While working on a research project for a client with Canadian ancestors, I learned that the family origins were in France. This took the work in a totally new direction – and into a new world of French genealogy. Here’s a little of what I learned:


Les Cevennes hills, France

Parlez-Vous Généalogie?

Think “France” and it’s likely the images swimming in your mind are of the Eiffel Tower, chocolate desserts, high fashion, and world-renowned wine. For most of us, it’s easy to forget that France has a long and often turbulent history.

Originally part of what was known as Gaul (the area comprising most of today’s western Europe), France has been home to a wild array of ethnic groups, including Celts, Germans, Romans, and Greeks. In the 1st century, Gaul was conquered by

Julius Caesar who brought both Roman culture and the Roman language (Latin) to the region.

A few centuries later, part of Gaul was conquered by the Franks, (a Germanic tribe), and eventually became part of the Carolingian Empire, ruled by Charlemagne. From that time onward, until the French Revolution in 1789, France was a monarchy.

After the Napoleon years, France became a republic, and today has a bicameral legislature, a president and prime minister.

During the years of the monarchy, France was a religious battleground, torn apart by warring elements of the predominantly Catholic population and its much smaller Protestant congregation. Although religious tolerance was legislated for a time, a large Protestant migration emptied the country of talented craftsmen including weavers and silversmiths.  One of those smiths, Apollos Rivoire, anglicized his name to

Paul Revere, the same name given to his son, the famous American revolutionary.

Many Americans with French roots are came here thanks to a Huguenot (Protestant) ancestor who left France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes,

In delving into French genealogy, I quickly discovered that France has excellent records, particularly those found in civil registrations (from 1792 onward) and parish records (pre-1792). But because my high school French is pretty hazy, I did make extensive use of an online French-English dictionary, as well as a free online translation service.

Based on family knowledge or family lore, try your best to discover your ancestor’s hometown and/or date of immigration. French records are kept at the French equivalent to a U.S. county, so knowing the place of birth is critical.
If you’re unsure of what French “Department” the family called home, check the “regular suspects” like family Bibles, letters, naturalization papers, and obituaries. If you’re not the keeper of the family goodies, contact the family members most in the know and explain what you’re looking for. Even if you have no documentation, there’s  a chance that a village name might be part of a well-known family story or legend.

Next, try to track down the family name (or name of allied families) on a ship’s passenger list. The Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild has French manifests as early as 1820, most of which traveled from French ports to New Orleans. Keep in mind, however, that your Protestant (Huguenot) ancestor would not have traveled to New Orleans.

If you can’t still can’t find a place of origin on early ships, check the 25-million names on the Ellis Island site. There, you may find your ancestor, their ship, and town of origin.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has several volumes that could also be of help in tracking place of origin.  These titles include:

▪               Les combattants français de la guerre américaine, 1778-1783 (French soldiers who fought in the 
American Revolution 1778-1783). Name index containing about 46,000 names. FHL Europe Ref. 944 M2cf; FHL Europe Microfilm 0547088 and 0962689

▪               L’emigration des Alsaciens et des Lorrains du XVIIIe and XXe siecle, by Norman Laybourn  Strasbourg: Association des Publications près les Universités de Strasbourg, ISBN 2-86820-376-4, 2 volumes in French. FHL EUROPE 6001613–4 fiches and 6001614–6 fiches. (Immigration from Alsace-Lorraine)

▪               The Acadians in France, 1762-1776: rolls of the Acadians living in France distributed by town for the years 1762 to 1776. 3 vols, by Milton P. Rieder. FHL Europe Ref. 944 W2r.

Immigration au Nouveau Monde

The first permanent French colony was formed in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain at Quebec.  If you remember your grade school history, you may recall the 1673 exploration up the Mississippi River by Marquette and Joliet, and a later expedition mounted by LaSalle. The region explored by LaSalle was claimed for France and named Louisiana in honor of Louis IV.

La Nouvelle France was established in a line of settlements along the Mississippi (St. Louis, Natchez, New Orleans) and their Canadian base. Because New France was a Catholic-only region, the Protestants who fled France settled in British colonies. By the time of the American Revolution, it’s estimated that New France had a population of 80,000, compared to 1.5 million English in the 13 colonies.

Acadia (Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and parts of modern-day New England) was settled early on by the French, but in the 1750s, the British expelled everyone who wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the British crown. This ousting sent several thousand Acadians to the English colonies, back to France, or south to Louisiana.

Following several French-English-Spanish hullabaloos, the Louisiana Territory of La Nouvelle France was eventually sold to the United States (1803) and is considered one of the biggest land grabs in history.

During the French Revolution, thousands of political refugees immigrated to the United States–enough that a French-language newspaper was published in New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia. Another wave of immigration occurred during the Franco-Prussian war when France lost the Alsace-Lorraine region. Many in this wave eventually settled in New York, New Orleans, and Chicago.

The post-Civil War era saw an increase in French-Canadians to the U.S., most frequently into the northeast, including Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island. The 1930 census revealed there were more than 135,000 French natives living in the United States, with a total French immigration from 1820 onward weighing in at about three-quarters of a million. Compared with immigration from the United Kingdom, the total percentage of French-born immigrants is minimal.

Beginning in 1792, birth, marriage and death records (naissances, mariages, décès) were kept by civil authorities, and continue still. Because of privacy laws, you cannot access birth or marriage records for the most immediate past 100 years; however, direct descendants can obtain a certificate if you can prove the relationship. The death records are not confidential.

Civil registers are kept at the city or village level town hall (mairie), which is somewhat like an in U.S. city courthouse. Once the record is 100 years old, it is transferred to the Departmental Archives (the equivalent of a U.S. county level).  There are 100 Departments (including some in former colonies), each administered by a prefet. If you do not find your family in the Department where you think they should be, remember that just as U.S. counties have changed boundary lines, French departments have also undergone some major boundary changes in the Paris area.

Civil records are kept in French, but with a good French dictionary and knowledge of basic terms, you should be able to read the record.  Additionally, French records can include margin notes that might indicate other records available relevant to a specific person.

Birth record (naissances) information can vary, and most often includes the date, time and place of registration, date and place of birth, parents’ names and ages, as well as given name and surname, age, and occupation of the informant. Fortunately, in France a woman maintains her maiden name “from the cradle to the grave”, so you will always have your female ancestor’s maiden name on the records. Some birth records also include the parents’ birthplace.

Civil marriage records (mariages) include full names, address and occupation of bride and groom, date and place of marriage, parents’ names, and occupations of at least two witnesses. The records will also note any previous marriage or children born prior to the marriage.

Tip:  Because the bride and groom were required to be married by civil authorities prior to marrying in the church, it’s possible the church and the civil ceremony may have taken place in two different locations.

Deaths (décès) were registered in the town where the death occurred. The information on death records will vary depending on the time span; earlier records may only have name, date, and place of death, while later records can include birthplace, parents’ name, as well as names, ages and occupation of witnesses.  Again, women are listed by maiden name.

Luckily, Civil Registration records are indexed.  To obtain records you’ll need to either write to the appropriate Department, or visit your local Family History Library, which has filmed most French records.  Addresses of Departmental archives (Archives Départmentales) can be found from this Web site

You will need to hire a French researcher, or writer letters to access these records. You’ll find a valuable guide on writing French letters on the Family Search site.

It’s important to remember that French records are kept locally; there is no master index for France nationally.

Registres Paroissiaux
A second source of family records are parish records (registres paroissiaux). The Royal Decree of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539, required priests to record baptisms, and later marriages and burials. A later decree required records to be kept in duplicate, but it wasn’t until 1736 that second records were routinely kept.

Baptism records will typically include the date of baptism, parents’ name (including mother’s surname), child’s name, residence, and godparents’ name. In church marriage records, you’ll find the date, place of origin, bride and groom’s names, name of parents, and name of witnesses. At times, the relationship of the witness to the marriage parties is also noted. Church death records will note place and date of death, name of deceased and name of the deceased’s parents or spouse.

There are a few baptismal records that date back to the 1300, but most are from the mid-1600s on. After 1792, churches still continued to record baptisms, marriages and deaths; these church records are not subject to the 100-year confidentiality law.

What about finding records for Protestants in this Catholic nation?  Those registers may also be found in Departmental archives, the Protestant Historical Society in Paris (Societe d’Histoire du Protestantisme Francais), or the National Archives (Archives Nationales)

Because Catholicism was the national religion, almost all your research prior to 1792 can be done in church records. An interesting side note is that special permission was needed for close relatives to marry; when a record says that dispensation (permission) was needed because of consanguinité (same blood line), you can probably track down the common ancestor because the record will reveal the degree of relationship.

Keep in mind, though, that parish records are not indexed.  But, many church records were filmed by the LDS church, and are available on microfilm.

D’autres disques de généalogie 
Among the other records available for research are:
o Military records, some dating from the 1600s, are held by the Army and Navy Historical Services, located in Vincennes, France; conscription records in the Departmental Archives.  Military records are challenging unless you know French; they are not indexed, and are alphabetical by year.
o Notary records (actes notariés) more than 125 years old can be found in the Departmental archives; some date to the 1300s. Notaries prepare documents like marriage contracts and wills. Excellent for genealogists because they are arranged chronologically, and often appear with other records for the same family.
o Land and property records National Archives, mairies, or Departmental archives
o Census with names began in 1772, but until 1836 contained the number of people living in a household, not by name.  Censuses were taken every five years in France beginning in 1836.  A census was also done in 1872 and 1916 (delayed because of World War I).

Because Civil Registration records are kept in an easy-to-follow format, even though they’re in French, other records like military, notary, and land can be much more difficult to read. If you can find your ancestor in these records, and can’t read French, this is a good time to find someone who can help you translate. My own genealogy society has fluent French and German speakers, or you may want to check with you local Family History Center.

Bibliothèque D’Antécédents Familiaux
Once you are on track with your family’s place of origin, you can begin searching the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or order microfilms via your local Family History Center (FHC). You can find the closest FHC by clicking on the link.

The first thing to pull from the FamilySearch site is the French Research Outline. Located under Research Help, the outline will lead you through the maze of researching in a non-English speaking country. Use the site, too, to track down research that might have already been done on your family. Check the International Genealogical Index (IGI), Ancestral File, and the Family Group Records Collection.

Next, check the Family History Library catalog to see what information is available. Do a place search on your ancestor’s town or parish. Most items on microfilm can be borrowed from the FHL.For example, a search of Verlans (included in the Haute-Saône Department) found a listing for census and civil registration. The Library has microfilms of the 1841, 1851-1856, 1866-1876, and 1886-1906 censuses.  Microfilm also exists for the civil registration from 1793 to 1902.

While on the FamilySearch.org site, go to the Research Outline for specific search strategies. As a sample of what you’ll find, clicking on French Church Record Marriage 1564 -1791, the site suggested how to find a marriage record, how to document your results, and how best to analyze the information you find.

If you have French ancestry, you’re lucky because your family history is part of the grand European tapestry. Once you discover that little French village that your arrière grandpère called home, you’ve won half the battle.

Dit Names

Don’t worry if you run across ancestors with two last names, and the word “dit” in the middle. These are called French “dit” names (translated, “called” or “said”), i.e. Jacques Demet dit Beaulieu.  This second surname was used to differentiate between branches of the same family. Dit names were a handy way to keep track of a particularly large family.

Dit names could be based on locale, a nickname, physical quality, or any other differentiator. According to French genealogy expert Jessica Hacken the practice of taking a second surname is seen more commonly in French-Canada than in France itself.

by Nancy Hendrickson

Click here for English-French common words and phrases