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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 1/21/2004


Two Hundred Years of Records

Over my Christmas holiday, I was fortunate enough to devote some time to families I am researching in Sweden, Germany, and Belgium. While there are differences among these locations and their respective records, there are certain common methodologies. I found as I switched from one family to another certain skills were necessary regardless of the country. This week's column continues my work in records from Belgium, a country that has excellent records.

Preliminary research on the ancestry of August Mortier, born 1856 in Hansbeke, Belgium, indicated three of his grandparents were also born there. While families do move, it seemed reasonable that at least one of his families had been in the parish for some time. My search of the Family History Library's online catalog indicated the library had copies of church records from Hansbeke as early as 1624. I ordered all the records the library had.

After the film arrived at my local Family History Center, I scanned the materials on the microfilm before beginning any actual research. This was done to:

-Get an overview of the records, their legibility, and the general organizational structure.

-Determine as best I could what languages the records were written in. The Family History Library card catalog usually provides this information. However, in this case, the citation for the film indicated the records were in Dutch, but many of them were in Latin. Knowing this helped me to have my foreign genealogy word lists for the correct languages.

-Locate any “unexpected” items in the film. Occasionally filmed items are not cataloged or are overlooked by the genealogist using the catalog.

In addition to baptismal, marriage, and burial records for the Hansbeke parish, there was an index to these records covering 1624 to 1796. While no index is perfect, this finding aid would be significantly helpful in using the actual records. The index was vastly easier to read than the actual records, and the baptismal index containing the names of both parents, including the maiden name of the mother.

Is It Too Much?
Nearly two centuries of data is potentially overwhelming. The index entries indicated some of the ancestral families had lived in the area since the earliest records. However, before I get too excited and overenthusiastically extend the pedigree incorrectly, I should remember to:

-Stay focused on one family. Researching eight lines simultaneously will confuse even the most diehard multi-tasker.

-Research one complete family at a time, even children that are not direct-line ancestors.

-Don't assume too hastily based solely on index entries; view the actual record.

-Don't be in a rush to extend the pedigree as fast as possible.

These are good things to remember regardless of where the ancestors lived.

My first plan of attack was to make photocopies of the indexes for the three surnames of ancestors that I knew were born in Hansbeke in the late 1700s. Since the baptismal index provided the names of both parents, I would create rough family group charts based upon the index entries. I would then view the actual entries of records that had been located with the index. I knew this would not be a quick process.

Some Caveats
Don't grab the first one. One problem was Jacobus Francois Mortier, an ancestor whose first child was born in 1769. Jacobus was probably a native of Hansbeke. The index to the baptisms for Hansbeke indicate a Jacobus Francois (or Franciscus) Mortier born in 1736 to Livinus and Joanna and another Jacobus born in 1739 to Petrus and Livina. How do I know which Jabobus the one I need? The indexes do not tell me. It is time to analyze and think. I am hoping the godparents will provide me with significant clues.

Complete (but tentative) family group charts for the known Jacobus and the two potential sets of parents need to be constructed from the index. This will be done on paper. Then the baptismal entries for the ancestor Jacobus' children will be viewed, paying particular attention to the names of the godparents. Hopefully some of Jacobus' relatives, most likely his siblings, will be godparents of his children. I will then compare the names of the godparents with the names of children on the family group charts I have for Livinus and Petrus. If all goes well, this will allow me to determine which family my Jacobus likely fits.

Make copies whenever possible. I rarely rely on my transcription of documents, especially when the records are not in a language with which I am familiar. Last names can easily be misinterpreted, especially if I am new to the language and the handwriting. In my case, I transcribed the maiden name of one mother as “Halboom” and was frustrated when I could not later locate any references to this surname in the index. I went back to the copy that contained the original handwriting and realized that what I thought was “Halboom” could have been “Stalboom.” Sure enough, there were numerous entries for Stalboom in the index, including the desired individual. Usually genealogists have more difficulty reading the non-standard items in a record entry. The names and boilerplate text are usually easier to translate. It is the atypical word that usually causes the difficulty. Having an actual copy of the record is faster and reduces transcription mistakes.

Copy multiple entries from the record. Another family I was analyzing was that of Petrus Frances Stofferis and his wife Joanna Carolina VanLaeke. From index references, I was able to copy baptismal records for seven of their children between 1778 and 1786. I could have just copied the entry for daughter Rosa (my wife's ancestor) and stopped. After all, why worry about all the aunts and uncles? Researching the entire family is an excellent idea. In this case, the multiple entries allowed me to:

-Compare the entries and roughly figure out the template the parish priest was following when writing the records.

-Learn the names of the godparents of all children, possible relatives in most cases. Residences were given for those godparents not living in the Hansbeke parish. This was another clue.

-Some entries indicated the mother was not originally from the Hansbeke parish. Other entries did not. If I had only copied the entry for the ancestor, I might have missed this important clue, which is the likely reason I cannot find a marriage record for the couple or a baptismal entry for the wife in the Hansbeke records.

The last name may be more common than you think. Remember that a name that is unusual in the United States may be extremely common in that small European village from where your ancestor originated. One of my wife's likely Belgian surnames is Vanmaldegem. Sounded pretty unusual to me, but there were pages of entries for this surname in the birth index. Remember that first names may be more common than you think, too. I was amazed at the number of individuals named Petronella and Livina in the index.

Final Note
While I worked on families from several different countries, the switches were done over time. Working in one language for an hour, another language for another hour, and another language for yet another does not make for the most accurate research. Pace yourself and do not constantly switch languages. Everything may run together if you do, especially if you are not fluent in any of the languages in which the records are written.

Research in foreign-language records can be done, but it is not a quick process and it requires patience and diligence on the part of the researcher.


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. He regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004, MyFamily.com.

  Used by the author on his website with permission

Michael's other genealogy articles