WHERE in France Was Your Ancestor From?

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.