The French Genealogy Blog is written by Anne Morddel, a Board Certified Genealogist and member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, who is a native Californian living in France. It is a "how-to" blog, with each post explaining how to use the many resources available for families to research their French ancestors.
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.
In 1684, Louis XIV established at Saint-Cyr a school for the daughters of certain impoverished nobility called the Maison Royale de Saint Louis. It educated girls and young women until the Revolution caused its closure in 1793. Lists of the names of the students have been published in book form, but the website of the Departmental Archives of Yvelines, where Saint-Cyr is located, have placed the names on its website. They are given alphabetically in three groups:
Certain boarders (pensionnaires)
Boarders whose home cannot be determined
It is also possible to view the list by department, colony or country of origin. Thus, one can find the three girls from Quebec, the four from Martinique, the two from Guadeloupe, along with the dozens listed under each department. In all, there were over three thousand boarders at Saint-Cyr during its hundred years or so of existence.
The information to be gained is little but genealogically precious:
The full and correct spelling and order of those tricky noble names
The place of birth
The date of baptism
The date of the documents used
The date she left the school
In 1806, Napoleon handed the buildings over to the military and the place became the elitist Ecole spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr. It may be a very sad irony that the military school was exclusively for males until 1983, when women were first admitted, only to have their lives made hell. The founder, Madame de Maintenon, would surely have been outraged.
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 researched notarial records and found letters from heirs who had emigrated to North America, thus determining their relationship. 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 other heirs receive equal shares of the estate. No one can be disinherited. No one may receive a disproportionate share. This often baffles and disputes 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 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. He said he was a resident of California, lived there, and sent his two younger children to school there. In his 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. A perfectly legal will in California but 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.
Was you ancestor a Pole or a Spaniard or a Russian who came to France in the late nineteenth century and was then expelled? Or, are you aware only of the fact that he or she passed through France during that period but you do not know when? In fact, you know little? The archives of documents concerning expulsions of foreigners are scattered throughout France's many facilities. There are probably such files in every Departmental Archive. None of these files is online. If you did not know where your ancestor stayed while in France, the research prospect can be daunting.
Historians are wanting to research the same documents in order the better to understand policies of exile, asylum and expulsion of the past and, now, their work can benefit your genealogical research. The University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne is running a project called AsileeuropeXIX (e.g. European Asylum in the Nineteenth Century) and the researchers have made their database available to the public and able to be searched on many different criteria. It is a work in progress, with data from the:
National Archives of France, out at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine
Departmental Archives of Bas-Rhin
Departmental Archives of Somme
Departmental Archives of Nord
Departmental Archives of Rhône
Departmental Archives of Calvados
One expects that data from other archives will be added. It is a very nice website, with more than just the database. There are interviews with academics on the subject of asylum and exile, there is a budding lexicon of the somewhat rarified vocabulary used to discuss political exiles, asylum seekers, expelled migrants and other such. Very interestingly, there are a few maps that show the routes followed by some exiles, beginning with that of a Prussian student who, after much journeying through France, ended up in the United States.
Naturally, the section of primary interest to you, Dear Readers, will be the database search page, on which you can search on:
Whether or not the arrival in France were for political reasons
Country of birth
Whether or not the expulsion were for political reasons
The year or range of years of the expulsion
The reason (motif) for the expulsion
The country to which the person was sent
The authority that ordered the expulsion
The source of the data
This is pretty comprehensive. What we particularly like is that it is possible to search on any of the criteria without having to give a surname (Filae and Geneanet, take note!) This means that spelling issues can be avoided. It also means that the data can be searched in more interesting ways, such as seeking all the women who were artists from Russia, or all the students from Prussia, or all the thieves expelled from Bas-Rhin, or simply all the glassmakers. Think of all of those vague family stories that could be tested here.
There are minor flaws:
The itineraries of migrant routes could have more identification and dates at each point
The countries lists need to be cleaned and organised. Currently, there are both Empire de Russie and empire russe, Hesse Cassel and Hesse-Cassel, Grande Bretagne and Royaume-Uni. This means that you must read the drop-down lists of possibilities and search on each one that you find suitable.
This is a wonderful resource. We have reported on other such academic databases that have withered and died at the end of the project, finally falling off the edge of the Net altogether. This project ends in 2020 and we do so hope that the database will continue to be maintained afterward. (Or, again we ask Filae and Geneanet to take note, it could be purchased and added to a commercial genealogy company's collection?)
We hope that this may help you to confirm that family story about your political exile ancestor.
We have had the pleasure of the acquaintance of the highly qualified genealogist, Marie Cappart, for a few years now and enjoy meeting with her when our paths cross at genealogy fairs, congregations and other extravaganzas. She embodies a happy combination of ebullience and expertise; she is also the author of the book we review here on Belgian genealogy, Le Guide de la Généalogie en Belgique.
This is a guide that is both thorough and succinct, both complete and clear. Unlike other guides to genealogy in French, it is not padded with an excessive number of attractive but useless photographs of dolls and documents; this guide is packed with useful information and advice.
Ms. Cappart covers the basics that one would expect to find. She explains the archives facilities and how to do genealogical research in their holdings, whether that search be on site or online. The specifics of the structure and wording of Belgian parish and civil registrations are described. The chapter entitled "Les archives coloniales : un sujet délicat" is a wonder of sensitive yet straightforward discussion of the archives of the Congo an d its years under Belgian rule, a period that is probably that darkest stain on Belgium's history.
The author shows greater patience than we have with the interminable pestering by some family historians to prove a connection with royalty. You think you have connections to Belgian nobility or are descended from Charlemagne? Ms. Cappart gives a pithy chapter to the research of each. From military records to corporate archives, all seem to have been covered in this guide. There is even a chapter explaining who the Mormons are and why they are so important to genealogy, the necessity of which we find utterly disarming.
Following the bibliography, which includes websites, the Appendices are no afterthought, but contain more useful information in list form rather than in prose. They cover:
A sample of a letter you may need for archives access
Lists of archives and research facilities, with their addresses and websites, in Belgium, France and The Netherlands, plus Great Britain and the United States
A trilingual list of the most common forenames
A lexicon to the most common terms to be found in parish and civil registrations
A bilingual list, French and Dutch, of the most common of those terms
A very useful guide showing what data may be found in each type of document or registration
You need no other book, guide or resource than this to begin your research in Belgian genealogy.
We have been junketting again, this time to Bordeaux and that city's excellent archival and library facilities. We revisited the Departmental Archives of the Gironde. We then carried on our research in the municipal archives of Bordeaux, called the Archives Bordeaux Métropole, for their collections cover the entire metropolitan area of Bordeaux.
In truth, we recommend that researchers use the website of these archives, for getting there is rather unpleasant. The tram stop, Jardin Botanique, is quite a trek away, down dirty roads with broken paving stones, past gaping car parks and grim bungalows of a bygone era. Around a wide curve one comes to a long, weedy road parallel to and fenced off from a railway hub; this is the last stretch. In case one were not already sunk into a gloomy view of our dystopian inner cities, the wall that lines this stretch, topped with barbed wire, has been painted with a long mural that seems to depict the last moment of the dinosaurs on this planet. Dinosaur Armageddon being a parallel, of course, for the warning that this little enclave of Hell gives.
After the last dead dinosaur, we came to the archives, not at all cheered by the prison architecture the good city fathers selected (see the top photo). One enters to find a row of lockers blocking the view of a rather nice display.
We went through the usual routine of registering, a process that is free but is required of all users. One must show some sort of identification, such as a passport or identity card, fill out a form and then receive a user's card. When we completed this, the receptionist then put in front of us a small box of bottle caps.
"Choose one," she said, briskly. We stared, perhaps stupidly, certainly confused. She shook the box, rattling the bottle caps. "For the locker," she added, impatiently. We really were quite lost as to how a bottle cap could possibly operate a locker. She sighed with impatience and rattled the box again until a few small, plastic tokens rose to the surface. A Wittgensteinian "Aha moment" came to us. It would appear that the receptionist's love of soda and of carefully saving the bottle caps had overshadowed her responsibility to maintain a few tokens for archives users. As the very concept of customer service is anathema to French civil servants, this indifference to users comes as no surprise. We fished out a token from the bottle cap collection and went to a locker to deposit all that is not permitted in the reading room. The receptionist smiled her approval.
The prison theme continued in the reading room, but there, the staff were friendly, intelligent and helpful. Our reason for visiting had been to see the more recent civil registrations, which are not yet on the website. Nor are they on an internal website, we learned. The archivist gave us a USB key that contained the tables décennales (ten year indices) to civil registrations through 1935 and generously took the time to explain the structure of the tables and how to search them.
We spent the morning viewing the tables and listing all possible registrations that we would like to see. We returned the USB key and asked for the one holding images of the actual registers, so that we could view the registrations, but no, we were told.
"No?" Even now, we have not adjusted to the French civil servants' warrior code of "Never Explain; Never Justify". In this code, the person holding the cards of power makes every statement as if it were one of fact, not policy or opinion or anything else that can be disputed. Ask why at your peril; but we did.
"Why? The law states that birth and marriage registrations over seventy-five years old may be viewed by the public." We spoke as evenly as we could. In this sort of encounter, to show frustration is more than a sign of weakness, it is like giving the scent of blood to a hound, and the game is on. The game is an exchange of the foolish person's increasingly frustrated protests and pleadings being countered by the civil servant's shorter and blunter replies, usually resulting in a back being turned and a stroke being suffered. Our experience served us well and we avoided the trap; we smiled through our teeth and a helpful answer was received.
"They are still in the Mairie (City Hall)" we were told. "Before you took out the USB key, did you note all of the codes for each registration?" Imagine if we had not! We noted the passive-aggressive's disappointment that we had done and so did not have to go though all of our work again. He sighed. "You must have been to archives before," he said, his fun spoiled, but this brought efficiency. "Now, you go to the City Hall with your list and they will make copies for you."
Our notes in hand, token returned to the bottle cap box, we left and walked past the dinosaurs again, growing fonder of them on this second pass.
We took the tram to the Hôtel de Ville stop and entered that lovely building.
Inside, one takes a number. When it is called, one gives no code (so, we had written them for nothing and, had we not done so and had spent another hour or so finding them as the archivist instructed, it would have been for naught; see how the game works?). Only the date of the registration and the surname are required. The civil registrations clerk printed all that we requested with great speed and then asked "Any more?" By then, beaten and exhausted by the game, we gave our sweetest thanks and left, grateful to have achieved our research goals and to have survived the game one more time.
Should you be seeking twentieth century Bordeaux registrations, you now know that you must go to the Archives Bordeaux Métropole first thing in the morning in order to be able to go to the City Hall before closing time, looking at the indices in the former and getting copies of registrations from the latter. Wear comfortable shoes for this adventure and perhaps take something calming, like beta-blockers.
For a couple of years, now, we have been following the near-invisible trail of a French World War Two photographer. Having exhausted just about every archive and genealogical possibility to earn more about this secretive man, we thought to try the archives of French military photography and cinematography, ECPAD (Etablissement de communication et de production audiovisuelle de la Défense), located south of Paris in the Fort d'Ivry.
We took line seven on the Métro to the end, then hiked fifteen minutes up the hill to the fort, a predictably grim structure, particularly on a cold, winter day. We went through the usual security of having our bags checked and of handing over our identity card for the duration of our visit. We were given a visitor's badge and told to walk around a grassy hill to find the entrance to ECPAD. Young soldiers in bold fatigues, berets and boots stood guard holding large black guns. We found our way and were surprised to discover the first French archive not to provide lockers for users. One and one's cumbersome belongings are welcome into the reading room, which is small but full of light.
A couple of weeks earlier, we had e-mailed ECPAD, explaining our research hopes. This communication was completely ignored. Consequently, we had faint hope of much of a welcome or of ease of research. We entered and were greeted by an archivist whose warmth and smile were of the caliber of a professional at Disneyland. This is so out of character in French public servants that we were befuddled into a moment of silence, apparently one too long, for our greeter promptly turned away. We rallied, he returned, still all smiles and got down to the business of finding our elusive photographer.
The photographer database in ECPAD contains the names of all photographers and cinematographers who worked as such in the French military. For each, there are examples of his or her work. There are not, however, any biographical details. Nor are there any archives relating to the specific photography and film units (those are at the Service Historique de la Défense in Vincennes). We found our man in the list and found eight photographs of his that had been scanned, with limited descriptions. That was all.
Two more of the staff joined our original cheery helper and checked their own resources to see if they could not find more. Unfortunately, they could not. They could, however, locate many more photographs by our man that had not yet been scanned, and we were allowed to look at and copy some of those. We also looked at the impressive studies of various aspects of French war photography that have been produced by the staff. (They also have some lavish books and films for sale on their website.)
ECPAD really is exclusively an image archive. As such, it is unlikely to further your genealogical research by more than a tad, if that. However, if you are seeking an image of places where your ancestor was posted or fought, or perhaps an image of his or her unit, ECPAD could be just the place.
This could be remarkably helpful to some lucky soul or two.
Archivists in the National Archives of France and in the Departmental Archives of the department of Yvelines write that they have stumbled upon bundles of more then three hundred wills written by World War One soldiers. Just last month, the National Archives launched a call for volunteers to help to transcribe these wills so that they may be scanned and indexed and put online.
The website, Testaments de Poilus, already has a bit under two hundred wills available. For each will, the record shows:
The man's full name
Date and place of his death
Date of the Will
Full code of the will
Image of the will
Transcription in French of the will's contents
These can be incredibly useful, not only to know more about those men who died, many of them so very young that one knows nothing of them, but also to discover unknown relationships. Many of our Dear Readers have written to ask about men born in the early 1890s who seem to have disappeared. Some of them may be found via these wills, and their relationships to others explained via their named heirs. Stay with this project as it grows and you may be on e of the lucky ones.
Should you feel able to contribute to the project as a transcriber, join the project here and start work.
You may recall, Dear Readers, that the Fond Coutot, being the largest private archives in France, were the creation of a professional genealogist, Amédée Coutot. He opened up business a bit over twenty years after the fires set by the Paris Commune destroyed the parish and civil registrations of the city. A lack of any birth, death or marriage records would have made his task of finding a family's heirs most trying. Using all that he could find among the records that survived and from many other sources, he and his son after him eventually built an archive of over ten million life events. These are available to the public, for a fee, online at GeneaService.
No expense was spent at all to make this a decent website and, surely, no cost, however great, or however small, was deemed necessary to convert an antiquated index card system into a database with a clear structure and a rational search facility. But for those who have a penchant for neon lime green, no thought of design or presentation was considered necessary. Nevertheless, the data is there and you can access it, eventually.
Now, Geneaservice offers a new option to its weary and exhausted users: that of uploading their family tree on their "Ma Famille" page. Here, you are encouraged to enter details from your family tree, up to your relations of the sixth degree. The enticement is that you may be discovered as an heir to a fortune. How can that be? Because the data you enter will also be available to professional probate genealogists to view in their search for heirs to estates.
We find this to be somewhat abusive, as well as a rather feeble effort at data mining. In our last post, we pointed out that French probate genealogists are heir hunters who demand a cut of the inheritance before they will put an heir in contact with the notaire in charge of the estate. We also pointed out that many such businesses are struggling to make ends meet. What better way to reduce research costs and increase the pool of patsies than to get family historians to provide their research at no cost? And there is the chance to doubly hit the dupes by charging them a percentage of a possible inheritance based on their own research.
We are a strong supporter of the superb volunteer community of French genealogists and we encourage our readers to be aware of the enormous amount of free websites and information available thanks to these thousands of volunteers' work, and we encourage you all to repay their efforts by sharing your genealogy work in return and by joining their societies or cercles. This GeneaService caper, however, is something to avoid; as the French say, ce n'est pas correct, ce n'est pas bon.
The eminent genealogy professor, Stéphane Cosson, has written an interesting blog post about the difficulties currently being experienced by French probate genealogists. He informs us that quite a few of them are going broke and his purpose in writing is to suggest a different business model.
Companies and individuals engaging in probate genealogy, (la généalogie successorale,) have, Monsieur Cosson explains, two basic types of projects:
Documenting all heirs to an estate, with appropriate birth, marriage and death registrations, as well as any other relevant documents . These projects are carried out at the request of a notaire who is handling the estate. The fees are set and are rather low. If an heir be missed out by the genealogist, his or her insurance covers the payout due to that heir. This type of project consumes about 60% of a probate genealogist's work, but brings in much less than half the income, often not even covering costs.
Hunting unknown heirs to an estate, which involves finding people related to the deceased but whom no one in the family knows exists. These are the big money projects as, before the genealogist will reveal to the heir the way to collect the inheritance, he or she requires that a contractual agreement be signed, giving over a hefty percentage of the inheritance.
We have never quite been able to work out the legality of the second type of project for, if by law an heir has a right to an inheritance, surely then anyone who knows of it has an obligation to inform him or her of that inheritance. Placing an obstacle such as a contract that must be signed in the way of that obligation to inform seems to us to be the private medicine approach to the process, or comparable to refusing to tell a person who has the right to vote where he or she may do so until a contract be signed and a fee agreed. Nevertheless, that is how things are here but now, after some two hundred years, it is no longer working so well.
We would like to propose two additional causes of the probate genealogists' troubles to add to Monsieur Cosson's list.
The increasing popularity of family research as a hobby in France means that people now are much more aware of who their relatives are and of any relationship to a person who might leave a tidy sum. Though battles have been fought between knowledgeable heirs and the larger probate genealogy research companies, it seems pretty clear that family historians will probably inform one another of legal procedures to follow to ensure that they will not have to sign contracts and pay fees.
With the increasing influence of North American genealogy practices and styles (note the increased presence of French genealogists at RootsTech and the increasing number of liaisons between FamilySearch and French archives) views of this somewhat parasitic form of genealogy may be changing in France. If one reads the Standards of Practice and Conduct on the website of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy, the first two points specifically prohibit the most lucrative and desirable type of research project of French probate genealogists:
"Not take a forensic genealogy case on a speculative, contingent, percentage, or outcome-based fee agreement as many jurisdictions have found this constitutes a conflict of interest;
Not recruit beneficiaries or heirs for my own business, for other firms, or for attorneys..."
Because of the legal requirements concerning the distribution of an estate in France, notaires will always need probate genealogists to document fully all heirs to an estate, as in the first type of project described above. However, the second type of project may be, we posit, on its way out. Some genealogists would have to adapt to avoid suffering, but all heirs would be much better off.
*For our French readers, translation websites interpret this phrase to mean "sur les patins" ("on skates"); non! non! non! non! "On the skids" translates most closely to "être sur le déclin" or "battre de l'aile".
Read Full Article
Read for later
Articles marked as Favorite are saved for later viewing.
Scroll to Top
Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.