Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor - Where to Start

Steps to locating your immigrant ancestor

We are all immigrants. Even those of us who call ourselves natives ultimately came from somewhere else. If we do enough research we will all encounter the need to research the origin of our immigrant ancestors.

The difficulty of determining the origin of an immigrant depends on a number of factors. It is enticing to try to jump directly to the country of origin and do some research but there are many reasons why all research about immigrant origins should begin in the country of the immigrant's arrival. In the case of immigrants to the United States (or America before 1776), research must begin in the country of arrival. Here are a few of those reasons:

  • The immigrant's country of origin may not be known
  • The immigrant may have changed his or her name at the time of the immigration
  • Records about the immigrant family may yet need to be found some time after the immigration occurred
  • The family traditions and records may be misleading and/or inaccurate

There are likely many other reasons why careful research requires that the origin of the immigrant ancestor be approached systematically starting with known locations in America.

Where do you start?

As you research back on your family lines and you suspect that you have reached the immigrant, you need to make sure the information you have on the immigrant and his descendants while they are found in the United States (America) is as complete and correct as possible. It is particularly important to have accurate locations where events occurred. Documents with information about the ancestor's place of origin are most likely to be found as in depth research is done on every member of the family. I searched for years for information about one of my Irish ancestors and found the location from a church marriage record in Utah.

At this point, many researchers are stumped with what to do next. When I mentioned above that I found where my Irish ancestor was born in Ireland, the key phrase was and is, that "I searched for years..." It is tempting to avoid the difficulty of finding that key document that tells where the ancestor came from and jump to research in the country of origin, but that is almost always a very bad idea.

I have several rules about genealogy research that apply directly to finding your immigrant ancestors.

Rule One: Always start researching the immigrant's children and even grandchildren.

Most researchers begin with the immigrant and spend a lot of time looking for a record containing a record of the immigrant's birth. Since the immigrant was not born in America the records about his or her birth are not likely here. So the idea is to find records preferably from the immigrant or his family that tell where they originated.

Rule Two: Research the entire family and anyone living in the area who speaks the same language.

People tend to congregate in communities. If the immigrant came from a certain place it is likely that the neighbors and associates came from the same or very near place.

Rule Three: Search for church records.

It is sometimes possible that the immigrant transferred their membership in a church to the same denomination in America. The church priest or minister may have noted the congregation of origin.

Rule Four: Don't believe all you hear from family traditions.

It is possible that the family has a tradition based on ignorance. For example, a tradition that your ancestors came from Germany may obscure the fact that they came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire or even from Poland. With the changes in political boundaries in Europe and elsewhere it is not a good idea to accept tradition as fact.

Rule Five: Become aware of the laws in force at the time your ancestors immigrated.

Immigration laws in the United States and before when European countries claimed sovereignty have changed over time. It is a good idea to make sure you understand how the laws may have affected your ancestors' arrival in America.

Rule Six: Be skeptical of the reasons given for your ancestors' name changes.

There are many reasons people changed their names when they came to America. Not all of these reasons were made public. Your ancestor may have left Europe or another location for political or criminal reasons. A very large percentage of those who came to America came as transported criminals or indentured servants. They may not have wanted this to be known.

When you strip away all of the suggested records and such that might help you find you ancestor's exact place of origin, you find that the key is to keep looking and expand your search to other relatives and even to people living in the same geographic area as did your ancestor.

Case Studies of Using Immigration Records

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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