As they it is with food and fine wine, the French approach to family history is one of pride and passion. I found this out recently when a friend of mine from Montreal asked for some advice on finding her French ancestors. Initially I was a bit embarrassed; I didn’t know as much as I should about French genealogical records and sources! I went quickly to work, hit the books, and scoured the internet. I was amazed at how many databases and genealogy projects exist for this country. I also found the records to be well preserved, in spite of France’s history of revolution and warfare. Many of the French records date back well into the sixteenth century; making them valuable genealogical and historical records.
Of course there is the drawback that the majority are written in French. I of course had the benefit of being able to consult with “mon ami”, but with the help of a good French genealogy word list and online translation tools such as Google Translate, you should be able to find your way through French records. Many departmental archives in France have had their civil, parish and census records digitized and made available online for free. The Archives of France maintains a complete and current listing of records that are available online and the departments that manage them. The page is in French, but if you use Google Chrome’s automatically translate option, you can clearly see what sort of resources are available.
Defining your Search Strategy
Before you even begin searching for French genealogical records, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the country’s geopolitical divisions. Rather than counties, France is divided into régions which are similar to states. Within those “states” you’ll find further division into départments, which are the equivalent of counties. Notice that the French spellings are identical to the English regions and departments. You’ll be able to understand quite a few French words due to their similarity to English ones. Once you move below department level however, you’ll encounter what are known as les mairies which is a collective name for the towns, villages and cities found within the départments.
You’ll generally find archives at the departmental level in France, while local records are held by les mairies. Each department in France is assigned a number, so in order to access appropriate records; you’ll need both the number and the name of the department where those records are kept. A good place to begin your research of French records is on one of the genealogy communities for publishing and sharing family trees. You’ll be able to find a group that focuses on French ancestry, and there avail yourself of the help of other genealogists, and the resources that most of the sites provide. A quick way to connect with such a group is to do as search of your surname. This will provide you with a selection of groups or individuals who are researching your surname, some of whom may be relatives.
French Civil Registration Records
France boasts an excellent system of civil registration records that date back to1792. Before that time, civil registrations were recorded by the Catholic Church and information regarding baptisms, marriages and funerals can be found in those records. These early parish registers date back to 1334, though the majority date from the mid seventeenth century. Both the civil and parish records are constantly being transcribed, digitized and made available online at a rapid rate, mostly on the websites of the departmental archives.
French Census Reports
The French began taking Census Reports in 1836, and these are also excellent records for tracing your French Ancestors. The major drawback of the French census records is that they are not indexed, and so it can be difficult to locate your relatives in the larger cities. The key in such cases is to exercise patience and persevere. A well thought out and executed process of elimination will surely reveal your ancestor. Occasionally you can find digitized images of French census records on the departmental website; they will be indexed as recensements du population.
Once you locate you ancestor in the census or other genealogical records you’ll want to record that information in a clear, concise way before entering it into your family tree. We have designed some Free Downloadable Genealogy Forms for such occasions, and encourage you to download one now before you begin your research. This way you can enter the information directly into your census form, saving you valuable time, and making it easier to store in your family group record. Remember to verify all the information you find before entering into your family tree, and double check spellings and accuracies of dates as well. This way you’ll ensure that your French family is both interesting and accurate.