Genealogy Immigration/Migration: Methodology of how to find the origin of your immigrant ancestors

Methodology of how to find the origin of your immigrant ancestorsBy Barry J. Ewell

Genealogy is a process, a methodology, for finding our ancestors. There are many tools available, but knowing what to use and when to use the tool makes the biggest difference.

I remember many years ago when I was a Boy Scout, a member of our troop became lost. The first thing many of us did was rush right out and start looking in the wilderness and calling out his name. We had no record of who had gone where or what—if anything—was found. Any evidence that may have been found was trampled over. When evening came, we built large bonfires, hoping he might see us in the dark. As the morning came, we gathered as a troop and discussed what we remembered and what we knew about his last whereabouts. Next, we formed ourselves into groups led by an adult, with one adult being the coordinator of our efforts. Each group was assigned a specific area or quadrant to search. When we searched each quadrant, we either found a clue of where he might be or where he wasn’t. As the day wore on, we found him asleep on the trail not more than a mile from camp, a happy ending. The happy ending resulted not from our hurry and scurry of the previous day but from a systematic method of searching that began the next morning. The same principle applies in genealogy research—an organized, systematic search will yield better results than frantic, disorganized looking. This section describes an organized, useful approach to finding your ancestors through immigration records.

1. Identify important information to know about your ancestor.
What do you know about your ancestor? Gather and review all the documents you have relating to your ancestor. I like to develop a spreadsheet that allows me to record each piece of information by date. The following are a few questions to get you started on reviewing the information you currently have:

What is the full name of the ancestor? Was the name changed when they came to America? If yes, identify what the name was before it was changed.

  • Name of ancestor
  • Name changes—both given and surnames

What are the names of immediate family?

  • Names of the parents and their birth places
  • Names of siblings
  • Name of spouse(s)
  • Names of children
  • Common names given to family members

Identify the name of friends and relatives that are associated with your ancestor in American and in the country of origin. It is a great help in making sure you have found your ancestor when you find them together with these associated people in the country from which they immigrated.

  • Names of family and friends with whom they associated.

Identify an event associated with your ancestor (such as birth, christening, or marriage) which occurred in the country of origin. List the date, month, and year—be as specific as possible. I have found, especially in Scandinavian research, many individuals may have the same name, and the only way to tell them apart is by the event date.

  • Birth date and locality

What was the country of origin? Do you have the name of a village, town, and county? This can be the most difficult piece of information to secure.

  • Localities lived in
  • Geographical clues
  • Historical clues

Was the ancestor really the first one to come to America? I have found cases when my ancestor was a member of the family that came to America.
What other information do you have?

  • Documents in your possession
  • Information about culture and religion
  • Time period of immigration
  • Family stories and traditions
  • Family heirlooms

2. Start a profile and timeline for your ancestor.
Take the information you know and begin a written profile and timeline. Use an existing form or create one of your own to help track your ancestor’s information and what you find. Make sure you also document where you find the information you record, because the need will always arise to review at least one of your data points to confirm or search deeper for information. I believe you should record any and all information you learn about your ancestor no matter how insignificant you consider it. Not only will it help in your search but, once you find the ancestor, it will also help in writing family histories. The following are the types of information you should be looking for and recording:

  • Name of ancestor
  • Name changes—both given names and surnames
  • Names of parents and their birth places
  • Names of siblings
  • Name of spouse(s)
  • Names of children
  • Common names given to family members
  • Names of family and friends with whom they associated
  • Birth date and locality
  • Localities lived in
  • Geographical clues
  • Historical clues
  • Documents in your possession
  • Information about culture and religion
  • Time period of immigration
  • Family stories and traditions
  • Family heirlooms

At this point, you should be able to clearly see some trends in your ancestor’s life. The types of documents you are able to find are dependent upon where and in what time frame they lived. Double-check that you’ve reviewed every document you have on your ancestor; this includes letters, diaries, and photographs in your own files and in the possession of your relatives. Check online message boards for correspondence that you may not be aware of concerning research on this family line. Your ancestor’s life is recreated one event at a time.

Now that you have your information written down, develop a timeline starting from their death and moving toward their birth (reverse chronological order). What do you see? Are any trends apparent? What don’t you see? What gaps do you see in the information? Write down all the questions you still need and want to answer. No question is too small or “off limits.”

Don’t forget to include items such as histories, sketches, photographs, letters, and diaries as part of your search. Documents can be online, in libraries, or in a distant cousin’s file.

3. Start your document and record search in America.
Once you are fairly certain about which ancestor you are going to search for, begin in America to find records that will provide and confirm important information about your ancestor and lead you to where you should look for records from your ancestor’s country of origin.

Based on the time period in which your ancestor lived, outline some of the documents that might exist for your ancestor and where they might be located. This will help fill in the gaps in your timeline and answer your questions. Start with the paper trail you already have for your ancestor. You won’t be looking for a birth certificate if your ancestor’s life predates civil registration. Start with the basics—birth, marriage, and death records; church documents; indentures; land records; court records; and, of course, immigration materials.

Try to find at least two records, more if possible, of your ancestors to help confirm and corroborate information provided. Throughout your search, you will be exposed to resources that range from oral discussions to information that you find in print, online, and on other types of media (such as CDs, tapes, or microfilm). It is important to always ask questions such as the following:

  • What is fact? What is suspicious?
  • Did I search for the entire family?
  • Did I search a broad time period in this record?
  • Did I search a wide enough geographical area?
  • Did I search every location they lived in that is covered by this record?
  • Did I search variant spellings of names in this record?
  • Did I search for and record neighbors, family, and friends found in this record?
  • Did I search for and use indexes?
  • Do I understand this resource or record’s intention, what it offers, how it’s put together, and its limitation?

As you gather and review information, continue to add to your current ancestor profile and timeline. Keep a detailed log of where you have been and what sources you have used. As you continue the search, you will check off questions that have been answered and add new questions to research based on your findings. Keeping this list up-to-date is vital to keeping your research focused and helping to shed light at times when you need inspiration.

4. Review and Learn about Immigration Patterns
One of the most important factors in finding our ancestors is immigration research. Look at immigration from a historian’s point of view rather than from the genealogical point of view.

As a genealogist, you wonder why your ancestors migrated. You look for clues that might direct you to their birthplace in their country of origin. As genealogists, the first thing we do is start searching through deeds, wills, bible records, and other such documents. Documents can tell that your ancestor sold his property from one person to another, but it does not tell why he moved from Virginia to Tennessee.

As a historian, you’re trying to understand what your ancestors did and why. You seek to understand immigration patterns of the time and people, your chances for success expand dramatically because you begin to understand what your family was thinking— you see what other individuals were doing, where they were going, and where they came from.

By learning about the immigration patterns for the specific ethnic group your ancestor belonged to in the time period they lived, you begin to see trends that correlate to your family, such as the ports they arrived at, the counties and cities from which they came and where they settled, the reasons for decisions that were made, the types of records they left behind, and where those records might be located.

Start by answering the following questions:

  • What was their ethnic background or group? Were they Puritans? Welsh? Germans?
  • Why did they come?
  • When did they come?
  • Where did they settle?
  • What were their social and work conditions?
  • What was their religious background?
  • Are there any clues to family naming patterns?

A few words about maps. Maps help us trace the migration paths our ancestors took. More detailed maps will show what routes were available at the time, including railroads, waterways, early roads, and so forth. It is important to trace the path our ancestors took because there may have been records created along the way. The naturalization process may have been started at the port of entry, and the records may be scattered through stops along the route to the final destination. Ethnic and religious groups often traveled together, and your ancestors’ travels can be traced by tracking others in their group. Also, on the long journey west in the United States, babies were born, people married, and people died. There may have been records of events created along the way.

5. Review your data: is it time to track your ancestor in their country of origin?
Before you rush off to research in your ancestor’s country of origin, review your data. At this point, you

  • have confirmed the country of origin.
  • can put your ancestors in historical and social context.
  • have researched records and developed a timeline of your ancestor’s life in the new world.
  • have assigned a time period when the ancestor entered the country.
  • can perhaps place your ancestor in a region, county, or city where they lived.

If you are able to provide the above information, you’re ready to start your search in the country of origin. Now its time to learn about your resources and continue your search.

If you don’t have what is needed, identify gaps in your information and retrace your steps to see if you missed any important clues. Often it only takes one clue to get the break you need.

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