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

Genealogists with Belgian roots have an advantage when researching their female ancestors: women in Belgium did not (and still do not) forsake their maiden name upon marriage.2For example, my paternal grandmother, Maria Willemse, remained Maria Willemse when she married my grandfather Armand Smets.3The reason lies not just in tradition, but also in the law. Surnames in Belgium were officially registered in 1795 during the French occupation, and since then, family names can only be altered under specific limited circumstances. A change of surname still requires approval by the King of Belgium. As a result of this legal impediment to changing one’s family name, Belgian genealogical records, such as birth, marriage, and death records, always include women’s maiden names.

The abundance of detailed civil registration records in Belgium also makes tracing your Belgian ancestors a fairly simple process. Until at least 1795, the year civil registration was introduced in the Southern Netherlands, each vital record usually contains enough clues to locate the earlier ancestor.4Parish records are a bit harder to analyze but it is not uncommon for Belgian genealogists to trace their roots back to the seventeenth or even sixteenth centuries.

If your maternal line extends back to Belgium (Wallonia, Brussels, or Flanders), you now also have the unique opportunity to participate in MamaMito, a Flemish citizen science project that focuses on matrilinear lines and mitochondrial DNA.5 Participants in the project are eligible to be selected for a free mtDNA analysis.

Logo of the MamaMito project which features the name in rose (Mama) and black (Mito).
MamaMito Logo

MamaMito was launched on March 1, 2020, by KU Leuven (Catholic University of Leuven) and Histories vzw, the Flemish cultural organization for genealogy, local history, and cultural heritage. Head researcher is Dr. Maarten Larmuseau, an international authority in genetic genealogy, and professor at the Department of Human Genetics at KU Leuven.6

A few years ago, Dr. Larmuseau’s research into historic cuckoldry rates [koekoeksgraad] in Belgium made the science pages of the New York Times. Using Belgium’s detailed birth records, Larmuseau and his colleagues reconstructed large family genealogies reaching back four centuries and sequenced the Y chromosomes of living male descendants. What they found was a surprising rate of less than one percent, much smaller than the commonly assumed rate of misattributed parentage.7

With MamaMito Larmuseau and his team are now turning their attention to our matrilineal lines, lineages commonly ignored by genealogists. One of the project’s goals is to encourage research into maternal ancestors by providing free genealogical education and an online forum for sharing results. Participants who join the project can contribute their data until the end of August 2020.

But the project also has a scientific component. At the end of August, MamaMito will select 200 couples of distant cousins and invite them to test their mitochondrial DNA as part of a scientific study.8 By analyzing the anonymized mtDNA results and corresponding family trees, the researchers hope to answer some of the following questions: How often does mtDNA change? Is there a discrepancy between traditional and genetic family trees? Is there a distinct Flemish variant of mtDNA? They expect to publish their findings in 2021.

Mamamito is not limited to Belgian citizens. You too can join the project. The website has a Dutch interface only, but is not too difficult to navigate.9 Google translate or FamilySearch’s Dutch Genealogical Word List can help if you are stumped by some of the Dutch vocabulary. What follows are a few screenshots and tips to help you get started.10

Welcome screen of the MamaMito project. "Discover all the mothers who gave birth to you. Delve into the family tree of your foremothers, find distant cousins, discover your maternal mtDNA and help advance science.

First log on to https://mamamito.be/ and register as a new participant.

Registration form for participants who are asked to provide Surname, given name(s), date of birth, address, email address, a username, and password.

Once you are registered and logged in, start entering your data by selecting the Mijn moederlijn invoeren tab [Enter your maternal line].

Image of web screen that appears once participants are logged on. The tab "Enter your maternal line" is highlighted in blue.

Starting with yourself, enter the following data for each of your maternal ancestors: name [naam], birth [geboorte] or baptism [doop], marriage [huwelijk], death [overlijden] or burial [begrafenis]. For each event older than 100 years you will need to upload (or provide a link to) a source document, such as a vital record, that can support your information.

Image of webscreen showing the tabs you need to select to enter data for yourself, your mother, your grandmother, and so on.

Enter your ancestor’s name, first name, and – if applicable – her nickname.

Image of webscreen with boxes where you enter your ancestor's surname, first name, and nickname.

Enter her birth or baptismal information.

Image of webscreen with boxes where you enter birth or baptismal information.

Enter marriage information.

Image of webscreen with boxes where you enter marriage information.

Enter death or burial information.

Image of webscreen with boxes where you enter death or burial information.

A specialized team of experts will validate your data, but, in order to protect your privacy, only for those ancestors who lived more than 100 years ago.11

Image of webscreen with the icons used to indicate status for each of your maternal ancestors: (1) validated, (2) more data is necessary, (3) request to validate, and (4) validation in progress.

At any time, you can view and print your maternal line by going to the Mijn stamboom [My family tree] tab.

Image of web screen that appears once participants are logged on. The tab "My Family Tree" is highlighted in blue.

You can download and print your maternal line in two unique lay-outs. One entitled Een Museum van Moeders [A Museum of Mothers] starts with you and works its way backwards.

Example of printout of a "museem of mothers."

The second one, called Alle Moeders Waaruit Ik Groeide [All The Mothers From Which I Grew], presents your maternal line starting with your earliest ancestor.

Example of printout of "All the Mothers From Which I Grew."

Soon you will also be able to download your data to a gedcom file from this same page, so that you can upload it to genealogical software of your own choice.12

You can view your distant cousins by selecting the Mijn verwantschappen [My relatives] tab. But keep in mind that your maternal line must be validated before relatives can be found, and, due to privacy reasons, the webapp will only reveal relationships that date back more than 100 years.

Image of web screen that appears once participants are logged on. The tab "My Relatives" is highlighted in blue.

Finally, if you would like to be eligible for the free mtDNA test, you must send an email to the researchers at dna@historiesvzw.be. They will send their DNA-kits across the globe, so US residents are more than welcome to participate. I am confident you are free to write the team in English.

Participating in MamaMito inspired me to delve into some of my neglected ancestral lines. I was able to reach the eighteenth century and my 5th great-grandmother within a few days of research. I hope to make it to the 1700s before the project ends so that I can honor the contributions of my foremothers to the world.

Color photograph of the author (middle) and her daughter, mother (to her left), and maternal grandmother (to her right).
Four generations: the author with her daughter, mother, and maternal grandmother in 2000.13

Cite this post

Kristine Smets, “Research Your Maternal Line with MamaMito,” The Belgian American, (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed [date]), posted 9 May 2020.

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.

Continue reading “Belgian Population Registers”

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.

Continue reading “Where to find Belgian Mourning Letters and Memorial Cards”

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.

Continue reading “De Mortuis Nili Nisi Bene”

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
Continue reading “Zij bevelen zijne ziel in uwe gebeden.”

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

Continue reading “Anatomy of a Death Record: Examples from both sides of the language border.”

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.

Continue reading “Belgian Marriage Supplements”

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

Continue reading “Anatomy of a Flemish Marriage Record: An 1832 Example from Kalmthout.”

Belgian Marriage Records: A True Gold Mine.

The first time you encounter a Belgian civil marriage record, your eyes may glaze over, because they tend to be long and contain a lot of so-called ‘legalese.’  But they are worth your close attention, because they are a true gold mine of information.

Continue reading “Belgian Marriage Records: A True Gold Mine.”

Navigating Belgian Vital Records at the State Archives: A Walloon Example.

Searching the Belgian State Archives (Rijksarchief in België, Archives de l’État en Belgique, Belgisches Staatsarchiv) for vital records can be confusing, especially when you are not familiar with the language.  First, there are four possible starting places, depending on your language of preference. But with almost all of them, as you dig deeper, the language in the background switches to either Dutch or French. Second, there is no comprehensive index (although you can always try your luck at https://search.arch.be/en/zoeken-naar-personen), so for now browsing the images town by town is the only way to do exhaustive research, which means you must know the town and approximate date for the vital event. Last, and this very unfortunate, there is no download option, so the best you can do it take screenshots in order to have your own digital copy of the record.

Don’t let this deter you however!  There two very good reasons for exploring birth, marriage, and death records at the Belgian State Archives as well as at FamilySearch.

Continue reading “Navigating Belgian Vital Records at the State Archives: A Walloon Example.”