Tracing Immigrants Introduction

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This outline introduces the principles, search strategies, and various record types you can use to identify an immigrant ancestor's original hometown. These principles can be applied to almost any country. If you are just beginning your research, you may need additional information about genealogical records and search strategies.

Finding an immigrant ancestor's place of origin is the key to finding earlier generations of the family. It provides access to many family history resources in that home area. Once you know a former place of residence or a birthplace, you may be able to add more generations to your pedigree. Learning about your family's history and experiences can be a source of enjoyment and education for you and your family.

Tracing immigrant origins can be one of the hardest parts of family history research. Even if you know which country your family came from, it can still be hard to identify a specific hometown or birthplace.

Using This Outline

This outline is a reference tool. It has several features to help you learn about sources and strategies to find an immigrant's hometown.

  • Arrangement. This outline is divided into three main parts. You may use these parts separately or together. “Part 1. Search Strategies” describes the five basic steps you can use to find an immigrant's place of origin. “Part 2. Country of Arrival” describes tactics and record types for records created in the immigrant's new country. “Part 3. Country of Origin” describes the tactics and record types from his or her homeland.
  • Records Selection Tables. Both part two (Country-of-Arrival) and part three (Country-of-Origin) have a “Records Selection Table.” These tables can help you choose the record type that might contain the information you need. The search tactics are listed in an order that best helps you if you know little about the immigrant. Select the tactic(s) and record type(s) that best fit what you already know.
  • Research Sequence. The best approach is usually to start searching records created in the immigrant's new country, especially if you know little about the immigrant. For a few countries, it is easier to use country-of-origin records. This outline usually identifies such countries. To verify information found in country-of-arrival records, use country-of-origin records.
  • Other Research Outlines. This research outline is most helpful when used with other available research outlines. These outlines tell you what information is in each record type and the availability of records for specific countries. State and provincial outlines can also help. Research outlines are available at family history centers or the Family History Library.

Family History Library Catalog

The Family History Library has most of the records mentioned in this outline. The key to finding a record in the Family History Library's collection is the Family History Library Catalog. The catalog describes the library's records and provides the call numbers. The Family History Library Catalog is also available on the Internet and at each Family History Center. At the library and at most centers you can also search the catalog on computer.

The Family History Library Catalog has eight major searches:

To find the call numbers of the records described in this outline, you will most often use the Place Search. The paragraph headings in this outline that describe types of records, such as “Church Records,” are the same as the topics found in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog.

Catalog entries are generally written in the same language as the records they describe. However, the description also includes a brief English summary of the contents.

The Place Search lists records by area. Records relating to an entire country, such as passenger lists, are listed under the country name. Most records are listed under the specific place. For example, in the Place Search look for—

  • The place where your ancestor lived, such as—


  • The record type you want to search, such as—