By: Roberta Estes

A captivating exploration of French history, from rivers to revolutions, and the enduring legacy of the Acadians. Dive into DNA testing, unlock your French heritage, and connect with a vibrant community passionate about their roots.

The French Diaspora spans centuries and continents, leaving a lasting impact on cultures and societies worldwide. From early explorations and colonial endeavors to the dispersion of French communities due to religious conflicts and political shifts, this journey uncovers the diverse paths taken by the French people.

As we explore the history of France from its inception, we trace the origins of a nation that would go on to shape world history through its remarkable contributions in art, culture, politics, and beyond.

A Timeline of French History and the Acadians

Historic French castle on top of hill - A Timeline of French History and the Acadians

In France, as in the rest of Europe, the rivers were the early highways. Rulers from near and far sought to control the rivers by establishing fortifications on the hilltops along the waterways.

Early invaders of France sought to control rivers - A Timeline fo French History and the Acadians

As an early-warning mechanism, a fire would be started, and the resulting smoke could be seen for 25 miles or so, warning the neighboring fortifications before invaders, also in ships, could arrive.

Of course, the coastlines were less protected, and the oceans tended to sink small ships, and even larger ones, quite easily.

Nonetheless, the early Goths, Visgoths, Franks, and Celts ruled, quarreled, then integrated and intermarried with invaders and neighboring tribes.

  • The Celts became the Gauls
  • The Franks ruled Germany, then portions of France.
  • The Vikings or Norsemen invaded Normandy and the Romans consolidated power in Gaul.

Each established their own kingdoms or fiefdoms, hoping to overrule the neighbors.

The peasants, of course, simply hoped to survive by pleasing whoever ruled them at the time. By about the year 500, rulers and peasants alike began to be converted to, and adopt, Catholicism, the traditional religion of France—that is, until the Huguenots.

11th Century: The Birth of France

By about the year 1000, the beginning of the Middle Ages, the early country of France was taking shape, led by strong princes from the Houses of Capet and Valois.

Bayeux Tapestry - 11th Century The Birth of France

As recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry, in 1066, William the Conqueror, a Duke from Normandy, invaded England. At the Battle of Hastings, William defeated the English, becoming both King of England and Duke of Normandy. From that point in English history, the French noble lines became the English noble lines as well.

14th Century to 16th Century: Violence Over Religious Beliefs Leads to Exodus of Protestant Hugenot Population

By the 1300s, the Capet power faded in France, and the House of Valois gained power, followed by the House of Bourbon kings in the 1500s. A centralized monarchy made the formerly fragmented France a powerhouse in Europe.

About the same time, the religious wars began. The Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s, led by Martin Luther, challenged the authority of the Catholic Church.

St. Bartholomews Day Massacre - 14th Century to 16th Century Violence Over Religious Beliefs Leads to Exodus of Protestant Hugenot Population

The Protestant Huguenots, who comprised as much as 10% of the French population, rebelled, leading to the horrific St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1562, in which thousands of Huguenots were massacred in Paris and French Provinces.

It became clear that Protestants were neither safe nor welcome in France. Huguenots began scattering into other European countries, as well as their colonies.
For example, London amassed a significant Huguenot population.

17th Century: A New French Colony in Canada Becomes Home to French Catholic Settlers

Map of New France in Eastern Canada - 17th Century A New French Colony in Canada Becomes Home to French Catholic Settlers

In 1535, France claimed Eastern Canada and part of the US, known as New France, eventually colonizing a region larger than France itself.

Settled primarily by men, King Louis XIV sent more than 800 single or widowed women, known as the Filles du Roi, or Daughters of the King, to Canada to marry the French Catholic settlers between 1663 and 1673. Today, they are known as the mothers of Canada.

The Filles du Roi were sent by King Louis to New France - 17th Centry A New French Colony in Canada Becomes Home to French Catholic Settles

Beginning in the early 1600s French Catholics would become the founders of Acadia, the peninsula of land that would become Nova Scotia. The marshy land abutting the sea resembled the marshes near La Rochelle, France, where many of the Acadians founders originated.

Portrait showing Acadia in present-day Nova Scotia - 17th Century A New French Colony in Canada Becomes Home to French Catholic Settlers

18th Century: Acadians Are Expelled And Sent South to the Caribbean

In 1755, the English forcibly expelled the Acadians and burned their farms in an event remembered as Le Grande Derangement. The Acadians, then destitute refugees, were dumped in small groups along the eastern seaboard, in the Caribbean, and some were sent back to France. Many of these families eventually became the Cajuns of Louisiana, and others, a dozen years later, made their way to Quebec.

Both in Acadia and Canada, the French intermixed, intermarried, and depended upon the Native American and First Nations people. Today, both Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA provide proof positive which ancestors were Native and which were European.

In 1763, French Canada was ceded to Britain, but French remained the language and Catholicism the de fecto religion.

France also had holdings and economic investments in the French West Indies, both for sugar and the trade of enslaved people.

Identifying Your French Ancestry

You may know you have French ancestors based on either your family history or geography. You may also have French ancestors that you are unaware of due to the intermarriage and assimilation of the French people who left the motherland. You may find hints of French heritage through a French surname, or your French ancestor’s surname may have been adapted to something else.

For example, some members of the LeBlanc family carry the White surname; LeJeune has become Young; and the L’Or surname has morphed to Lor, Lore, Laur, and Lord.

How to Use DNA Testing to Explore Your French Heritage

Unfortunately, DNA testing has been outlawed in France itself, so the history of our French ancestors has to be told through their descendants in the diaspora regions.

At FamilyTreeDNA, you can connect with your French heritage through several projects. You may discover that people representing your ancestors have already tested their Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA, or you may be the perfect person to test. Autosomal matches within projects can be especially relevant to genealogists.

Unlock Your Direct Paternal French Ancestry With Y-DNA Testing

If you are a male and your paternal surname line descends from a French man, please take the Big Y-700 test to represent your ancestor and contribute, as others have before you, to building the Y-DNA Tree of Mankind. You may find that you have a new DNA branch as a result.

You may connect with other testers whose ancestors may be enlightening for you, as well as ancient and notable DNA samples.

Explore Your Direct Maternal French Lineage With mtDNA Testing

If you are either male or female and descend from a French female ancestor on your matrilineal line through all females between you and that maternal ancestor, please order a mitochondrial DNA test.

It’s more difficult to find ancestors (and testers) on the mitochondrial DNA lines due to surname changes in each generation resulting from marriages, so you can make a big difference and confirm your ancestry at the same time.

Join and Collaborate With French Heritage Group Projects

Group Projects at FamilyTreeDNA provide the opportunity for collaboration between testers with French Heritage. Take a look – your ancestors may already be listed! Please test and join the projects that are the best fit for you.
What will you discover?

Projects noted with an asterisk (*) do not have results set to public. You will need to join the group to view them.

Roberta Estes - FamilyTreeDNA Blog

About the Author

Roberta Estes

Genealogy Subject Matter Expert

Roberta Estes, a seasoned scientist and genealogist for over 35 years, is renowned for her expertise as a National Geographic Society researcher and founder of DNAeXplain. With an impressive academic background, including an MS in Computer Science and an MBA, she has authored academic papers, contributed to prestigious publications, and collaborated on groundbreaking genetic research projects. Notably, she led the Million Mito Project, uncovering a 100,000-year-old branch of the human tree, and her pioneering work in DNA analysis, particularly for Native American heritage, has left an enduring impact on the field.

Roberta’s rich career encompasses a pioneering role in the emerging field of DNA for genealogy, evidenced by her leadership in over 20 DNA projects and her influential blog, Native Heritage Project. As the author of “DNA for Native American Genealogy” and a sought-after speaker, she has shared her insights at major international conferences, captivating audiences with her expertise in DNA and genealogy.

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