Montbéliard, Franche-Comté, France

The top map below shows the French city of Montbéliard, located within the region of Franche-Comté, the department of Doubs, within the intercommunality Pays de Montbéliard. Confused?

France is essentially divided into 22 regions. Franche-Comté is the region where most of my French ancestors came from. These 22 regions are subdivided into 96 local departments. For Montbéliard, this department is Doubs, named after the river which flows through the area.

These departments are subdivided into 342 arrondissements. These arrondissements are subdivided into 3,883 cantons. The arrondissements and cantons are not public or legal entities, but are instead historical descriptions that are more or less leftovers from before the French Revolution. I mention them because they sometimes come up in historical records and documents.


The cantons are then subdivided into 36,569 communes, which we would associate with cities and towns.

As you can see on the map to the left, Franche-Comté borders French-speaking Switzerland; over the centuries, many ancestors and other relatives intermarried with Swiss French speakers.

Historically, the region has not always been part of what we would call France. People have lived there since the Paleolithic. Gauls lived there in the time of ancient Rome. Unlike most areas nearby, the area we now call Franche-Comté was not settled (or conquered) by Germanic tribes. The Alemanni ruled the area in the 5th century. Franche-Comté was part of the Kingdom of Burgundy from 457 to 534.

It was St. Columbanus (Irish, 543-615 C.E.), and not St. Clotilde (475-545, wife of Clovis I), who brought Christianity to the area. Check out How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (The Hinges of History) by Thomas Cahill if you're curious to know more about the role of the early medieval Irish clergy in Christianizing Europe and preserving Western literature and culture.

Franche-Comté became part of the Frankish kingdom in 534 C.E. under Clotaire I (son of Clovis I, the first king of France, whom my late mémé, Ella Clementine Hill née Besançon, swore to me from birth was our direct ancestor). In 561, Franche-Comté was included in the Merovingian Kingdom of Burgundy. The general idea? It was ruled by French (or rather, Frankish) kings for about 500 years. The people spoke French, or at least whatever version of French existed at the time.

The name Franche-Comté means Free County, and did not officially appear in records until 1366. Franche-Comté had been a territory of the County of Burgundy from 888, and the province became subject to the Holy Roman Empire in 1034. Of course, Burgundy and the Holy Roman Empire no longer exist. It's always been much easier for family historians to simply refer to the area as part of France, and leave it at that. Still, this is not entirely accurate, and oversimplifying the political history of Franche-Comté can make some fun family factoids difficult to understand.

The area of Franche-Comté was incorporated into the territories of the Habsburg monarchy in 1477 with the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with Maximilian I. Franche-Comté was inherited by Philip II of Spain, from his father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. "Free County" was captured by France in 1668, briefly making the residents legally French, but was returned under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Foiled again! Franche-Comté was conquered a second time in 1674, and it was at last ceded to France with the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678.

However, enclaves such as Montbéliard remained outside French control. These were under the control of the Germanic dukes of Württemberg and Teck. Read up on the Rauracian Republic for an interesting history of the area. It was not until 1793, four years after the French stormed the Bastille and overthrew Louis XVI, that Montbéliard and other nearby enclaves were incorporated into France.

Therefore, when we say that an ancestor such as Guillaume Louys (1570-1638) was "French," it is not 100% accurate. He was born a French-speaking Burgundian, under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire.

Franche-Comté had serfdom later than other parts of France. Half of the population were serfs in 1784, accounting for 400,000 out of the 1,000,000 French serfs. Doubtless, the peasant farmers of families such as Louys, Besançon, Grisier, etc., were serfs. It was not until the early 19th century that serfdom ended. Of course, by this time, emigrants were pouring out of the region.

HUH!?!? BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN!? The Pays de Montbéliard, Doubs, and Franche-Comté are kinda-sorta the same thing; at least, they are treated as such in family records. This means that when you read in old family records, "born in Montbéliard," it could mean the village of Montbéliard, or it could vaguely signify somewhere in Franche-Comté. Before large numbers settled in Stryker, Ohio, the Louys family was from the town of Valentigney in Franche-Comté, so that family is easy to place. It's the far-flung French cousins and spouses that are more difficult to pinpoint.

FYI: Marianne Doyle published a charming newsletter between 1988 and 2002 called French Ancestors which described those families who came to western Ohio. The newsletters don't have much related to my exact ancestors, but they're fun reading for tidbits on French customs, etc., from the area in and near Franche-Comté.

Click here for Wikipedia's list of the cantons and communes of Montbéliard.

FYI: Besançon is the capital of Franche-Comté. It was from here that my Besançon ancestors moved to Brognard in or around the 15th century. These Brognardaises ancestors presumably took the surname Besançon to indicate where they originated. And why not? Besançon has a great history. Not only does it have ancient Roman ruins, but Julius Caesar himself was the first to mention the town in print; he referred to it as Vesontio in Book I of his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (58 B.C.E.).