How Do I Find Ancestor From Martinique?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader wants answers about a forebear who may have immigrated to New Orleans.

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Town and county histories often include biographical sketches on various members of the community, so consider searching for historical accounts of New Orleans from the 1800s that may include biographical information on your Fortier ancestors. Journals and newsletters pertaining to occupations or fraternal organizations are another valuable source of information. 

You note that Firmin Francois Fortier had a cigar business in the 1870s. One journal that is searchable, on a limited basis via Google Books, is Cigar Makers' Official Journal, which was published in the late 1800s and early 1900s. While the main focus of this journal is the business of cigar production, some issues contain biographical information on individuals. For example, Volume 39 of this journal has an autobiographical sketch submitted by a member named Thomas Dolan. This sketch includes information about his place and date of birth, where he apprenticed and where he worked over the years. 

What's in a Name?

You say that you have been unable to locate documents pertaining to Firmin Francois Fortier prior to his son's birth in New Orleans in 1872. One reason could be variations in the spelling of his given name. There are instances in which documents are indexed incorrectly due to the handwriting on the original record. 

We took a quick look at the 1870 U.S. Federal Census and located a possible match for Firmin Francois Fortier on His name is indexed as "Furnini" Fortier, an 18-year-old male living in New Orleans in the household of "France" Fortier. His place of birth is listed as Louisiana. A closer look at the original document reveals two small dots above his first name, but they were not placed directly above the letter "i." Not being familiar with the name Firmin, the indexer most likely believed the spelling of this person's given name was "Furnini" rather than "Firmin." Since other indexed databases may contain incorrect spellings of the name Firmin, conducting a wider search of only the surname Fortier may help in locating additional records. Another suggestion is to search for his siblings in pre-1870 documents, in the event that Firmin Francois Fortier's name is indexed incorrectly in other sources. 

Another record you may wish to review is the Freedman's Bank record of F.F. Fortier, dated May 24, 1873, available online through (you'll need to sign up to find out more) as well as HeritageQuestOnline. The Freedman's Savings Bank was established after the Civil War to aid in the economic development of newly emancipated African-American communities. Although his occupation is listed as sugar maker, F.F. Fortier's year of birth closely corresponds with that of Firmin Francois Fortier. The names of his parents and siblings, as well as his address, are listed on this document, which will help you determine whether this pertains to your ancestor. 

You state that all of the records you have located thus far on Firmin Francois Fortier list his place of birth as New Orleans, while according to family lore, he was born in Martinique. Keep in mind that documents, such as census records, may not always contain accurate information, depending upon the person providing the information. Someone other than the head of household could have provided inaccurate information to the census taker. Or perhaps a person's birthplace or date of birth was incorrectly noted on a death record, depending upon how well the informant knew the deceased's background. 

That being said, since the records you have found thus far list Firmin Francois Fortier's place of birth as New Orleans, it is also important to carefully review information you received through family lore. Think about who provided this information, as well as what sources they used to come to this conclusion. If Firmin Francois Fortier traveled frequently while working in the cigar business, it is possible that the family lore changed over the years to Martinique being his birthplace, rather than a place to which he traveled on business. Looking at both records and family stories in this manner will help you in your search for Firmin Francois Fortier's origins.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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