Legacy Tree Genealogists works with researchers all over the world to obtain records for our clients. We asked Frans, onsite in Europe, to give us insight into tracing Belgian ancestors and conducting Belgian and Dutch research at the Regional Historic Centre of Limburg, the provincial archive located in Maastricht, Netherlands.
“Dearly beloved mother, sister, and brother,
I received your letter with immense joy, for I was thinking that you had died. As for my children, I have four sons: William, my oldest son, wanted to visit you but the troubles and the great war did not allow so. Peter is serving under Marquis de Lortius and garrisoned in Antwerp and Augustin is serving in the regiment of Prince Charles Wallon, now garrisoned in Luxemburg. Jacob is garrisoned in Ieper under Cromstroem. Pray for my three soldier boys who now have to go to war because the land is full of French troops.”
This somewhat modernized extract of a moving letter dated 31 May 1744 is a find that every genealogist would like to make, and was written by Helene Vandewalle of Kortrijk in Flanders to her distant relatives in Heerlen, a town now found in the Dutch province of Limburg.
This document, however, is not to be found in Flanders or any other Belgian archive as a researcher might anticipate. Instead, you’d need to visit the Limburgian Provincial State Archive at Maastricht in the Netherlands. This archive holds a massive number of records that are very useful, if not indispensable, for researching Belgian families. Understanding why requires a brief history lesson.
Understanding Historical Context in Tracing Belgian Ancestors
After the French leader Napoleon was beaten in 1814 by a coalition of allies from entities like England, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, Prussia, and other Germanic kingdoms and duchies, it was decided that the formation of a strong, new nation north of France would be needed in order to keep any further expansion of the French in check. This fledgling kingdom was a merger of the former Austrian and Spanish Habsburg Catholic territories in the south of the Low Countries, and the Protestant United Provinces in the north. One of the heroes of the Battle of Waterloo, Prince William of Orange, would become the first king of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815.
In 1830, the southern provinces of the Netherlands broke loose and formed the Kingdom of Belgium, with the curious result that both Belgium and the Netherlands each have provinces called Brabant and Limburg. This forming of two independent and sovereign modern nations ended a long period of shared history, and the social, political, and economic solidarity between people on both sides of the new border was inevitably and artificially severed.
The history of the Dutch province of Limburg and the many territories from which it was moulded is kept by the Provincial State Archive in Maastricht. Founded in 1866, the Provincial Archives were housed from 1881 onwards in a former monastery of the Friars Minor or Franciscan Order. After a merger with the municipal archive of Maastricht in 2005 it was renamed the Regional Historic Centre of Limburg (RHCL).
Beneath the spectacular reading room in the former church of the friars are three depots that store the complete collection of the archive. In total, the collection holds 24 kilometres (about 15 miles) of documents, the oldest dating from the year 950 A.D.
Accessing Records for Belgian Genealogy Research
Genealogical records relating to the two countries’ shared history can be found in the collections that cover the period in which the divided province of Limburg was still a political unit as the Departement of Meuse-Inferieur (1795-1814) and as the undivided province of Limburg (1815-1830).
Even more rewarding, though, are the vast collections that cover the previous centuries before the split. A good example is the archives of the village of Breust, east of Maastricht. From the early Middle Ages onward, it belonged to the Diocese of Liege and was governed as a barony by the church of St. Martin in Liege. The church fulfilled a dual civil and ecclesiastical role in appointing officials for the tax collection, management, and policing of their territory. The inhabitants and landowners in the jurisdiction had to comply (or not) with the common law of the Diocese of Liege, and it is therefore not surprising that many genealogical records are found in the Breust archives relating to the people who came from or lived in the city and Diocese of Liege.
Some of these relate to land transfers. As an example, one of the many entries in the protocols relates that on the 30th of May 1725, brother Jean Sadet, hermit of Bemelen, donated some lands in Breust to Herman le Roy, son of Michiel le Roy, burgher of the town of Visé.
Another entry records that on 22 April 1754, Hubert van den Bergh, husband of Elisabeth Bemelmans and inhabitant of Eckelraed, sold arable farmlands to Sieur Tilman Dothee from Liege, represented by his nephew Henri Dothee who lived in the hamlet of Moerslag near Breust. These are just a few actual examples of the level of detail contained within these documents. Just in this one record, for example, we discover a woman’s maiden name and proof of her marriage, the residence and land ownership of the couple, and the name of a presumably paternal relative.
Other genealogical discoveries in documents related to trade are primarily found in the collections covering the history of Maastricht and the archives of the many notaries that worked within the city walls (notaries were crucial in many European societies, and their job largely involved recording business and legal transactions such as apprenticeships, pre-nuptial agreements, and the like). The city protocols and the notarial instruments cover the many transactions between burghers and tradesmen in Maastricht and their colleagues in cities like Liege, Brussels, and Antwerp.
As in most communities throughout the world, some individuals and groups were more prominent in society than others. Exemplary families such as the Buirette and Rougemont clans used their socioeconomic status to acquire offices, titles, and lands. Their names therefore frequently appear in the Maastricht archives.
In addition to the larger areas such as Liege, Brabant and Flanders, trade with the smaller towns and villages was also maintained. A member of the Limburgian Heuts family, who traded sheep from the heaths and fields north of Heerlen to Hainault and Brabant, ultimately married and settled in 1660 in the town of Ath in Hainault, becoming the ancestor of some local families there called the de Hults.
Movement between these areas had been occurring for hundreds of years. Before the independent countries of the Netherlands and Belgium were even founded, the inhabitants of the Low Countries still had some awareness of nationality or regional belonging. They often considered themselves burghers of a town or as inhabitants of villages, subjects of the lordship or territory to which their village belonged. However, since the borders between these lordships or territories were rather ‘soft’ and open, migration was therefore relatively easy. The reasons for migration to and from the territories that now form the Dutch province of Limburg were diverse and manifold, as is the case with migration in general. Love and war, enterprise, and the longing for a life of freedom and prosperity are just a few of the possibilities, as they are today.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Maastricht itself. As previously mentioned, Maastricht, along with several other cities and villages along the river Maas/Meuse, was a garrison town for centuries. In the 16th to 18th centuries, church records for that locality as well as the surrounding villages of the county of Valkenburg contain many entries of marriages between soldiers of the southern Low Countries and the local Limburgian women. Many men took their wives back to their hometown, as did Henri Vandewalle whose wife wrote the letter at the beginning of this post. Others, however, stayed and settled in the territory that we now call Dutch Limburg.
For example, genealogists searching for the whereabouts of a man like Dieudonné Burhenne, born in 1811 in the village of Herve (now in Belgium), have to seek some 100 kilometres north. During the Belgian uprising, he served in the 3rd artillery battalion of Liege and married in 1836 in the town of Venlo (now the Netherlands), where he was stationed. He is a primary ancestor of many of the 233 persons with the same surname who still lived in the Netherlands as of 1947 – over a hundred years later.
Conducting genealogical research in this part of Europe requires not only resourcefulness or ‘thinking outside the box,’ but also thinking across boundaries and borders and remembering that the current geopolitical situation in most parts of the world is quite recent. Chances of successful research will be enhanced if the genealogist looks for the traces that the shared history, trade, and migration left in an archive like that of Maastricht.
Curious which discoveries are still waiting to be uncovered for your family tree? Do those answers lie in the archives of a foreign country? Contact Legacy Tree Genealogists and find out. Consultations are free.