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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 2/4/2004

Catching Christening Clues: Belgian Baptismal Beginnings

In "Two Hundred Years of Records," one example briefly mentioned the family of Peter Stofferis and Joanna VanLaeke from Hansbeke, Belgium. This week we expand upon this couple's family using the christening records of their children.

There were several families from the Hansbeke parish I could have started my more serious work on. I decided to work first on the Stofferis family because the last name was not as common as other names in the Hansbeke parish. As I was not too familiar with handwriting and records from this area, I thought it would be best to begin my work on a family that would not require me to sort out several different families in order to see which individuals were members of the desired family. Once I am more comfortable with the records, it will be easier to work on families where one has to sort out contemporary cousins and other family members with the same first and last name.

The christening index indicated eight children were born to Peter and Joanna in the Hansbeke parish from 1777 through 1789. No marriage entry for Peter and Joanna was located in the index to Hansbeke marriages, but I assumed they were married before the first child was born in 1777. Even a search of reasonable spelling variants did not locate the desired entry in the marriage index.

There were two possible reasons for me not finding the couple listed in the index to Hansbeke marriage records:

- The couple was actually married in Hansbeke, but the indexer missed the entry or I missed the entry in the index. If this is the case, I will need to manually search the marriage records.

- The couple was not married in the Hansbeke parish.

I am not opposed to a page-by-page search of the marriage records, but I am holding off that at this time. Since the christening records of the children are more recent than the marriage record of the parents, the christening records will be searched first. The information obtained from the children's christening records may better equip me to search for the parents' marriage.

Get Them All
As mentioned in the last column, christening records of all the Stofferis children were obtained, not just the direct line. As we've mentioned in previous columns, copying the entries for all the children will give me a general pattern to follow (the records are written free-form in a ledger, typically more difficult to read than the “fill in the blank” type books used later). Multiple references may provide alternate spellings for hard-to-decipher names and words, and some records may provide additional detail.

Parents' Origins
Once I read through the christening records, I knew why the marriage of Peter Stofferis and Joanna VanLaeke was not included in the Hansbeke records. They were not both originally from the Hansbeke parish. Peter was, but Joanna was from the Somergem or Somerghem parish. These same locations appear for both parents in all the children's christening records. As couples tend to marry in the bride's parish, I should search for this couple's marriage record in the Somergem parish.

More Clues for the Wife's Family
Several VanLaekes appear as godparents of the Stofferis children. Likely relatives of the mother, the VanLaekes were all listed as from the Somergem parish. Emmanuel VanLaeke, Maria Livina VanLaeke, and Baptista Van Laeke all appear as godparents. The females are likely blood relatives and are listed by their maiden surnames, not the surnames of their husbands. Belgium is not the only country in Europe where this practice takes place.

Why are these names important? When the records for Somergem are searched, there may be several Joanna VanLaekes who could be the desired one. Most likely the desired Joanna VanLaeke is the one who has siblings Emmanuel, Maria Livinia, and Baptista. Parental siblings are usually the first choice for godparents, although there are always exceptions.

Where Is Somergem?
Fortunately from the records that have been located, I have seen this town's name written approximately fifteen times. This hopefully will make locating the village easier. I am not certain if the spelling is still the same today, or even if the village still exists. The one assumption I feel reasonable in making is that the village is close to Hansbeke. Otherwise, how could godparents from Somergem be arriving for the infant christenings within a day or two of the birth (remember there's no e-mail and no planes in late eighteenth century Europe). Since at least three of the Stofferis children have godparents from Somergem, it seems likely the village is close to Hansbeke.

My first choice in the search for Somergem was, which has modern worldwide maps. As I knew I had Hansbeke spelled correctly, I located it and maneuvered around on the map keeping my distance from Hansbeke under ten miles. Sure enough, approximately four miles northeast of Hansbeke is a village named Zomergem. No other villages had similar names, so it looked like I had located the village. A search of the Family History Library Card Catalog indicates the library has an extensive collection of records for this village as well. Now I have yet more microfilm to order!

Images of the christening records discussed today can be viewed on the rootdig site.

Lessons Learned
In a nutshell, here are the methodology highpoints from this week's research study:

1) Research the entire family; records on siblings may be more fruitful than ones on the direct line.

2) More records means a better chance of finding the “correct” spelling, or at least getting one more variant.

3) Work from the most recent records first; they might help locate earlier records.

4) Keep the time period in mind. (That's how we reasoned the village of the children's birth was close to the village of three of the godparents. Locality clues may not always be obvious.)

Latin Genealogy Word List from the Family History Library

Latin Words from Belgian Parish Registers

There are numerous other guides that include translations of Latin words. Cyndi's List has a section of links for languages and translations. Keep translation guides nearby when using records in a foreign language.

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.

Copyright 2004,

Used by the Author on his website with permisison.

Michael's other articles from the Ancestry Daily News