ELMHURST, Ill. (OCTOBER 2014) — If you are of Dutch American heritage, Ginger Bilthuis may be able to help you fill in your family tree. She may even be able to tell you if your great-great-grandfather was a brewer in Groningen or a farmer in Friesland.
Ginger Bilthuis, right, shows Hermina, left, and Len Sytsma information on their Dutch ancestors.
You see, Dutch genealogy is her passion. She specializes in those of Dutch descent who live in, or whose families have passed through, Chicagoland —and she has a database of about 300,000 names to prove it. Recently, she brought her wealth of knowledge to Park Place of Elmhurst, where she volunteered to help residents trace their family lines.
Ginger (née Evenhouse) went to Timothy Christian Schools, and was part of the first class to graduate from the high school in Elmhurst. So Park Place —right next door to Timothy —seemed like a good place to offer her services, which were completely free of charge.
She met with 10 people over nine hours, talking to residents and searching her database to show them information about generations they never knew. She showed them birth and marriage records, census reports, and family trees. She then spent time over the next few days digging up more details and offering printed charts for interested residents.
She got some help from them, as well: one resident, Len Sytsma, brought a packet of information he had gleaned from family members, providing Ginger with a number of new names for her database.
“I’ve always been interested in (my family line),” Sytsma said. “I started my genealogy, and I thought it was amazing how much information you can get talking to people, like your cousins. But after a while, that was it.”
Sytsma and his wife, Hermina (née Ten Harmsel), met with Ginger to see what additional information they could find about their families, and she was able fill in some of the blanks.
Ginger has worked on genealogy research for the last 14 years, on and off, and has pursued her hobby in earnest after retirement.
“It’s like a full time job; I probably work on it eight to 10 hours a day,” Ginger said. “It’s my passion, and I love it.”
She got started because her mother was doing genealogy research and wanted help getting the names into a computer program. She went to Ginger, her self-described computer geek daughter, and soon Ginger was just as interested in the topic.
Ginger —who has traced her own family history back nine generations —had to set parameters on what names she’ll include. She only includes Dutch surnames of people who have been though Chicago, and she only traces as far back as the internet allows. But there are plenty of names there to keep her busy.
“It’s like a big puzzle, and I’m a problem solver,” she said. “Sometimes, [the information] is just not there, but you’d be surprised what you can find on the Internet.”
Her job is made easier by some Dutch traditions — such as naming the first-born son after the his paternal grandfather, and similar customs for later children — but runs into trouble with changing spellings as names have become Americanized — like when the traditional Dutch “ij”gets turned into a “y”(e.g., Dijkstra to Dykstra).
She is also limited on how far back in history she can go: Napoleon forced the Dutch to adopt surnames in the early 1800s, and following a family line farther back than that is particularly tricky.
To put her expansive database together, she uses only what she can find online —such as birth and marriage records from the Netherlands, obituaries from archived newspapers —and the information stored in the library at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.), keeping her hobby relatively inexpensive. She doesn’t pay for copies of records or any other information, aside from her membership to ancestry.com, where she is transferring all her records.
She can invite people with an email address to be guests on ancestry.com, where they can then access her information, and even order copies of their relatives’ birth and marriage certificates.
Ginger would also like to leave the information to Calvin, Hope, and Trinity Christian Colleges, for future generations to use —and maybe even add to.
“If nothing happens with it, that’s fine —it has brought me incredible enjoyment,”she said. “But if someone can use this information, there’s a lot of valuable history there.”
And she doesn’t plan to stop adding to it anytime soon.
“It’s just a lot of fun,”she said. “If anybody’s interested (in finding out their family history), they just have to email me.”
Ginger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.