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A gazetteer is a dictionary of place-names. Gazetteers describe towns and villages, departments, provinces, rivers, mountains, sizes of population, and other geographical features. They include only the names of places that existed up to the time the gazetteer was published. The place-names are usually listed in alphabetical order, similar to a dictionary.
You can use a gazetteer to locate the places where your family lived and to determine the civil jurisdiction over those places. For example: Corbières (Ardèche) is a small village that belongs to the community of Gourdon.
Many places in France have the same or similar names. You will need to use a gazetteer to identify the specific village where your ancestor lived, the nearest town with a town hall [mairie] and registrar's office, the department [département] it was in, and the jurisdictions where records were kept. You will also need the name of the department when using the Place search of the Family History Library Catalog.
Finding Place-Names in the Family History Library Catalog
Place-names in the Family History Library Catalog are listed under the name of the department [département]. To find the department in which a local community [commune] is filed in the Family History Library Catalog, you can use the "see" references on the first few Family History Library Catalog microfiche for France. If you are using the catalog on compact disc, use the Locality Browse search. The computer will find places with that name.
A few records before 1792 may be listed under the name of their province. Provinces are labelled "region" in the catalog; for example, FRANCE, ANJOU (REGION) - BIOGRAPHY.
Paris area. France has reorganized the departments in the vicinity of Paris. New departments such as Essonne, Hauts-de-Seine, Paris, Seine-St.-Denis, Val-d'Oise, Val-de-Marne, and Yvelines were created to replace the older Seine and Seine-et-Oise. The Family History Library continues to use the older Seine and Seine-et-Oise in its catalog.
The rest of France. Because of the many changes in place-names, the Family History Library uses gazetteers as the guide for listing places in the Family History Library Catalog. Except in the old departments of Seine, Seine-et-Oise, and Basses-Alpes, French places are listed in the Family History Library Catalog by the name and department listed in:
Code officiel géographique 1985 (Directory of geographic codes). Paris, France: Impr. Nationale, 1985. (FHL book 944 E2co 1985; not on microfilm.) Arranged by department. Lists the numbers assigned to each department, canton, district [arrondissement] and community in France and overseas. These are NOT postal codes.
Since this gazetteer is arranged by department, you must know the department before you can use it easily. Therefore, some researchers prefer to use:
Dictionnaire National des Communes de France (National dictionary of the communities of France). Paris, France: Albin-Michel, Berger-Levrault, 1984. (FHL book 944 E5di; not on microfilm.)
Localities in this gazetteer are listed in alphabetical order starting on page 203. Places in bold type are communities with a town hall [mairie] and its civil registrar's office. The information about each community is listed in the following order: community (in bold and all capitals), geographic code, department (in bold), arrondissement (ar.), canton (c.), tax office (perc.), number of houses (log.), population (h.), surface area in hectares (ha.), and postal code (in bold). A locality too small to have its own town hall and registrar's office is listed in italics. This is followed by its department (in bold) and the community (comm.) to which it belongs.
For some research purposes, it is useful to learn modern jurisdictions for the area where your ancestors lived. It may also be helpful to find the ancestral town on modern maps. The following gazetteer can be found at some large libraries and archives:
Bottin des Communes (Bottin's gazetteer of communities). Paris, France: Didot-Bottin, 1991. (FHL book 944 E5b 1991; 1955 ed. on fiche 6053519.) This gazetteer gives a map and listing of each locality within a specific department. Searching a small department-by-department list of places makes it easier to find places for which you have a garbled spelling.
Because names and boundaries of some places have changed or no longer exist, you may need to use sources that describe places as they were known earlier. Some of the historical national gazetteers that identify places in France are:
France. Administration Générale des Postes. Dictionnaire des postes aux lettres (Dictionary of post offices). Paris, France: Imprimerie Royale, 1845. Microfilmed at Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1983. (FHL film 1,344,020.) It lists the department immediately following the locality. The abbreviation cne shows its local community [commune]. Please do not confuse cne with Con, which means canton. The last locality in italics refers to the post office in 1845. Many of these place names still exist today.
Guyot, M. Dictionnaire géographique et universel des postes et du commerce . . . (Gazetteer of France). Paris, France: Guillot, 1787. Microfilmed at Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale. Service Photographique, [19--]. (FHL film 418,114.) Contains the names of towns, villages, parishes, castles, and other places in the kingdom of France. Also gives the name of the province where these are located and the distance to the nearest post office.
These sources are listed in the Place search of the Family History Library Catalog under FRANCE - GAZETTEERS. Gazetteers and similar guides to place-names for some departments are listed under FRANCE, [DEPARTMENT] - GAZETTEERS.