French records on your French ancestors


What is the definition of a French ancestor? France is one of the very few European countries that expanded territorially over the centuries. When Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, the people who lived in the future French provinces of Artois, Lorraine, Alsace, Franche-Comté, Savoy, the Riviera and Corsica were not French subjects yet. Some of them did not even speak French, but Flemish, German or Italian. They became French during the reign of the Bourbon kings (1589-1792).


One must keep in mind too that many French-speaking people in Europe are not French, such as the Walloons in Belgium, the inhabitants of the Aosta Valley in Italy and the people in the six western cantons in Switzerland. They were only French for a short time, during the French Revolution and the First French Empire (1792-1815). Besides, a certain amount of French ancestors were not born in metropolitan France in Europe, but in one of the numerous French colonies founded around the world.


Last but not least, French ancestors were either Roman Catholics or Calvinists. The Catholics who came in North America settled first in Canada and then Louisiana. The Calvinists were all banned from these two French colonies, but they were allowed by the English to sail to Virginia and New England, and by the Dutch to proceed with them and the Walloons to New Netherland, established along the Hudson River.


This shows that records on your French ancestors are kept in various countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England (where French Calvinists took refuge before they moved to America and South Africa), then Canada, the United States, Haiti, Senegal and India, which were partly colonized by French Catholics in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally North and West Africa, the Somali Coast, Madagascar, Indochina, Syria and Lebanon, which were ruled by the French in the 19th and 20th centuries. All the records on your French ancestors that can now be found in these various foreign countries cannot be considered as French records any more.


In fact, the proper French records are those you can find in both metropolitan France and its overseas remaining territories in Saint Pierre and Miquelon, French Guyana, the French West Indies, Mayotte, Reunion, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, as well as French Polynesia and the distant French Austral and Antarctic islands.


The public records in France are run by three different ministries. The ministry of the Armies keeps its military records in Vincennes, outside of Paris, and in the ports of Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient, Rochefort and Toulon. The ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently transferred its home diplomatic records to La Courneuve, but still keeps its diplomatic records from abroad in the port of Nantes. All the other public records in France are run by the ministry of Culture. They are kept at the National Archives in Paris and Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, at the Overseas Archives in Aix-en-Provence, and in all the many county and city archives in both metropolitan and overseas France.


The main records used by French genealogists are first of all the birth, marriage and death entries in civil registers, from 1792 down to now, then the baptism, marriage and burial entries in church books, before 1793, and finally marriage contracts and post mortem inventories and allotments of goods in notarial registers and bundles. These records, as well as judicial documents and military enlistment books, are all kept in county archives in France. The French always start their research there.