The Did You Know? section is designed to provide tips and research strategies and to highlight a particular type of genealogical tool or resource.
French archives exist at the local, departmental, and national levels. Most records of genealogical value are housed at the local and departmental levels. Local archives can be parishes or mairies (town halls). Most French genealogical records prior to 1792 will be found in parish registers, The most important sources after 1792 are the civil registers maintained at mairies.
The departmental archive corresponds roughly to an American state archive. French departments prior to the Revolution were known as provinces. There are 100 departments, 96 in France and four in French possessions overseas. Each department has its own archives. Departmental archives own copies of civil registers from mairies in their region, and sometimes house parish and Protestant registers from churches in the region. Departmental archives also own copies of regional military registration and notarial records important genealogical resources that are difficult to access because they are not indexed.
Civil and Parish Registers
It is generally easier for the person researching French ancestors to begin by using vital records from church and civil registers rather than the French census because census returns are not indexed and are closed for 100 years from date of execution. The earliest known French church register dates from 1334 (Givry). French parish registers are rare until 1539 when Francis I required that priests record baptisms (recording of marriages and deaths was not mandated until 1579). Few Protestant church registers exist before 1598 when the Edict of Nantes granted religious freedom to the French. Some of the earliest Protestant registers were destroyed in 1685 when the Edict of Nantes was revoked. French Protestants were forced to go into exile, convert to Catholicism, or be put to death. French Protestants who remained in France after 1685 may be found in Catholic Church abjuration records (i.e., records of those who renounced Protestantism and converted to Catholicism).
One product of the French Revolution was a move to civil registration of vital records, which began in 1792. At that point, it generally becomes easier to search for French ancestors in civil registers rather than parish registers. Many civil registers that are at least 100 years will be found at departmental archives rather than their places of origin. Church registers created after 1792 will sometimes be found at the church of origin or the diocesan archives rather than the departmental archives. The Family History Library of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) in Salt Lake City has over 100,000 microfilm and microfiche publications which contain information on people who lived in France, including births, marriages, and deaths, in both church and civil records. The Mormons have managed to film over 60% of church records and many of the civil registers held by French departmental archives. A Family History Center near you can order publications of interest from the big library in Salt Lake City (www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp).
Few French cemetery records or tombstone inscriptions have been published because it is illegal to photograph French tombstones without the permission of the cemetery keeper. Some cemetery records may be found in departmental archives, and other cemeteries have extensive records that are kept on-site.
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