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Article PublishedJune 25, 1999

Back to the very root of French ancestry
By Xenia Stanford

I just returned from an interesting trip to Minneapolis where I discussed genealogy with a long-time friend from France and a newly found cousin to my children. The friend from France was most interested in obtaining a copy of the article I wrote on French records, which appears in the July/August 1999 issue of Family Chronicle magazine.

It was not so she could add information, as I had hoped. She was more interested in finding tips for her own research, which has reached a dead end at her great grandparents. She summarised her difficulties as follows: "You know the French destroyed many records during the Revolution. The priests tried their best to cachet (sic - "hide" in English) the records but not all succeeded. Even the records of those that did succeed may still be lost to us."

What she said applies to many countries especially those torn by revolution. For example, my grandfather's baptism certificate in what is now part of the Ukraine contained the exact address of the land his father owned at the time my grandfather was born. Since land was divided among descendants, generation after generation, the records could have revealed my entire lineage on that side of the family back to the origin of the first person who was given this land. Alas, when I tried to retrieve these land records, I was told by a highly regarded and experienced Ukrainian historian and genealogist that these were almost all destroyed during the Russian Revolution.

"There was a great shortage of fuel", he said, "but great stacks of land records. So the people ransacked the government offices during the anarchy and burned the 'logs' of paper to keep warm."

Apparently furniture and anything else that was flammable was also used as fuel. It is lucky anything of value survived that period.

Unfortunately keeping warm was not the only reason that records were destroyed during revolutions. An overthrow of the reigning monarchy and its systems was also a motive. In the French Revolution, as in the Russian, the intent was also to overturn "unscientific" and "superstitious" practises which included religion. Hence destruction of churches and church records was also a fatality of these civil wars.

Those records that did survive were the result of the efforts of priests to hide the parish registers. However, many of the records ferreted underground may have been so well hidden that when those who buried them passed away, so did the knowledge of the whereabouts of the spared records. So which records were destroyed and which are still stored moulding in some forgotten cache makes no difference to the modern researcher. Lost is as good as gone.

However, the newly found cousin with whom I enjoyed dinner at an old mill now restaurant is a descendant of a man whose roots we can trace back to the early 17th century in Anjou, France. Thus it is often possible to track our lineage from pre-Revolutionary eras thanks to those who preserved the records and brought them back to light in less turbulent times.


The Revolution was not totally negative for genealogists. In fact, the establishment of the post-Revolutionary first French Republic in 1792 mandated civil registration. No longer were records dependent upon different religions, different priests and different methods.

However, you should not despair if you have traced your ancestors back to the time of the French Revolution and wish to tackle the Ancient Regime, as the revolutionaries called anything before their time. Many have successfully traced their ancestors to the 17th century and even earlier.

Of course, tracing roots means working backward from present generations to ancient times. So knowledge of where and how records are now stored in the country in which your French ancestors where born or lived is necessary even to obtain the ancient record today. However, for those who are fortunate enough to have leaped the hurdles of modern genealogy and are now facing the daunting task of working backward from 1792, the common question is "How far back can I realistically expect to go?"

Theoretically the furthest back one should be able to trace is to Adam, the first man, or whatever unearthed common ancestor the archaeologists can find. However, we know that is impossible due to the lack of documentation. Although the first calendar dates from 4241 BC in Egypt and writing began about 4000 BC in Babylon, consistent recording of all vital records or genealogies did not occur until civil registration was invoked.

Thus the answer realistically is "it depends". For those ancestors who lived before the French Revolution, the recording of vital events and parentage depends upon the period in history and the type of ancestor. Noble and notorious ancestors were the only ones whose birth and death were noted in ancient manuscripts. As L. G. Pine writes in The Genealogist's Encyclopedia (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969, p. 44) "Without a kingly connection and the consistent ownership of land, a pedigree cannot be traced before 1100".


For example, in one of my children's noble lines the direct ancestry of those titled "king" or "chief" of the tribal lands are documented back to 200 AD. Supposedly all those who hold this surname do so because a certain individual when he ascended to the throne took a "dit" name that has been passed on through the ages to all members of that family and apparently that family only.

However, I can only prove my children's descent from this line from the early 1800s. I am still trying to find the link between those forebears and the ones from the third century. The list of royal begets ceased being recorded after the overthrow of the monarchy and the chieftains of this area ceased to hold their titles.

Even then would I find my children were of the direct line that was recorded? Not all children of a monarch or noble house were included. Those who recorded the genealogies of nobles usually were interested only in those to whom the sceptre was passed and perhaps those who tried to usurp the throne claiming they were the true heirs. Not all males were recorded and females were hardly ever mentioned unless they married into another noble line. Even then, if the marriage was not significant in terms of future inheritance, the woman still may not be named.

Often the most we can find on the distaff side in early lists of noble lines were the first and not maiden names. In many cases, such as the aforementioned early line from whom my children may descend, the woman are not named at all and it seems the men have begotten their heirs by themselves!


Can we even trust these early genealogies? Often there is no independent extant documentation outside the claims of the ancient recorders of noble lines. We know what mistakes can be made by modern record-keepers and in times when there was little or no emphasis on accuracy it is impossible to know what and how many mistakes were made. If we are lucky, one record of the person or vital event exists and to hope for another source to use for verification is usually futile. Often a secondary source is a lucky find and a primary record next to an impossible dream.

The aim of recording royal lineage was usually to prove the right to rule. Since many believed kings ruled by divine right, the progenitors of the line may be some fictitious god or equivalent. The heroic exploits or even titles may have been invented to show the right of inheritance to the throne. Some genealogies or relationships were deliberately concocted in an attempt to prove the person claiming to be a rightful contender should inherit the crown or lands or both.


One certainly has to have a leap of faith to believe anything recorded at any time but the leaps must be longer as we dig deeper into the distant past. Those who claim everyone of West European descent, including the French, are descendants of Charlemagne, may be right but proving it is a huge and perhaps impossible challenge.

Should that stop us? When have barriers kept the true genealogist from trying? I think the desire to believe and to at least imagine what our ancient ancestors were like as far back as we can trace keeps the truly dedicated digging. If we find fact or fiction, at least we have gained an understanding and appreciation of our human history. In a sense all these forebears are our progenitors as they are the ancestors of the human race. There is no harm in claiming them as our own as long as we accept the essence of fact and not expect absolute proof the further back we go.

To aid your travels back in time and to understand some of your French roots whether you find the actual ancestors or not, the next set of issues will cover the origins and the history of the French. The emphasis will be on how the historical events contributed to or detracted from the recording of individual lives and lineage.

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