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January 18, 2011

Finding an Ancestor in Belgium Part 1: The Flemish Records

A few days ago I talked briefly about Belgium research on my Ask Olive Tree blog. Several readers responded with more questions, so I thought I would elaborate in a series of blog posts.

My husband has Belgium ancestors, starting with his great-grandfather Archie De Meuleneare who was born in Tielt Belgium on 29 March 1884. Several years ago we took a research trip to Salt Lake City Family History Library with the goal of researching this line. It proved to be a very educational and challenging adventure! We very quickly learned that Belgium had two areas - Flemish and Walloon. Thankfully we knew Archie had been born in Tielt so it was an easy matter to check a map to find out that we needed to look in West Flanders records.

We started our research, checking first for Archie's birth in the microfilmed records for Tielt. The records are very complete, there are hundreds of microfilm reels of Civil Registrations, Parish Records and so on. But they are in a variety of languages, depending on the time period and the location! Some are in Flemish, some Dutch, some Latin and some French. We did not know this when we began our research but believe me, we quickly discovered it.

We stuck with Civil Registrations and Parish Records because of the language barrier. I erroneously thought the Church Records and Civil Records would be in Dutch (which I am familiar with due to my research for my New Netherland Series of books) but I was wrong. Luckily I can read basic church records in Dutch, French, Latin (and of course English). I cannot read any of them well enough to understand records that don't have standard phrases. So we thought we were good to go!

We found Archie's birth record in the Registers van de Burgerlijke Stand, 1795-1900 which has been microfilmed on several reels. These are the Civil Registrations for Births, Marriages & Deaths (Geboorten, huwelijken and overlijdens) in Tielt. The records are written in Flemish and French. When I saw that description I crossed my fingers that Archie's would be in French, the language I am most comfortable reading. I've never seen Flemish so had no idea if I could understand anything other than a name.

Archie's record was in Flemish but poring over it I realized it was very similiar to Dutch! I could understand some of the common phrases and words used in the record. Archie's birth registration was a complete surprise, since we had no idea his given name was Achilles. We had to phone my husband's grandmother to ask her to verify that we had the right man before we accepted that we had the correct record (even though the date of birth was correct and we knew his father's name was Henri).

As an aside, it took us some time to figure out why a man named Achilles would end up with the name Archie after arriving in Canada. My French sister-in-law explained that Achilles is pronounced as "Aw-shee" which of course sounds like Archie to our English ears!

Poring over the record we spotted the names of his parents quite easily - his father was Henry and his name was larger and bold so easy to pick out. It was a challenge to read but with a bit of time and the help of my Dutch-English dictionary I had it figured out.

Father Henry De Meulenaere was "een en vertig jaer" (41 years old) and "geboren Canegham" (born in Kanegem)

His mother's name was not bolded or large, but it wasn't hard to spot - Maria Rosalia Blondeel. The record gave her age "dry en dertig jaer" (33 years old) and where she was born "geboren Pitthem" (born in Pittem)

We were ready to move on. Our plan for our next step was to hunt for three items - the marriage of Henry and Maria Rosalia, and the birth records of both. Fingers were crossed that birth records of Archie's parents would be as detailed as Archie's and provide us with ages and places of birth of his parents.

I'll talk about looking for, and finding those three records in my next Belgium Research blog post.

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