Genealogy Immigration/Migration: How to find your ancestors when you hit a “brick wall” and you’re out of clues

10-16-2014 7-52-40 AMBy Barry J. Ewell

Do you have an ancestor that your family has been looking for and simply can’t find the clues to where they came from? In his book British Origins of American Colonists, 1629-1775, William Dollarhide describes a methodology for “finding the needle in the haystack.” I have several ancestors who have been difficult to locate, and I have found the following very insightful for organizing and conducting a difficult search.

1. What do you know about your family?

  • What is their country of origin?
  • What are the surnames of the family and possible variations? (For example, “Ewell” could also be spelled “Yuille,” “Yule,” or “Uhl.”)
  • Do you know if they belong to a specific group? (such as Puritans, Scots-Irish, Huguenots, and so on)
  • About when do you think they came to America?
  • Where did they settle in America?

2. Find out what has been written about the migration of your ancestors’ country men. Start with a Google search. For example, if your family came from Germany, start your search with “German Immigration,” or if they were Puritans you could start with “Puritans” or “English Immigration.” Be patient—there are hundreds of sources. I usually find what I need in the first three pages of an Internet search. Hint: As you review information on the Internet, look to see what sources are used in providing the informa¬tion, such as books and other Internet sites. These provide valuable clues of where else to look if you need more information.

3. Learn what you can about immigration patterns of the group or people your family belonged to. Read and take notes. With even the most limited information you were able to gather in step 1, you will start building your knowledge base and narrow the place in the “haystack” of where to look. As you read, ask yourself questions, such as the following:

  • What was the time period your ancestors arrived in America?
  • Why did they come (regions, counties, states)?
  • What regions in the country did the group or people come from?
  • What ports did they leave from and arrive at?
  • Where did they settle and why?
  • What were the names of the cities where they settled in America?
  • What were their social tendencies when they came to America?
  • What roads did similar immigrant groups take in their travels?
  • What maps or charts are included with the information you read to help explain what is being written?
  • What types of records were kept at a given time period by related groups, countries, or agencies?

From my own experience: I had one ancestor for whom I had very little information. All I knew about them was they were from England. By reviewing English immigration, I came across a group called the Scots-Irish. The information I found about this group helped answer many questions about the family, from why they lived where they did to where they may have come from.

4. Compile what you have learned. You are now starting to eliminate parts of the “haystack” where you don’t need to look and are narrowing your scope as much as possible.

Organize your notes, questions, and clues that you found. Identify on a map the places or regions where the people came from and settled. Types of maps that provide help include the following:

  • maps that show cities today.
  • maps of the time period if available.
  • maps that outline the country, counties, and states. If possible, color in the counties or states, if provided, where specific groups come from.

5. Start a Systematic Search. Based on what you have learned, start sifting through the portions of the “haystack” that are left, one straw at a time. The narrower the place you’re searching is, the better your chances of finding ancestors. Keep a log of where you have been, what you reviewed, and what you found. Frequently update your notes and questions with your findings.

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