Les Titres de Propriété

Increasingly, Departmental Archives are putting online the registers of land title, the hypothèques, as they are known. Keep checking their websites to see what is available. Duplicates of those made during the nineteenth century are held at ANOM. The original land grants will be held at the Departmental Archives, while files about them are held at ANOM. ANOM also hold the records concerning these lands in vacant inheritances.

Census Returns / Le recensements

Dating from as early as the seventeenth century, these are held in ANOM, with a microfilm copy at the Archives nationales in Paris. Apparently, the Departmental Archives of La Réunion have an excellent collection as well.

Colonial Personnel / Le Personnel colonial

These are primarily indices and lists. As with other archives, these are held at ANOM, with microfilm copies in the Archives nationales in Paris. Some of the Departmental Archives also have copies.

Passenger lists / Les Listes des Passagers

These are difficult. One must know the date of departure and the port of departure. Some general passenger lists, from 1749 to 1886, are held, yet again, at ANOM, with copies at the Archives nationales in Paris. The Departmental Archives responsible for the major ports of departure, (Le Havre, Rouen, Caen, Nantes, Saint-Nazaire, Bordeaux) hold what passenger lists have survived. The naval archives for the ports of Brest, Cherbourg, Lorient, Rochefort and Toulon also have passenger lists.


Clearly, the ideal would be to go to ANOM in the south of France, and then to some of the overseas Departmental Archives. Alas, most of us cannot manage such travel and it probably would not be permitted in these times of a pandemic anyway. However, an enormous amount of documentation has been digitized by ANOM, not all of it easy to find. Some years ago, we wrote of the secrets hidden there and how to search for them.

The research may be difficult but, in some ways, these records contain more genealogical information than do records on those who remained in France. Good luck!

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Understanding Overseas France for Genealogy

Commerce Musee

The coronavirus pandemic continues to work its change on all aspects of our life. We wear a face mask when we go out; voyagers have medical tests when they arrive in France; voyagers from some countries of rampant infection may not enter Europe; there is much debate and confusion about cures and vaccines. Hiding out at home, even though we are no longer confined or locked down in France, seems to be not only the safest but the most peaceful option at the moment. While hiding out, we have been continuing to listen to various podcasts, lectures, webinars, and such, all on the subject of French genealogy, and it has come to our attention that many of those given by non-French presenters do not understand at all Overseas France. The old acronym, DOM-TOM, seems to baffle them. We have heard such definitions as "France's colonies" (France no longer has colonies), "an old region of France" (wrong) or that tell-tale, indistinct mutter (normally heard in school children's presentations and something of a surprise in a "professional" webinar) that indicates that the speaker has no idea at all of what he or she is talking about and hopes that the listeners will somehow not notice the garbled noise, or will perhaps blame their own hearing for the sudden loss of coherence (for shame).

DOM-TOM stood for départements d'outre-mer - territoires d'outre-mer, (Overseas departments and overseas territories). The current terms are départements et regions d'outre-mer (ex-DOM) and collectivités d'outre-mer (ex-TOM) and the general term for all is now territoires. The new acronyms DROM-COM have not really caught on, so look for both. The people who live in Overseas France together constitute about four per cent of the population of France.

The first group are fully and completely a part of France, in the way that Hawaii and Alaska are a part of the United States, and include:

  • Guadeloupe
  • Martinique
  • Guyane
  • Réunion
  • Mayotte

The second group are territories under the ultimate authority of France, much as Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and  includes:

  • Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon
  • Saint-Barthélemy
  • Saint-Martin
  • Wallis-et-Futuna
  • Polynésie française (French Polynesia)
  • Nouvelle Calédonie (New Caledonia)

Read more about them on Wikipedia in English and in French. Read the government's point of view on the website of the Overseas Ministry,  Ministère des outre-mer. For news coverage of all things overseas, read the excellent articles on Outremers 360˚

Begin your genealogical research with the digitized parish and civil registers on the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (Overseas Archives). To go deeper, contact the geographically appropriate genealogy association.

No more indistinct muttering.

©2020 Anne Mortddel

French Genealogy

Researching a Ship's Doctor in France


Inexplicably, we have received a number of e-missives from certain Dear Readers who all have an ancestor who claimed to be a "surgeon in the French navy" or a "naval doctor" or a "surgeon on a French frigate at Trafalgar". It is most unusual, we believe, to have a spate of surgeon's descendants surface. Yet, we are grateful for, in our attempts to give helpful replies, we have discovered some very interesting new research paths, supplemented by two well-timed talks

When researching French surgeons at sea, making the differentiation between the Navy and the Merchant Marine is as important as it is when researching sailors or seamen. The documentation and archival storage are in some way quite separate and the researcher has to bear that in mind. If you are researching a man who was a doctor, surgeon or pharmacist/chemist in the French Navy, your work has been done for you by the excellent team of archivist/authors at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) who produced the weighty tome, Dictionnaire des médecins, chirurgiens et pharmaciens de la Marine . The work is so thorough that, if your ancestor does not appear within, he almost certainly was not a surgeon inthe French Navy.

Thus, you must look in the scattered, incomplete, rarely online but wondrous records of the French Merchant Marine (Marine de commerce et de pêche). Recall that we wrote on a recent post about the French naval conscription:

The French Naval Class System, Le système de classes

It is clear that many outside of France are completely unaware of a key element of the French Navy, La Marine, and that is the fact that, since 1668, the Marine has had its own system of drafting men into service. As with other military draft systems, it was compulsory. Censuses were taken of all men aged eighteen or over who worked on any type of vessel or who worked with vessels or in ports in any capacity. (From this it can be seen that most of the men came from coastal areas, few were from inland regions.) Lists, called matricules, were made for each region each time the census was taken. All men listed during a particular census were in the same classe, which could be called up to serve at any time during war. The class system was devised to prevent (and is considered by the French to be infinitely superior to and more humane than) something like the British practice of impressing (or pressing) men into service in the Royal Navy. During times of peace, classes were not called up, but during times of war, many classes could be called up at the same time and the men possibly could be made to serve longer than the mandated year. In 1795, the classe system was renamed the maritime enrollment, inscription maritime, but functioned in much the same way throughout the nineteenth century.

When young men had to register, they did so within their Quartier Maritime, an administrative division under the Ministry of the Marine. Prior to the Revolution, the registration was handled by the Admiralty headquarters, les sièges d'Amirauté. These divisions or headquarters were usually in port cities such as Le Havre, Rouen, Lorient, Cherbourg, Bordeaux, Toulon, and many, many more. They handled the registration of merchant vessels and personnel, including surgeons.

Surgeons, to serve on a vessel, had to pass tests and receive certificates. Many of the register books showing this have survived and some are online. Those for Bordeaux, on the website of the Departmental Archives of Gironde include:

  • Registrations of Captains, surgeons and other officers, from 1699 to 1792 (Réceptions de capitaines de vaisseaux, chirurgiens, maîtres de barque, pilotes hauturiers, etc...)
  • Certificates delivered by approved Admiralty surgeons to new candidates, from 1711-1728 (Certificats délivrés par les chirurgiens de l'Amirauté de Guienne aux candidats chirurgiens de mer.)

Here is a screen print of one of the former, showing the entry for Pierre Lafargue, whose father trained him (a not uncommon occurrence).


For Le Havre and Rouen, the digitized registers are on the website of the Departmental Archives of Seine-Maritime. They have so much and the search is complicated. The easiest way to get to the register and to other interesting possibilities is to go to the "Recherche simple" search box and type in "chirurgiens" and you will see this wonderful book:

Le Havre surgeons

One can have a bit more fun and, on the AD Gironde website, see a register of the contents of the surgeons' chests as they were in 1786 (code 6 B 546): 

Surgeons' chests


 So, now you know not to despair if your "naval surgeon" ancestor is not in the Dictionnaire des mèdecins. If he lived near Le Havre or Bordeaux, you might find him registered as a "surgeon of the sea" with the merchant marine.

A small tip: Huguenots were not permitted to be surgeons during the Ancien régime (David Garrioch, The Huguenots of Paris and the Coming of Religious Freedom, 1685-1789, p. 159.) . So, if you find your man among surgeons, he was almost certainly a Catholic. Conversely, your Huguenot ancestor may have been a doctor but almost certainly could not practice in France.


©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Will There Be More Virtual French Genealogy Conferences?


As it is for everyone on our poor, suffering planet, this time of pandemic is a struggle for French genealogists. Though the extreme lockdown, confinement, has been lightened and we can go out and about, there are many rules still. We must wear masks in public; we must maintain our distance; quite a few shops and restaurants remain shut (sadly, in some cases, forever). We all have a sense that we are living Une Grande Pause (and we do not mean a long coffee break) waiting, dreading, the Second Wave of coronavirus. After that is anyone's guess.

The French genealogy community here is justifiably proud of the success of the recent Salon Virtuel de Généalogie. Organized by  the team from GeneAgenda (who had an unusually dynamic response on, we presume, seeing all of their listings disappear when the lockdown began) aided by genealogists Isabel Canry and Philippe Christol, the online event was  very well attended, it seems. Alain Rouault now asks, on GeneAgenda's blog, if this may not be the future. Will the huge, expensive conferences and the small, regional meetings disappear and be replaced by their online versions? 

He raises some interesting points, some of them uniquely French. On the whole, he says that virtual conferences will never fully replace conferences presented in real time and real space because, basically, tough they may be efficient, they are not sociable. Virtual conferences lack "social interaction, conviviality, exchanges, sharing, ambiance, the joy of discovery...". There is an implication that this socializing around a shared interest in genealogy, along with a certain level of exclusivity, even clubbiness, on the part of regional genealogy associations, is their primary interest. Their regional conferences "are essentially based on local participation, with the vendors being just visitors and [thus they] really are not interested in virtualizing their events to gain national exposure."

So, regional genealogy groups are quite parochial, yet they complain of dwindling memberships, which could be an indication that not all members shared the view that an interest in tracing one's family history was valid only if tied to and limited to an interest in local traditions and history. One can see the danger inherent in this view, of those families with the longest presence in a place being seen as somehow superior to those with a shorter presence and of such petty snobberies perhaps polluting the conviviality of the genealogy conferences, at least for some.

We are a species of contrasts; in this case, humanity's incessant migrations confront our unadmirable xenophobic or neophobic tendencies. If the explosion in the popularity of amateur genealogy brought about by the Internet has taught us anything, it has taught us that we all are descended from a migrant or two and we all come from families that have been on this planet for a significant period of time. (Should any of you, Dear Readers know of a recent arrival, please do introduce us!) It is this increasing open-mindedness amongst people researching their families that is at odds with the antiquated motive for researching one's ancestors as a way of pandering to grandiose delusions, whether to see one's self as of a French village's oldest family or as of a Mayflower passenger's descendant.

Even when lockdowns will be a thing of the past it is likely that virtual genealogy conferences are here to stay. Rouault suggests that the smaller, local conferences could find a balance between old and new and at least film their talks and put those online, which we think would be a very good idea and helpful to all. Many of those talks are gems, representing years of in-depth research, but it seems that the genealogy associations themselves do not realize their value. They seem to believe that the only thing they have to market is their extracts of parish and civil registrations; they do not seem to recognize the value of their members' expertise or how many people around the world would be interested in their talks and presentations.

In the way that Filae has milked these associations for those extracts, perhaps GeneAgenda, as well as continuing its calendar of events activity, could expand to create a platform for those very talks and that expertise? Why not use the website format of Legacy webinars, including the library and the small subscription fee, to create a place where the many conference talks and local genealogy association presentations all can be brought together? This would be, to our mind, a vast improvement on the miserable smattering of YouTube channels that prevails at the moment. It would be an interesting development on the national level. Were they to add subtitles to talks, that would have international interest.

Monsieur Rouault and the GeneAgenda team, please take note.



"I do hope there are more of these events in the future. However, IMO, they would have to work hard to improve the technical aspects of such an event. I got up at 3 am and was able to get into some of the lectures. But a lot of the lectures simply would not come up. Others (notably the one on notaries, and one other one) had a notice “filled to capacity” when I tried to get in. That, after it was advertised as “limitless" capacity. That was hugely disappointing. Also the audio quality of many of the speakers was below par.

Anyway, I was glad to see it offered, and for free. Unless I knew they had made HUGE advances technologically, I would not pay to attend. But if offered for free, I’d definitely attend again. And if they could figure out how to clean it up, I’d pay."

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy