Genealogy of the French in North America

Geography of France

This article has the purpose of helping you to better understand the geography of France and of the rest of Europe at the time where our ancestors crossed the Atlantique to settle in New France.

Today, France is divided into 96 départements forming 22 regions, and this is very different compared to the map of France when our ancestors left her.  While this mapping exists since 1792, the first general purpose dictionary to use it was the Dictionnaire généalogique des familles du Québec, published in 1983, by René Jetté who was the first to use systematically the modern divisions of France.  Even Archange Godbout, who has left 10,000 pages of notes from his search in France, was using the provinces to sort his information.  If you compare the content of that work with other publications, you will find in many cases the area can be different and even the village names because recent tools allow to find a place with a better match to the place of origin given by the immigrant.

The medieval France used mainly two different mappings: provinces and religious dioceses.

The anciens provinces correspond to the old territories controlled by one lord (earls, dukes, etc.) as they were added to the lands of the French crown.  For example, the duchy of Britain (Bretagne), owned by the duke of Bretagne, became the province of Bretagne.  Those provinces are tied to the feodal past when the highest local lords reigned, sometimes like kings, over large territories.  Also, the provinces correspond to regional nationalisms, even if sometimes the border moved between the province was acquired by the crown and the time our ancestors left it

The dioceses are closer to the area under the control of the large cities at the beginning to the Christian era.  France being officially a catholic kingdom, some dioceses were created to watch the heretics and the protestants.  This is why there are more dioceses in the south of France and the diocese of La Rochelle was created in 1648, to replace the diocese of Maillezais (with different borders), 20 years after the siege of La Rochelle.  The borders of the dioceses are not the same as the provinces.  For example, the diocese of Le Mans is not identical to the province of Maine, ditto for Angers and Anjou.

The anciens provinces helped local nobility to organized againt the king.  The central government then organized the country with different borders.  The provinces (historical divisions) were replaced by regional government (military divisions) and new governments were created from time to time to thank a brilliant officer.  Many genealogists are mixing the provinces and those governments, with the side effect of identifying the wrong place of origin.

For example, in the 16th century, Picardie lost a part of her territory (Soissonnais or diocese of Soissons, Valois and the south of Laonnois) given to the government of Île de France.  An immigrant coming from that old Picardie will continue to identify himself as Picard, even if he is from Soissons.  Also, Loudunois, a country (pays, a subvidition of a province) of the province of Poitou, moved from the government of Poitou to that of Anjou.  The map of governments you will find in many reference works is thus wrong if presented as the map of provinces.

The size of the provinces can be large or small.  The pays (litterally countries), forming smaller area, are other residues of the feodal era.  Some of them were shared among two provinces.  The border of provinces and countries, like the governments, were changing with years, depending on the power of the owner, the pieces of lands he sold or purchased, etc.

The regional governments were defined for military purposes.  The governor at their head was the military leader of the area.

At the Renaissance era, as the France was more centralized, the crown was in conflict with the regional powers and to reduce the competition, the regions were defined with different borders depending on the need.  The généralités and intendances were used for tax purposes.  They were headed by a trésorier (treasurer) or a général des finances (general of finances) and sometimes by an intendant).  Depending on the area, they were divided into élections, juridictions, vigueries and even civil dioceses (with borders different from the religious dioceses).  At the next level, the civil parishes were used to get the taxes.  If the parishes were too small, they could be merged into larger collects and if they were too large, they could be divided into other collects.  Some généralités had the same border as the equivalent intendance.  The taxes could use other borders like greniers à sel (litterally attics for salt, actually an area with a rule to compute how the salt is taxed).

The parlements (parliaments) were not Houses of Commons but Courts of Justice.  This is why some of our ancestors were avocats au parlement (lawiers at the parliament).  A parlement may disappear if the king was to make the high justice decisions by himselves.  Justice was using sénéchaussées (most in the South) and bailliages (mostly in the North), sometimes divided into prévôtés.

The whole picture is somewhat chaotic.  A bailliage can be used for tax and justice purposes and the justice of a parish could depend on one seignory.  The number of gouvernements, parlements, généralités, élections, etc. changed from time to time.  So, if you want to make a specific search in France, you have to know the border for that era because the papers could be in different archives.

Modern divisions

With the French Revolution, all the old borders were replaced by a new structure organized around the 96 départements divided in arrondissements, cantons (townships, for election purposes) and communes (towns).  The modern dioceses will use the borders of the départements or arrondissement.  The courts and military regions are based on the same borders.  But, that was just too easy.  The départements are now grouped into régions but using the name of the ancient provinces.  For example, the province of Bretagne, divided into five départements in 1790, was back in 1955 but with only four départements.  The fifth brton département, the Loire-Atlantique, is now a part of the region of Pays-de-la-Loire.

The French archives are organized two ways.  The Archives départementales (AD) covers a complete département.  The AD have also received the archives of an ancien province if the capitale of the province is in the département.  The Archives communales (AC) are limited to a town.  If the town is too small, the archives are at the AD and if the town is large enough, the AC are called Archives municipales (AM).

Useful to know for a search

There are many borders for France.  It is thus important to know which border to use for a search in France and for what years.

To find a place, first look at the state of the art (which should be found in this work for the years covered).

Then, check the source to know from which information a place is identified and try to validate that information. For example, Toussaint Ledran is from St-Michel de Berzy-le-Sec according to Jetté.  But, the parish of Berzy-le-Sec is St-Nicolas according to Pouillés de la province de Reims, so, it is likely the wrong place.  In his marriage record, Toussaint says he is from "la paroisse de St-Michel, bourg de Bersy, évêché de Soissons", so the place is possible if the parish is forgotten.  By searching more closely, we find that Brécy has a parish St-Michel and belongs to the diocese of Soissons (like Berzy-le-Sec).

If nobody has yet made the search for origin or nothing was found in France, you can do a search in the popular tools like the PRDH databases, Parchemin and the main printed works, then all the records about the immigrand and his/her vicinity and close friends, if some indice links him/her to te place of origin.  You can also find two places of origin, and a place that can interpreted as two different places, i.e. La Rochelle can be the famous port, but also La Rochelle Normande and La Rochelle in Haute-Saône.

Usually, you will find a village with no area, a village with a diocese or a village with a province.  Be cautious about the diocese's name comprising the name of a province.  This is not because someone is from the diocese of Bourges en Berry that he is from the province of Berry.  There are some guides to help you, but nothing is complete, nothing cover all the France with all the details, etc.  There are two dictionaries of the era, by Expilly and Saugrain (ANQ, Montréal), pouillés by Longnon (BNF,  Gallica site, on the Internet), the series called Paroisses et communes de France (SGCF, Montréal), many ancient maps on Gallica and the maps of Cassini (no border but has the hamlets) you can search from Gencom.

Nobility had some tax privileges and you must use the tax divisions when looking for nobility investigations.  In other words, use the généralités if you search on Gallica for the nobility around 1696.

For most searches, other divisions are usefull only to better identify a place. For example, the father of the immigrand can be a lawyer in some parliament.  But, getting some places as a state officer will mean moving to that place and it is harder to find a baptism record.

Genealogy of the French in North America
© Copyright 2006 Denis Beauregard