How can I find information about Immigrant Ancestors?
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
One of the biggest challenges in tracing family history is finding information about immigrant ancestors. Discovering your immigrant’s town, county, or parish of origin is particularly important as most foreign records are kept at the town or village level.
In some cases, records may be maintained at the state or provincial archives, but in many cases the records are arranged by town or even other locality. Without this information, it will be difficult to widen your search to your ancestor’s native country.
Begin by gathering as much information you can about that person by talking with living family members, searching any records that they may have, family possessions, photographs, or letters. You can also find information with public records including tax, census, military, and probate records.
Records can also be found for your ancestor’s immigration process from passenger lists to naturalization forms. Note that there may be inconsistencies in place of origin due to shifting political and geographical boundaries in Eastern Europe. It is also common for immigrants from a small village to say they hailed from a better-known town or city close to their home.
Ethnic heritage also offers alternative research strategies and resources for your search. A variety of societies and organizations have been formed to collect and preserve the records and heritage of ethnic groups. Those groups can often point you in the direction of specific records of interest for your ancestry search.
The name of your ancestor’s town or village can be found in many records, including death certificates, obituaries, ethnic newspapers, marriage records, church records, and any war draft registration forms. A variety of specialized databases relating to most ethnic or religious groups can be found online.
If you have no information at all on your family origins it can be useful to start with your last name. Looking up your surname online may tell you where it is most common or even what it means. Although it is not able to give you evidence to support a claim to being the descendant of a specific region, it will give you an idea of which geographical areas may hold clues and records. Lots of surnames were created during the medieval period to identify individuals better. They often took on place names or occupational ones, like Goldsmith and Tailor. There's additional information on surnames in another article that explains in a little more detail how names have developed and how it can affect your search for ancestors.