How far did my ancestors move?

When working with American, Canadian, and Australian genealogists, I am always struck by how their family stories are about migration. The most common question is where their ancestors came from.

My ancestors did not move much. Most of them married a partner from the same area, and lived their wholes lives in the same towns. I never wondered were they came from. They were just there—probably for many generations before the start of surviving records.

To visualize how far my ancestors migrated during their lifetimes, I created a six-generation pedigree chart of my ancestors showing the distance between the place where they were born and where they died.

Pedigree chart showing distance between place of birth and place of death in kilometers

Isn’t it remarkable how many zeros there are? Here are some of the people who moved away:

  • My paternal grandparents (35 km / 21 miles) moved from Winterswijk to Almelo because grandpa worked in the textile industry. The factories in Winterswijk were struggling while the ones in Twente were still going strong. They died in Enschede, near Almelo. Grandfather’s mother moved with them to Almelo, and died there. She was originally from Dinxperlo, just south of Winterswijk, 50 km/31 miles from Almelo.
  • My maternal grandparents (181/192 km, about 120 miles) moved the furthest distance of any of my recent ancestors. During World War II, my grandfather became part of the Domestic Armed Forces, the Dutch liberation army. Originally from Breda, he moved north with the troops to liberate the rest of the country. After World War II, he stayed in the army and his family followed him north. He was relocated a couple of times before finally living in Oldenzaal. Grandma died there, grandfather died in a nursing home in Hengelo.
  • My 3xgreat-grandfather Arend Kastein became a police constable. He was originally from Suderwick and his wife from nearby Dinxperlo. He was transferred to Amsterdam, and then to Winterswijk, where they both died (21 km/13 miles away).
  • Three of my ancestors died in hospitals, 41 km, 61 km, and 44 km (about 30-40 miles) from their homes.
  • One ancestor was an illegitimate child from Sint Anna ter Muiden, a small village in Zeeland. When she herself got pregnant out of wedlock, she moved away from that small town and settled in the large town of Breda, 125 km/80 miles away.

The migration of the past six generations was mainly work-related or health-related. In earlier years, it was uncommon for people from lower class families to move for their careers. They would have lived their whole lives in the same area. Similarly, the local doctor or a traveling gall-stone-cutter was all the healthcare that earlier generations would have had access to. None of my earlier ancestors died in hospitals that were miles away.

If I had expanded the chart back further in time, there would have been a lot more zeros. The most extreme example is my paternal grandmother. I have found over 1,000 of her ancestors, all from the same village except for one from the next town over, a maximum of 6 km/4 miles away. The more than 1,000 ancestors I’ve identified on my paternal grandfather’s side are all from the same area too, a maximum of 21 km/13 miles from where my father was born. Winterswijk was a rural area, that saw many people leave and few arrive.

On my mother’s side, the migration patterns are a bit more diverse. Breda, where her parents were born, was a big city that attracted people from a large area. Further back, she has some Huguenots from France who moved to Zeeland, and a mercenary soldier from Scotland who moved to Brabant.

Have you ever done a similar analysis of your ancestors migration patterns? How far did your ancestors move? Can you explain why they moved or stayed?

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Cool, novel chart!

  2. Mat Trotter says

    I like this idea. I have not thought of this before.

  3. Sara Brower says

    I have never done a chart per se; however, I think I should just to see the exact distances. From 3Gs forward, I only have 2 couples who came from Europe in the 1820s and 1854. All but one of the rest roamed within 90 miles of Philadelphia, PA. That one exception, a Great Grand came to Philadelphia, PA in 1884 from 200 miles west in Bedford County, PA where her people had been since the late 1700s. Will be interesting to see the exact details.

  4. Claire Toynbee says

    I’m a third-generation Canadian. My grandparents’ moves here from England and.Scotland a century ago were for quality of life.

    I enjoy looking at my list of 3x great grandparents’ far-flung birthplaces; I think they mainly moved for work opportunities.

    My Dutch forefathers in our Herderschee male line must have moved for work. First, there was a van Hetterscheidt, whose name is from a farm near Essen in Germany, who established family in the Achterhoek by the 16th century. Then there was the Hettersche tradesman who moved to the city of Doetinchem from the small town of Aalten by 1643….

    A few generations later, there was the Herderschee family orphaned in 1748 who moved to Amsterdam, where the boys became tradesmen. And a few generations after that, my 2x great-grandfather, who was the son of a mariner, moved to England for his step-father’s business, becoming a naturaluzed British subject, while some of his cousins moved out to plantations in Java.

  5. J. Paul Hawthorne says

    This is so great! Thank you for posting this!

  6. Matt Newbold says

    My grandmother’s parents and older siblings emigrated from the Rotterdam area in 1912. Tracing back on her lines many of them go back to Rotterdam area towns in South Holland. However there are a few exceptions. Her father’s direct paternal line, the Spetters are Jews who moved from the Amsterdam around 1800 to 1811. Her direct maternal line, the Zappeijs who emigrated from Bad Ems in Germany. In fact I have several lines that trace back into Germany including the Kneppers from Brandenburg and Londmans from Oldenberg. One family line that I have been researching are Caspar Thans and Catharina Thijsens who come from Vroenhoven, Belgium just over the border from Maastricht. They moved to Bergen op Zoom in North Brabant where their daughter Anna was born. She met her husband Jan de Breij who was in a military unit from Rotterdam, stationed in Bergen op Zoom where they married. They later moved to Rotterdam where he worked as a police officer.

  7. Virgil Hoftiezer says

    Obviously my Dutch ancestors traveled long distances from the Netherlands to America, but several of them also continued to travel long distances after ‘settling’ in the USA – from Wisconsin to Kansas and back again and then to South Dakota before they were buried in foreign soil. My great great grandfather who came to the USA as a teen in 1847, had immediate family buried in the Netherlands (siblings), parents buried in two different states and other siblings buried in three different states.
    I have another direct line ancestor born in Virginia (east coast), married in Kentucky and Missouri, and died in California (west coast). His life spanned an entire continent.
    However, my mother was born and died in the same city, but she lived most of her life in many different towns in the same state.

  8. Doris Waggoner says

    Creating such a chart would be very interesting, and tell me a lot, I think. Many ancestors stayed in the “old country.” All my mother’s great grandparents were Norwegians who lived and died within about 15 miles of the same place (from near Oslo, to as far north as Trondheim). But her grandparents all emigrated to the US, between the ages of 5 and middle age, at dates between 1850 and 1890. My grandfather came with his siblings and parents in 1890, when he was 12. All came first to the Midwest: Wisconsin, Minnesota, eastern North Dakota. Many stayed within 50 miles of where they began. However, my grandparents and several of their siblings ended up, some after many moves, in Seattle, Washington, in the far West. This part of the country, where I was born and now live, looks much like the fjord country of Scandinavia, and has attracted many Scandinavians. They all moved for work opportunity.

    My father’s family is much more diverse. One family were English and came to eastern Massachusetts as part of a Puritan group in 1638–for religious reasons. One ancestor was born in Norway in the late 16th c., moved to Holland as a merchant, where he married and emigrated to New Netherland, so I am “half and a smidge” Norwegian. I have multiple ancestors who moved from various parts of The Netherlands to New Netherland during the 17th c. My ggg grandfather was German, to judge from his 18th c. naturalization record. He moved with his son, my gg grandfather, born in Schenectady in 1808, and at least some others of his family to the very southern tip of Indiana, some 500 miles southwest, in 1821. The last child in this family was born in Albany that year, and I find no record of my ggg grandmother after that birth; perhaps she died. Maybe that accounts for the move. My ggg grandfather also had a brother in Indiana, perhaps another pull. By 1830, my gg grandfather was another 150 miles NW, in Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He became a circuit riding preacher, moving all over central Illinois. In 1849, he and his wife were sent to Liberia as missionaries. That was thousands of miles. His son and wife died, and he returned, via France, London, Boston, New York City–a longer route, and more thousands of miles. He spent the rest of his life in the Midwest, mostly Illinois, moving around a lot in a small area. He remarried, and one of his daughters moved to Eastern Washington just after 1900 with her family. One of her sons, my grandfather, was a civil engineer, who moved a great deal for his work, from Washington to Montana to the western provinces of Canada. My father saw the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound, and decided to live in Seattle. Thus he met my mother during WW II. Most of these moves were for work, some for religious freedom.

  9. Helen Kuijpers Ware says

    Great article Yvette. I have always been amazed that almost all my ancestors were born and died in such a small area. My parents immigrated to Canada after WW2 from Mill and Sint Anthonis in Noord Brabant, but other than that very few moved from that area. Most lived in the Land van Cuijk area in Noord Brabant and Gelderland, with very few exceptions. There were a few emigrations to Australia and Wisconsin. And here I am in Vermont! So enjoy reading your blog each week. Thank you

  10. Looking at figures is one thing, interpreting the meaning of these figures is another. And your chart certainly helps me to do that. So I have taken the liberty to copy your lay out and make my own chart. One may find it here:
    Thanks for coming up with this idea and keep writing those newsletters!

  11. Steve Frank says

    Interesting topic. I am curious to know if you have an opinion on an earlier period of history – for example, the 700-1000 A.D. time frame. Do you think there was significant migration into Gelderland and Winterswijk at that time, or do you think most people inhabiting the area in 700 -1000 A.D. were already there for hundreds of years?

    Thank you for all the great work you do!

    • Archaeological excavations in Winterswijk have shown occupation there since 3000 BC. Since many of the older Winterswijk farms are derived from Saxon names, I would not be surprised if they were already there in the period 700-1000 AD or even earlier. My name Hoitink comes from Hoiko, and the Hoitink farm first appears in documents in the 1100s, but the Saxon Hoiki name suggests it is probably older. I would not be surprised if the Saxons came to the Winterswijk area in the period 300-600 AD, during the large migrations of that period.

Leave comment