November 23rd, 2011

Identifying Your Immigrant Ancestor

There are very few of us in the western world whose family did not originally come from somewhere else. Unless you’re a Native North or South American Indian, you will have an ancestor who was an immigrant. That makes a whole lot of us, and so learning how to identify and trace our immigrant ancestors is an important aspect of genealogy. If we don’t find them, our trail runs cold, and we are left with a family tree barren of leaves and branches that could otherwise have grown to be complete and full of rich heritage. There i9s no one source for finding your family member ho immigrated, there are many different records that may be used. There are however some major principles that can be applied in your search for an immigrant ancestor. They are:

  • You Must Identify Them Clearly
  • Learn Their Historical Background
  • Take the Correct Research Approach

Let’s look at these principles in a bit more detail, beginning with identifying your ancestor.

Identifying the Immigrant

The first thing you’ll want to do in order to ensure the greatest chance of success in finding your ancestor is to learn as much as possible about them and as many other family members as you can. Sometimes tracing the lines of children can lead you to the records you search. To clearly identify them in immigration records you’ll need to know:

  1. Full Name – Including any Nick Names or other Given Names.
  2. A Date – Preferably a birth date, but can be the date of any event related to your ancestor, as long as it took place in their country of origin.
  3. Place of Origin – Passenger lists can help you to trace back at least to your ancestors point of departure, records from that area may lead you to their birth place.
  4. Names of Other Relatives – Family relationships are important in correctly identifying your ancestor – especially parentage. The more connections you have to an immigrant, the easier it is to accurately identify them.

The Importance of Historical Background

There comes a time during all research that it is important to understand something of the specific history of the place our ancestors emigrated from. Certain peoples were forced to leave such as those who were affected by the Great Famine of Ireland, or those who were religiously oppressed or affected by war. Others were lured by the dream of a new life in the “New World”. We can begin to understand the motives of our ancestors by studying the well documented patterns of these groups, as ell as coming to know what types of records were created during particular times in history. Some of these records are unique to particular groups of people, and could be the only means of finding our ancestor.

Taking the Right Research Approach

It may be necessary to read through every piece of information and every record that was left by an immigrant and their relatives in order to correctly identify them. You may find clues in compiled pedigrees and genealogies as well as in census reports, land records, court documents, employment records, religious records, records of fraternal organizations, Vital Records, Military Records, and of course immigration and naturalization records. The most common error researchers make is to begin with foreign sources and attempt to trace their ancestor to America. You will have more success if you begin with U.S. records, and work your way back to their point of origin.

An often overlooked source of information is the research that has already been completed by others. Often you can find clues, or even the exact information you’re looking for in the large collections of compiled records found in electronic databases or family trees. You may discover that someone else has already discovered your ancestor’s place of origin, or at least you may find clues that can lead you to them. While you’re combing through such data, look for information about other members of the family as well. Once you’ve exhausted these sources, you can then move on to a search of local sources such as libraries, local histories, and directories. Death records can be especially helpful, so Obituaries, church records and probates can be especially fruitful.

Following these principles to track down your immigrant ancestor will provide you with a sound strategy for finding them. It is also important to comprehend the Immigration process that they went through, so please feel free to read our blog on Understanding the Ancient Immigration Process.