Jim de Bree: Making history personal

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

I am somewhat tired of writing about politics, so in this column I thought I would write about something less controversial.

When I retired two years ago, I decided to research the histories of both my family and my wife’s family.

I am sure everyone has seen the Ancestry.com commercials wherein a person is surprised to find that his or her genetic composition suggests a different family origin than expected.

Today’s technology makes genealogical studies easier and more complete than ever before. Many countries have digitized birth, marriage and death records, making it possible to parse through data using search engines like Ancestry.com or myheritage.com.

The mapping of the human genome makes it possible to determine a considerable amount of information from DNA samples. In fact, you can often find relatives through DNA matches.

Once you have this information, the final step is to research the history of the region where your ancestors lived. This puts a near first-hand perspective into the issues your ancestors faced. It also shows that they faced many of the same issues we face today.

The best part is the interesting stories that are uncovered.

I found that I owe my last name to France’s King Louis XIV. The so-called “Sun King” wanted to make northern Belgium a French province and sought to seize the Dutch city of Maastricht. My direct ancestor of eight generations was a peasant farmer born in 1640 in Flanders near the town of Bree.

His name was Jan Jansxn. We know that he was named after his father because, instead of using the suffix “Junior,” the practice at the time was to change the penultimate letter of the last name to X.

In 1673, the French army attacked Flanders, laying siege to the area around Bree. The French forced all Dutch-speaking residents to flee to areas north of the Rhine River.

Like many, Jan Jansxn ended up in the Dutch city of Utrecht. The Dutch were overwhelmed by Flemish immigrants and to identify those people, they assigned each a surname indicating they were from Bree. Peasants were given the name “de Bree,” while wealthier refugees were given the more respectable name “van Bree.”

To this day both names are fairly common in Holland. The official records of Utrecht indicate that Jan Jansxn de Bree begat a son named Jan Jansen de Bree in Utrecht in 1675. So these ancestors clearly were refugees from the French invasion.

My mother descended from a family of barons who were awarded land grants by the Holy Roman Empire in the thirteenth century. In 1465, my 20th generation ancestor, Baron Hebert van Culembourg II, begat an illegitimate child named Sveder van Culembourg het Bastaard.

The illegitimate son ran his father’s business affairs and built a highway named after his father (which still exists today). However, when his father passed away, the legitimate heirs cut that son off from the family. He moved to Rotterdam and began a ship-building business, which was extremely successful.

He married a baroness who resided on the other side of the Rhine River. Their daughter became the matriarch of a prominent Dutch family who are my ancestors.

My wife’s family also has nobility in its history. Her ancestors were Normans who accompanied William the Conqueror to England.

In the 1630s her ancestors settled in Virginia near Jamestown. There is a township named for them. They later moved to North Carolina because of hard times with the tobacco crops.

They were Tories who supported the crown during the American Revolution and consequently lost most of their wealth. In the early 1800s they migrated to Indiana where they once again prospered.

For many centuries, our family’s ancestors who resided in Europe were either upper class or poor. Their circumstances did not change much from generation to generation because their society was designed to entrench the social classes.

However, in America, there were significant generational differences in economic standing and social class, as social mobility (upward and downward) is a feature of American society.

In my research, I noted that many ancestors had children in their teenage years. Many had children who were conceived before marriage. My family is also replete with examples of people who got married, but the marriage did not work out. Unable to divorce, the husband sometimes left the family without providing further support.

One lesson from my family history is when the man stepped up, assuming responsibility for his family, things generally turned out OK. When he didn’t, the family unit’s foundation eroded and the home was left in shambles.

I found that my family has heroes, scoundrels, scandals and a rich history. I strongly encourage you to find out about your own family. Doing so is not only fun, but it gives you an appreciation and perspective of your own life.

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident who found a new hobby in retirement.

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