Finding Belgian-Americans in United States’ Ship Manifests. Part II: Research Tips

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.

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Finding Belgian Americans in United States’ Passenger Lists. Part I: A Brief History

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.

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Research Your Maternal Line with MamaMito

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.

Image with four stylized portraits of mothers: youself (born 1985), Rosalia (born 1965), Godelieve (1930-2012), and Rita (1901-1981)>
A Museum of Mothers from the MamaMito project.1
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Belgian Population Registers

The closest Belgian equivalent to United States census records are the population registers [BevolkingsregistersRegistres de la populationMelderegister], 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.

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Where to find Belgian Mourning Letters and Memorial Cards

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.

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De Mortuis Nili Nisi Bene

Of the dead (say) nothing but good

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.

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Zij bevelen zijne ziel in uwe gebeden.

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].

Mourning letter for Franciscus Smets (1829-1901).1
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Anatomy of a Death Record: Examples from both sides of the language border.

Deaths have been recorded by civil registrars in Belgium since about 1796. The task of reporting the death to the authorities usually fell on two family members or neighbors of the deceased. Today the task is most commonly handled by an undertaker who submits the medical certificate, created by the physician, to the town clerk.

Until March 2019, each town created two copies of each death register. Keep in mind that in small towns, births, marriages, and deaths may have been recorded in one single register. The original copy was kept by the town, the duplicate sent to Court of First Appeal. As of 31 March 2019, all civil registration records are recorded electronically only in a national civil registration database (Databank Akten Burgerlijke Stand (DABS) or Banque de données  centrale  d’actes  de  l’état  civil (BAEC).1

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Belgian Marriage Supplements

In a previous post we analyzed a typical marriage record from a town in Flanders. Today we will take a look at marriage supplementary records. They are often overlooked, and indeed, they often repeat information you can find elsewhere, but I am here to show you they can still be worth your while.

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Anatomy of a Flemish Marriage Record: An 1832 Example from Kalmthout.

My great great great grandparents, Benedictus Vanhooydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs, were married at Kalmthout on Friday 6 May 1832. He was the son of Adriaan Van Hooydonck and Maria Greefs, and grew up in the Nieuwmoer hamlet of Kalmthout, where his mother managed a small store in the Capelstraat. Maria rented the house, and Benedictus, Maria’s second husband, was a common manual laborer who could not read or write. Benedictus had one older sister and seven older half-siblings.1

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