Notaires and Notarial Records

Did Your Ancestor Sign an Employment Contract, (contrat d'engagement), to Go to Louisiana?

Sowing

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


Gallipolis and "The French 500"

Wilderness

One of you, Dear Readers, has written, asking us to write about the poor French dupes of some early American scam artists. Known in Ohio as 'The French 500", they were a group of people, some of the nobility, some artisans, and their families who thought that they might have a better future anywhere else than in revolutionary France. A glib Yale man who spoke French, Joel Barlow, and who had more passion than integrity, took advantage of their fears and hopes and sold them land that neither he nor the company he represented, the Scioto Company, actually owned. The Wikipedia article on Barlow states that "Scholars believe that he did not know the transactions were fraudulent."

Oh, yes he did, and the superb, definitive study on Gallipolis, proves it, using French notarial records, beyond any doubt. Gallipolis : Histoire d'un mirage américain au XVIIIe siècle, by Jocelyne Moreau-Zanelli, is the book published from her thesis and it is a masterpiece of historical research clearly presented. She explains first the background to land speculation in America, and then describes that shady character, William Duer, and his creation of the Scioto Company. We like that she sees, in this context, the American Dream as the American Mirage, and property speculation as a uniquely American tradition, (reminding us of our father, a very unsuccessful realtor who truly believed that every next deal would put us on Easy Street). She digs deep into notarial records of the sales, examines the economic, social and historical reasons that people might quit Paris for the wilderness of the Northwest Territory, and reveals the types of people who went.

For most of you, Dear Readers, language throws up its proverbial barrier, for the book is in French. We really do think there is a call for it to be translated into English for there are many who would appreciate it, so please do urge your friends in publishing to consider it. We will here extract what is perhaps the most genealogically useful information.

With very impressive sleuthing, Ms. Moreau-Zanelli has identified seven vessels that carried French emigrants:

  • Recovery
  • Pennsylvania
  • Patriote
  • Liberté
  • Mary
  • Lady Washington
  • Nautilus of Scarborough
  • Union
  • Citoyenne de Paris

Not all of their ports of departure are known but she discovered their three ports of arrival as Amboy, Alexandria and Philadelphia. For two of the vessels, the Patriote and the Liberté, departing passenger lists survive in the Le Havre passenger lists on the website of the Departmental Archives of Seine-Maritime. (Both are on roll number 6P6/19) They have been transcribed by  the "Gallia County Genealogical Society OGS Chapter, Inc." reached via their page on The French 500.  Beware that these are partial transcriptions and that some names have been missed. For example, on the Patriote, there were André Joseph Villard, his wife, Noel Agathe Sophie Demeaux, and their two daughters, Constance Eugenie Etiennette and Félicité, along with two domestic servants. The transcription misses out six-year-old Félicité.

It will never be possible to compile a list of all of the passengers' names, for the documents have not survived. Additionally, many of the aristocrats, not wishing to voyage with the hoi polloi, booked their own passages, often by way of Saint-Domingue. However, Ms. Moreau-Zanelli has compiled a superbly helpful list, entitled "Tableau de Ventes", with over three hundred names of people who bought land from the Scioto Company through Barlow. In the table, she gives about each purchaser his or her:

  • Name
  • Profession
  • Sex
  • Place of origin
  • Amount of land purchased
  • Amount paid

This table, along with the two surviving passenger lists, will probably be the the most complete list of names of The French 500 that will ever be possible. We hope that you will be able to find your ancestor among them.

Please, we beg of you, if you have an interest in this subject, to buy Ms. Moreau-Zanelli's book and to encourage others to do so; do not steal her hard work and put it on some Rootsweb list. That is the sort of thing that brings scorn upon all of us who are genealogists.

Gallipolis : histoire d'un mirage américain au XVIIIe siècle

Jocelyne Moreau-Zanelli

published by l'Harmattan in 2000

ISBN-13: 978-2738489173

458 pages

 

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The French Genealogy Blog Celebrates Nine Years !

9th blog birthday

 

Can it be that we really have been writing this blog about French genealogy for nine years? It feels but a blink. Its success is all due to you, our Dear Readers, for your comments, e-mails, support and encouragement have been extraordinary and we blush that we cannot thank you enough. You have remained with us during our rants and our mysterious, occasional disappearances. You have been kind in your praise of our work here on the blog and have suggested most interesting topics. Thank you so much.

This year, we are excited to be offering via the Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research two courses on French genealogy. In early October, we will be presenting “First Steps in French Genealogy: Parish and Civil Registrations of Births, Marriages and Deaths”. The following February, we will give “French Notarial Records: A Genealogical Goldmine”. We hope that many of you may be interested to sign up for one or both of the courses.

A landmark birthday, indeed. Raise a glass of Veuve with us in celebrating our neuvième anniversaire as we thank you, Dear Readers for the grand party it has been.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Saint-Domingue Research - An Update

Tropical flowers

We have written about Saint-Domingue research before:

Much more has been made available, so we add an update today.

By far, the greatest amount that is newly available is on the ANOM website. Their digitisation programme has been going along at a snapping pace and new finds are constantly appearing. The parish and civil registers online have increased and can be searched by town, or commune, and include judgements. 

As more and more of you complete your basic fact gathering via such registrations, you have indicated that you would like to look deeper, to know more about your ancestors' lives and to find the elusive reason why they wandered the world. One of the best ways to dig deep in French archives is with notarial records. Wills, probate inventories, marriage contracts, even powers of attorney can reveal much about peoples' lives long ago. An excellent article by Robert Richard on the notarial records of Saint-Domingue may be read here. It gives a very clear explanation of notarial records in general and of those concerning Saint-Domingue held at ANOM in particular.

Having read the article, you may then go to the site of ANOM and to the page for searching the finding aids. Type in "Notaire" and select a location from the menu and all that Monsieur Richard describes is revealed. Not all of the actual notarial records have been digitised, by any means, but the finding aids are so detailed, that you would have enough information to request a copy of the file from the ANOM copying service.

Many people from Saint-Domingue conducted their business in Paris and the Archives nationales have indicated which études (notarial offices) they may have used, as in this example of Etude number thirty-one. These notes concerning études favoured by certain families or groups are incredibly helpful when one has no idea of which of the hundreds of notaires may have been used. Alternatively, search the Paris notarial records for Saint-Domingue here.

A superb bibliography and list of archival resources on Saint-Domingue has been made available online by the researcher, Dr. Oliver Gliech. On the same page, he has placed a list of the names of people who owned plantations in Saint-Domingue in 1789. Just below this is a list of heirs to plantation owners from 1826 to 1833 and of those who settled there but did not own land. 

Take the plunge!

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French Inheritance Law in the News

Testament

Just in case our Dear Readers never, ever, for a second read any French news and do not know that the country's most beloved pop star and Elvis imitator died last year, he did. Johnny Hallyday was in his seventies and worth something over one hundred million euros. The press coverage about the dispute over his will and estate is worth following the better to understand (in an easy to read and entertaining way) how French inheritance law works and why your French ancestors followed certain legal procedures.

In particular, many of you have reported a letter to your ancestor from a French notaire concerning an inheritance. We have successfully researched notarial records and found letters from heirs who had emigrated to North America, thus determining the relationship between family members on either side of the Atlantic.

French wills and the sales of inherited property often have family genealogies written into them, with documentary proof on file. Why this is so is primarily because French law requires that all of the deceased's children and, perhaps, other heirs receive equal shares of the estate. No child can be disinherited. No child may receive a disproportionate share. This often baffles the non-French, many of whom come from cultures in which every person with money may do as he or she wishes, even after death (and they use the threat of disinheritance as a long-term tool of abuse and manipulation in life). Conversely, the French are just as ignorant of American or British inheritance law and are so baffled by the idea of trusts that these are defined in French news articles about the case.

 

Johnny Hallyday

Johnny Hallyday had, as is wont with such types, many relationships and liaisons producing a few children, two of whom he seemed no longer to appreciate. At the time of his death, he had homes in France and California, as well as elsewhere. In his will, he said he was a resident of California, lived there, and sent his two younger children to school there. In this Californian will, he left his entire estate to his wife and two younger children, with his wife as executor; the two elder children were left nothing. The management of the estate was put into a trust. It is a perfectly legal will in California but would be completely illegal in France. Not surprisingly, the elder children are contesting it in court. 

Because the estate is so large, the case is in the news quite a lot and will be so until there shall be a final ruling. We strongly urge you to read the articles about it in English and, if you can, in French as well, for it is an excellent and topical education on the subject.

 

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy