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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Find Your Immigrant Ancestors -- Begin Research In the United States

We are all immigrants. Even those of us who call ourselves natives, ultimately came from somewhere else. From a genealogical standpoint, as we go back in time researching our ancestors, sooner or later, we will always run out of records. If you happen to live in the United States, you are either a Native American, or you ancestors came from another country sometime after 1492 A.D. We may suspect or believe in earlier contact such as references to Lief Ericson, but until 1492 A.D., written records are mostly missing. So, at some time, 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), 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. When you start to seek help, it is very easy to get overwhelmed with websites and publications that talk about getting started with finding your immigrant ancestor. This is especially true when you begin to realize that they are mostly all saying about the same things. So why is what I am saying any different? That is a really good question.

I have several rules about genealogical 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:
Use a Record Selection Table such as the one in the Research Wiki.

Rule Five:
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 Six:
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 Seven:
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.

That's enough rules for now.

Not too long ago, I wrote a very long series of blog posts on the elements of research. Here is a link to the last post in the series that contains links to all the other posts.

Let's just say that my perspective on research differs from what is traditionally assumed in the vast majority of books on finding your immigrant ancestor. 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.

Notwithstanding the fact that my opinions about research may differ from some, I appreciate the wealth of resources available both online and in books. Here is a sample list of resources online that help you to learn how to find you immigrant.

Here is a sample of books to get you started. 

Anderson, Chris, and Ernest Thode. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Germanic Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000.
Association of European Migration Institutions. A Key to Your North European Roots. [Place of publication not identified]: [Association of European Migration Institutions], 1992.
Brøderbund, and Learning Company. “Family Tree Maker Immigration Records: Dutch in America, 1800s.” Learning Co., 2000.
———. “Family Tree Maker Immigration Records: Scottish Immigrants to North America, 1600s-1800s.” Learning Co., 2000.
Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Immigrant & Ethnic Ancestors. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2000.
———. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant & Ethnic Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000.
———. Ellis Island Research, 2011.
———. The Family Tree Guide to Finding Your Ellis Island Ancestors. Cincinnati, Ohio: Family Tree Books, 2005.
Chambers, Paul. Early Modern Genealogy: Researching Your Family History 1600-1838. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2006.
Ciment, James, and Thomson Gale (Firm). Encyclopedia of American Immigration. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.
Coddington, John Insley. Bridging the Atlantic: Finding the Place of Origin of Your German Ancestor : Part I, United States. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1969.
Colletta, John Philip. They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record. Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2002.
Colletta, John Philip, and Teaching Company. Discovering Your Roots an Introduction to Genealogy. Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2014.
Conte, Stephen, and Thomas A Peters. [Locating Immigrant Ancestors]. West Caldwell, N.J.: S. Conte, 1989.
De Breffny, Brian M. Leese, and World Conference on Records and Genealogical Seminar. Finding Your Italian and Italian-Swiss Ancestors and Emigration from Italy to the New World. Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1969.
Dollarhide, William. British Origins of American Colonists, 1629-1775. Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest Genealogical Service, 1997.
Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), and Films Media Group. The Melting Pot. New York, N.Y.: Films Media Group, 2014.
Finding Ancestors in American and Carribean [sic] Ports. Arlington, Va.; St. Louis, MO: National Genealogical Society] ; Jamb Tapes, 2011.
Hart, Simon. Bridging the Atlantic: Finding the Place of Origin of Your Germanic Ancestor : Part III, the Netherlands. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1969.
Hedegaard, Ruth, Elizabeth Anne Melrose, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Genealogy and Local History Section, and IFLA General Conference. International Genealogy and Local History Papers Presented by the Genealogy and Local History Section at IFLA General Conferences 2001-2005. München: K G Saur, 2008.
Israel, Ottokar. Bridging the Atlantic: Finding the Place of Origin of Your German Ancestor : Part II, Germany. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1969.
Learning Company. “Family Tree Maker Scotch-Irish Settlers in America, 1500s-1800s: Immigration Records.” Learning Co.], 2001.
Lener, Dewayne J. Tracing Your Italian Heritage in America. Dallas, Texas: D.J. Lener, 1991.
Marlin, Robert W. My Sixteen: A Self-Help Guide to Finding Your Sixteen Grea-Great Grandparents. Nashville, TN.: Land Yacht Press, 1996.
Melnyk, Marcia Iannizzi, and Mary M Tedesco. Tracing Your Italian Ancestors, 2014.
Miller, Olga K. Migration, Emigration, Immigration. Volume II Volume II. Logan, Utah: Everton, 1981.
Num, Cora. Family History Notebook: How to Find Australian Shipping and Immigration Records : A Check List Guide to Selected Published Sources. Pearce, A.C.T.: Cora Num, 1995.
———. How to Find Shipping and Immigration Records in Australia. Pearce, A.C.T.: C. Num, 2002.
Ollhoff, Jim. Exploring Immigration: [discovering the Rich Heritage of America’s Immigrants]. Edina, MN: ABDO Pub., 2011.
One-Step Web Pages a Potpouri [sic] of Genealogical Search Tools. Arlington, Va.; St. Louis, MO: National Genealogical Society] ; Jamb Tapes, 2007.
Public Archives of Nova Scotia. Passenger Lists and Lists of Immigrants: The Public Arcives of Nova Scotia Finding Aid : Includes Emigrants to Australasia. [Halifax, N.S.]: P.A.N.S., 1981.
Quillen, W. Daniel. Mastering Immigration & Naturalization Records. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Press, 2011.
Roehl, Evelyn M. Finding Your Ancestors on Ship Passenger Lists: Books and Microfilms in the Puget Sound Region. Seattle, Wash.: Kin Hunters Historic Research Service, 2003.
Smith, Clifford Neal. Nineteenth-Century Emigration of “Old Lutherans” from Eastern Germany (mainly Pomerania and Lower Silesia) to Australia, Canada, and the United States. Baltimore, Md.: Reprinted for Clearfield Pub. by Genealogical Pub. Co., 2004.

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