Louisiana’s unique and colorful heritage is never so evident as it is during Mardi Gras, or Carnival season. Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, is the day before the Lenten fasting season begins. In Louisiana, it’s marked by a variety of celebrations including parades, beads, balls, wild costumes, food, drink, and some types of revelry that defy description. Some traditions are believed to date back to French medieval times.
The French explorers Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville, and his brother, Jean Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville, celebrated the first Mardi Gras in Louisiana on March 3rd, 1699. After they entered the mouth of the Mississippi River, they stopped and camped at a place they named Mardi Gras Point. French settlers would soon follow, bringing with them their language, religion, laws, and culture that make Louisiana distinct from the other 49 states.
Louisiana’s uniqueness may cause genealogists some initial grief. Documents written in languages other than English, and legal terms and concepts not found in English common law states, can confuse and frustrate researchers. In many ways, however, the records left by the French, and later Spanish, are an unbelievably rich genealogical source.
Unlike the other 49 states, whose laws are based on the English common law system, Louisiana has a Civil Code. While common law is based on precedent and custom, civil law is based on French and Spanish codes. One advantage of civil law in genealogy is that women are often identified by their maiden names in legal documents. This is because women had different (and often greater) marital and inheritance rights under civil law than women in common law states. As a result, protection of inheritance rights produces an abundance of documentation involving family relationships – something that’s vital to genealogical research.
Louisiana’s notarial records are another excellent and often overlooked source. Notaries in Louisiana have much greater powers than those in the rest of the U.S. They can draft amicable agreements between parties, function as witnesses, verify the identities of the parties, and, at one time, they served as archivists of the documents they created. Examples of types of acts created by notaries include contracts for sales, partitions, or donations of real property and movables; mortgages and releases; slave sales and emancipations; building or repair contracts; marriage contracts; inventories of estates; records of family meetings; acts of partnership or incorporation; and meetings of creditors. Today, most notarial records are found in the parish clerk of courts office, but in New Orleans, the Notarial Archives serves as a repository for a vast quantity of records dating back to the 1700s. Their website even includes indexes to their earliest records.
The Catholic religion brought by the French and Spanish settlers also plays an important part in genealogical research in Louisiana. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, it was the only religion allowed. The Roman Catholic church kept very detailed baptismal, marriage, and burial records, and the early records often include entries for non-Catholics. With the exception of a handful of churches whose records have been lost or destroyed, most areas in South Louisiana and some portions of North Louisiana are well covered by the Catholic records.
Louisiana is divided into one archdiocese and six dioceses, all of which have an archives to preserve their records. Sacramental records from many of these dioceses have also been published in print and on the internet, making them easy pickings for researchers. Here’s a brief rundown of the Louisiana’s Catholic dioceses and their published records.
Archdiocese of New Orleans - 19 volumes dating from 1718 to 1831. Publication was suspended in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and later discontinued. Some original registers have been placed on the website and many indexes have been published in the New Orleans Genesis, the quarterly journal of the Genealogical Research Society of New Orleans.
Diocese of Baton Rouge - 22 volumes dating from 1707 (Acadian records) to 1900 plus two volumes of records of individuals with no surnames (predominantly slaves and free people of color). Publication is ongoing.
Diocese of Alexandria - five volumes of records for Natchitoches (1729 to 1849) and several for Avoyelles (beginning 1794). The church at Alexandria burned in 1895.
Diocese of Lafayette - 47 volumes of Southwest Louisiana Records dating from 1750 to 1914.
Diocese of Lake Charles - a fire in 1910 destroyed the early records. What few remain can be found in Southwest Louisiana Records (see Diocese of Lafayette).
Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux - 20 volumes of South Louisiana Records dating from 1794 to 1920.
Louisiana’s differences should not deter researchers from tracing their roots in the state. In fact, they’re a help rather than a hindrance. Just remember that Mardi Gras day, February 12th this year, is a state holiday.
Judy Riffel is a professional genealogist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is an officer in a statewide genealogical group, Le Comite des Archives de la Louisiane, and edits their quarterly journal, Le Raconteur. She is the author of A Guide to Genealogical Research at the Louisiana State Archives, now in its second edition.
Photo Credit: Kira Butler