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The BMD records of the civil register

This is the second part of our Sources for Dutch genealogy series.

The civil register

The civil register was introduced in 1811, after the annexation by Napoleon's French empire (some regions in the south were annexed earlier, so the civil register was also introduced earlier there). By French law, births and deaths had to be reported to the registrar within a few days, and the registrar would create an act of birth or death. All marriages had to take place before the registrar. A church marriage was not legally valid anymore, and indeed forbidden unless the couple married before the registrar first.

The Netherlands regained its independence when the French empire collapsed only a few years later, but the civil register, with its BMD (birth, marriage and death) acts, remained.

Early acts were written in French (in small towns and villages you may find acts in Dutch as well, probably because there was no French-speaking registrar to be found), later acts in Dutch. The structure of these acts is quite consistent over time and from place to place. With practice, it is possible to understand these acts even if you don't speak Dutch (see Reading and understanding Dutch birth acts). My Dutch genealogy dictionary contains many words and phrases you are likely to encounter in BMD acts.

Why were they made?

BMD acts of the civil register were created by the government, to keep track of births, marriages and deaths. One of the reasons for the civil register was conscription (also introduced in 1811): Birth and death acts proved how many (and which) men were of the right age.

What information do they have?

Birth acts

Birth act of Johannes Adrianus Pardoen

Births were often registered by the father. He had to bring two witnesses, usually relatives or colleagues but sometimes clerks who happened to be present (they were witnesses of the registration, not of the birth).

The birth act contains the name, gender and birth date of the child, and the names of its parents. For an example, see Reading and understanding Dutch birth acts.

The name of the child registered in the birth act is the official name of the child, even if it contains an obvious error. It would remain his/her official name throughout life. A name change (e.g. because of adoption, or legitimization of a child born out of wedlock after a subsequent marriage) is only valid if it is annotated on the birth act, so it is always possible to find out someone's official name from the birth act. Note that a woman's name does not change by her own marriage: She may use her husband's name, but officially she will always keep her maiden name as registered in the birth act.

Birth acts cannot be consulted until at least 100 years after creation.

Marriage acts

Marriage acts are the most interesting of the acts of the civil register, because they contain a lot of information: Names, ages, places of birth, places of residence and occupations of both spouses, names of the parents, whether the parents were still alive and if so, their places of residence and their occupations, names, ages, occupations and places of residence of the four witnesses. Witnesses were often close relatives or friends of the couple, though there are also many marriage acts where the witnesses were clerks or constables who happened to be at hand.

The couple had to supply documentary evidence of a few things, so genealogical data in the act is quite reliable. The documents they had to hand over (huwelijksbijlagen, marriage supplements) were archived too.

Marriage acts and supplements cannot be consulted until at least 75 years after creation.

Death acts

Deaths had to be registered by two people (they had to be men until well into the 20th century) who had first-hand knowledge of the death. In early acts the men were usually relatives, later it was often the undertaker and his assistant.

Death acts contain the name of the deceased and the date of their death, and (when known) the names of their spouse and parents and their occupation. Names of parents in 19th century death acts are often unreliable, especially if they passed away a long time before the act was made or if the deceased came from another city. Often, the registrar just wrote down what the declarants told him without checking.

Death acts do not list the cause of death.

Death acts cannot be consulted until at least 50 years after creation.

Where can I find them?

Acts were made up in duplicate. One copy remained at the town hall, the other copy (and the marriage supplements) was sent to the district court. The town hall copy often ended up in local or regional archives. If a town does not have a local archive and does not participate in a regional archive, the acts should still be kept at the town hall. The acts sent to the district court are now in provincial archives.

Many acts are now indexed online, e.g. in Genlias. There are microfilmed copies of many acts in the study room of the Central Bureau for Genealogy in The Hague and in the collection of the LDS (usually available for consultation in family history centers worldwide).

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