About Migration Patterns in Genealogy Research

How putting your ancestors in a historical context can help you understand their migration patterns

Our ancestors' movements across the world did not happen in a random fashion. A combination of the availability of transportation, natural barriers and the routes available through and across those barriers determined where and when they moved from place to place. Population movements were determined by the availability of land for farming or settlement, political unrest or wars, natural disasters and many other factors. In many cases, when an ancestral family seems to disappear from the historical record, they were just following the general trend of the greater population and moving on to a new home.

I came across the impact of this historical context several times this week as I helped people with their research in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. In one case, a family moved from Connecticut to upper New York state in the late 1700s. There was another move in around 1816. The researcher seemed entirely unaware of the circumstances that would have initiated such moves. I pointed out that at that time, upper New York state was the frontier and that 1816 was the "year without a summer" due, in part, to the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.

The history of the world is replete with huge population migrations and awareness of those particular migrations that affected your ancestors is a necessary part of understanding their movements as well as an adjunct to finding those families that seem to disappear. In the U.S., most of these movements are reflected in the development of the available land. So many researchers seem baffled by the historically very predictable movements of their ancestors. Much of this confusion could be eliminated by spending a little bit of time reading up on the history of the country both from a national and local perspective.

If you think about your own life, you can ask several simple questions such as the following:

  • How did my parents meet each other?
  • Where did they get married (if they did)?
  • Why was I born where I was born?
  • Why did my family move from one place to another?
  • Why did they stay in the same place?

These types of questions seem highly personal, but if the answers are looked at in the general context of the time periods involved, they become part of a larger pattern of economic development (or the lack thereof), employment opportunities, wars, and other developments. There are always some anomalies, but over time, the general trends determined your ancestors' movements.

You can start this education process by simply asking why. Why did your ancestor leave his or her European homeland and come to America? Where did they settle? Why did they choose that location to settle? Where did their descendants move and why? These types of questions will start the process of analysis.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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