Genealogy record round-up: French ancestors

By Jon Bauckham, 1 December 2016 - 10:52pm

Do you think you might have French connections like Amanda Holden? Discover the best resources for tracing your ancestors across the Channel with this handy record round-up, written by genealogist Anne Morddel

Amanda holden
In her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Amanda Holden discovered that she was descended from several generations of French winemakers

Researching French kin can be a joy because, compared with British records, Gallic documents contain so much more information, leading to the discovery of many more family members.

Another great thing about the records is that so many of them are online and free to search – fantastic if you're unable to visit the archives in person.

Learn more about the most important French resources below with our record round-up:

Births, marriages and deaths

The departments of France are similar to counties in the UK. Each has its own departmental archives and all are governed by the Archives de France. They all use a single classification system.

Therefore, if you learn this system once, you can apply it across the board. Start your research online with the departmental archives websites, looking for civil and parish registrations (acts d’état civil) using the annual and 10-year tables as a guide.

Acte de naissance (birth registration)

  • This will name the father, the mother and state whether or not they were married. It will give the father’s age and profession, and the address where the child was born. There will be one or two witnesses and their full names, addresses, ages and professions may be given. They were often relatives.

Acte de mariage (marriage registration)

  • These are a boon to the researcher. Often running to two full pages, they will give the couple’s full names, dates and places of birth, parents’ names and addresses and, if deceased, date and place of death. There were usually at least three or four witnesses; their names, ages, residences and professions, as well as their relationship to the couple were all given.

Acte de décès (death registration)

  • Deaths tended to be declared by two non-relatives, often neighbours. Again, their names, ages, residences and professions were given. Note that French death registrations almost never give the cause of death.

The Mémoire des Hommes website holds a wealth of information about men who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars

Military censuses

19th-century military censuses (recensements militaires) can also be found on the departmental archives websites. As well as general information such as name, profession, residence and date and place of birth, military records can include level of education, physical description, parents’ full names, decisions as to placement in a regiment and even medical details.

Ordinary census records

    Census information is also held on the individual websites for the departmental archives and is free to search, but it can be time-consuming if you do not know which departmental archive your family falls under.

    Salles des Inventaires Virtuelle

    Another excellent resource is the virtual finding aids site of the Archives Nationales, known as Salle des Inventaires Virtuelle. Typing a family name into the search box will bring up all references in the finding aids, as well as those in the files of the Legion of Honour and the files of the Parisian notaires.

    Mémoire des Hommes

    As with the Commonwealth War Graves site, Mémoire des Hommes is free to use and gives burial details for those who fell in the two world wars as well as extracted details of those who fought or who were in the Compagnie des Indes, a competitor of the British East India Company.

    Finding records in France

    With so much online, there is no need to travel to France until you are set to go deeper with your research. But when you are ready, more about a family can be learned through:

    • Archives des notaires (notarial records), such as marriage contracts, wills, probate inventories and business contracts.
    • Hypothèques (land registry records), which can show transfers via sale or inheritance going back centuries.
    • Military personnel files, which, in addition to the basic information online, allow you to follow an officer’s career in its entirety.

    Notarial records (except for those of Paris) and the land registry records can be found in the relevant departmental archives, while military personnel files are at the Service Historique de la Défense in Vincennes, near Paris.

      A version of this article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

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