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

(The Root) —

"My name is Linda Brown, and I have definitely hit a dead end regarding my great-grandfather, Firmin Francois Fortier. How do I find out if he was really born in Martinique? The story in the family is that he was born in Martinique on Oct. 27, 1850, to a French father and native mother. He came to New Orleans with his brothers. It's said that his brothers went to the white race, and he stayed in the black race. On all U.S. documents, Firmin wrote that he was born in New Orleans. I do find him in New Orleans in 1872 with the birth of his first son, Allen Fortier; having a cigar business in 1875; married to Amanda Brice Fortier in 1875; and in the New Orleans 1880 census. However, I can't locate him before 1872. Would I have to contact someone in Martinique to find out this information? —Linda Brown 

You provided enough details for us to come up with some promising leads here in the U.S., but before we go into them, know that there are a number of online sources and reference materials available related to Martinique genealogy that can be helpful with your research. Geographical and surname-based message boards are accessible through websites such as Ancestry.com, which allows people to post inquiries about their family research. The website Rootsweb has a number of genealogical databases and guides, and also provides links to mailing lists covering a variety of topics, including Martinique research. If you subscribe to this mailing list, you could search the archived messages for information that may help you with your research.

If you read French, historian Marial Iglesias Utset advises accessing the parish registers (des registres paroissiaux et d'état civil) of Martinique for the 19th century online for free. She says you can also check the website of the Archives Nationales d'Outre-mer for "état civil" records for Martinique online.

It's also worth noting that, as the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood have noted, there was a history of migration from the French Caribbean to Louisiana during the entire period of slavery. Many ex-planters from Haiti settled in Louisiana after that country's revolution. Such historical developments might help explain your family lore of a Martinique connection.

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Finding Fortier

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' Family History Library has a number of genealogical databases available free on its website, including "Louisiana, New Orleans Passenger Lists, 1820-1945," and "Louisiana, Naturalization Records, 1831-1906." Looking through them may help you find additional information on Firmin Francois Fortier's possible Martinique roots. In addition to the databases, the Family History Library has a significant number of microfilmed records from around the world, including Martinique. For a small fee, individuals may rent these microfilms through their local Family History Center or library.

If you have not done so in your previous research, you may wish to look for published genealogies pertaining to families with the surname Fortier, which may provide clues about your family's origins. Even if the family profiled in the book did not reside in the same area as your Fortier family, it is beneficial to take a look at it, in the event that distant relatives by that name are mentioned. A Fortier surname message board is also available at Genealogy.com.

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In addition to Fortier genealogies, you may wish to check Old Families of Louisiana, edited by Stanley Clisby Arthur, which includes a chapter titled "Fortier."

Again, if you read French, you might look at Geneanet. Utset found at least one person with the surname Fortier living in Martinique during the 19th century: Thérèse Sophie Fortier.

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.

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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.

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We took a quick look at the 1870 U.S. Federal Census and located a possible match for Firmin Francois Fortier on Ancestry.com. 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 Ancestry.com (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.

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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.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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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, AmericanAncestors.org, 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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