Tracing Immigrants Search Strategies
Successful researchers follow a series of steps as they conduct research. This section describes the steps to take to find an immigrant's place of origin.
- 1 Step 1. Identify What You Know about the Immigrant
- 2 Step 2. Decide What You Want to Learn
- 3 Step 3: Select the Records to Search
- 4 Step 4. Find and Search the Records
- 5 Step 5. Use the Information
Step 1. Identify What You Know about the Immigrant
To successfully determine an immigrant's place of origin, you need to learn some minimum facts about him or her. This will help you select record types to search and identify the immigrant in those records. Additional information can also be helpful.
Before trying to find an immigrant's place of origin, be sure you have learned as much of the following as possible:
- The immigrant's name. Find both the given names and surname (last name), including middle names (such as Johann Friedrich Wolfgang Sticht). Try to learn the name used in the country of origin and any variations of it.
- A date. A birth date is most preferable, but if you cannot find one, use a marriage, confirmation, baptismal, or military release date, or another date of an event that happened in the country of origin. Try to find an entire date (day, month, and year), but you may be able to identify the immigrant with an approximate year.
- A place. Learn as much as you can about where the immigrant came from, such as the province, county, or region. Knowing as specific a place as possible helps you distinguish between the immigrant and others of the same name. Eventually, you will have to learn the specific town where the immigrant came from. Use this portal to learn this information.
- A relative. Learning the name of a relative of the immigrant, such as the father, helps you identify your ancestor in country-of-origin records. If you cannot learn the father's name, try to learn the name of the mother, spouse, brother, sister, or other close relative (such as an aunt or uncle).
While minimum identification helps you recognize your ancestor in country-of-origin records, additional information could provide clues to the place of origin or confirm that you have found the right family. If possible, learn the following about the immigrant:
- Other family members. Learn about both parents, his or her spouse, all brothers and sisters, and any children. This information helps you identify him or her in native records. Also, you may discover the place of origin by finding a relative's place of origin.
- Friends and neighbors. Many immigrants traveled in groups or settled among friends from their native lands. Searching for friends or neighbors might reveal an immigrant's place of origin.
- Family stories and traditions. While many family traditions are exaggerated (such as those about stowaways), they may include accurate facts. Such things as the area of the country he or she came from, the industry in the native district, occupations, nearby towns, rivers, mountains, or other features could provide clues to the place of origin.
- Religion. Religious groups in many countries create records. By learning the immigrant's religion, you can further identify him or her, determine others he or she may have traveled with, limit your searches to the records most likely to contain useful information, and gain clues to the region where he or she lived. For example, a Protestant Irishman most likely came from northern Ireland, not central or southern Ireland.
Step 2. Decide What You Want to Learn
Select an immigrant you want to learn about. Choose one for whom you have minimum identification. It helps to know where the immigrant lived in the country of arrival and any names used there (such as a woman's married name).
Choose one of the goals discussed below. Then use the appropriate “Records Selection Table” to select records that might contain that information.
The primary goal is to find the immigrant's place of origin. With the place of origin you can begin using records from the hometown to extend the immigrant's ancestry or pursue other research goals. If you do not yet have enough information to find the place of origin, choose one of the secondary goals below.
Other information about an immigrant is often helpful when searching for a place of origin. Even records that say nothing about the place of origin may give clues leading to records that name the hometown. One clue can lead to another until you find a record showing the town of origin. Possible secondary goals include—
- Date of immigration. An immigration date leads to passenger lists and other records. With the immigration date, you can also figure out when the immigrant first appears in other records in the new country, when he was released from the military in the old country, or when he or she applied for citizenship.
- Place of departure. Knowing where an immigrant left from may help you find departure lists and indexes, the ship's name, and newspaper and police lists.
- Place of arrival. Immigrants often stayed in the port of arrival for months or years before moving on. In such cases, you can search naturalization, church, and vital records in that location.
- Ship's name and related data. The name of the ship a person traveled on will help you use passenger lists or find the names of other immigrants in the group.
- Names of other immigrants in the group. Immigrants often traveled in groups or with relatives. They often settled close to people they knew in the old country. If you cannot find a person's place of origin, learn about relatives, neighbors, fellow passengers, or a minister who may have immigrated from the same hometown.
- Immigrant's original country or region. Sometimes knowing the country or region a person left from lets you begin searching the records of that area. It may also imply the place of departure.
- Immigrant's name before immigrating. This helps identify a person in country-of-origin records. Sometimes the name, or part of one, is a clue to the immigrant's original country or region.
Step 3: Select the Records to Search
This portal can help you evaluate the content, availability, ease of use, time period covered, and reliability of records. It can also indicate if your ancestor is likely to be listed. For information on a specific country, see the appropriate national portal or research outline.
It is almost always best to first search the sources in the country where the immigrant finally settled. Do not switch to records from the country-of-origin too soon in your search. You will most likely find the immigrant's birthplace or hometown in country-of-arrival records, which are usually easier to use.
The genealogical and historical records needed to determine an immigrant's place of origin fall into two categories:
Compiled Records. Someone else may have already researched the immigrant. This is especially true if the person immigrated before about 1800. Compiled records include—
- Databases of family information described in Major Databases for Beginning United States Research.
- Printed family histories and genealogies. To find these search:
- Family History Library Catalog Surname Search. Search using just the family’s surname. This searches the world’s largest genealogical library for works with this family name as a main subject.
- WorldCatalog Advanced Search. In the Subject field enter the surname and “family” like this, Greenwell family. This searches the catalogs and displays the results from thousands of North American libraries at once.
- Periodical Source Index (PERSI) People Search for a family name in over a million article titles in genealogical periodicals.
- Local histories.
- Manuscript collections of family information.
- Hereditary and lineage society records.
Original Records. After searching compiled records, search the existing records of—
- Each place where the immigrant lived.
- The complete time period when he or she lived there.
- All jurisdictions that may have kept records about him or her (town, church, county, state, and federal).
Most record types described in this portal are original records, such as “Church Records,” “Emigration and Immigration,” “Naturalization,” or “Vital Records.”
If you do not have enough information to select or use compiled or original records, use reference tools from the following categories:
Background Information. You may need some geographical, linguistic, historical, or cultural information. This information can save you time and effort by helping you focus your research in the correct place and time period. You may need to—
- Locate towns or places.
- Review local or ethnic histories.
- Learn about jurisdictions.
- Use language helps.
- Understand native customs.
Background information sources are not discussed in this portal, but they are discussed in the national portals and research outlines.
Finding Aids. Catalogs or bibliographies identify where a record is available. Indexes help find the person's name in a record. A few finding aids are discussed in this portal. See the appropriate national portal or research outline for more information on finding aids.
Step 4. Find and Search the Records
Suggestions for Obtaining Records
You may be able to obtain the records you need from the following:
- Family History Library. You are welcome to visit and use the records at the Family History Library. The library is open to the public. There are no fees for using the records.
- Family History Centers. Copies of most of the records on microform at the Family History Library can be loaned to family history centers. There are small duplication and postage fees for this service. You can get a list of the family history centers near you by writing to the Family History Library.
- Archives and local churches. Most original documents are at federal, state, church, and local archives or in local parish offices. While the Family History Library has many records on microfilm, additional records are available only at these archives. You can request searches in their records through correspondence or by visiting these offices.
- Libraries and interlibrary loan. Public, academic, and other research libraries may have compiled records and some original records for tracing immigrant origins. Some libraries provide interlibrary loan services to borrow records from other libraries. In addition, many indexes and catalogs are available through local libraries.
- Professional researchers. You can hire a professional researcher to search the records for you. Researchers in the country of origin may keep lists of emigrants compiled from various sources. For information on hiring a researcher, see Hiring a Professional Genealogist. When requesting services from libraries or professional researchers through correspondence, you will have more success if your letter is brief and specific. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope when writing within your own country. When writing to other countries, enclose international reply coupons (available from your post office). You usually need to send a check or money order in advance to pay for photocopy or search services.
Suggestions for Searching the Records
Follow these principles as you search the various records for your ancestor:
- Search for the immigrant's entire family. The records of each person in a family may include clues for identifying other family members. Look at other records and in other places to find a missing family member. Other people with the same surname may be relatives.
- Search each source thoroughly. Note the immigrant's occupation and the names of witnesses, godparents, neighbors, relatives, guardians, and others.
- Search a broad time period. Look several years before and after the date you think an event occurred.
- Use indexes. Many records have indexes that help you use the records faster and better. However, many indexes are incomplete. They may only include the name of the specific person the record is about. They may not include parents, witnesses, and other incidental persons. Also, the original records may have been misinterpreted, or names may have been omitted during indexing.
- Search for previous residences. Information about previous residences can lead to additional records that may have more information.
- Watch for spelling variations. Spelling was not standardized when most early records were made. You may find a name spelled differently than it is today.
Step 5. Use the Information
After you find information about an immigrant's place of origin, you must interpret your findings. You may want to ask an experienced researcher or native speaker to help you understand foreign terms. You should—
- Evaluate the place-name.
- Understand foreign spellings.
- Prove that the person you found is really the immigrant.
Use gazetteers and other reference tools to evaluate the information. Watch for the following problems:
- Language and terminology. If you do not know the native version of a country name, you may think the country name is a town. For example—
|Native Name||English Translation|
|Eire||Republic of Ireland|
Other foreign terms can be mistaken for place-names. “Königreich Preußen,” for example, means the “kingdom of Prussia” and does not refer to a town called Königreich in Prussia. Other foreign terms that may confuse researchers include—
|Native Term||English Translation|
Many town names are spelled differently in the native language:
|Native Spelling||English Translation|
- State, regional, and provincial names. Instead of the town, some sources only name the county, region, or province. Foreign states, counties, provinces, or regions are unfamiliar to many researchers. Some examples include—
|Native Term||English Translation|
|East Anglia||Eastern coastal region in England|
|Hunsruck||Mountain range in western Germany|
|Holland||Provinces in the Netherlands|
- Cities and counties with the same name. Often the name you find is both a city and a province or county name. In most records, names such as Baden, Hannover, Luxembourg, Posen, or York probably refer to a county or state, not a city or town.
- Nearby large city. If you find the name of a large or well-known city in a record, the ancestor is often not from the city itself but rather from a smaller, lesser-known place nearby. For example, many immigrants said they came from London or Berlin when they really came from towns near London or Berlin. However, some immigrants did live in a large city for a period of time before emigrating.
If the immigrant is said to have come from a large city, look for clues that he or she really came from a nearby town. A person from a large city should not have an occupation associated with small town life, such as farming. Family traditions about trips to the market or traveling several miles to church are also clues that the immigrant came from a small town.
- Port cities. Sometimes a place-name is the port from which the immigrant left the old country. Few immigrants were actually born in port cities. Common European port cities include Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bremen, Copenhagen, Gothenberg, Hamburg, Le Havre, Lisbon, Liverpool, London, Naples, Oslo, Rotterdam, Stockholm, and Trieste.
- Several towns with the same name. Many towns in a country have the same or similar names. For example, there are 57 places named Mount Pleasant in Great Britain and 14 towns and dozens of hamlets named Schönau in Germany. In the Netherlands, there are two towns named Nibbixwoud. To distinguish between towns with the same or similar names, find out about the area the immigrant came from. Look for the name of the state or county or a nearby city. If you still do not know which town the immigrant came from, you may need to search the records of each town with the same name.
- Place-name changes. Some places have been known by more than one name. Such changes often occurred when another country took over and translated the name into its language. Gdansk in Poland was known as Danzig under German rule. Some name changes were political. For example, Kitchner, Ontario was Berlin before World War I. Other changes have evolved over time. Shropshire, England is sometimes still called Salop, its old name. Other examples include—
|Old Name||New Name|
Foreign names are often spelled differently from common spellings. There are many reasons for the variations:
- Phonetic spelling. Some letters have a different sound in other languages. For example, the German j is pronounced like the English y; j in French is pronounced like zhi in English.
- Misreading. Handwritten or gothic printed letters are easily misinterpreted. Be aware of this as you search handwritten records or indexes to handwritten records. For example, the German handwritten letter w can be confused with m, and the letter k often looks like r.
- Special characters. Many languages use special marks called diacritics that change the sound, and sometimes alphabetical order, of letters. These characters are sometimes eliminated or changed into another letter when written in another language. For example, the German ä often, but not always, becomes ae in English. The Czech š may become sh or sch. The Dutch ij is usually translated as y.
Use comprehensive gazetteers to identify all possible towns that fit a spelling you have found. You should also be familiar with the spelling rules, phonetics, and handwriting of the immigrant's native language. The Family History Library and family history centers have word lists that explain such information for some major languages. You may also want to ask for help from another researcher who knows the culture, language, and history.
Proving You Found the Immigrant
When you find a place that appears to be the immigrant's hometown, search the civil or church records of that place. If you find records there of a person with the immigrant's name, you must verify whether the person is really the immigrant.
- Use the minimum identification. Use the information from step 1 to identify your ancestor. The person's birth date and parents (or other relatives) should correspond with the information you know about the immigrant. Although the spelling of names may have changed from one country to the other, the names should be essentially the same. Names may have been translated or shortened, or the immigrant may have used a middle name after emigration.
- Test the new information. Make sure the information you found in country-of-origin records matches the information in country-of-arrival records. Some names are so common you may find several families whose children have the same names. The more you know about the immigrant's family, the more likely you can verify that you found the right person.
- Try to disprove the connection. One useful tactic is to try and prove that the person you found is not the immigrant. You know the person you found is not the immigrant if he or she died before the immigrant left the country of origin or if he or she appears in records while living in the country of arrival.
If you cannot disprove the connection, it does not mean you have found the immigrant. Weigh the evidence of these three factors to decide if you found the right person and if you are ready to seek earlier generations.