If you’re searching for your French ancestry, you may have already encountered French surnames. Maybe, your family name is French. But do you know what is means ? Can your French name help you in your research ?

French professional genealogist, French researcher, French archives, French ancestors, French ancestry, genealogy in France
Perche-Québec Une histoire commune

During the 11th century, the French population had grown significantly. At such point, it became difficult in the villages to distinguish Pierre from Pierre or from Pierre. So surnames were used to know whom we were talking about, Pierre le grand or Pierre des bordes ? However, surnames have been set only in the late 18th century following the creation of the livret de famille.

The livret de famille was established in 1875 in Paris and widespread throughout France in 1884. It’s given to every married couple. It details the marriage information (date and place), birth information of the groom and bride, birth information of their children, as well as the date of divorce if one exists.

Livret de famille (family archives)

Patronymic and Matronymic surnames

Usually, it is the father’s name that is given to the child. If the father is unknown, then the child will have his/her mother’s name.

If the child is abandoned with no information, then the choice of the surname is left to the discretion of the hospice employee. Most of the time, the name was given accordingly to the calendar, Saints’ names.. But it happened that some employee were imaginative.

If you have Basque ancestors in your family tree, you won’t find so many patronymic surnames. The Basque surnames are almost always toponyms which designate names of villages, places, hamlets, valleys, mountains and, above all, names of houses. It is the house that gives its name and social status to the individual. The house was generally transmitted, as well as all its dependencies, to only one of the children, the eldest of the family in the northern Basque country, or the child designated by the parents in in the sourthern Basque country.

French professional genealogist, French researcher, French archives, French ancestors, French ancestry, genealogy in France
Most common French surnames, INSEE

Occupational, descriptive or geographical surname

If your surname is Nicollet, like the city in Minnesota (named after the French explorer Jean Nicolet), its a diminutive form of Nicolas. It’s is a patronymic surname based on the first name of the father (Nicolleta if based on the first name of the mother). Nicollet is more likely to be found in Savoie. Nicolet, with one L is a common form in south of France.

Let’s stay in Minnesota with the city of Le Sueur (named after the French explorer Pierre-Charles Le Sueur). It’s an occupational surname, based on the person’s occupation. This one is a little tricky. You discover your ancestor was named Le Sueur, or Lesueur. You Google translate it to know what this means… And, you discover that sueur in French, means sweat. What? Did my ancestor had sweating problems? Rest assured, it was none of that! In fact, one of your ancestor was a shoemaker (cordonnier in French). The origine of Le Sueur comes from the latin word tutor. It means « the one who sew », and later « shoemaker ».

We leave Minnesota, and we’re heading to Pennsylvania, and the city of Dubois. It’s a geographical surname, based on the person’s residency. In this case, your ancestor may have lived in the woods. As for our Pierre des bordes, his surname might be Desbordes (or Deborde, Desborde). Like Le Sueur, if you translate it, you’ll be suprised. Google translates as hoardings. Which is not! This name refers to the inhabitants of a farm, a tenant farm, or a possessor of a barn. The word comes from Frankish borda (boards hut). So, Desbordes is for someone living in such a place, or coming from a place named Les Bordes.

Do you know the city of Bonneau, in South Carolina? It’s French, again. This descriptive surname is a diminutive of bon (good). It can be a nickname for a good, valiant person, as Jean le Bon (John II of France who was nicknamed John the Good because of his bravery) ; or a Christian name.

French professional genealogist, French researcher, French archives, French ancestors, French ancestry, genealogy in France
Geographical origin of the few most specific names in Limousin, INSEE

Can I locate my French ancestors by name ?

I’ll be honest with you, if your ancestor’s surname is Martin, it is unlikely you’ll find where he came from, based on his surname. Though, sometimes, surnames can help you. How is it written ? We saw that Nicollet was from Savoie, but Nicolet was from Vaucluse or Doubs. My married name, Boudarel, is from the Rhône-Alpes region. Another name in my family tree is Dumonteix. It is found in Dordogne, Charente and Haute-Vienne, three neighboring departments.

In order to find where your French surname is from, you can go to the French genealogical database, Filae. Based on datas published by INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), this website will display the number of births for four periods. You can also cross referenced those information with the leading French genealogical database, Geneanet. Not only will you have geographical data of the surname, but also its meaning.

French professional genealogist, French researcher, French archives, French ancestors, French ancestry, genealogy in France
The map of France by surname, INSEE