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Article posted: December 12, 2001

There's A Problem
With French Genealogy!

By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles

Right at the beginning, there's a problem with French genealogy.

Even in French, it is difficult to find a handbook for doing family history in France. The usual lists of addresses, guides to archives and hints for finding wills are simply not there.

While French-Canadians are lucky in being able to find published church records and even digests of family information, the moment they move across the ocean they are lost.

This has been remedied by Patrick Pontet, a Frenchman who lives in England. Through his own small business, he has published a series of guides which provide just the lists and hints we need. They are in English, too.

Ancestral Research in France: the Simple Guide to Tracing Your Family History Through French Records begins with an overview and the sound advice to start by getting as much information in North America before you move across the Atlantic.

He spends a lot of time on church records, which are vital in France.

There is also the difficult notion of civil registers, in a form quite foreign to us here. They were instituted after the Revolution in 1792 and that means that it can be much easier to find birth and death records in France than in other countries. One interesting hurdle is the alternate calendar which the revolutionaries set up, with its oddly named months (Brumaire, Thermidor) but Pontet supplies a conversion table to take care of that.

Pontet seems to have thought of everything. He uses the relevant French phrase for all genealogical ideas, but translates it into English. The information is presented in a way that is clear and concise. In fact, the book is very impressive, a model of what anyone might hope a genealogical handbook should be.

He discusses regional differences, including a section on Alsace and Lorraine, whose chequered history involved passing between German and French authorities several times. Although English is widely spoken in France, letters in French will receive a quicker reply. Pontet suggests that any letters should not be handwritten but typed or printed on a computer. My own view is that even letters in ungrammatical French will be received more indulgently than those in English. Pontet supplies model letters in French for his readers' use.

As companions to his large handbook, Pontet has written a guide for Paris alone, an address book and a dictionary. The latter includes explanations of terms, notes about publications (such as a book on notarial records for St-Omer, with price and address of publisher), and suggestions about how to approach certain classes of records.

I enjoyed Pontet's observation, as true in Canada as in France, that "Our ancestors, even if not big-time criminals, were certainly involved with the law at least once in their lives, even if only as a witness or a victim." This is in a section on legal archives.

The bad news about Paris is that most parish records from 1539 to 1792 were destroyed in a fire at the city hall during the Commune of 1871. The depth of Pontet's detailed help is indicated by the instructions he gives on how to use the (very confusing) locks on the self-serve lockers in the Archives de Paris.

Throughout all books, Pontet includes many electronic as well as printed sources. He says that France is not well represented on the International Genealogical Index (IGI).

Further information about these books and others regarding Europe can be obtained from

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Norway Bay United & Anglican Cemetery
(Pontiac County, Quebec)

The Merivale Cemeteries
(Protestant - Ottawa area)