Migration Patterns for Genealogists: Think Like a Historian
One of the most important considerations in finding your ancestor is immigration research.
Look at immigration from a historian’s point of view by trying to understand what your ancestors did and why.
As a genealogist, you wonder why your ancestors migrated. You look for clues that might direct you to the birthplace in the 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.
When you seek to understand immigration patterns from a historian’s perspective, because you begin to understand what your family was thinking, what other individuals were doing, where they were going, and where they came from, your chances for success expand dramatically.
By learning about your ancestor’s ethnic group’s immigration patterns for the time period they lived, you see trends that correlate to your family, such as the ports they arrived at, the counties and cities from which they came, where they settled, the reasons for decisions that were made, the types of records they left behind, and where to find these records.
Start by answering questions, such as “To what ethnic background or group do you think they belonged? Were they Puritans? Welsh? Germans?
Now begin to answer the following questions:
- Why did they come to America?
- When did they come?
- Where did they settle?
- What were their social and work conditions?
- What was their religious background?
America: People on the Move
When you step back and begin looking at the “big picture”— that your ancestors are part of an ethnic group at a given time and in a specific place—you quickly see that America is a land of people on the move. Our ancestors were part of groups that felt a “push” to move, whether to escape political or religious oppression, wars, violence, or major natural disasters. The reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:
- War or other armed conflict
- Famine or drought
- Political corruption
- Disagreement with politics
- Religious intolerance
- Natural disasters
- Discontent with the natives, such as frequent harassment, bullying, or abuse
- Lack of employment opportunities
These factors generally do not affect people in developed countries; even a natural disaster is unlikely to cause out-migration in such places.
When you are pushed, where do you go? You can sense the “pull” that America had on our ancestors. Economic and professional opportunities were by far the leading reason for our ancestors coming to America. The availability of lands for farming, an abundance of jobs, and higher salaries were enticing. Other reasons for migration to America include the following:
- Higher incomes
- Lower taxes
- Better weather
- Better availability of employment
- Better medical facilities
- Better education facilities
- Better behavior among people
- Family reasons
- Political stability
- Religious tolerance
- Relative freedom
- National prestige
Perhaps the only major group of immigrants in early American history who did not respond to push or pull factors was the Africans, who were captured and traded into slavery in the Americas against their will.
As I have researched the immigration patterns of my ancestors, I have developed a format that allows me to capture the most important facts and helps me better understand my ethnic heritage. It acts as a guide for my research. The following is an example of the profile I created for Scottish and Scots-Irish ancestors. Note the type of information I gathered and the clues provided. Scottish and
Scots-Irish Immigration: What are some of the important immigration facts?
- The first Scottish immigrants to America were prisoners of war, sent (or transported) to the colonies by English ruler Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) after he defeated Scotland in 1650.
- After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British placed the Act of Proscription upon the Highland Scots, which prohibited them from almost every aspect of practicing their traditions: wearing their tartan kilts, bearing arms, and even playing their traditional bagpipe music. The act completely destroyed the Highlands clan system.
- In the early 1600s, British King James I (1566-1625) decided he wanted a Protestant population in Northern Ireland. From 1608 to 1697, about 200,000 Presbyterian Scots from the Low¬lands immigrated to Ulster in Northern Ireland. Later, when these immigrants relocated once again to North America, they would be known as the Scots-Irish.
- In the American Revolution (1775-83), Scots-Irish Americans generally joined the rebel cause while Scottish Americans tended to side with the British crown.
Scottish: When and why did they come?
- The first Scottish immigrants to America were prisoners of war, forcibly sent to the colonies by Cromwell after he defeated Scotland in 1650. They served out their sentences by laboring in the English colonies of North America.
- In 1707, the Act of Union made Scotland, together with Eng¬land and Wales, part of the United Kingdom, sharing a single
- After the 1707 Union of the Parliaments, trade between Scotland and America increased. Scottish emigration at that time was mostly to Virginia, where tobacco was high in production and was a financially rewarding business.
- In the early eighteenth century, more Scots were transported to America as political prisoners of England in 1715 and 1745. More than fourteen hundred defeated Jacobite rebels (Scots who wanted to return a Stuart monarch to the throne of Britain) were sent to America. They were forced to become indentured servants—people who contracted to work for an agreed-upon period of time with someone in the New World in exchange for payment for their passage.
- Another large group of involuntary immigrants were Scottish soldiers who had been brought to America by the British to fight in the French and Indian War (1754-63). The French and Indian War was a war between France and England over terri¬tory in America where Indians fought as allies to the French. At the end of the war, when the soldiers were discharged, the majority of Scottish soldiers elected to remain in America. The British offered them land in western Pennsylvania as an alterna¬tive to being shipped home. Of the twelve thousand Scottish soldiers discharged, only seventy-six returned to Scotland.
- •Voluntary Scottish immigration to America picked up in the years between the union with England (1707) and the American Revolution (1776-83). Conditions were already difficult for Highland Scottish farmers, with a cold, rainy climate, short growing season, and rocky ground. In the Highlands, one method of earning a living had been armed raiding of the more prosperous Lowlands. In the mid-eighteenth century the British prohibited the Highlanders from bearing arms. Without being able to raid, there was not enough work to support the clans.
- Landlords began to raise the rents for Scotland’s tenant farmers (farmers who rented their land), also seizing grazing grounds and evicting tenants in order to squash Scottish uprisings.
- Wealthy landowners in America advertised for indentured ser¬vants. A number of Scots jumped at the opportunity and hired on.
- Others sold their farms and livestock to pay for their own passage.
- Some Highland clan leaders organized mass migrations to the New World. Whole communities would pack up and emigrate. Are there any clues to family naming patterns?
- Many Scots’ families follow the custom of naming their chil¬dren after thegrandparentsinthefollowingmanner.
- First-born son named for the paternal grandfather.
- Second son named for the maternal grandfather.
- Third son named for the father.
- First-born daughter named for the maternal grandmother.
- Second daughter named for the paternal grandmother.
- Third daughter named for the mother.
- Notes on Scottish naming patterns:
- This practice can cause families to have two children with the same name if the grandparents had the same name. The process also started over if the parent remarried, so it is common to find half brothers or sisters with the same names.
- Not all Scottish families followed this pattern, but many that did continued it long after leaving Scotland.
- One variation of the pattern above was for the eldest son to be named after the mother’s father and the eldest daughter after the father’s mother.
- How to increase your success in finding the ancestor’s maiden name
- Using maps and gazetteers to help find ancestor origins
- Methodology of how to find the origin of your immigrant ancestors
- Using Federal Census records in researching immigrant ancestors
- 48 detailed profiles of immigrating peoples to North America