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by Georges Picavet

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This page is dedicated to the descendants of Belgian immigrants in the USA researching their Belgian ancestry.

This type of research can be approached in two ways:

Either approach yields valuable information for the study of the history of the emigrants/immigrants.

Within the limitations of the time and other resources available, I will contribute any type of information my correspondents may require for their own study.


First things first: do read this from top to bottom, save a copy, print it ...
Please do forgive me if I write this under the assumption that you are not familiar with genealogical research.

On this page:

The basics
Getting organized
Your first source
Internet Sources
Sources in the USA
Genealogical and Historical Societies
Sources in Belgium
Population registers
Civil registrations
Military personnel
Professional researchers

The basics

With the permission of the author, I include an article that tells you about the very basic rules you should adopt when doing research using the Internet resources. Please don't give up after having read this article, and carry on with my own texts that start with "Getting organized".

Welding links: Basics of Genealogical Research

by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG
in: MISSING LINKS: A Weekly Newsletter for Genealogists, Vol. 3, No. 7, 13 February 1998
Copyright (c) 1996-98 Julia M. Case and Myra Vanderpool Gormley
Missing Links is available gratis to anyone with an internet e-mail address simply by requesting it by writing to: Julie_Case@prodigy.com

Americans descend mostly from people who left other lands because of discontent with conditions -- economic, religious or political. While we like to brag about American ingenuity, we don't like to admit that we hate to follow guidelines and rules, and are terribly impatient people. It is as though we inherited restless, impatient and rules-do-not-apply-to-me genes. While these traits might produce positive results in some areas, they are not good ones for genealogists.

No matter how much you hate to follow rules, if you are going to be a good and a successful genealogist, you need to learn methodology.

Technology -- the internet particularly -- is changing the genealogist's world for the good in many areas, but the great majority of the records we need are not, and may never be accessible online. The recent explosion of online "shotgun approach" to research is particularly irritating to many. The idea seems to be if I send my request to millions of people, I'll hit somebody who has the answer. You have probably received some of these that say "send all you have on Hancock family," whether you are researching that line or not. This is genealogical spamming as far as I'm concerned. Genealogy is a two-way street. We should share, but let's keep our requests reasonable and specific and remember our manners.

The basics of genealogical research include:

  1. Gather information from your family. Talk to your parents, grandparents, relatives; write down the oral histories; search for family documents (birth, marriage and death certificates and military service) and photographs, baby books, high school and college yearbooks.
  2. Put the information on charts -- pedigree and family group sheets. Cite the sources properly for each bit of information. If you do not know how (and most of us didn't when we started, use "Evidence!," by Elizabeth Shown Mills (available from http://www.genealogical.com).
  3. All genealogical research requires three things: names (maiden names for women), dates and places. Work in the reverse order of life's events: Start with when/where your parents or grandparents died and work backward to when/where they were married and then when/where they were born.
  4. Try to obtain copies of all existant vital records (death, marriage and birth) for your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
  5. Once you have information that takes you to 1920 and earlier, use the federal census records to trace each line back at least to 1850, if they were in this country by that date. Don't skip census years. Start with 1920 (if applicable), then 1910, 1900, 1880 (most of the 1890 census was destroyed), 1870, 1860 and 1850.
  6. Use the internet to find others researching the same families in a particular locality and time frame. Don't try to compile information about all the Zimmerman families in the world at first. Join Mail Lists for specific surnames. Use the online services' forums and bulletin boards to find others working on the same family lines or in the same area. Remember neighbors' children often married each other.
  7. Visit a nearby LDS (Mormon) Family History Center and use its databases, such as the IGI (International Genealogical Index) as finding aids to additional records and previous research done on your families. Visit your local public and any nearby university library and explore.
  8. Learn the local histories of the places where your families resided and comb through every available record, particularly probate and land, for that locality, starting with the one where your ancestors died. Don't even THINK about doing research in the "old countries" until you have exhausted every record your ancestors generated in America.
  9. Read/study "The Source" and "The Red Book" (available from http://www.ancestry.com); "The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (available from http://www.genealogical.com) and all the "how-to" research books your local library has, plus state/ county guides dealing with the records of the localities where your families resided.
  10. Subscribe to or read at your library the scholarly genealogy periodicals. Two that are widely available are: National Genealogical Society's Quarterly and New England Historic Genealogical Society's Register. Consider taking the NGS's Home Study Course (visit http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/).

Getting organized

Get organized first!

I started doing genealogical research in 1968 and I still have piles of paper, note books, paper clippings, etc., which would take ten years to sort out. I don't find back items I know are there somewhere. Don't make the same mistake!

Use one type of note books, preferably a four ring binder in which you can insert plastic pockets to keep photocopies and paperclippings. Be careful with the quality of the plastic because some plastics virtually "eat" paper.

Use a separate note book for every source, or type of source you are consulting. A source can be the local library, the archives, etc. This way you will know what material you have seen and what not. I can assure you that after a couple of years you will not remember if you have seen or not that book, roll of film, register, census record, etc., and you may end up going through it a second time.

About dates

Where you would write 12/1/91 and know this is the 1st day of the 12th month of the year 1991, I would understand this is the 12th day of January 1891.

In Europe 12/1/1991 is the 12th January 1991, in America it would be the 1st December 1991.

Moreover, since you are dealing with history, "91" could mean anything: 1991, 1891, 1791, 1691, ...

The format used by genealogists is 12 Jan 1991, or 1 Dec 1891. Even if you would prefer the format Dec 1, 1891, you should always mention the month at least with its three first characters: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec, and always write the year in full, with the four digits.

Computer program

Buy a good computer program specially designed for genealogical research. My favorite is Reunion, from LeisterProductions.


Your first source: your family and your family's friends

Collect every scrap of paper that is related to your ancestors or relatives

Some families keep, in a safety box, or in a shoe box, documents relating to them-selves and their ancestors. These documents may range from the official Citizenship Certificate to pictures of the horse, via deeds and building plans of the first home.

The Belgians who had married in Belgium before emigrating, most of the time kept jaleaously to their "Trouwboekje", this is "Marriage Booklet". This booklet is a compulsory item in Belgium for all families. It contains on the first page the full identity of the married couple, with full names, places and dates of birth, the names of their respective parents, and of course the place and date of marriage. On one of the following pages, the names of the children, and their place and date of birth would be inscribed. Very often the parents themselves made these inscriptions when they had children born in the United States.

It was customary in the United States, at the funeral Mass, to hand to the mourners a Mass card (or in-memoriam card, death card, funeral card, in Dutch "Doodsprentje"). In Belgium, and in earlier American ones, besides the names of the deceased -- the maiden name for the wife -- also the place and date of birth and of death were given.

You may also try to locate old friends of the family. They may have tales to tell, or have pictures of their old friends -- your relatives.

Oral information may be unreliable, especially if one is not familiar with interviewing techniques or the methodology of oral history. This information may be extremely useful though, if it can point to a verifiable source. I have included on this site a list of questions to ask your relatives.

An immigrant never came alone! He came with his friends and relatives. Therefore, don't discard information about another Belgian: he may be the clue you need to find your family's origin!


Internet Sources

There aren't as yet many real genealogical sources available on the World Wide Web. What you may find however is information on sources, or information published on the net by other researchers,such as myself.

The WWW is however an excellent learning experience. I suggest below a few places on the WWW which in my opinion are a "must" for you to visit.

The Internet also offers various mailing facilities, which make it easy to make contact with other people doing similar research. I can only suggest that you subscribe to at least one of the Mail List, viz. BELGIUM-ROOTS-L.

Visit Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet

This is probably the only site you will ever need to find all the links, both in the United States and in Belgium, which may be of interest to your research! [Red: But our BELGIUM-ROOTS site begins to have some interesting data and links also]

Visit the RootsWeb Site

A great site, kept by great people!

The RootsWeb project has two missions:
  1. To make large volumes of data available to the online genealogical community at minimal cost.
  2. To provide support services to online genealogical activities such as USENET newsgroup moderation, Mail List maintenance, surname list generation, etc.

Visit the USGenWeb Project

This is the home page for The USGenWeb Project. Consisting of a group of volunteers working together to provide Internet websites for genealogical research in every county and every state of the United States, the Project is non-commercial and fully committed to free access for everyone.

The US electronic telephone directory

There is no better tool to find living relatives than the telephone directory. There may be various sites on the web where to find it, but the one I have here is at

[SeeLinks Page for link to web site]

You may be tempted to send out letters to everyone sharing your name, but this may be a very cumbersome undertaking for very common names. I suggest you write only so many letters that would allow you to do a decent follow-up.

The Old Country

Try to document yourself as much as possible on the old country. On the www you will find some information about Belgium and genealogy. Some of them are listed on the Societies Page.

Distribution of Family names in Belgium

Geonome lets you check the distribution of your name in Belgium.

Geonome is temporary unavailable. The site www.familienaam.be lets you check you the same and with a better map. That site wants the exact spelling (capitals, spaces, ..) of the surname. So try all variations of that kind.

Belgium's electronic telephone directory

If you are curious about any namesakes in Belgium, you can consult a Belgium's electronic telephone directory as Infobel CD-ROM (on-line) and find your names. Narrow your query as much as possible: some names may be very common here! Click here for the page that will help you with writing letters to Belgium.

Mail Lists

Subscribe to theBELGIUM-ROOTS-L Mail List.


Sources in the United States

The main sources can be found at the County Courthouses, at the cemeteries and in the local newspapers. Additional information is available at genealogical and historical societies.

The County courthouse

  • Declarations of Intention, Petition for Naturalization, Oath of Allegiance
  • Registrations of birth, marriage, divorce, death
  • Probate records
  • Deeds and plat records

Cemeteries

Although the headstones rarely state the place of origin of the deceased, a family name can signal his origin, and I really recommend that you also note down the other names on the cemetery that sound or look "Belgian" to you. In the immigration Era, an immigrant never came on his own and the immigrants originating from one village in Belgium generally settled together in one of their favorite places.

Since it is difficult for a researcher not from the Waasland to identify these names, a narrow search is not advisable. The best results will be obtained if local people make an index of all inscriptions at the cemetery and submit this to somebody familiar with family names from the Waasland. For some cemeteries (e.g. De Pere, Brown County, Wisconsin and Norway, Dickinson County, Michigan) indexes are available.

There is also on this site a list with hundreds of different family names from the Waasland, but I don't expect you to memorize all of them.

Local newspapers

The obituaries published in American newspapers generally contain a wealth of information on the family.

Articles about immigration in general and specific immigrants in particular are a very valuable source, providing many answers to the questions related to family status, employment and migration. Most local newspapers are available on film in the local or county libraries.

When you have a copy made of an obituary, or any other article, always inscribe on it the name of the newspaper, the date and place of publication, the page, and the column. E.g.: The Sunday News, Sunday 1 January 1902, Superior, Douglas County, Wisconsin, page 10, column 2. You will save a lot of time for you and the ones that come after you!

The Social Security Death Benefit Index

The SSDI, which is available on CD-ROM contains a wealth of information on most people deceased in the United States between 1965 and 1997. This may be a good start for you to find information on your deceased relatives. My copy is called the Social Security Death Master File and is published by GenRef, Inc. Phone 1-801-225-3256. They should have a web site.

Visit the nearest Family History Center

The Family History Centers (FHC) have a wealth of information to offer to you. Click here for some guidelines when you visit the first time a FHC.


Genealogical and Historical Societies

If you are serious about your research, you should become a member of at least two genealogical and/or historical societies, viz. the one of your home town -- for which I suggest you visit your local library -- and the one that is dealing with your family's origin, which in your case would be Belgium.

Genealogical Societies

You may feel like contacting the Flemish Association for Family History, the largest of its kind in Belgium:

Vlaamse Vereniging voor Familiekunde
Department: Emigration
Van Heybeeckstraat 3
BE - 2170 Antwerpen (Merksem)
Belgium

In the address you can use the abbreviated name: V.V.F.
They have a web site: VVF-G&C Home Page

If you wish to have a specific query published in the V.V.F. monthly magazine "Vlaamse Stam", you should write to

Redactie Vlaamse Stam
Christinastraat 2 Bus 5
BE - 8400 Oostende
Belgium
 
Fax nr. 32 - 59 - 70 83 67

I don't know if queries in English are accepted, but I could translate them for you. The query should be kept short and specific. With your query you must add three stamps of 16 Belgian francs or three international reply coupons.

This is a must:

You can't really do without the membership of one or both of our genealogical societies in the United States:

The Belgian Researchers, Inc.
Belgian-American Heritage Association
495 East 5th Street
Peru IN 46970
USA
 
E-mail: bbrindle@netusa1.net. Their magazine is "Belgian Laces"
Genealogical Society of Flemish Americans
18740 Thirteen Mile Road
Roseville, Michigan 48066
 
Click here for their web site.. Their magazine is "Flemish American Heritage"

Sources in Belgium

Important:
  1. Most emigrants left Belgium between 1890 and 1910; therefore we will concentrate on the civil registrations which are in force since 1796. I will not elaborate here on sources before 1796.
  2. Start your research in Belgium only when you know where your family came from, unless you don't mind aggravating a lot of people, and spending a lot of money.

Who researched which family?

Visit the VVF-Genealogie & Computer Web site and look on the page "On Line" for: Who Researched What Database: Inquiry among the members of the Flemish Genealogical Society (VVF) about who has researched what family names, during which period and in what geographical area.

Only write to the researcher if you know that your family came from the place or area s/he has researched.

Not all researchers have added their data. My names are not in it, simply because I have too many.

The population registers

One of the best sources for genealogical research are the population registers, which can be best described as a "dynamic census at the township level". Since the early 1800s, every ten years, the township will note down all vital data of all habitants in large registers: one page per household. Any change within the next ten years will be inscribed in that register, e.g., date and place of death, date and destination when somebody moved, etc. Also incoming people will be registered, including the date they moved in and their previous address.

These registers are filmed by the LDS for a few townships in Belgium only.

I always suggest American descendants to write to the municipality of origin of their family and request a photocopy of the page on which their family is registered at the time they left Belgium. I really don't know if the authorities comply with that request, but I guess it will largely depend on the clerk who is handling it.

You should address your letter to (if Dutch is the official language):

Gemeentebestuur
De Ambtenaar van de
DIENST BEVOLKING
Gemeentehuis
xxxx ABCDE
 

You should address your letter to (if French is the official language):

Administration Communale
SERVICE POPULATION
Maison Communale
xxxx ABCDE
 

Always write in the official language of the municipality, which can be found in the lists of places on this web site.

Civil registrations of birth, marriage/divorce, death

Contrary to what happens in the United States, vital records are a responsibility of the municipalities, not of the county (administrative district, or judicial district as we call it here).

Vital records in Belgium are protected by the Privacy Act of 1955, making them not available until at least 100 years old. There are some ways to circumvent this Act, but these would be difficult for you.

Most of the Belgian civil registrations have been filmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and you can have access to the older records (from before 1880/1890) at your Family History Center (FHC).

For records that are not accessible on film (more recent than 1880/1890) you will have to write to the municipality. For this purpose I have included on this web site lists of all municipalities in Belgium, with their postal code and other useful information.

Since most of the employees of the municipality will read and write English, there is no problem in writing to them in your own language. You may receive a reply in Dutch, French, or German though.

You should address your letter to (if Dutch is the official language):

Gemeentebestuur
De Ambtenaar van de
BURGERLIJKE STAND
Gemeentehuis
xxxx ABCDE
 

You should address your letter to (ifFrench is the official language):

Administration Communale
L'Officier de l'ETAT CIVIL
Maison Communale
xxxx ABCDE
 

where xxxx is the ZIP-code, and ABCDE the name of the municipality. Both can be found in my Places lists on this web site [see Table of Contents]. De "Ambtenaar van de Burgerlijke Stand", "Officier de l'Etat Civil" is the Civil Registrar; "Gemeentehuis", "Maison Communcale" means Town Hall.

Always write in the official language of the municipality, which can be found in the lists of places on this web site.

Considering the fact that it typically takes 7 to 8 days for air-mail to cross the ocean (but just recently a letter from Superior took 6 weeks to reach me), you should expect to receive a reply within one or two months.

Vital records in Belgium are kept in Dutch, French, or German. Since language is a main barrier for today's Americans, I included a page on this site with the transcript of typical records of birth, marriage and death, in Dutch and French with their translation in English. Moreover, the FHC do have leaflets with the translation of the most common terms used.

The Venesoen Reports 

From about 1892 to 1910, Mr. Venesoen, a government official, was in charge of questioning all the Belgian emigrants upon their departure from the port of Antwerp. Most of these records have been kept. Right now only a few years are accessible but our Flemish Genealogical Society is working on the publication of the remainder. These records give name, place of origin, occupation, age, and last but not least: their destination within the US. They may also mention if they have been there before, or if they are going to join a relative. This is prime information for the peak years of the emigration. Click here for more details.

My library has the two volumes which have already been published; these publications contain also lists of earlier emigrants compiled from other sources (see Library).

Military Records

Click here for a specific page on research related to personnel of the Belgian Army.

Another address I have is:

Belgisch Leger
Algemene Dienst van het Stamboek (JSP-OCM)
Kwartier Koningin Elisabeth
Everestraat
BE-1040 Evere (Brussel)
Belgium

I have no experience with their service, and don't know exactly what type of information is available.

Another excellent source is the Military Museum. The people there are extremely helpful.

Other archives

Other archives exist, but some are very difficult to access.


Professional Researchers

If you really need help, you can contact a Belgian professional researcher:
Gaston Roggeman
Hinxelaar 21
2830 Blaasveld
Belgium

Phone 32 -3 - 886 91 00
Gaston knows all the tricks of the trade: he is involved in genealogical research for at least fourty years. If you want to research to be done to the middle ages, he is your man.

Guy Bauwens
Prins Boudewijnlaan 80 Bus 5
BE-2610 Wilrijk
Belgium
This gentleman is particularly interested in emigration from Belgium to the United States and is fluent in English, having lived in the United States for a couple of years.

Caveat: although I know the gentlemen personally, I cannot vouch for them.

A list of professional researchers is also maintained by the VVF.

I remain at your disposal if you require any general information on Belgium, and of course -- the day you find out that your ancestors would fit in my project, you are really lucky! Don't forget to let me know!


Don't forget: an immigrant never came alone! He came with his friends and relatives. Therefore, don't discard information about another Belgian: he may be the clue you need to find your family's origin!

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