Genealogy Immigration/Migration: Using societies in researching immigrant ancestors

Using societies in researching immigrant ancestorsBy Barry J. Ewell

The following are records and resources that genealogists find extremely helpful and full of clues to find immigrant ancestors. The information is designed to provide a quick reference and direction of where to find and search for records as probable places to find information.

Lineage or Hereditary Societies
A lineage society is an organization whose membership is limited to persons who can prove lineal, documented descent from a qualifying ancestor. Hundreds of these organizations exist in America, such as for descendants of those who fought in the American Revolutionary War (Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR), who came as Mormon Pioneers (Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, DUP), or those who arrived on the Mayflower (Society of Mayflower Descendants).

Many lineage societies publish books of interest to their members and to other researchers. These books are found in most major genealogical libraries and can help you determine if a society might have information about a possible ancestor.

Immigrant and Early Settler Societies
Dozens of societies have been established focusing on specific immigrant groups or early settlers of a particular locality. While these societies have an interest in immigrants, they do not always know where any particular immigrant came from in the old country. Their objectives do not include establishing the immigrant’s or settler’s ancestry, only their descent to current persons. Examples of these societies include the following:

  • Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford (Connecticut)—requires the ancestor be living in Hartford by early 1640
  • Order of Descendants of Ancient Planters—descendants of people who arrived in Virginia before 1616
  • General Society of Mayflower Descendants—descendants of the Mayflower passengers
  • The Order of the Founders and Patriots of America—pre-1657 founders who established families in America, among whose descendants, of the same surname line, were persons who fought for American independence in the Revolution¬ary War.

Some examples of immigration collections include the following:

  • The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia—transcribes many of the passenger arrival lists of ethnic immigrants.
  • The Immigration History Society at the University of Minnesota—has collected thousands of ethnic newspapers and other sources dealing with eastern European ethnic groups. Their Immigration History Research Center is one of the most significant repositories of research materials for those groups in North America.

European Ancestry Societies
Some lineage societies focus on ancestors who were notable long before the American colonies were established. Therefore, descen¬dants who wish to join need to trace their ancestry back to the immigrant (called the “gateway” ancestor), and then trace that immigrant’s ancestry back to the qualifying ancestor in the old country. Usually the qualifying ancestor was part of British royalty or nobility. Examples include the Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States of America, which requires documented descent from that early emperor. This means tracing your ancestry back more than one thousand years. Another example is the Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain.

Nationality or Ethnic Lineage Societies
These are societies that focus on an entire ethnic group. They gather information; teach their members; and publish stories, findings, and sources about that group. A small number of such societies—and some of the oldest such societies in America—are true lineage societies. Membership is limited to those persons who can prove descent from an early settler of a specific ethnic group. Examples include Dutch settlers in New York, Germans in Pennsylvania, and Scots-Irish in the Carolinas.

Genealogical Societies
Genealogical societies exist throughout the United States and Canada in every state or province, most counties, and many major cities. The people in these societies share the same interest you do: individually discovering their heritage. They gather together, usually monthly, to learn from each other about how to trace their ancestry. They recognize that together they are much more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of family history research than they are individually.

Society Publications
Society publications can be a significant aspect of immigrant research. Any local record may be the subject of a publication by a local society. Whenever you contact a genealogical or ethnic society, be certain to inquire about their publications. Even when such publications do not identify an immigrant’s hometown, they may provide further identification about your immigrant ancestor or instruct you on additional sources specific to a locality or ethnic group.

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