One of the greatest challenges in tracing immigrant ancestors is determining their town of origin in the home country. Some records may provide clues of their nationality or ethnicity, but narrowing the search further can be difficult.
Though this article deals specifically with tracing French immigrants, these principles are applicable in tracing immigrants of other nationalities as well and similar resources may exist for other areas.
Before attempting to pursue foreign research, all sources available in the receiving country should be consulted for clues regarding an ancestor’s place of origin. Research on any immigrant, regardless of origin, should include home sources, naturalization records, passenger lists, census records, obituaries, newspapers and local histories.
Most recent French immigrants (post-1800) were Catholic and the church records in their receiving countries may offer important details. Catholic baptism, marriage and death records often reported the names, origins and residences of an individual and their parents and sometimes even their grandparents. Whenever possible, consult all entries for your ancestor, their children and their extended family members.
Published family trees from descendants and more distant relatives may help to pinpoint an ancestor’s origin. In addition to commonly used American websites, consider using the following websites:
These three websites are commonly used by French researchers and may enable collaboration with relatives from France. Though they are subscription databases, they each allow various levels of free searches.
If you are still struggling to identify the place of origin of your immigrant ancestor, consider analyzing the geographic distribution of their surname:
- Combines an index of more than 1 million birth records from all areas of France dating from between 1891-1990. Even if your ancestor immigrated before this time period, family members who stayed behind may have continued to live in the same area. This website reports the location where individuals with a surname were born in France during different time periods as well as the specific departments and communes where the name is most prevalent.
- Use the search bar to search for all individuals of a certain surname in a geographic region.
While immigration records to receiving countries sometimes provide little information on an immigrant’s origin, records made upon the migrant’s departure can help. Unfortunately, these records are sometimes less accessible. Some resources that may help include:
- Subscription database though free searches are allowed to determine if there may be a result for your ancestor.
- Français débarqés à New-York
- French, Belgian, Swiss, Luxembourgish and Maghrebs who arrived in new York at the end of the 19th century
- More than 775,000 entries
- Français débarqués au Canada
- French passengers who arrived in Canadian ports during the 19th century
- More than 23,000 entries
- Français débarqués aux USA
- French and Mahgreb immigrants to the United States dating from 1820
- 115,000 entries
- Français naturalisés aux USA (1900-1920)
- French individuals who received American citizenship between 1900 and 1920)
- 78,000 entries.
- The Immigrant Ancestor Project
- Though this database includes emigrants from several areas of Europe, it has a large representation of French immigrants. It includes detailed transcriptions of entries from passport applications and passenger lists and currently documents entries for more than 28,000 individuals who left France between 1700 and 1915 bound for the Americas, Africa, Polynesia and other parts of Europe.
- Programme de Recherche sur l’Emigration des Français en Nouvelle-France (Research Program on the Migration of the French to New France):
- Immigration study for French Canadian immigrants
- Banque MIGRANTS
- Biographical details on the immigration of 6,061 individuals to New France prior to 1763
- Banque PERCHERONNE
- Extracts of parish registers and notarial records from the 16th and 17th centuries from the cantons of Tourouvre, Mortagne-au-Perche and Belleme, all of which were large source populations of French-Canadian immigrants
- Departmental Archives of Gironde:
- Passeports (1800-1899)
- Records of 44,000 individuals who received passports in the Gironde Department (Bordeaux) between 1800 and 1900.
- Passeports (1800-1899)
Once you have identified the place of origin for your ancestor, you can confirm your findings through civil registration records, many of which are available online at the various department archive websites. 78 of France’s 95 departments (administrative divisions) have published records online.
Though tracing French ancestors to their towns of origin may be difficult, records from both the receiving country and from the home country can help provide the connection between your immigrant ancestor and their town of origin.