How I got started

Genealogist Ronald Willemseby Ronald Willemse

I was born and grew up in Amsterdam where my father told me many nice stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents. I still fondly remember many of these stories. He often told me that our family roots were in the Dutch province of Zeeland.Many years later, I settled in Ticino, got married there and had my own children. I once asked my father why and when exactly our ancestors moved from Zeeland to the capital city of Amsterdam. He didn’t know, but I was still curious and while visiting Holland I decided to find out more. Someone gave me the address of the Archives of the City of Amsterdam and one day I just stepped in to see if by chance they had some information.

At first I was shocked and felt lost. A big study room, about 50 desks with computers, microfilm readers, books, registers, ledgers and indexes all over the place. People of all types and ages running back and forward between shelves, filing cabinets and desks, making photocopies or scans, writing notes on paper and on notebooks – in almost complete silence. Fortunately there was someone available at the help desk, so I gave him a note with my grandfather’s name and birth date. I was impressed: within 20 minutes I had a set of photocopies in my hands covering three generations of my ancestors. With an important confirmation: my second great-grandfather was in fact born in 1833 in the City of Vlissingen in Zeeland, arrived in Amsterdam in 1868 where he got (re)married in 1870.

I was happy. Now I knew when, but still didn’t know why. Upon returning to Switzerland I wrote a letter to the city administration in Vlissingen. For a fee they delivered me record copies of three more ancestor generations. Just names and dates, no “historical content”, but an invitation to come by one day to see other documents. About six months later we happened to be in the Netherlands again, and we stopped by in Vlissingen. There I found documents with the answer to my questions.

My 2nd-great-grandfather originally was a shoemaker. Vlissingen those days was an important naval base and shipyard. He was incorporated as a specialist for navy boots. In 1864 he got married, in 1867 his wife gave birth to a dead child and she died short afterwards. He was desperate and wanted to move away. The Navy did not want to lose this specialist and proposed that he transfer to the naval base of Amsterdam, which he accepted.

Not only was my curiosity satisfied, but a new field of interest was born: genealogy. It’s a passion like a snowball, the more you keep it rolling the bigger it becomes. In the following years each trip to the Netherlands included visits to the various archives. I put together my family tree on the computer and published it on the internet. Thanks to many online databases (in particular Genlias and Zeeuwengezocht) and reactions from close or distant relatives my tree continued to grow in all directions, all over the world.

In particular in the Netherlands there are many, many volunteers making transcriptions or records in order to make them available online. Even though verification of original documents remains important, it is a great and helpful source. Unfortunately, here in Switzerland the number of freely accessible databases is very limited. I hope that my Dutch experience can be of help to start something similar in Ticino.

This is my story on how I got started. It would be great to read how other people got involved in genealogy, if they had interesting experiences and how it developed to become a favorite hobby.

In my next posts, I will explain the challenges of family research, specifically in regards to Ticino.

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