Many people know that the Huguenots were French Protestants who suffered persecution and left France around the 1600s to live in other countries where they felt more welcome. But not many genealogists know that it may be possible to trace their Huguenot ancestors in France. Doing this search online is possible but difficult, so the PDF document below is designed to help.
The Huguenots were members of the Église réformée de France (Reformed Church of France). Some historians estimate that Protestants accounted for 10% of the population of France in the 16th century. That changed following the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris. Over the next 200 years, the Huguenots left France for England, Sweden, Switzerland, Prussia, Ireland, South Africa, Dutch East Indies, and other countries. A few families settled in New France (Quebec) and Russia. Today, the descendants of these Protestant families can be found around the world.
This research guide has been created in two sections:
1600-1685 – Protestant families in France: where they lived. This section is a general overview of the regions of France under the Old Regime, prior to the French Revolution of 1789-1799. It is only a reference tool since family lineage searches in France are not conducted by regions or provinces under the Old Regime, but under modern-day Départements
The 93 départements of France in which Protestant families resided during the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries (1565-1721) A département is like a state. Since the end of the French Revolution (1789-1799), France has been divided into 95 such states, and each département keeps its records in its own regional archives. There are no archives for Bretagne, Normandie, Aquitaine, Aunis or Bourgogne, nor for any of the more than 40 ancient provinces of France that existed prior to the French Revolution.
Before you search for your ancestor, you need to know where the family originated in France. All online family lineage searches in the 95 archives départementales of France (Regional Archives) are done by communes, meaning villages, towns, townships or cities.
From 92 of the 95 archives départementales of France (regional archives), you can look for your ancestor’s commune and then search church registers (registres des paroisses) from 1535 to 1789 or thereabout, civil registers after 1789, tables décennales (civil registers from 1789 onward by 10-year periods), notarial records. Notarial records are some of the oldest online documents you can access online.
Other online databases on the archives départementales de France will probably not help you in determining the places of origin of your Huguenot ancestors, because these date from after the French Revolution.
I have prepared a research guide to the archives départementales of France (See Jacques Gagne, “Researching French Ancestors Online,” Genealogy Ensemble, May 13, 2018, https://genealogyensemble.com/2018/05/13/researching-your-french-ancestors-online/) In that PDF, I have described the documents which can be viewed online for free. If you are looking for Huguenots, concentrate on the Parish Registers (Church Registers, Registres paroissiaux or Registres de paroisses) from as early as 1535, and Notarial Acts (Actes des notaires.) A few of the notarial acts are from the 15th century, but most from the 16th or 17th centuries.
A third option deals with Protestant Church Registers (Registres protestants or Registre pastoral or Registres des Pasteurs), These are the few Protestant church registers that have survived.
Another option for searching the Archives départementales de France is, once you have determined the name of the ”commune” your ancestor resided in, go through the index of family names within the ”commune” section of the search engine and see if your family names are listed, even if the church registers are Catholic.
If you don’t know where your ancestors resided, for each of the 95 archives départementales of France, I have included websites indicating where certain families lived.
Don’t forget that not all members of a particular family became a Protestant. Some family members may have stayed with the Catholic Church.
Finally, just to add one more complication, your family name in France would have had a different spelling than the modern one. My family name in America is Gagné, but the same family in France is Gasnier or Gagnier: same pronunciation, different spelling. When I research online in France, I enter Gasnier or Gagnier as the family name, never Gagné.
A note about sources:
Much of the information I have compiled about the Huguenots of 16th, 17th and 18th-century France comes from old books that have been digitized. Over a 12-year period, whenever I came across a book dealing with the Huguenots of France, I would extract the names of the communes in which these families resided and add the names of those communes to my database.
I also discovered a database with the names of the Archives des consistoires de France, in which the communes are listed, as well as the Protestant Seigneurs, the Protestant pastors and the names of some of the Protestant families affected by court decisions.
In addition, to these books, I looked at Michelin maps and Larousse dictionaries. They helped me find out, for example, that the town of Bergerac is part of modern Dordogne, a département within the south-west region of France. This region was home to many Protestant families in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
You will find about 15 to 20 regional online databases of Protestant communes in 16th to 18th century France, but only for certain regions. A national listing of the modern départements of France in regard to the Huguenots of past centuries does not exist online.