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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 1/14/2004

Dating the Belgians via France

One of my recent explorations into my wife's Belgian ancestry revolved around the search for the marriage of her ancestor Jean Francis Mortier of Hansbeke.

I knew the name of Jean's wife (Angeline Mortier) and that they had at least one child, Charles, born in 1810 in Hansbeke. I decided to search the marriage records for Hansbeke starting in 1810 and working backwards. I had little trouble locating the desired entry in the civil marriage records. The entry for Jean Francis Mortier and Angeline Mortier (yes, they did have the same last name) was easily located, and based upon what I knew from other records I was relatively certain I had the correct couple. The records were in Dutch, but fortunately there were three references to the Mortier-Mortier marriage. These references were only located by paging through for the desired time period. The references were: - The index reference, which gave the couple's names and the date of the marriage. The index spelled out the date more clearly than did the actual marriage record. - A marriage record that consisted of a completed form. - A marriage record that consisted of an entirely handwritten entry. I started with the “form” as it was easier to read and translate given my limited knowledge of Dutch. The printed words were easy to translate and guided me in interpreting the handwritten information. It took some doing, but with some patience and using the word guide contained in Translating Vital Records of Belgium from Latin, Dutch, and French, available from the Genealogical Society of Flemish Americans, I was confident that the record contained the following information: Jean Francis Mortier was born 11 February 1769 in Hansbeke, the son of Jacobus Mortier and Petronella DeMayer. His bride, Angeline Mortier, was born in Hansbeke on 19 July 1771, and was the daughter of Francois Mortier and Joanna Verhäye. Jean was thirty at the time of the marriage and Angeline was twenty-eight. The names I was pretty certain of. The numbers might easily be slightly off. The real problem was the year of the marriage: 10 (something) 7. The index page (in French, no less) indicated that the Mortiers were married on 10 (something I could not read) 7. What was up with that? It could not be 1797 and the year 7 was obviously wrong, or so I thought. My list of French versions of the months was no help. I was confused. The year 7 still made no sense; the couple should have been married about 1799 based upon their dates of birth and their ages at the time of the marriage. I did what I usually do when I'm totally confused. I went on to something else.

A Question About Metric

About this time, my daughter asked me to look over some of her math homework involving the metric system. As I was reviewing her problems, I realized I likely had the answer to my own. As I continued scanning her work I made a quick note “revolution = new measures?”

The Revolution was the Problem

Belgium was under French rule in the 1790s, the likely time of the marriage record that was confusing me. The answer to my problem may lie with the French. I knew that the metric system was one of the reforms resulting from the French Revolution and seemed to remember that calendar reform was another. I then looked in my Translating Vital Records and found a reference to the French Republican Calendar. This calendar was in use between 1792 and 1805, the time when my problem record was created. And there was that month I could not read: Messidor. What I had thought was a problem with the marriage record was not a problem at all. The problem was my lack of knowledge. The Mortiers were married on 10 Messidor of year 7. Using three separate conversion sites (Translating Vital Records, the French Republican Calendar, and the Family History Library's French Republican Calendar Research Guide), I arrived at a converted date of 28 June 1799. Now the ages, dates of birth, and date of marriage were relatively consistent for the bride and the groom. That was fortunate. The bride was actually about two or three weeks shy of her twenty-eighth birthday.

Two or Three Weeks?

The concept of a week brings us to another difference with this calendar. The French Republican Calendar had twelve months of thirty days each. Each month contained three ten-day weeks. The names of the month were not based on month names from the Gregorian calendar, nor were they based on religious or Roman references. The twelve months in the calendar were: Vendémiare Burmaire Frimaire Nivse Pluviôse Germinal Floréal Prairial Messidor Thermidor Fructidor The twelve months made for 360 days in the year. There were five complementary days at the end of the year, which brought the total number of days to 365. Conversion charts are readily available to help researchers make the conversion from French Republican dates to Gregorian dates. The following links contain more information about the calendar and will assist genealogists in making the date conversion. The Family History Library's Guide to the French Republican Calendar does not include links to all the conversion charts for the years of the French Republican Calendar. The actual links are:

For years 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7

For year 4

For years 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14
For year 12

The French Republican Calendar Converter
site will perform the conversions for you, without the need for tables. It's handy for the times when you are online and doing genealogy. Personally, I'll still have some tables for library use, but this at least confirmed the date I converted manually.

Lessons Learned

There were three main lessons I learned from my work with the Mortier-Mortier marriage record: 1) Look through the entire record; you may find multiple references to the same event. Multiple references may help you in reading or interpreting difficult portions of the record. 2) Read the through the entire book of records. There may be finding aids interspersed among the entries. These finding aids are especially helpful when the records are written in a foreign language. 3) If the record is confusing (and many times even if it is not), learn what was happening politically in the area where the record was created. History could have impacted the way records were kept or the way language was used in the records. And of course, I learned some history along the way. And that never hurts!

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 Magazine and “Genealogical Computing.” You can e-mail him or visit his website, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Michael's Upcoming Events
Family History Workshop Day-St. Peters, Missouri
7 February 2004
Florida Chapter of OGS-annual workshop-Orlando, Florida
20-21 February 2004
Research Trip to the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, 14-18 April 2004

Copyright 2004,
All rights reserved.

Michael's articles from the Ancestry Daily News