Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor
by Edna Katherine French
"Give me your tired your poor,
Often your most frustrating experience in tracing your ancestor's home town will be trying to "get across the big pond." For the uninitiated that means that tracing your immigrant origins across the ocean can be one of the hardest parts of your family history research. But your instinct is correct. Finding your immigrant ancestor's home town will lead you to earlier generations of your family and to much more family history information in that area.
Many people become so eager that they leap right over the "big pond" and then hit a huge genealogical wall. They say something like, "I know my great-great grandfather was an emigrant from Germany because we have a family story about him being a stowaway and hiding in the steerage all the way across the Atlantic and how his friend, Hans, used to steal food for him to keep him from starving." Let me add my caution to that of many experienced genealogists. It is almost always best to curb your eagerness and begin your search in the country where your ancestor finally settled. Do not switch to records from the country-of-origin too soon in your search.1
As always, your search strategies will include such basics as obtaining the immigrant's name and a date, such as birth, confirmation, military release, or marriage. Learn about other family members, friends, neighbors and how their names were spelled, because you may identify them first. Clues can be found in family stories and traditions. For example, frequent mention of river crossings to take farm goods to a nearby town could narrow your search to a particular region or province. Your ancestor's religion could also help place him or her in a particular part of a country.
Now it's time to head for the library. Some of the records you'll want to search will be:
And then you'll want to leave the library and search the original records of each place where your ancestor lived, because each jurisdiction may have some record about him or her. In looking at all of these records, you'll want to see if anyone else has identified your ancestor's home town. Of course, you'll keep your eyes open for those familiar names of other family members and neighbors because you might uncover important clues.
All of these things may seem pretty much like the same old search strategies you've been using in the same old places you've always been. And they are. But this time you aren't just looking for a single person. You have been keeping an eye out for friends and relatives because often immigrants traveled as groups and settled together in the new country.
Whew! Now, this is what you have been waiting for. If you haven't located your ancestor's home town by now, there are so many more places to search that we're just going to have to make another list:
Finally, you've found your ancestor. Well, actually it's worse than that. You've found several families where the children have the same names. The more you know about your ancestor, the better you can test to determine that you have indeed found the right person. The birth date and parents should correspond with what you know, even if the name spelling may have changed slightly from one country to another. If you still aren't certain, ask the negative questions such as, "Did the person you found die before leaving the country of origin?" Or, "Did the person suddenly appear in records in the country of arrival after you know he or she was already living there?"
"But what about me?", you say? My great-great grandfather was an illegal immigrant! None of the emigration and immigration records would list him.
Almost one-third of the emigrants did not obey the laws requiring permission to emigrate from one country to another. Your ancestor was one of them. Take heart, however. Governments sometimes tried to identify them after their departure, and various indexes exist. Two books by William P. Filby, Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography 1538-1900 Rev.ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988, and Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981-, are widely available in libraries. The first has over 2,600 published lists and indexes, while the second is a three-volume set with annual supplements. It now has over 2.5 million names taken from small lists in hundreds of publications. Perhaps your ancestor is one of them.
Remember that your primary goal is to locate your ancestor's home town because that will open up more of your family lines. But one clue can lead to another, so it is important to keep good records as you search and to constantly evaluate them against each other. You never know when a combination of clues will lead you to your elusive quarry. What a thrill you will have then.
A volunteer effort to make the passenger lists of ships available on the Internet. You can use the "ISTG Compass" to search for your ancestor. If your ancestor isn't found in the search, and you know an approximate date, you may want to browse ship by ship and look at the transcribed records. Many names have question marks where there were characters that were illegible, and you may recognize your ancestor's name by browsing when the search couldn't find it because it was incomplete.
This site has a number of helpful genealogy resources, including a directory and database of ships passenger lists, and a comprehensive directory of surname resources.
If your ancestors came to the United States through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, you can now search for their passenger records at the new Ellis Island American Family Immigration Center.
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By the time the tiring trip approached its long-awaited end, most immigrants were in a state of shock: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet, even with the shores of a New World looming before their eyes, even with tears of relief streaming down their faces, their journey was not at an end. A final fear gripped thei hearts: Would their new home accept or reject them?
Immigration records, more popularly known as "ship passenger arrival records," may provide evidence of a person's arrival in the United States, as well as foreign birthplace. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has immigration records for various ports for the years 1800-1959.
An Annotated Bibliography of Resources on Danish Immigration to America: Library of Congress: by Lee V. Douglas: Research Guide No. 28
A Select Bibliography of Works on Norwegian-American Immigration and Local History: Library of Congress: Compiled by Lee V. Douglas: Research Guide No. 6
Information and Links to Passenger Lists & Immigration/Emigration Data on Other Sites.