How Do I Find Ancestor From Martinique?

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

Fort-de-France, Martinique (Archive Farms/Getty Images)

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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This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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