What is lacking, however, is a central index available to genealogists that would enable a nation-wide, department-wide, or even municipality-wide search for a person.
Many North American researchers use Ancestry.com to search US federal censuses and expect to find a similar resource available for French records. It does not yet exist.
To begin research in France, one must have three crucial pieces of information: a name, a place and a date, preferably for a birth, a death or a marriage.
Because the records are held in or near to the location where the event occurred, all is tied to finding that place: where the person was born, where married, where died, where buried.
Once the place is found, the search among the états civils, then back through the parish registrations, and deep into notarial records will yield, usually, a much richer view of a family’s history than can be found in many other countries.
Types of documentation
The actes: acte de naissance (birth registration), acte de mariage (marriage registration) and acte de décès (death registration).
Actes, sometimes referred to as the NMDs, contain a good amount of genealogical information: parents’ names, professions, their places of birth, their ages, the relationships of godparents to the child, or of witnesses to the couple marrying. These begin in 1792 and continue to the present.
A small commune might have used one book for all births, marriages and deaths for a few years, while a large commune would have had a single book for each category and may have run into many volumes per year for each.
Prior to the Revolution and as far back as the 17th century such information was entered by a parish priest in the parish register and these registrations are referred to as the BMS: baptêmes (baptisms), mariages, sépultres (burials). Again, these can be all together in a single book, or in many volumes.
In France, all civil and parish registrations are stored firstly by the town where the event occurred, with a copy sent at some point to the departmental archives.
Whether parish or civil, all registrations have been microfilmed and it is only the microfilm or digitized copies that researchers are allowed to use, never the originals.
About half of the departmental archives have put all of these microfilmed images online. All but two or three are free sites.
Other documents that might be possible to find in departmental archives are: military registrations, pregnancy declarations, marriage contracts, wills, estate inventories, and much more.
Beyond the departmental archives
One of the richest sources of information is the collection of military records of the Service Historique de la Défense at the Chateau de Vincennes. There, one can find the personnel and pension files of thousands of men who served in the army or navy.
Marine, or naval, records from the ancien régime are housed at the National Archives in Paris.
Here, one can also find the police files on individuals from the Premier Empire, as well as passport files and the original registrations of the Optants – those from the Alsace-Lorraine region who were required to choose either French or German nationality after the annexation.
Many larger cities have significant communal or municipal archives with a great deal of genealogical information. A few have put their civil and parish registrations online. Yet really, one must go there and explore the holdings to find the treasures.
The Archives nationales d’outre-mer, in Aix-en-Provence, contain all of the records relating to the ex-colonies, including birth, death and marriage registrations.
This is also where one looks for Algerian and Caribbean records, which are online, or for military records of the colonial troops, which are not online.
There are many books in French which can be found on Amazon.fr. I am currently writing one in English, which I hope will be out next year.
The French Genealogy Blog, which I have been writing for a year now, is intended to be a how-to guide in English for those wishing to do their own genealogical research in France.
It has many links to other helpful sites in both French and English.
As a celebration of the blog’s first birthday, I have put together a five page checklist of what research on a French ancestor to do on one’s own before contacting a genealogist.
It is my hope that 'Preparing to Research an Ancestor in France' will enable anyone to put together a very complete and well organized file, whether to present to a professional genealogist or to have ready before a research voyage.
To receive a copy of , please send an e-mail requesting it to this address: amerigen AT yahoo.com I will send it as a PDF attachment by return e-mail.
About Anne Morddel: I have been a genealogist since I was 14 years old and decided to interview my grandmother (above, aged three, in San Francisco) about every single relative she could recall. I wanted to know how I came to be a fifth generation Californian, and discovered I was descended from Canadians as well. Genealogy remained a non-professional passion while I trained for and built a career as a librarian, researcher and children's author. The passion continued as I moved around the world, living and working in North and South America, Africa and Europe, and learning to speak French and Portuguese.
I became a professional genealogist about ten years ago, specializing in North American research. I have not a drop of French blood in me, but my children are half French. In searching for their French ancestors, I began to learn and am still learning about genealogy in France. I have made enough progress that I now accept clients who wish me to seek their French ancestors.
Website: The French Genealogy Blog