Tracing Immigrants Arrival Search TacticsEdit This Page
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Immigrants were usually mentioned in several different records in their new country. However, it is hard to predict which, if any, of those records will name the immigrant's home town.
The following search tactics can help you systematically search country-of-arrival records. Search these records thoroughly because it is hard to know which record has useful information. Keep careful notes of everything you learn; they may lead to more information. Whenever you learn new information, reconsider which tactic to apply next.
The general strategy is to search family sources first, then records of previous research, and finally original records about the immigrant. Even if you cannot find the place of origin with country-of-arrival records, any information you find will be valuable when using the records of the old country.
1. Search Family Sources
Begin your research with family and home sources. Collect all the information you can about the immigrant and his or her parents, spouse, or children. Even information not about the place of origin may be a clue.
Look for names, dates, places, relatives, and clues in certificates, family Bibles, obituaries, diaries, tombstone inscriptions, military papers, passports, letters and post marks, photographs, and similar sources. Contact relatives, family friends, and neighbors and ask for family information or referrals to someone who might have information. Many researchers find their ancestor's hometown in family and home sources.
2. Survey General Records of Previous Research
After reviewing home and family sources, look for research done by others on your family lines. Someone else may have already identified the immigrant's place of origin. Even if you do not find the place of origin, you might uncover important clues. Seek information for both the immigrant ancestor and other family members.
Look for large indexed or alphabetical collections first. At the Family History Library, look in the Surname section of the catalog for family histories and biographies, Ancestral File, International Genealogical Index, and Family Group Records Collections. Each of these contains millions of names, is international in scope, and represents many hours of work done by others. Also search previous research collected by other libraries and archives.
Seek published genealogies, family histories, and biographies. Many focus on immigrant ancestors as a starting point and show several generations of descendants. Look for catalogs and indexes from other libraries to help find published genealogies.
See the Search Strategies, Step 3. Select Records to Search, Genealogical Records section of this article for ideas for obtaining these kinds of records.
If one particular compiled record does not help, search for others until you have exhausted all available sources of previous research.
3. Check Local Records for Previous Research
Libraries, archives, and societies near where an immigrant settled may collect previous research about the local people. For example, local genealogies, biographies, town or county histories, and genealogical and historical periodicals may reveal the place of origin. Look for compiled works done on town, county, state, or provincial levels. Also look for local genealogical or historical societies who publish periodicals or have research registration programs.
4. Search Local Original Records
Certain types of original records are more likely to give immigration information than others. (See the “Records Selection Table.”) Search these first, then search other original records until you discover the hometown and as much information as possible about the immigrant and his or her family.
No single source always gives the place of origin. It is crucial to thoroughly search all available original records for three reasons. First, searching all records increases your chances of finding the place of origin. Second, you may learn more minimum identification facts. Third, you can develop a fuller biography and more accurate family group records about the immigrant.
First search for original records related to the immigrant's death. See the sections below on “Church Records,” “Vital Records,” “Obituaries,” “Cemetery Records,” and “Probate Records.”
Next search records of other events, such as confirmation, marriage, and children's births. Both church and civil authorities kept marriage and birth records. See the “Records Selection Table” for more original records to search.
Many types of local original records can help establish where an immigrant settled, indicate if property was purchased, reveal an occupation, and so on. In addition to the sections noted above, see “Census,” “Court Records,” “Land and Property,” “Occupations,” or “Pensions.”
5. Determine Immigration Information
If using the previous tactics does not reveal the immigrant's hometown, search for immigration and naturalization records. Passenger lists, immigrant aid society records, and applications for citizenship fall into this group. Some churches kept lists of immigrant families, giving information about their arrival, place of origin, and place of settlement.
Focus on learning immigration information such as the date and port of departure or arrival, ship or shipping line, and traveling companions. This information is usually on a passenger list.
For recent immigrants (usually after 1880), naturalization and immigration documents often include a specific town of origin. For earlier immigrants, the most useful information is the immigration date. With it you can usually find other information in passenger lists and other records. You can learn the date of immigration from some census records and most naturalization records. To approximate an arrival date, you can learn the immigrant's first—
- Child to be born in the new country.
- Residence in the new country.
- Land purchase.
- Appearance in church records.
If you know the name of the ship an immigrant came on, you can use lists of ship arrivals to find possible dates of arrival. However, some ships landed several times a year in the same country, making the arrival date harder to estimate.
See the “Emigration and Immigration” and “Naturalization and Citizenship” sections.
6. Search Other Jurisdictions
If local records do not yield a place of origin, move to broader jurisdictions. Try original state and national records. Not every immigrant is in these records, but many are.
For more information on national original records that may give a place of origin, see the “Census,” “Pension,” and “Military Records” sections below.
7. Determine the Country, State, or Region of Origin
If you have not learned the town name, at least determine the country of origin. If you know the country, try to learn the specific region or state. Knowing the country is sometimes enough to use country-of-origin records. However, the more you know about the place of origin, the easier it is to search country-of-origin records.
Occasionally you can find the name of a hometown but not know which country it is in. For example, both Scotland and Ireland have a town named Maryville. Determining the country or region can solve such problems.
Find out what language the immigrant spoke. Family surnames are often clues to national origin. For example, a surname ending with “ski” or “sky” indicates Polish or Russian origin.
You can usually determine the country or region an immigrant is from by talking to descendants, using census records, or searching compiled records. For example, the International Genealogical Index could reveal where a particular name occurs most frequently.
8. Trace Relatives and Neighbors
If you still cannot find the place of origin, there are two other approaches you can use.
First repeat the previous tactics for other members of the immigrant's family. If you can find the place of origin for a brother or uncle, local records will usually confirm that your ancestor also lived there. Second, use these tactics to seek the immigrant's neighbors. Immigrants often traveled as groups and settled together in the new country. Others joined friends or relatives already there. Finding a neighbor's place of origin may reveal your ancestor's as well.