Most people living in America today have at least one immigrant ancestor who originated from another country. If you are 100% native American, then this article is not for you.
That makes the process of tracing immigrants back to their homeland a common goal of many people researching their family history. This article covers the basic steps required and explore, as a case study, my own experiences in tracing my family namesake back to Germany.
The process is pretty straight forward. You first need to find several pieces of information about your ancestor to aid in the search including their name, date of immigration and place of origin. On the surface, it would seem that it would not be too hard to find this information, but in reality it can be challenging.
You have probably already identified the name of your ancestor through your research efforts up to this point. If not, the first puzzle to solve is finding your ancestor’s full name by searching records available in the U.S. such as census, death records, obituaries, family bibles, etc.
You can also surmise a general date range during which they immigrated from your ancestor’s date of birth. They might have immigrated anywhere from childhood to elderly. Records from their time in the US can help you narrow this time period down.
The biggest roadblock in your effort will be to find the town that your ancestor came from. This is a key piece of information to make the connection to records in the home country and usually the hardest to find.
Records listing the town your ancestor came from will be rare and this is the real challenge. Unfortunately, there is no single standard document that is sure to give you their town of origin. This is where the real detective work begins. You will need to search the following records, in no particular order, until you find what you need:
If you hit a dead end, try tracing relatives that also immigrated from the old country. It is likely that relatives lived fairly close to each other, hopefully from the same or a neighboring town. Corroborating sources are best, if you can find them. Once you have this piece of information, you can work on finding sources in the home country to link your ancestor, which is an adventure in itself. You now add language, name translations and distance barriers to your research effort.
Now, I will share with you my own experience in researching my namesake ancestor back to his homeland. I learned several valuable lessons along the way that might help you in your research. As the old saying goes, sometimes the hardest lessons are those best learned.
I got the village name of my immigrant great grandfather from another family member who had done significant research on our family line. My thought at the time was: This should be easy! It turned out that the village name I was given was incorrect and only after running down the bum lead and wasting a lot of time did that become clear. I learned a hard lesson and now take information provided from undocumented sources with a very skeptical eye.
To make a long story short, I was able to find my immigrant ancestor’s village name by putting together several pieces of information. There was an old family story that my great grandfather and great grandmother were introduced to each other from family members still back in Germany. Since travel was limited in those days, I guessed that they both came from the same town. I was able to find her hometown listed in a boat record from her voyage to America. This together with the fact that my family is longtime members of the Catholic Church, lead me to find his birth record back in Germany and make the connection. The Catholics kept careful records of sacraments including baptisms and marriages.
Sometimes, you have to be resourceful and put together small
bits of information you gather in your research to make a major breakthrough. I wrote a series of letters to the Catholic
archive in Germany
and was able to get photocopies of the handwritten sacrament registers. The lessons in this story is to never overlook
any of the seemingly insignificant details along the way and be wary of information
from undocumented sources.
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