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The Netherlands is a low-lying land where levees and water-pumping windmills have worked for 500 years to keep the sea at bay. Flooding from the fierce North Sea has been a constant threat, to which the Dutch have responded by becoming some of the world’s best hydraulic engineers.
Now the Dutch have a new flood on their hands—but this one’s good. Far from stemming the tide, technology is generating a deluge of Dutch genealogical records that have now become accessible by the millions. Of course, the age of the internet is making all genealogical records more accessible—what’s so different about Dutch digitization? The long-standing difficulty of Netherlands research is that its records—even national data—are kept on a local level. If you didn’t know what town your forebears hailed from, it was difficult to find them with no centralized place to search.
But the genealogical waters have converged, so to speak. Databases such as WieWasWie now allow you to search millions of vital records from the Netherlands and even from Dutch colonies. Previously obscure sources have floated to the surface: provincial and local records, historical images and documents, maps, oral histories and more have been digitized for easy netting online. If you haven’t searched for your Nederlander forebears lately, take another look. They might be just clicks away.
Lay of the Land: Dutch Geography
The lowdown on this low country’s geography, history and people will be helpful once you start exploring records. Some Dutch boundaries aren’t what they used to be, and language and provincial differences may give you pause. (“Frisian? Flemish? I thought my ancestors were Dutch!”) Your ancestors may have married in a church to which they didn’t belong and changed their surnames every generation.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands (literally, “lowlands”) lies on the North Sea in the northwestern corner of Europe. Home to 16.4 million people, the Netherlands is roughly twice the size of New Jersey, and a quarter of it lies below sea level.The country has 12 provinces, but the two most populous—North and South Holland—include the national capital (Amsterdam), the governmental seat (The Hague) and the largest port in the world (Rotterdam). Perhaps because the Hollands existed as a single province until the 1840s, the Netherlands is still commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as “Holland.”
The remaining provinces are less populated but may well be home to your ancestors. They are Zeeland, Groningen, Drenthe, Overijssel, Flevoland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Noord-Brabant, Friesland and Limburg. (Noord means north; zuid means south).
Explore historical maps of the Netherlands at Wat Was Waar (What Was Where).
Key Moments in Dutch History
The Netherlands has a long history of relationship issues with its neighbors—and not just those next door, Germany and Belgium. In the 1500s, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V ruled the Dutch territory. His insistence on all things Catholic prompted William of Orange to lead a Protestant rebellion in 1568, and in 1579, the Netherlands declared its independence.
A golden age followed in the 1600s. The Netherlands dominated on the sea, in financial markets and even in the art world. Amsterdam quadrupled in population and became a major port. The Dutch East and West India Companies expanded Dutch influence globally—including to the New Netherlands in North America.
Eventually the Dutch spread themselves too thin, and their influence waned abroad and at home. The French occupied the weakened country in the early 1800s; Napoleon set up a puppet government with his brother at the helm. When Europe reorganized itself under the Congress of Vienna, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was born. The Netherlands regained independence and received the consolation prizes of Belgium and Luxembourg. (Belgium escaped Dutch rule in 1830; Luxembourg broke off in 1839.)
The Netherlands remained neutral and free during World War I, but wasn’t so lucky during World War II. During a five-year occupation by Nazi Germany, nearly 280,000 Nederlanders died, and a third of the victims were Jews. (Anne Frank wrote her famous diary in Amsterdam.) The country was physically and economically devastated, and the Dutch left by the boatful for many destinations, including the United States.
Dutch Naming Traditions and Religion
As early as 1500, the Dutch were a distinct group descended from Germanic tribes, particularly the Franks, who used a version of the patronymic naming system. But plenty of mixing and mingling happened with neighboring cultures and religions.
Patronymics were frequently used as surnames or middle names in the Netherlands through the 1700s, though many families had adopted permanent surnames by then. The patronymic was derived from the father’s first name: Peder’s son would be surnamed Pedersen. Other suffixes include –zoon (son) and –dochter (daughter), which sometimes show up abbreviated as –sz and –dr at the end of a surname. The use of patronymics officially ended with the Civil Register of 1811, when the occupying French government forced everyone to take a permanent surname. To learn more about specific Dutch surnames, go to the Familienamen (family name) section at Stamboomgids.
You may also encounter the Frisians and the Flemish. The Frisians come from Friesland (Fryslân), a far northern Dutch province that boasts its own language (Frisian) and a provincial pride rivaling that of Texas. Friesland corresponds roughly to a historical region known as West Friesland, which might pop up in your research. (Your Frisian forebears may also hail from neighboring Germany.)
The Flemish find roots in the old County of Flanders, a historical region now divided among the Netherlands, Belgium and France. There’s plenty of cultural holdover in this area: Dutch is still the native language of about 60 percent of Belgians. Many Belgians identify as Flemish and speak Flemish, also called Belgian Dutch or tussentaal—meaning “in-between language.” Religion was another cultural definer in old Netherlands.
Until the 1500s, Roman Catholicism dominated, but from 1588 until 1795, the Dutch Reformed Church was the state religion. Many religious minorities lived in the Netherlands: Jews, Huguenots and Walloons (French and Belgian Protestant refugees), Mennonites (also known as Anabaptists), Lutherans, and members of the Remonstrant Brotherhood, a Belgian offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Immigration from the Netherlands
Dutch immigration to the United States waxed and waned. Three high-water marks were the 17th-century commercial expansion, the immigration free-for-all of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and an influx following World War II.
In the early to mid-1600s, the Netherlands’ colonization efforts included a region along the Hudson and Delaware River valleys in what’s now New York state. New Netherland came to include a Dutch outpost on Manhattan Island known as New Amsterdam.
New Netherland grew slowly, by modern standards. Its settlers were merchants drawn by commercial opportunities, and the “tired and poor”: religious refugees, the rural poor, orphans and the unemployed. About 40 years into its history, New Netherland had a population of about 7,000 Dutch (and 3,000 others). When England conquered the region in 1664, New Netherland became New England; New Amsterdam became New York. But the Dutch colonists remained—and multiplied. Their descendents followed rivers and newly blazed trails west through New York and Pennsylvania, and south through New Jersey to Maryland. By the 1790 census, 100,000 Americans claimed Dutch ancestry; 80 percent of them still lived within 50 miles of New York City.
If your ancestor was one of those early settlers, you might find him or her in the North America Chronology (Noord-Amerika Chronologie), a 5,000-card index to Amsterdam notarial records on people who left for New Netherland between 1598 and 1750. Microfilm copies are accessible at the New York State Library in Albany and the New York (City) Public Library.
Dutch immigration picked up again in the 19th century. A quarter-million working-class families, mostly from rural areas, entered the United States in the mid-1800s. It began with a trickle of families and individuals in the 1830s, lured by the promise of prosperity. By the mid-1840s, the Dutch were arriving en masse—entire neighborhoods and congregations. They came in response to a potato crop failure, in religious dissent from the Dutch Reformed Church (particularly Jews, Roman Catholics and Seceders), and inspired by the example of neighboring German group migrations. Many of these Dutch communities put down their US roots inland, in Holland, Mich., Pella, Iowa, and Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley.
For these latecomers, you can check the National Archives’ US passenger-arrival lists at Ancestry.com and on microfilm at libraries. Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium has passenger records back to 1620 (search under “Passenger Lists”). The Family History Library has microfilmed some of them; search by province of departure. Published lists for incoming Dutchmen include Ship Passenger Lists, New York and New Jersey, 1600–1825 by Carl Boyer (self-published) and the two-volume set Dutch Immigrants in US Ship Passenger Manifests, 1820–1880 by Robert P. Swierenga (Scholarly Resources).
The Netherlands also kept emigration lists from 1845 to 1877. They include the emigrant’s name, age, occupation, religion, town of last residence, reason for leaving, destination and number of traveling companions. After 1877, some provinces continued to keep their own rolls. Lists were kept at the place of departure; the most common jump-offs to the United States were Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp. Check the records from these cities for emigration records filed by your ancestors.
In the ensuing years that followed, Dutch generally immigrated during times of US prosperity and peace (1880s; 1903 to 1914; 1920s) and didn’t when America suffered economic depression and war (1860s to 1870s, 1890s, World War I, 1930s, World War II). A strong Dutch presence remains today in the upper Midwest, southern and central California, northwestern Iowa, New York and northern New Jersey.
The Dutch Civil Register
Though the Dutch have always kept good records, their decentralized files made research tricky—but that’s changed in the last few years. The most vital of Dutch vital records, the civil register, has a new electronic home: the free, searchable Genlias database. And other Dutch records are increasingly available for remote searching at other sites.
The civil register—that is, the government-generated records of Dutch births, marriages and deaths—dates back to 1795 in the south and 1811 in the north. Birth records list the children’s and parents’ names, birth date and often the parents’ address. Marriage records reveal the brides’ and grooms’ names, ages, previous widow(er) status, and often birthplaces and professions, as well as the parents’ names and birthplaces. Death records provide the deceased’s name and exact death date, and sometimes the age, birthplace, address and names of the deceased’s parents and/or spouse. These records had been kept locally in more than 1,000 municipalities until the 1930s.
A joint initiative by a number of archives in the Netherlands resulted in Genlias, a genealogical treasure trove with more than 13.5 million records. Nearly half are death records; the rest are mostly birth and marriage records. Genlias was a major breakthrough for Dutch research; the site gets more than a million hits a month. Transcribed data is said to be quite accurate, because it’s all done locally.
Genlias isn’t yet comprehensive, though. All provinces are represented at least somewhat, but the populous North Holland has posted only marriage records, and Zeeland birth records have yet to appear. And of course, only public-access data is available: births before 1903, marriages before 1923 and deaths before 1953.
Even if you don’t find your ancestor in Genlias, you still have options. Some city and provincial websites post their own civil register data, such as the cities of Delft and Rotterdam (change the language to English, then hover over Archives and Collections in the left menu to click on Family Tree). You can find more city and provincial websites at Archiefnet. You’ll also find civil register data at Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium.
If you find a website in a language you don’t understand, look for the word English or a British flag to click on. Or go to Google Translate and type in the site’s URL. Brush up on your Dutch with our genealogy glossary.
More Online Records
The civil register is a great place to start, but you can round out your research in many other Dutch records. Generally, original records are at municipal, provincial or church archives. You can access electronic versions of many through Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium. Some records are available in FamilySearch’s databases, and Ancestry.com claims more than a million entries from the Netherlands. You’ll also find strong collections of microfilmed and published resources of most of the types mentioned below in the FHL catalog (search by town or province plus relevant keyword) and the Central Bureau for Genealogy in the Netherlands.
Records of pre-1811 marriages, births and deaths exist in many Dutch municipalities. Civil marriages were also called court marriages, and were especially common for people who weren’t Dutch Reformed. The records can contain bride’s and groom’s names, widow(er) status, birthplace and residence, earlier spouses, marriage dates, and sometimes parents’ and witnesses’ names. Contact municipal archives directly with research requests (find contact information). The FHL has many of these as well.
These are most important for pre-civil register days. Catholic record-keeping picked up around 1563, then the Dutch Reformed Church did most of the vital record-keeping from the 1570s until around 1800, even for “nonconformists” (non-church members). These include births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, membership records, deaths and burials. Parish boundaries weren’t the same as civil boundaries, so check neighboring parishes for stray ancestors. The FHL has an excellent microfilm collection of church records before 1811, but fewer after 1811.
These include marriage contracts, probate records, wills, taxes, property registration and powers of attorney. These records are particularly useful for pre-1811 searches, sorting out family relationships and recurring names, finding mothers and other close relatives, and learning property values and occupations. More than 30,000 volumes of pre-1811 notarial records exist. They can be laborious to search, but some are indexed and searchable online through Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium.
Death duties files
These declared the heirs of an estate and were created to collect inheritance taxes. Use these records to trace generations and confirm family relationships. They’re kept in local archives, but you’ll find a few in Genlias and Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium.
Documents from cemeteries most often consist of the transcriptions of gravestone and monument inscriptions. Many are available online through Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium, Online Begraafplaatsen and subscription sites MyHeritage and Ancestry.com.
Census data is not widely consulted for genealogical purposes because the civil register is more useful. The first national census occurred with the inception of the civil register in 1811. National censuses happened every 10 years from 1829 to 1929 and again in 1947, 1960 and 1971; a few provincial and special-population censuses (citizens and “able-bodied men”) may also be useful. The most complete entries provide family relationships, ages and birth years, birthplaces, marital status and religion. Find copies of the census in the FHL catalog by searching on census and the locality’s name.
Other civil registrations
Address-based registrations began after the 1849 census to record changes in a household, such as births, marriages, deaths and moves. Data could include a person’s birthplace and date, death date, marriage information, relationship to head of household, religion, tax class, previous address, move-in date, move-out date and new address. You can confirm emigration with these records: an emigrant’s last entry should list the new address as another country. In 1920, the address-based system changed to a family record that moved with the family, which in turn converted to personal record cards (below). Find address-based registrations through municipal and regional archives; some are posted on Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium.
Personal record cards
These were kept on every Dutch inhabitant from 1938 to 1994 (a more abbreviated, automated Personal Record List has been kept since then). You can request genealogical information (including parents’ and children’s names, and sometimes their birthplaces and birth dates) from cards of deceased persons by mail through the Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie (Central Bureau for Genealogy).
More Dutch Genealogy Resources
To fully understand your low-country forebears, you’ll want to do more than just find their names in databases and registers. Flesh out your Dutch family history with these helpful resources:
- Images: A picture is worth a thousand words, so page through het Geheugen van Nederland (Memory of the Netherlands), a large collection of cultural and historical images. Though the collection is strongest from the photography age forward, you’ll also find old drawings, paintings and historical maps to help you visualize your ancestor’s world.
- Historical documents: Check subscription site Fold 3 for city directories, historical newspapers and archival documents from areas Dutch immigrants settled. Try searching on your family’s hometown (the search Dutch Holland Michigan brings up more than 16,000 results). If you have roots in the US Northeast, explore the websites of The Holland Society of New York and the New Netherland Institute; both preserve and share historical documents of New Netherland.
- Personal histories: Even if you can’t find your own ancestors’ personal stories, the stories of neighbors, co-workers and fellow immigrants can shed light on their experiences. The Joint Archives of Holland at Hope College in Holland, Mich., maintains an archive that includes dozens of oral histories from Dutch women, furnace company workers, retired Reformed Church officers, post-WWII immigrants and others. Dutch Touches by Carol Van Klompenburg and Dorothy Crum (Pennfield Press) contains stories and recipes from Dutch-Americans in traditionally Dutch communities such as Pella, Iowa, and South Holland, Ill.
If you aren’t a devoted Dutchophile already, your research will likely turn you into one. The Netherlands has a pull all its own: those mesmerizing windmills, wide Dutch smiles, gorgeous art and architectural treasures, and the ghosts of those seafaring people whose descendants continue to tame the sea.
After all your attempts to find your forebears without going to the Netherlands, you may still find yourself booking a flight on KLM. There’s nothing like going straight to the sources—provincial archives, the Central Bureau for Genealogy or the doorstep of your great-grandfather’s apartment building in Rotterdam. But do all the research you can from home first. That way, you can spend your dream vacation in the Netherlands finding unique genealogical treasures, connecting with distant relatives and exploring the land your ancestors loved and left behind.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Family Tree Magazine.