Do your ancestors hail from the Netherlands? Learn more about Dutch family history resources!
Dutch genealogy is fast becoming more convenient, but not necessarily easier. There are a number of excellent and comprehensive sites making Dutch genealogy and family history research more accessible, but taking the right steps in approaching this wealth of material is important. Keep reading to learn more about the vast Dutch family history resources that just might hold the key to unlock your family’s past.
Did Grandpa have an affinity for windmills, tulips, and chocolate? Did you find a pair of wooden shoes at the back of the closet and wonder why anyone would want to wear them? Or maybe your last name begins with “Van” and you’ve always imagined a romantic past filled with one-eared painters and dikes on the verge of disaster. If that’s you, it might be time to start finding out the real stories behind the myths and caricatures of the Dutch people. The potential for success is great if you lay the right groundwork.
Tip #1: Do Try This At Home
Successful Dutch genealogy begins in the same place as any other family history research project: at home. If you’re lucky enough to find the proverbial musty old steamer trunk packed full of precious and potentially informative memorabilia, then bully for you, as one particularly outspoken descendant of Dutch ancestors might say. President Theodore Roosevelt was rightfully proud of his Dutch ancestry: Claes Martensz van Rosenvelt arrived in New Netherland, what we now call New York, in about 1650. The rest of us might have to start with more ordinary documents such as old deeds or military records, or maybe we might get lucky and unearth something as rare as an ancient family Bible with names, dates, and places all the way back to the immigrant ancestor.
Whatever documents you find at home or in your later research, keep an eye out for the most essential key to extending Dutch ancestry back to Europe—the town of origin. Due to increased immigration documentation for the later period, this critical bit of information is more likely to be easily found for descendants of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Dutch emigrants, of which there were more than 250,000. These hardy wayfarers settled in such widely scattered places as the USA, South Africa, Indonesia, and South America—following trails first blazed by agents of the once-mighty Dutch Empire as early as the late sixteenth century. It is those earlier travelers, especially their American cousins, which our next step dives right into, as locating the town of origin for colonial ancestors will often prove more problematic. Individuals whose ancestors left the Netherlands much later from a known location may wish to skip straight to Step 4, which discusses research in European sources.
Tip #2: Knickerbocker Tales
Whether they know it or not, for many Americans their Dutch heritage goes all the way back to the so-called Knickerbocker era of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New York that early American writers such as Washington Irving so memorably dramatized, most notably in the person of the mythical Rip Van Winkle. But many early Dutch American lineages can be traced using traditional paper trails even further back, to seventeenth-century New York, known as New Netherland before becoming an English colony in 1664 (and again in 1674).
Assuming you have been successful so far using genealogical research methods similar to those necessary for tracing most free Americans during the nineteenth century—such as wills, deeds, and census records—you will then be ready to take the next step, back to the era of New Netherland. This is when the research becomes increasingly specialized, and the story truly starts to get interesting. It is also when it often becomes more difficult to reconstruct.
Tip #3: Publish or Parish
If your ancestors settled early in what was once known as the Dutch province of New Netherland, you are a lucky genealogist indeed, for those families are some of the most written about in all of genealogy. They have been the subjects of countless articles in major, peer-reviewed genealogy journals, especially The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, published continuously since 1870 and known as The Record for short. It’s chock full of scholarly treatments of dozens of families of Dutch origin who settled in what is now the states of New York and New Jersey in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These articles, the vast majority of which are generally reliable, especially within the last fifty years or so, can be effective guidebooks to further research, though their claims should be checked against original records just to be safe.
Any serious search of colonial Dutch ancestors should include The Record and its associated website, New York Family History, a subscription site that offers digital, searchable access to the entire run of The Record and the most comprehensive collection of New York church records available online, among other treasures. This site is the number-one family history resource for colonial Dutch ancestors for its highly professional genealogy research articles and extensive published original source documents, such as transcriptions of many of the numerous and detailed Dutch Reformed Church parish registers.
The Dutch Reformed Church was especially interested in keeping close watch of its members and in extensive parish registers kept meticulous track of almost all baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Occasionally, those voluminous records will mention the town of birth for the subject of the document. Often, this will be the best direct (and often only) evidence of European origins for New Netherland ancestors.
Tip #4: Don’t Forget the Archives
Once you have determined the town of origin for your Dutch ancestor, or at least have a good educated guess, the fun really begins. The conscientious Dutch ministers who kept complete vital records for their parishioners in New Netherland were continuing a tradition they brought with them from Europe. If church records for the ancestral town have survived, methodical sleuthing can often lead to tracing many ancestors into the early seventeenth century and sometimes earlier.
For many municipalities, especially the larger cities such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam, the city archives has indexed the complete runs of baptism, marriage, and burial records, going back to the 1560s in some cases. Once you have located the ancestral town, the next vital step is to see if your town or a nearby one has done this extremely helpful indexing. In many cases, the archives also offer digital images of the original documents, sometimes for a fee. Many of these documents can also be viewed on FamilySearch for free once they have been located in the archival indexes.
The herculean indexing projects achieved by the major archival sites has dramatically reduced the search time in Dutch genealogy research projects in many cases. The indexes can also often assist in determining the hometown when it is not known by attempting to match names and dates with individuals known in American records, or through an analysis of Dutch naming patterns.
Another helpful site is called WieWasWie. It is an aggregate search site that allows the user to select an English or Dutch language version and claims to have approximately 195 million names in its database. This site is especially useful because it pulls together records from a number of archives, including many of the repositories in the major cities mentioned above.The site is free to search at the basic level, but a premium membership increases the search functionality tremendously with wildcard capabilities and the ability to search two names at the same time. The types of records found here include baptisms, marriages, burials, conscription lists, and civil vital registration documents. The latter are now linked to civil records for other family members, making the process of building family trees in the period after 1811 so much faster. WieWasWie should be your first stop when researching Dutch ancestors in Europe, especially after 1811. Best of all, in many cases images of the original documents ares available to download for free!
Overcoming Challenges with Dutch Family History Research
There is one small problem researchers often face: the archival sites and the records they index and contain are all in Dutch. Google Translate can offer some respite for the index entries, but using it can often actually inhibit research by producing literal translations of Dutch names. It pays to toggle back and forth between translated and Dutch versions of the same page of search results if something looks a little off.
Being fluent in Dutch is not necessary to achieve basic success in Dutch records, however, as most vital records tend to follow a rough template. So consultation of online tutorials and published works on Dutch genealogy, such as New Netherland Roots by Gwen Epperson, will prove invaluable.
That being said, church vital records (from the 1560s) and civil vital records (beginning in 1811) are only the bones upon which a truly vivid family epic can be built. The riches of Dutch archives are breathtakingly immense, but most of the records that will add so much detail to the stories of Dutch families are lengthy documents such as notarial acts, which include wills, land deeds, and many other types of legal transactions.
These documents will require painstaking translation in most cases, but doing so is worth it not only because of the details they can contribute to the story of a Dutch family, but also because in many cases they exist for the period prior to the advent of church vital records in the 1560s, and they might be the best family history sources available due to a devastating loss of church records to war and the ravages of time.
Many of these precious documents have also been indexed and abstracted, again primarily by the major urban archives. However, many, perhaps most, original Dutch historical documents have not been indexed online or digitized. Therefore, onsite research in Dutch archives, libraries, and other repositories will often be necessary.
The experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists can guide your research through these final, advanced, and exciting steps to bring your Dutch family story to its fullest fruition. Our global network of researchers extends deeply into The Netherlands and the Low Countries as a whole. With our help, the story of your Dutch family stands an excellent chance of spanning oceans as well as centuries, and in fascinating detail. Contact us today for a free consultation!