Trace your Dutch roots

Your quarterly Dutch genealogy guide

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Quarterly newsletter on Dutch genealogy. Issue #10. Publication date October 2008.

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Welcome to the October issue of this newsletter, the 4th issue of 2008.

In this issue:

  • Trace your 19th century ancestors
  • Emigration in the 19th century
  • Graveyard rabbits

The next issue is planned for January. As always, topic suggestions may be sent to

Trace your 19th century ancestors

Finding Dutch ancestors that lived in the 19th century is relatively easy. The privacy laws that can make research in the 20th century frustrating at times, don't apply to the 19th century. The well-kept BMD records are easily accessible - in Dutch archives, in family history centers worldwide, and often on the internet. There are also many secondary sources, like the population register, though these are often only available in Dutch archives (but if you ask around it is usually possible to find someone in Holland willing to look for you).

The first thing you need to do if you want to trace your Dutch roots is identify your immigrant ancestors. In general, you need a name and a place of origin - the Dutch town your ancestor came from. With this information it is nearly always possible to trace your roots into The Netherlands. In an earlier edition of this newsletter, I showed you how I could trace each family from a page of an Ellis Island passenger list into The Netherlands - and it works the same way, of course, if your ancestors emigrated to Canada, Australia, South Africa or New Zealand - or anywhere else.

The most important sources for the 19th century are the BMD records of the civil registry, intoduced in 1811. These are widely available (thanks to the family history centers of the LDS church), and often indexed online, in projects like Genlias. Other important sources include the population register (introduced nationwide in 1850, locally often earlier, available in Dutch local or regional archives and sometimes online) and the marriage supplements (introduced in 1811, available in Dutch provincial archives and often in family history centers). With these sources it is nearly always possible to trace your Dutch ancestors through the 19th and into the 18th century.

Further reading:


Before the 19th century, emigration from The Netherlands was rare. There was, of course, the odd settlement in the colonies, and some people started a family and did not return from their career in the east or west Indies, but only small groups settled abroad, and then almost exclusively in Dutch colonies.

This changed by the events of October 1834. In that month, Hendrik de Cock, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, broke away from the church: the Afscheiding (Secession).

Many people followed De Cock's decision, especially in the rural (and poor) northern provinces. Because of the discrimination against the secessionists, but also because of economic circumstances, two of their leaders decided to guide their followers to the new world.

Rev. Albertus van Raalte and his followers left in 1846. They settled in Michigan, where they founded Holland. A year later, Rev. Hendrik P. Scholte and his followers settled in Iowa, where they founded Pella.

These settlers were soon followed by others - first other secessionists, later others seeking economic improvement. Emigration became a hot topic, and thousands seeked a better life in the New World. Most settled in the U.S.A., especially in Michigan, New York, Illinois and Iowa, but towards the end of the century Canada also became a popular destination. In the late 1880s, emigration to Argentina was popular for a while, though many emigrants failed and returned desillusioned. The vast majority of 19th century emigrants went to the U.S.A., though. In the beginning the Dutch often emigrated in groups (usually a church minister followed by his disciples), later individuals and families emigrated on their own, usually following neighbours, friends, or family members who already lived in the new world.

Most emigrants travelled by trekschuit (tow boat) and over land to Rotterdam, then by boat to New York, and over land again to their final destination.

The first part of the trip was not too bad. Rotterdam had a railway connection to Amsterdam (via The Hague) since 1847, and to Utrecht since 1855, and could also easily be reached by coach or tow-boat. Even from the most remote corner of the country it was possible to get to Rotterdam in no more than three days. It may have taken emigrants more than that (they did not necessarily use the fastest - and most expensive - mode of transport), but rarely much more than a week.

The next part was a different matter. In the mid 19th century the crossing was made with too many people on too small ships. The crossing lasted six weeks, so food and drinking water were not too fresh by the time they reached New York. No wonder quite a few did not make it. Around 1900, big steam ships crossed the ocean in just over a week. The situation was a lot better then, but the crossing was still not a pleasure trip (except for the few who could afford first class).

The trip to the final destination was also not easy. Holland and Pella were near the frontier, and especially Holland was in an inhospitable region. This, too, improved considerably in the second half of the century, but it never became an easy trip.

On their final destination, early settlers still had to endure a lot of hardship. The area was still undeveloped, and especially West Michigan was difficult to cultivate. Later emigrants, who arrived in established settlements, had it a lot easier in that respect.

I suspect that in the 1850s and 1860s both the trip and life in the new world was a lot harder than the emigrants expected, and many must have regretted their decision. But their work and hardships made the mass emigration of later generations possible.

Further reading:

Graveyard rabbits

Terry Thornton, author of Hill Country of Monroe, Mississippi, recently founded The Association of Graveyard Rabbits. The goal of the association is to promote "the historical importance of cemeteries, grave markers, and the family history to be learned from a study of burial customs, burying grounds, and tombstones". Members are required to have their own membership blog, where they engage in "the study of cemeteries, the preservation of cemeteries, and the transcription of genealogical/historical information written in cemeteries".

I am a charter member of the Association. My membership blog is The Graveyard rabbit of Utrecht and Het Gooi. On this blog, I will post photo impressions of cemeteries in the Utrecht and Het Gooi regions and write about Dutch burial customs and Dutch cemeteries and their "inhabitants", often with a focus on the Utrecht and Het Gooi regions. You can subcribe to this blog to receive all my articles by e-mail.

Visit The Graveyard Rabbit for a list of members and their blogs. Most members focus on a region in North America. At the moment, I am the only Dutch graveyard rabbit.

Until 1 November 2008, membership of the Association is open, visit The Graveyard Rabbit for more information. From 1 November, membership is by invitation only.

Further reading:

©2008 Henk van Kampen. All rights reserved.