Wednesday, 5 November 2014

What Napoleon did for us

I loved reading Sue Adam's post about Going Dutch, starting with Civil Registration. Thank you for taking me up on my challenge! One of the commenters, ScotSue, remarked how she "was struck by how early civil registration was introduced compared with countries in the UK."

We have Napoleon to thank for that. The French invaded the Netherlands in 1794/95. In some southern parts of the Netherlands, the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced at that time, but in most of the country it was introduced in 1811.

At that time, everyone who did not have a surname was required to take one. This includes people in the north who still went by their patronymics, people in the east who called themselves after the farm they lived on and most Jews. This forced taking of names gave rise to the myth that people in the Netherlands did not have surnames before Napoleon, which is untrue for most of the country. A casual comment to dis-spell that myth on a blog article introduced me to a wonderful client.

Name taking record of Jelmer Sipkes Sipma.1 Image credit: Tresoar
When the civil registration started, the French confiscated all the church records of baptisms, marriages and deaths so that they would have a solid starting point and could verify the identity and ages of prospective brides and grooms. To this day, church records from before 1811 can be found in government-run archives.

Napoleon also made a start with the introduction of a nation-wide property registration system, the Kadaster. It wasn't fully implemented until 1828, well after the French occupation, when the Dutch government realized the merits of knowing all (taxable!) lands. The first maps and ledgers are available online at the WatWasWaar website.

The great thing about understanding these registrations is that it's easy to do research in France, because the system is very similar. That is how I was able to help several visitors to Who Do You Think You Are? Live! find their French ancestors, despite not having much experience with French research myself.

Because the Dutch were used to good record-keeping since 1811, Dutch emigrants also had their vital events recorded much earlier than most of their new neighbors. In many states in the US, vital records were not mandatory until the early 1900s but you can often find records for Dutch people as early as the 1840s. Don't you wish for some Dutch ancestors yourself?


  1. I found this history extremely interesting, thank you! I have always had a soft spot for Napoleon even though most of my British ancestors would be rolling over in their graves to hear me say that. ;) I found him so interesting and like so many others who didn't get the best treatment by history, did some good -- at least genealogists would think so.

  2. How great to hear that you enjoyed the article. I share your appreciation for Napoleon. He sure left a wonderful administrative legacy! One thing I forgot to mention in the article is that it was thanks to the French laws that my ancestors were freed from serfdom. In the eastern part of the Netherlands where my father's family is from, several families were serfs until 1795. They weren't allowed to move or marry without the landlord's permission and had to perform bodily service for the lord such as working his land, de-icing the castle moat, feeding the lord's pigs, serving the lord meals when he hunted on his estate. Positively feudal!

  3. A very informative post and thank you for the mention of my name. You brought to light a legacy of Napoleon that we don't often hear about.

  4. Fascinating article. Thanks.


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