WHERE in France Was Your Ancestor From?

French Jewish Genealogy - Ancien régime Geography Is Important

Hexagon of modern France

When researching Jewish genealogy before the French Revolution, the reach back into the past is long, well into the Medieval era. Borders were different then and France looked quite different, not at all like the "Hexagon" (above) of today. Prior to the final expulsion of 1394, Jewish people were permitted to live only in specific places. These might have been certain towns, within which they may have been limited to just a few streets for residence and work. They endured long years of persecution and previous expulsions, but lived throughout France. It is important to note that, in 1394, the country looked more like this:

France in 1328


Quite a bit less than modern France:


This makes the map below, claiming to show French Jewish communities at the time of the expulsion, quite misleading, as a significant few of those supposedly French Jewish communities were not within the France of that day.

French Jewish before expulsion of 1394


The expulsion, in all its horror, was successful, in that no known Jewish families remained in what was then France. However, their communities just outside of France did survive, as can be seen in this map.


If you are working with only a modern map of France, you will have the impression that the three main areas of Jewish communities:

  • The Southwest
  • Alsace-Lorraine
  • The Papal States and Provence

survived the expulsion within France. That would be wrong, because they were not within France at the time of the expulsion and so, if this is not putting too fine a point on it, were Jewish, of course, but not French. The areas in black in the map just above were controlled by other powers:

  • By the English in the far northwest and the southwest region of Aquitaine
  • A tiny bit in the south belonged to the Kingdom of Navarre
  • The Holy Roman Empire held the northeast
  • Free Burgundy, Savoy and the Papal States owned all the rest of what is now eastern France

Paris, as ever, was a special case. Though no Jewish people were supposed to be living there, most likely they were. Robert Anchell, in his fascinating article on "The Early History of the Jewish Quarters in Paris", maintains that it is unlikely that Jewish people were ever, at any time since the Medieval Era, absent from Paris. He points out that they certainly must have been very discrete, for there is almost no documentation of Jewish people in Paris for nearly 300 years after the expulsion.

For research purposes, in each of the three main regions of Jewish communities there were different laws, rules, languages, customs and attitudes, making for different search methodologies today. Firstly, the language differences:

  • The Southwest received many refugees from the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, so many of the surviving documents of the region are in Spanish
  • Alsace was part of the Holy Roman Empire for eight hundred years, while Lorraine was an independent duchy that was then governed by Stanislas of Poland. In both regions, the documentation is as much in German and Latin as in French.
  • The Papal States or Comtat Venaissin, did not become a part of France until 1791, but Provence was annexed in 1481. The documentation can be in French or Latin

In all locations Jewish documents may also be in Hebrew.

For each of these regions, some of the best research may be done at the relevant Departmental and Municipal Archives. Some of these have been uploading onto their websites some very interesting Jewish materials. These are the departmental and municipal archives relevant to the specific regions:

  • Southwest:
    • Departmental Archives: Landes, Gironde, Pyrénées Atlantiques
    • Municipal Archives: Bayonne, Bordeaux
  • Lorraine:
    • Departmental Archives: Moselle, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, Vosges
    • Municipal Archives: Metz, Nancy
  • Alsace:
    • Departmental Archives: Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin
    • Municipal Archives: Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Colmar
  • Papal States / Comtat Venaissin:
    • Departmental Archives: Vaucluse
    • Municipal Archives: Nîmes

Do visit those websites and start exploring!

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Research Your Ancestor Through Archives on the Town

French village

A nice tool is gradually being added to the websites of various Departmental Archives. It can be of great help to you in tracing your family if you know where they lived in France. The tool is usually within the section entitled Archives en ligne (Archives online) or Archives numérisés (digitized archives), and it is usually called something like Recherche par commune (Search by town).

Click on that, then enter your ancestor's town or village name and voilà, you are presented with, in the best versions, an array of information about the town and of what the archives hold concerning it and its people:

  • A history of the town
  • Its location and neighbouring towns
  • Links to useful administrative websites
  • Parish and civil registers
  • Indices to them
  • Census returns
  • Military enlistment registers
  • Maps
  • Probate records
  • Tax records
  • Postcards

It is a wonderful way to know in an instant what is available and to target your research.

Not all of the Departmental Archives websites have this facility. One of the best we have found in on that of Pas-de-Calais. Saône-et-Loire has a less attractive but still useful version. Check the Departmental Archives websites you use to see if they have this option and give it a go. (You can also try searching these terms on Google: the department name and "recherche par commune" "archives départementales".) You may discover a resource missed when you were searching only by a family name.

Bonne chance!

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Galette des Rois - French Comfort Food Can Help to Find Your Ancestor's Region


The galette des rois, or king cake, is a French tradition that dates back to the Roman era and the end of the year Saturnalia, which was a festival at the end of the year that included religious observance, gift-giving, and some pretty wild partying. A small bean, a miserable little thing that held within it the promise of life in the spring to come, was hidden in a cake. When the cake was served, whoever found the bean in his or her slice, was granted special treatment for the day. 

The galette des rois is pretty much the same in form and function, christianized as to symbolism. A cake of flakey pastry, with a frangipane filling, has a small porcelain figurine, still called a bean or fève, hidden in it, and is served on the 6th of January, Epiphany. The person who finds the fève in his or her slice wears a crown for the day. We are well past the 6th of January, but the French so love the cake that it can still be found in the supermarkets, bakeries and pastry shops.

We, personally, find the cake to be so flat, tasteless and dry, that the hope of a prize really is the only inducement to eating it. However, our children and their French cousins love the thing, so we suspect that it is one of those foods that, like Marmite for the English, must be consumed before the age of three, when discernment begins, for it to be a taste that one can tolerate. Then, with the memory of the taste lodged deep in the subconscious, eating it becomes some sort of comfort. Apparently, king cake is such a comfort food and so easy to make that, during these interminable lockdowns, confinements, people are making them at home and consuming them all year round, as this charming presentation, "What's behind France's 'galette des rois' tradition?", complete with recipe, explains.

Perhaps the French side of your family has a recipe for king cake, or something of a similar name, with an object hidden inside, and the cake eaten around the time of the new year? If so, find it, for it may help you to identify the part of France from which your French ancestors came. Each region varied the recipe slightly, quite naturally, according to the ingredients available, or preferred. Each region claims that their recipe is for the "real" king cake.

  • In Brittany, the cake itself is not made with flakey pastry but is sablée, or shortbread, a much more solid  and buttery affair.
  • In Gascony, Provence and Languedoc, the cake is made with a brioche pastry (much less dry) and formed into a circle, approximating a crown. Even better, orange blossom extract and rum are added.
  • Around Pau, anis flavouring is added to the above recipe.
  • In Nice, the dry version with frangipane is scorned as "Parisian" and inedible. Their version uses brioche pastry and candied fruits.
  • In Bordeaux, the cake is shaped into a circle, approximating a crown, and is made with brioche pastry, with candied citron and pearl sugar sprinkled on top.
  • In Franche-Comté, around Besançon, the flakey pastry is replaced with choux pastry, that used for cream puffs, and, again, orange blossom extract is added.
  • In the far north, around Dunkirk, it is more of a layer cake. Two layers of  a "light brioche" pastry (meaning fewer eggs) have a rum-flavoured cream layer between them. 
  • In Auvergne, it is not even a cake or round. It is made with bread dough, shaped into a star. People were poor in Auvergne, so being able to add sugar may have been all that was possible.

As you  can see, just about all of France, except for Paris, dislikes that dry, tasteless and messy, flakey pastry so, if that is what your ancestor loved with a passion, you may have Parisian roots.

A French way to get through the next lockdown!

Comments are below, as well as:


From Madame I - "Mais moi j'adore la galette des rois !!! C'est mon gâteau d'anniversaire et ce n'est pas sec, c'est tout plein de beurre!"

This is interesting; is the king cake the birthday cake for all those born in January, we wonder?


From Madame L - "as an elementary school student in New Orleans in the 1960’s, king cake was a Mardi Gras treat! There were wonderful parades downtown, businesses and schools were closed that Monday through Ash Wednesday that week, and our school, C.... Elementary, had a parade around the block. The children in St ..... Catholic school next door, hung out the windows to watch us parade by. Such good memories! Thanks for reminding me!"

So! The king cake tradition extends well into February in New Orleans. 

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Is It a Surname or a Place?

French names

Rural France abounds with villages (villages), hamlets (hameaux),  and properties (lieux-dits) that have charming or peculiar names, as the case may be. Most were attached to a parish before the French Revolution, then to a commune afterward. They are notoriously difficult for the researcher to locate. Some, such as La Bachellerie, occur all over France. Some, such as Bleigeat, seem to occur nowhere except in the imagination of an immigrant in Louisiana who gave it as his place of birth (though it really does exist).

We have discussed how to use the Cassini maps and the hundreds of online Napoleonic era maps to find some of them. We have shared Professeur B.'s lecture on micro-geography and lieux-dits. We have also given an example of the case of a tricky place name found on a Natchitoches document that required help from French archivists for clarification. There are numerous websites that attempt to list all such names in France that you could try.

What to do when these place names turn up as part of a surname? We are not referring to surnames that are also place names, such as Bourges, or Paris, or Loire. Nor are we referring to "dit names", which are nicknames that, over time, became family names, such as Le Bon, or Le Sage, or Le Grand. ("Dit names" exist in France but are found much more often in Québec.) We also are not discussing here aristocratic names that are compilations of titles and locations. We are referring to the recording of a place name near to a surname in a register and the confusion that it can cause the researcher.

For example, a child whose name appears to be Léonard Farge du Piager was born in Saint-Martial-de-Gimel in Corrèze in 1813.

Du PiagerArchives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/


His parents are Jean Farge and Marie Puyrobert. Is his surname Farge du Piager, and the officer simply shortened his father's version of the name, or is his surname simply Farge and he is of a place called Piager, (which must be within the boundaries of Saint-Martial-de-Gimel to appear in this birth register)? In the search for that ever elusive comfort, certainty, you might try reading a few pages of the register. In this example, you will find that the name of each child has such an extension and the words are different. This suggests that the officer is indicating in their names where they were born, as the form offers no way to do so. Seeing this practice, you could then check one of the many lists of Corrèze's lieu-dit names for the village to verify that this is what the officer is doing.

In another town, in the same department, Espagnac, the recording officer tried to solve the problem of indicating the place, La Rivière, by putting it in the margin in the birth register.

La RivièreArchives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/


This would only cause confusion to the researcher when initially reading down the margin, assuming that the place names were surnames, as those are usually what one finds in the margin. Eventually, the penny would drop and one would see that these are not surnames of a few remarkably prolific families but place names of scattered communities.

Again in Espagnac, a different approach was tried a bit later. Here, the officer put both the surname and the place name in the margin of the birth register. In this case, it is immediately clear that the children are not all with grand monikers as the name in the registration is different from that in the margin. In the margin, the child's name appears to be Antoine Borie du Coudert, but in the registration, it is simply Antoine Borie.

Borie du Couderc

Archives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/

To verify that the surname is not Borie du Coudert, you could check the table annuelle at the end of the register for the year. It shows that the name is Antoine Borie, tout simple.

Espagnac naissances 1818Archives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/

To verify that it is a place name, you would have to check maps and lists of place names for Espagnac, as well as read through more of the register to determine the officer's procedures.

We hope that this brings no disappointment, that none of you are having to let go of a name that seemed grand but is more plain and honest. If so, try to remember that some of these place names bring no glory. Du Marais, for example, means "from the swamp".

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Paris Cemetery Records Online!

Montmartre Cemetery

Very good news, indeed, from the Archives de Paris for anyone seeking to know where in Paris an ancestor was interred. Parisian cemeteries are overcrowded, as our photograph of Montmartre above shows, making it almost impossible (however delightful the stroll on a sunny day may be) to happen by chance upon the grave one seeks. It could be impossible, due to the French habit of digging up untended graves, tossing the bones into an ossuary, and reselling the plot to someone who will take better care of it.

What has long been needed by family genealogists is access to the interment registers, showing all entries, even of those long ago dug up. And now you have them online, on the website of the Archives de Paris, here. There is also a clear and complete explanation of the twenty current cemeteries of Paris. Through links at the bottom of that page, you can examine the annual burial lists for each cemetery or the daily burial registers for each cemetery.

The first set helps to locate the physical grave. Clicking on répertoires annuels d'inhumation, (the annual burial lists), takes you to a search form in which you can select a cemetery to search, and  supply a name and range of years to search within that cemetery (the concept is identical to the way that civil registrations are searched by arrondissement, record type, name and date range on the same website). The results are each a string of images within the alphabetical range to search. Click on the eye and start looking. 

Search Paris cemeteries

You will then see the pages of the register for that cemetery and be able to find out where your ancestor's grave is (or was).


Paris cemetery register


Remember the month abbreviations!

  • 7re - September
  • 8re - October
  • 9re - November
  • Xre - December

You want to note the exact date of burial, as that is how you will search in the second set, the registres journaliers d'inhumation, the daily burial registers. On this search screen, you will select the cemetery from the drop down menu (we chose Bagneux), then enter the date of burial, date de l'inhumation.

Remember the European style of writing dates!

The tenth of July 1892 is written 10/07/1892

As before, you will get a string of the date range in the register to search. Click on the eye to see the pages and to read along to find the correct date. On the fifth page of this particular string, the tenth of July begins:


Bagneux cemetery

Here, you can discover the full name of the person buried, his or her age at the time of death, and the arrondissement where he or she died (this last allowing you to find the death registration, if you could not do so before). This register also tells exactly where the grave is. The registers styles and column headings vary from year to year and from one cemetery to another but they generally give the same information. If the remains were dug up and removed you will find in the "Observations" column the word "Repris" followed by the date of that sad administrative decision.


All is not as it seems. For our test search, we checked each cemetery's annual burial list for a particular name for the year 1845. The name appeared in none. We also found that, while many of the cemeteries were operational that year, the registers that early are not available online. Then, we began to check the daily burial registers and there, in Batignolles, we found our burial. Though the annual register existed and is available online, the original indexer had  missed the entry. So, try both registers, if you have a date or at least the year of death. If the register for the year is not online but the cemetery was in existence, keep checking back for new additions to the registers on the website.

Have fun with this hunt!

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


More Revolutionary Geography - Sections


In 1790, democracy marched onward in France and voting was organised by commune and, in larger cities, by section. Properly speaking, sections were electoral districts, but they were also used informally by name or number as part of an address. Section names or numbers turn up at times in early civil registrations and can be very confusing. In property records, they are maddening.


The most well-known sections are those of Paris, for they were really the berserkers of Revolutionary radicalism. There were forty-eight sections revolutionnaires in Paris. When first established in 1790, they had names that linked to local landmarks, buildings or roads, such as Section du Temple (referring to the centre of the Knights Templar) or Section de la Halle-aux-Blés (referring to the grain market). In 1795, some names were changed the better to reflect the ideals of the Revolution, and such names as Section du Contrat-Social (Section of the Social Contract) and Section des Droits-de-l'Homme (Section of the Rights of Man) appeared. By 1811, many of them had reverted to old neighbourhood, or quartier, names. Wikipedia lists the Paris Revolutionary sections, with their names in 1790, 1795 and 1811.

The difficulty is in knowing exactly where they were. Using a modern map of Paris and the 1811 column from the Wikepedia page, you can get an idea, but as the sections were so much smaller than the modern arrondissements, it will be only a vague idea. As street names and names of squares, or places, also changed (for example rue de Richelieu was rue de la Loi) it is not always possible to use street names to find the location of a section. The history website, Emerson Kent, has a map created by the wonderful Stanfords for Cambridge University Press that shows the sections, with both the 1790 and the 1795 names, on a map of the old faubourgs.

 Other Cities

Less publicised and so, more difficult, are the sections of other cities. Marseille had thirty-two sections. Though the Departmental Archives of Bouches-du-Rhône writes that they had names, we cannot find a list of them anywhere. It seems that they were most often referred to by number. A map of the Marseille sections may be seen at the moment on page 42 of Michel Vovelle's "Les Sans-Coulottes marseillais: le mouvement sectionnaire du jacobinisme au fédéralisme 1791-1793" on Google Books.

Brest began with seven sections in 1790. Like in Paris, they had names linked with local identity:

  • Pont-de-Terre
  • La Place-d'Armes
  • Champ-de-la-Fédération
  • Saint-Louis
  • La Pointe
  • La Fontaine
  • Carpont

In 1793, they were changed to:

  • Egalité
  • Liberté
  • Sans-culottes
  • Raison
  • Montagne
  • Marat
  • Le Peletier

In 1794, about forty streets were renamed, just to complicate things.1 

To find the sections of other cities will be a struggle. The best sources that we have found are scholarly tomes about a city during the Revolutionary period. Quite a lot of these were published around 1989, as part of the commemorations of the two hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Should any of you have found the sections of other cities, do let us know!

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


1. Philippe Henwood and Edmond Monange, Brest : un Port en Révolution, 1789-1799, (Editions Ouest-France, 1989), p267.

Summer Fun - Find Your Ancestor's Region With a Fable


This is rather fun. Two sprightly researchers named Philippe Boula de Mareüil and Albert Rilliard, working at the Laboratoire d'Informatique pour la Mécanique et les Sciences de l'Ingénieur (LIMSI) have produced an interactive map of the dialects of France, the Atlas sonore des langues régionales de France. Really, it is of the dialects for which they could find living speakers, so not all are represented, but there are still a good two dozen.

Each speaker reads the same fable by Aesop, "La Bise et le Soleil", ("The Wind and the Sun").

La bise et le soleil se disputaient, chacun assurant qu'il était le plus fort, quand ils ont vu un voyageur qui s'avançait, enveloppé dans son manteau. Ils sont tombés d'accord que celui qui arriverait le premier à faire ôter son manteau au voyageur serait regardé comme le plus fort. Alors, la bise s'est mise à souffler de toute sa force mais plus elle soufflait, plus le voyageur serrait son manteau autour de lui et à la fin, la bise a renoncé à le lui faire ôter. Alors le soleil a commencé à briller et au bout d'un moment, le voyageur, réchauffé a ôté son manteau. Ainsi, la bise a du reconnaître que le soleil était le plus fort des deux.

Click on the different cities on the map to hear the story read in the local dialect and to see, at the bottom of the screen, the text spelt as read.

How will this help you find your ancestor? It will not be automatic or easy but it might be possible. Here are some suggestions:

  1. We have already discussed in a previous post how people who spoke the same dialect tended to stay together after immigration. If, for example, you know that your ancestor settled in Missouri with a group of people originally from Sablonceaux, but you can find no trace of him or her in Sablonceaux, do not let your research become blocked at the administrative borders of the department of Charente-Maritime, where Sablonceaux is located. Instead, look at this map to see the reach of the language and use that as your search area.
  2. In the same way, look at the map above of the old French provinces and compare it with the map of dialects. There are some surprises, particularly in Bourgogne, which is much larger than the area where bourguignon-morvandiau was spoken. 
  3.  Use the written version of the text on the map to compare with any letters or journals your ancestor may have left. Many in the nineteenth century had only a rudimentary education and their spelling was not ideal. This could be a boon, if they spelt as they spoke. With a bit of imagination and sounding out aloud, you may find a match between what you ancestor wrote and one of the written versions on the Atlas sonore. This would give you a linguistic search area on which to focus.
  4. We are assuming that you have no oral history recorded of the French ancestor you cannot place for, if so, it probably also contains the place of origin. The next closest thing is any song or poem or saying that has been handed down the generations. Try writing it down as it sounds to you and compare that with how the language sounds in the dialects. You could find a match!

To our ears, the dialects sound vastly different from one another, particularly those in Alsace, a tricky research locale for most. Perhaps this map can be of help.

Failing all else, it is a lot of fun to listen to the various versions and voices.


©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



French Settlers Speaking the Same Dialect

Hanging out

Because much of the popular history of immigration to the United States concerns immigrants fleeing religious persecution, it is tempting to look at the reasons for all French immigrants' departures as being due to the same cause, but they certainly were not. Many people were economic migrants; impoverished in France, they left all that they had known to try for a better life elsewhere. This may especially be true of those who left France during the great wave after the 1848 Revolution and economic crisis, which peaked in 1851, when over twenty thousand French emigrated to the United States. (1)

By the same token, their choices of where to settle and whom to marry often had little or nothing to do with religion. Other influences on some of the French immigrants, which may have been at least as strong as religious preferences, need to be considered. The most important of these may be language.

It is worthwhile to bear in mind that, though many people stated in United States Federal Census returns of the nineteenth century that they were from France, that does not mean that they would have spoken French as their mother tongue. Many would have spoken a regional dialect that may have had a quite different vocabulary and grammatical structure from French. This map shows the "regional languages" of France, with greater refinement than those that divide France into two halves where either langue d'oïl or langue d'oc is spoken:

Carte des langues

The comfort and familiarity of one's native language is very important to most people. Immigrants suffer when they experience extended periods of not being able to speak in their own language with another person.(2) Often, more than for religious familiarity, people seem to have settled near one another because of language familiarity. They may have encountered their future spouses in the new land because they were the people with whom they could communicate in their own language.

The group of French settlers in the early and mid-nineteenth century in Mowrystown, Ohio are a case in point. Many of them were from the Montbéliard region, where Franc-comtois was spoken. The dialect, or patois, is heavily influenced by German and has a vocabulary quite distinct from French, as is graphically demonstrated here. We have been reading the series of online articles about Mowrystown's French immigrants by the late Monsieur Jerry Pruitt on the website of the Highland County Press, entitled "Mowrystown Recollections".

Many of the French settlers can be traced to the department of Doubs, in the region of Franche-Comtois. While Monsieur Pruitt discussed church affiliation at length, we have not yet found any mention of the dialect many would have spoken, yet language surely played a part. Mr. Pruitt mentioned that some of the families came from the same town in France but not that, especially upon arrival and before they had learned English, the only people with whom they could associate were those with whom they could communicate.

Conversely to looking at language to understand why some of your ancestors made certain choices in their new homes, you might look closely at their language to know where they originated in France. If you are lucky enough to have any heirloom with writing in the dialect, or family proverbs that do not sound like true French, we suggest that you research those to identify in which dialect they may be. That, in turn, may help to find a long-sought place of origin.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


(1) Fohlen, Claude, "Perspectives historiques sur l'immigration française aux États-Unis", Revue européenne des migrations internationales, 6 (1990): 29-43, accessed 5 March 2017, DOI : 10.3406/remi.1990.1225.


Hammill, Pete and Miyamoto, Michiko, "The Japanning of New York", New York Magazine, (17 August 1981) p23: "Yes, I get homesick, mostly for the Japanese language....I miss my language. Yes, I miss that."


Putre, Laura, "Trail of Broken Dreams", Cleveland Scene, (23 November 2000) http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/trail-of-broken-dreams/Content?oid=1475696 : accessed 5 March 2017: "I missed my family. I missed a lot.....And I miss speaking my language."


"I'm Icelandic and I miss speaking my language" was an advertisement placed in The McGill Daily, vol 75, no 50, 30 Jan 1986, p. 11, (https://www.internet.archive.org : accessed 1 March 2017)


Kassabova, Kapka, Street Without a Name: Childhood And Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009), (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 3 March 2017): " 'I have been successful here,' muses a bespectacled [Bulgarian] scientist in America or Australia, 'but I miss my language.' He chokes on his words."


Countless comments to the same effect among friends and acquaintances in our long years of living in non-English-speaking locales.