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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 1/15/2003

Using Foreign MicroFilm: Belgian Beginnings

For many of us, a new year is always a time for new beginnings and new projects. I am no exception and decided I would work on one of my wife's families I had ignored for several years: Her Belgian great-great-grandparents. This article will discuss some Belgian specific-sources. Today, we'll discuss more than the Belgian records I accessed; we'll also discuss the methodology of my search.

My wife's ancestors, August and Louise Van Hoorebeke Mortier were Belgian emigrants to Rock Island County, Illinois, in the 1880s. I knew I should locate as much information as possible in the United States before attempting to research the family overseas. It was decided to focus on August first, keeping the Van Hoorebeke name in my mind as I looked at records on August's family.

August died in 1907 in rural Rock Island County, Illinois. His death certificate and obituary provided no further information on his origins. Further research on the family indicated August was one of four Mortier brothers who immigrated to the Rock Island County, Illinois, area over a ten-year time period. Research on these brothers has been mentioned in other Ancestry Daily News articles and describes in more detail some of the sources and methods used to learn more about the family in the United States.

A Brief Stop at Rock Island County Historical Society

Death Index Spawns More Mortiers

The records discussed in these articles, along with census and other information, provided the following tentative family structure listed below. Frederick and Kamiel's death certificates list the same father and same mother. Family tradition tied all four together and death, census, obituary, and other records were used to ascertain their dates of birth. Records in the homeland may not exactly match the information obtained in the United States. However, American sources provide us with a starting point.

The Mortier brothers:
--- Frederick Mortier, born May 1851
--- August Mortier, born July 1856
--- Kamiel Mortier, born March 1858
--- Peter Mortier, born May 1859

Frederick's death certificate indicated he was born in Hansbeke. That is where our search for information on the Mortier men will begin.

Do a Little Learning
It is important that I not assume that Belgium is like every other country in Europe. In an attempt to learn more about the country and the records that may be available, I viewed information on the following websites:


The Emigrants from Belgium to the United States and Canada

Family Explorer Benelux

For many countries the Family History Library has excellent reference guides on their site ( and at their branch libraries.

Getting Some Records
Once I knew a little bit more about the kinds of records I would be using, I decided to search the Family History Library catalog and click on library to determine what records were available. The Family History Library, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has millions of rolls of microfilm of original records. These records can be obtained on interlibrary loan through a local Family History Library (usually housed at an LDS church). I would not have to visit Salt Lake City to view the records. I could order them through a local branch of the Family History Library in Davenport, Iowa. Readers can use the FamilySearch site to determine where the nearest Family History Center is located. Hours of operation vary from one center to another.

Based upon the card catalog, what I knew about the family, and what I had learned about Belgian records in general, I knew I likely was going to have to order civil registrations of vital records. A search of the Family History Library Card Catalog (using "Hansbeke" in a place search) resulted in only one match for Belgium, Oost Vlaanderen, Hansbeke--the village I wanted. I already knew that Hansbeke was in East Flanders, (the catalog uses the Dutch "Oost Vlaanderen"), so I knew I had the correct reference.

There were three topics under this location. I chose the civil registrations. This brought up the specific reference for the series of records, Registers van de Burgerlijke Stand, 1796-1870 Hansbeke (Oost Vlaanderen). Burgerlijke Stand." Clicking on the title's link, I learned there were eight rolls of film for these records. To see what was on the specific rolls of film, I clicked on the button for "view film notes." It was based upon these film notes that I then decided what rolls of film to order.

Avoid Temptation
There were several rolls of microfilmed records for the village of Hansbeke, many beyond the time period I was interested in. One might have been tempted to simply order them all, beginning with the civil registrations of vital records that start in the 1790s. This would have been overkill. The Mortiers might not have lived in Hansbeke for very long and I might need earlier records from other villages. I actually only knew that one of the brothers was born in Hansbeke, other brothers might not have been born there and his death certificate might have listed an incorrect place of birth. However, I had to start somewhere. I decided to focus on the time period when the brothers were born, hoping they were all born in Hansbeke. I could worry about earlier records once I had located the brothers in contemporary records and learned something more specific about their parents.

Have an Idea of What You are Ordering
It is important to know what records one is ordering before one orders them.

When not familiar with the language in which the records are written or inventoried, one can easily make mistakes, interpret things incorrectly, and order rolls of film that are not needed. Most local Family History Libraries have genealogy word lists in foreign languages to assist patrons. Use them. I used the online card catalog before ever setting foot in the Family History Library. I use the online card catalog for most film location, largely because I can do it whenever it is convenient. Some of the family history research guides include foreign genealogy word lists. , Cyndi's List, for a specific country of interest, also has links to lists of genealogy words in many foreign languages. I decided to order films of the following records:

Geboorten (births) 1843-70
Huwelijken (marriages) 1823-70
Overlijden (deaths) 1851-70

The Family History Library Card Catalog does not include the translations I have included here. I found out what the words meant before I ordered the film.

To facilitate the ordering of the film and the tracking of my research, I copied the film notes into a Word document. I then added notes to that Word document discussing what would be looked for on the film. I then printed out that document for use at my local Family History Library.

They Arrive
Unfortunately, all the film did not arrive at the same time. The roll of birth records arrived first. Instead of waiting for the remainder of the film, I decided to go ahead and view the birth records. It would give me time to analyze that information and hopefully more effectively search the other records.

I Scanned them First
Take some time to get familiar with the records before searching for the desired entry. This will take time but at the least will allow you to make more effective use of the records and in some cases may reward you with unexpected records or additional finding aids. If one has never used foreign records before, it can be a steep learning curve. Before trying to find that elusive ancestor or entry, I leisurely scan through the records I am using to get a feel for how they are organized, the typical format, etc. Genealogists with years of experience also generally do this.

When I viewed the records the organization was not hard to figure out. The birth records were recorded pretty much chronologically and recorded on pre-printed forms. Other types of records may be organized in other ways, such as alphabetically or geographically.

When I used the birth records for Hansbeke, it appeared there was a title page for each year (stating the type of record, the year of the record, and the village in which the events took place), followed by the actual record entries for that year. I was lucky that the records were recorded on pre-printed forms. I also noted that there was an annual index of names and a decennial (every ten year) index of names as well. These two finding aids were of great assistance and helped me to make certain I had all the desired entries. Not all records have these indexes.

On to August (The man . . . not the month!)
I was most interested in August Mortier, my wife's direct line ancestor. However, I knew that my search should not focus only on August, but should also include his known brothers and other potential family members. The problem was that there were entries for over twenty Mortier births during the twenty-year time period.

Using the Film
As in many record facilities, I could not make copies on the reader I was using to locate the actual records. Consequently, I had to take notes as to the entries I wanted to copy. This was not as easy as it sounds.

There were no page numbers on the records. There was a title page for each year, several pages of records, and the annual index. Each record was numbered, with the numbering starting anew each year. In order to facilitate the making of copies (and in making my documentation and source citation easier later), I took the following note for each entry I wanted to copy: year, entry number, birth date, name.

Since I could not look at each record page and determine the year from the individual page alone, I had another sheet of paper on which I wrote each year as I looked at it, putting a check mark after I had completed the year. This helped me to keep track of where I was in the records and reduce the chance I wrote down the incorrect year when adding an item to my copy list. This sheet of years also served to track the years the birth records have been searched (when I'm completing my research log). I decided to search from 1843 until 1870.

Making the Copies
Copies were made instead of abstracts as my time at the Family History Library was limited and I wanted to have an accurate copy of what was in the record. As I made the copies, I did several things.

I noted the year of the record on back of the copy, writing the year in pencil and circling it. The original record only included the date and month. The "title page" for each year of records was the same, with only the year being changed. I copied the title page from the first year of records and compared it to all the subsequent title pages as the records were viewed. As I viewed the title pages, I made a note on the back that all title pages for the years I used were the same with only the year being changed.

I also copied the film title that had been inserted by the person who microfilmed the records. The roll number was noted on this copy as well. I tried to keep the copies in chronological order and marked "off" the entry on my list as soon as I had checked my copy to make certain it was as legible as the original.

As an additional note: If the entry for your ancestor is confusing, consider copying the record entries before and after the desired entry. It will help you determine if there is some "pattern" to the entries and may help someone who tries to help you interpret the record. If the records are recorded on pre-printed forms with column headings, make certain you copy those column headings as well.

I still had several weeks to use the film. I decided not to send it back. I wanted to take my copies home, analyze them and enter the information in my genealogical database. The plan was to do this before the film went back so that if necessary I could re-view the records before they returned to Salt Lake.

In an upcoming article, we'll discuss the records, my analysis, and how I entered them into my genealogical database.

A Few Suggestions for Using Foreign Language Film.

Summary Before Ordering Film:
1) Do homework in the "new land" first.
2) Organize what you find in the "new land."
3) Learn about the home country and its records.
4) Get a word list in the home country's native tongue.
5) Determine if the Family History Library has records that are applicable.

When Using Film:
1) Scan the entire contents.
2) Take adequate notes.
3) Make photocopies if at all possible.
4) Check copies for legibility as they are made.
5) Keep track of what you are searching as you search it.
6) Do not focus on just one family member.

Florida Workshop with Michael John Neill
Michael John Neill will be the featured speaker at an all-day genealogy workshop in Panama City, Florida (in the panhandle) sponsored by the Bay County, Florida Genealogical Society on 8 February 2003. Topics will include:

--- Notetaking, Abstracting and Extracting
--- Research on a Tight Budget
--- Online Searching Tips and Tricks
--- Locating Emigrant Origins

Michael will have copies of the Ancestry Daily News Collector's Edition for sale. For more information on the workshop, including registration information click here.

Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2003, Inc.

Used by the Author on his website with permission.

Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill

 1930 Census Online   

Genealogy Section of Ebay

---type in your surname or county and state in the search box that comes up on the left hand side of your screen. I've found and purchased several books this way!