Geography

The Departments

Departments of France

There are one hundred departments in France, grouped under eighteen (down from twenty-two) regions, and each has its own archives, where much genealogical research is done. Thus, knowing about the departments is a key first step for hunting ancestors in France.

The current departments are always listed alphabetically and always referred to with their number, e.g. Seine-Maritime (76) or Dordogne (24). When they were created, in 1790, the new system was supposed to be more rational and we are sure that, in terms of government, it was. This numbering is used in many aspects of administration. In post codes (the first two numbers are the department's number), in the old style car license plates (the last two numbers are the department's number), in each and every person's tax number (the third pair of numbers indicates the department). Children memorize the departments' names and numbers at school and use the list all of their lives. The numbering system, however, went the way of all simplistic systems meant to be the definitive, final, last, perfect, etc. version of something, and is getting messier and messier as time goes on. Even so, it is very convenient.

In the beginning, there were eighty-three departments, in an alphabetical list. Each was numbered, beginning with 1, and leaving no gaps. To look at a map, like the one above, is to see all of France with a disarray of numbers within it. Knowing the alphabet, one can sort of fumble around and guess at the name, but it is not easy. We have not studied it, but we suspect there was a political reason behind this and that the confusion was intentional. In the unstable years of the Revolution, there were many powerful families with a well-established network of government based in the old provinces. Such networks would have greatly helped any counter-revolutionary activities. The new system of departments effectively broke up those provinces and the power network of those families (of course, most of those people were guillotined as well and that really fixed them.)

Then, Napoleon conquered new territory and the number of departments went up to one hundred and thirty, but their names did not all begin with Z so, as they had to be given numbers, the alphabetic sequence was lost. Not to worry, as Napoleon was defeated and the number of departments went down to a more manageable eighty-six. A little more territory was acquired and the number went up to eighty-nine. There were reorganizations, some colonies became Overseas Departments, Paris kept growing. In an effort to keep a logical sequence, numbers were reassigned at times. Today's list of one hundred is still pretty much alphabetical until the last few. The departments, with links to the websites of the Departmental Archives, are listed in the left-hand column of this blog. The regions are as follows:

Thirteen in mainland France:

  • Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
  • Bourgogne-Franche-Comté
  • Bretagne
  • Centre-Val de Loire
  • Corse
  • Grand Est
  • Hauts-de-France
  • Île-de-France
  • Normandie
  • Nouvelle-Aquitaine
  • Occitanie
  • Pays de la Loire
  • Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

Five in overseas France:

  • Guadeloupe
  • Martinique
  • Guyane
  • La Réunion
  • Mayotte

For the genealogist, especially the foreign one, this is torture. To finally find the correct department of an ancestor and then find that it has disappeared is maddening. However, not that many departments disappeared and, in most cases, the archives are still somewhere. (For example, the departmental archives of Yvelines contain those of the ex-department of Seine et Oise.) It will just require a little more effort to find them.

For an extremely thorough discussion of the administrative structure and history of France's departments, see the excellent Wikipedia article on the subject. 

N.B. This post is updated from the original that appeared in 2009.

©2023 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy