I’ve been researching some French ancestors lately, having fun with websites for archives throughout France. There are some really great records freely available online, but getting everything out of them means not only reading >100-year-old handwritten documents, but also reading them in French (not to mention following the French instructions on the websites – note: I am not fluent in French).
With a little practice and googling, it hasn’t been too hard to pick up the basics – like on the birth record for my husband’s great grandfather from Marseille, I get his full name (Paul Joseph Pierre Lecat); his parents’ names (Paul Emile Constant Lecat and Marie Joséphine Suzanne Delteil) and occupations (he: ingénieur, she: sans profession); the witness names, addresses, and occupations; and some other great details – including later annotations for his marriage in Paris and death in Toulon.1
And of course with his birth record, I can confirm his birth date. At the top of the document, the date is written out, “L’An mil huit cent quatre-vingt-quatorze, et le quinze Janvier à onze heurs et demie,” meaning 15 January 1894, 11:30. Straightforward enough, right? Well, a couple of other sources – including his marriage record had claimed that he was born 13 January 1894.2
Two days – not that big of a deal, right? All the other details match, it’s the same guy, just someone got confused about the exact date somewhere along the way. It happens.
Well, after a break from trying to read and translate the old handwriting, I took another look, particularly at a couple of parts that I hadn’t deciphered completely at first. One was the phrase “né à Marseille avant [???] a deux heurs du matin,” which I saw as meaning that he was born in Marseille, before [something illegible] at two o’clock in the morning.
With another look, I realized that the phrase was actually “né à Marseille avant hier a deux heurs du matin,” meaning “he was born in Marseille the day before yesterday at two o’clock in the morning.” Ohhhhhh. Two days before 15 January. He was born 13 January. No discrepancy in birth dates at all. I just needed to read it more carefully.
So, adding this to the list of tips I’m keeping in mind for tackling older, handwritten, non-English documents such as this:
- Sometimes google phrases neighboring an unclear word as written (pre-translation). If the phrase is commonly used in such records, the unclear words might appear in searches and can then be understood and translated.
- After staring at tricky handwriting for a bit, take a break. Coming back later with fresh eyes can make things jump out that were not clear at first.
- Any word could be critical to completely understanding the meaning.
Marseille, Bouches-du-Rhône, France, Actes de naissances (naissance), Paul Joseph Pierre Lecat, 15 January 1894, Numéro de register 3; accessed in “Registres de Marseille,” images, Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône (http://doris.archives13.fr/dorisuec/jsp/system/win_main.jsp : 30 May 2018).
Paris, France, Actes de mariages (marriage), Paul Joseph Pierre Lecat and Suzanne Marie Vigne, 20 October 1919, no. 2068; accessed in “Actes de naissance (1860-1912), mariage (1860-1940) et décès (1860-1986),” images, Paris Archives (http://archives.paris.fr : 26 May 2018).