7 Successful Strategies for Researching Immigrant Ancestors

by | 2 Jan 2023

Reconstructing the stories of our immigrant ancestors can be daunting—from making sure we have the correct person on the passenger arrival manifest to identifying the town of origin in the old country. Whether you’re researching immigrant ancestors from recent generations or ancestors who arrived centuries ago, these strategies will help guide you each step of the way.

Identify the details that make your ancestor unique

A name is often not enough when researching immigrant ancestors. It’s the other details that often prove crucial to correctly identifying our immigrant ancestor in relevant records, and distinguishing him from others of the same name. This includes:

  • Full name, including middle name or maiden name, if applicable
  • Date of birth or the date of another event (e.g., marriage, immigration) with which you may be able to identify your ancestor
  • Place of birth, even if it is just a country of origin for now
  • The names of all identifiable relatives — parents, spouse, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc. Immigrants often traveled with relatives or went to join one who had previously emigrated. These names will also help you to identify your immigrant’s family in their country of origin.
  • Any other information that may help identify your ancestor, including religion, occupation, friends, neighbors, etc.

Reconstruct your ancestor’s life after immigration

Next, focus your research on your ancestor’s life after immigration looking for records that may identify the year of your ancestor’s arrival as well as their specific place of birth. The approximate year of immigration can help to narrow down which man of the same name might be your ancestor in passenger arrival records, while the name of the town where they were born or last lived is often crucial for locating records of your ancestors in their country of origin. The town name, especially, can sometimes be more difficult to pin down than you might think! In many records left by immigrant ancestors, only the country or possibly the county, state, or department of origin were recorded, but not the name of the ancestral town or parish. Even when a place is listed, it may only be the nearby “big city,” because that was a more recognizable point of reference for people not familiar with the region. While searching, it is also important to remember that your ancestor’s last residence prior to emigration may not necessarily be their place of birth.

  • Begin with your immigrant ancestor’s death and work methodically back from there, making sure that you are following the same person from record to record. Death records—including death certificates, obituaries, burial records, and probate records—may provide crucial clues to your ancestor’s life both before and after immigration. Obituaries published in ethnic newspapers are the most likely to contain specific information such as a town of origin.
  • Census records are another key source for information on your immigrant ancestor. The 1850–1940 federal censuses indicate the person’s state or country of birth, while the 1880–1930 censuses also ask for the parents’ country of birth.  Some censuses also ask about naturalization. The 1900–1930 federal censuses asked whether each household member was naturalized and where they were in the process (“Al” for alien, “Pa” for “first papers,” and “Na” for naturalized). The 1920 census also asks for the specific year of naturalization. For best results, try to locate your immigrant ancestor and their family in each state or federal census beginning with the census just before their death and then working back to the first census in which they appeared.
  • Continue the search for other types of genealogical records that may reveal an ancestor’s town of origin, including newspapers, city directories, church records, and land and property records.
  • Don’t overlook research already done by others. In many cases, other researchers have already found where the emigrant came from. This includes searching through published indexes and genealogies, local biographies and town histories, family trees, and databases of compiled records. Ask family members and even distant relatives what they might know about your immigrant ancestor’s birthplace or life before or after immigration as well. You never know who may have personal knowledge or relevant records in their possession.

Search for these records in each place where the immigrant lived, for the complete time period when he or she lived there and for some time after his death. Be sure to investigate available records in all jurisdictions that may have kept records about him or her, including town, parish, county, state, and national authorities. Be thorough in your examination of each record, making note of all identifying details such as the immigrant’s occupation or the names of neighbors, godparents, and witnesses. Organize your findings in a timeline as you go to help make sure you’re following the correct person from record to record and reveal gaps in your research where more information may be available.

Seek out immigration and naturalization records

Before you embark (pun intended!) on a search for ship passenger lists, be prepared to do some digging. Governments around the world have long kept records of the emigrants departing from and immigrants arriving on their shores, but these records have not always survived and many of them are unindexed. Passenger lists are also not always the treasure trove of information that one might expect. The information collected on passenger lists will vary greatly depending upon country and time period. Some earlier passenger lists will only provide a passenger name, age, and country of departure (not necessarily the country of origin), while more recent ones may include details such as physical description, hometown, place of birth, and name and address of relatives the immigrant is heading to join.

Tip! While New York City was the largest port for immigrants arriving in the United States, don’t overlook other ports such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans. 

Naturalization records created after Sept 1906 provide an immigrant’s arrival details, including both the date and port of arrival. They are also a potential source for name changes since after 1906, immigrants were able to file for an official name change along with naturalization.

Check for corresponding emigration records

Once you determine the approximate date when someone immigrated to America, check for emigration records in the country they left as well. Outbound passenger lists offer an alternative approach to overcome poor handwriting, misspelled names, and other research barriers. Outbound passenger lists may also provide additional details not found on incoming manifests, such as the name of a specific town or village in the country of origin.

Avoid assumptions

When researching immigrant ancestors, avoid assuming that all family stories of immigrant ancestors are true. While they probably contain at least some nuggets of truth, memories and stories passed down for generations are also prone to inaccuracy. That “our name was changed at Ellis Island” is a widely populated myth passed in many families, for example. While immigrants’ surnames often changed as they adjusted to the new country and culture, it is very unlikely to have been changed by immigration officials upon their arrival at Ellis Island. A family story that an ancestor arrived at Ellis Island, or even in New York, may have originated in an assumption that all immigrants came through New York ports, which is definitely not the case. 

If necessary, cast a wider net

Sometimes after researching all possible records, you will still be unable to find a record of the hometown of your immigrant ancestor. In this case, continue the search in the records of identified family members—brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, cousins, children—to see if you can find a place name associated with them. For example, I first identified the Polish town in which my great-grandparents lived before coming to the U.S. on the naturalization record of their eldest daughter (who was born in Poland).

Tip! Church baptismal records for children of immigrant parents are another resource that can be invaluable in a search for immigrant origins. Many immigrants settled in areas and attended churches with others of their same ethnic and geographic background, with a priest or minister who likely knew the family. Sometimes this means records likely to be more specific than just “Germany” in recording a place of origin.

Find it on a Map

Once you find a place name, take the extra step to identify and verify it on a map—something that is not always as easy as it sounds. Often you will find multiple places with the same name, or you may find that the town has changed jurisdictions or even disappeared. It is very important here to correlate with historical maps and other sources of information to be sure that you have identified the correct town.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b49155/.

©2024 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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