Naturalization records can be a critical source when researching your immigrant ancestor. The documents may help you pinpoint their exact time of arrival and identify their place of origin.
The first naturalization law of the United States dates back to the initial years of the American republic. On 26 March 1790 Congress decreed that all free and white aliens may request naturalization after living in this country for at least two years. Aliens could petition in any court with jurisdiction over their place of residence.1 In 1795 the residency requirement was increased to five years. The law of 25 January 1795 also introduced the two-step process that remained in place until 1952: petitioners needed to first submit a Declaration of Intent, and then three years late, a Petition of Naturalization.2
The Center of Research Libraries, an international consortium of university, college, and independent research libraries, has digitized selected years of The Gazette van Moline, the Flemish newspaper that was published from 1907 until it merged with the Gazette van Detroit in 1940.
Surviving ship manifests, also known as passenger lists, make it possible for most genealogists to discover details of their ancestor’s voyage to America. In an earlier post I sketched a brief history of ship manifests in the United States. In this article I share some tips for searching online databases to find Belgian-Americans in the ships’ passenger lists.
Before the advent of commercial transatlantic airline flights in the 1960s, Belgian immigrants arrived in the new world at one of the Atlantic or Gulf Coast seaports in a sailing vessel or steamship. Surviving ship manifests, also known as passenger lists, make it possible for most Belgian-American family historians to discover the details of their ancestor’s voyage to America.
Before we delve into searching for the arrival records of Belgians in various databases and indexes, let’s take a closer look at the history of ship manifests in the United States.
1820-1890s: Customs Ship Manifests
While there are manifests that go back to colonial America, the systematic recording of passenger arrival information started in 1820, as a result of the Steerage Act, which was approved by the United States Congress on 2 March 1819.
This weekend, as many of us celebrate Mother’s Day, might be the perfect time to delve into your maternal roots. Who was your mother’s mother? Who was her mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on? Not as easy perhaps as tracing your paternal line, but researching the many mothers who contributed to your existence can have its own rewards.
The closest Belgian equivalent to United States census records are the population registers [Bevolkingsregisters – Registres de la population – Melderegister], large heavy folio books that contain information about the inhabitants of a particular town. Unlike census records, which provide a snapshot of what the population looks like at a particular moment, the registers are dynamic. They are kept up-to-date for ten years or more, until a new snapshot is taken and the process is started over again. In Belgium, hard copy population registers were created and maintained until 1992, at which point the government switched to a computerized database system.
You may have found mourning letters and memorial cards for Belgian relatives among the papers of your immigrant ancestors. But most often you will have to hunt for them in the archives of genealogical and historical societies and in the files of private collectors. Luckily many societies, archives and collectors have placed their indices online and will provide genealogists with a scanned image upon request.
The following is a selected list of websites for societies, archives, and private individuals who collect mourning letters and death memorial cards. Keep in mind that in most cases, location of the archive or collector does not reflect the scope of the collection.
The custom of distributing death memorial cards during Roman-Catholic funeral services dates back to the seventeenth century. At first they were handwritten, but during the early nineteenth century printed cards became the norm. Initially reserved for bishops, priests, and other dignitaries, the prayer card tradition spread to the upper and middle classes, and the development of inexpensive printing techniques made them more affordable to all members of society by the early twentieth century. 1
Though not as rich as mourning letters, memorial cards contain brief genealogical information with many clues for the savvy genealogist. At the very least they provide the place and date of birth and death for the deceased. Cards also customarily include the name of spouse(s), both deceased and living. Cards for young children mention the parents.
On the morning of September 2, 1944, the first allied forces arrived in the province of Hainaut in Belgium. Mons and Brussels were liberated the next day. Other major cities followed in quick succession: Antwerp (September 4), Gent (September 5-6), Liège (September 7-8). In the course of ten days most of Belgium was liberated by the British (mostly in Flanders) and the American (in Wallonia) forces.3
Everywhere they went, the troops were welcomed with open arms. People danced and celebrated in the streets and women threw their arms around their liberators as they passed by. The Yanks and Canucks brought chocolate, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and candy. They were carefree and lighthearted and soon enough captured the hearts of numerous girls. Ellie Shukert and Barbara Scibetta, both daughters of war brides, estimate that approximately one million women married American GIs during and after World War II.4
They place his soul in your prayers. Such was the request of my ancestors who announced the death of their dear husband and beloved father. When my second great-grandfather passed away in 1901 his immediate family printed, as was customary, a mourning letter [Doodsbrief – Faire-part de décès – Trauerbrief].