Tips for Researching Immigrants to the U.S.
Ideas for finding a place of origins and tips for specific immigration countries
One of the most challenging types of research for U.S. genealogy is finding the origins of an immigrant who came to the United States. It is important to locate an exact place of origin in the U.S. records before jumping back into records in your ancestor's home country. Otherwise, you will not know that you have identified the correct person. For example, say you have an ancestor named John Smith that you know came from England. There are hundreds of men of that name in the country. Without a more specific place of origin, you will not know whether the John Smith you have records for in England is the correct John Smith.
Immigrants that arrived in the United States in the 1800s and earlier can be particularly difficult to find in the home country because documents in the U.S. that will name their specific place of origin may be harder to locate.
Locating a Place of Origin
Here are some helpful places where you may be able to find a place of origin:
If your ancestor decided to become a U.S. citizen, documents such as a declaration of intent or a petition for naturalization may give place of origin. The documents may also state when your ancestor entered the United States. Witnesses who may be relatives or people from the same place may also be listed. Previous to 1906, most naturalization records only list the home country without more specific information. For more information about naturalization records see our article on naturalization records.
If your ancestor immigrated after 1906, the town they came from may be listed on their passenger list as they entered the country. For more information about passenger lists, see our article on passenger lists.
Obituaries and Newspapers
An immigrant's obituary may name the hometown that he or she came from. Obituaries of other family members may also be helpful. Family members may also be listed in the obituary and researching those family members may give you further clues.
If your immigrant lived in an area where there were many other immigrants from that same place, there may be a newspaper that was printed for immigrants in that area that will be more likely to list your ancestor. In some cities, there were newspapers printed in German, Danish, Norwegian, Spanish, etc. These newspapers are more likely to have a detailed obituary for your ancestor than the newspaper for a broader audience in the area.
Church records may give information about where an immigrant came from. For example, christening records of children may name birth place of parents, marriage records may give birthplaces or names of parents for the couple, or a death record may name parents.
Often immigrants would attend a church where their native language was spoken, or a church similar to the church they attended in their home country. For example, German immigrants often attended a Lutheran church where other Germans attended; English immigrants often attended the Anglican church (similar to the Church of England); immigrants from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden often attended a Lutheran church; immigrants from Mexico or Latin America often attended Catholic churches; etc.
When an immigrants came to the United States, they often lived in the same household with or nearby a family from the same area they came from. It was easier to get used to their new situation if they were living with relative or friends that spoke their language and understood their background. It may be valuable to look for the first U.S. census record in which your ancestor appears and look at the household and neighbors from the same country and study those individuals, as well as your ancestor. Looking at others living in the same household or those living nearby with the same surname in a city directory may also be helpful for identifying relatives.
Immigrants did not always keep their same name from their home country and often they would make their name more similar to American names. For example, Nielsen or Nilsson may have changed to Nelson, Schmidt may have changed to Smith, etc. You will want to look for variant spellings of your ancestor's name as you do your searching.
Tips for Specific Countries
Records for Ireland
Many of the early records for Ireland have been lost, particularly the Protestant church records and the early census records. The Irish also tended to use the same names repeatedly, so a specific place of origin will likely be needed to locate someone in Ireland (more than just Ireland or the county name). Civil registration records were kept starting in 1864. In some cases when an ancestor was an early immigrant from Ireland, it's not possible to locate him or her in the home country due to lack of records available.
Records for Germany, Prussia, Austria, and Poland
The jurisdictions for this part of the world changed frequently over the years, and the records today are not found in any central location or database, so for these areas, it's particularly important to find a specific place of origin for your ancestor. You will likely need a specific place as well and not a larger geographical area like Baden, Bavaria, Bremen, Hanover, etc.
Records for England, Scotland, and Wales
England, Scotland, and Wales had detailed census records taken starting in 1841 and every 10 years after that (1851, 1861, etc). Starting in 1851, the town of birth was mentioned. So locating the census records may be helpful to you in locating your ancestor in the home country.
Civil registration records for births, marriages, and deaths were kept in England and Wales starting in 1837, and in Scotland starting in 1855.
Records for Denmark
Everyone in Denmark was recorded in the Evangelical Lutheran church records for birth, marriages, and deaths starting in the 1600s and most people are still listed through the 1880s or later. MyHeritage.com has indexed the Church records, and you can do a specific date search for an individual to find a birth record and search the entire country. However, it's very important to note that names in Denmark were used repeatedly, so just finding an ancestor with the correct name without other details to know you have the right person may lead you to identifying the wrong individual.
Records for Sweden
The Swedish Lutheran church records for birth, marriages, and deaths for Sweden go back to the 1600s. There are also Swedish Household books that were taken that recorded everyone in the country with their date of and place of birth, as well as residence over time. MyHeritage has indexed the household books, so it's possible to look for someone with a name and exact birth date for the entire country. However, it's important to note that names were often used repeatedly so just finding an ancestor with the correct name without other details to know you have the right person may lead you to identifying the wrong individual.
Records for Italy
There are many records for Italy available, both civil registration and church records. However, the records are not indexed or online for all locations in the country. So it will be needed to find the hometown of your ancestor or at least the general area in order to locate him or her in the records in Italy.
Records for Mexico
Civil registration records for Mexico starting in the 1850s and may of these records are indexed online and searchable by name and date. In addition, there was a 1930 Mexican census that listed everyone living in the country. There are also border crossing records from Mexico to the United States that listed genealogical details for those people entering the country, and these are searchable online as well. For more information about border crossing records, see our article about border crossing records.
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