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:
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.
Part 2 coming soon, including vital records, parish registers and ‘dit’ names.
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