Five Tips to Discover Your Eastern European Roots

Posted by Jessica Murray on October 22, 2014 in Ancestry.com Site, Family History Month

This is a guest post by Lisa A. Alzo

You’ve just discovered you have Eastern European roots.  Perhaps it was the result of exploring your exotic sounding surname, locating a picture of your Polish great-grandmother, or viewing your Ancestry DNA test results.  Now what?  If you have no idea where or how to begin, or have heard that it’s too difficult, here are five tips to help you jumpstart your research.

John and Elizabeth Alzo on their wedding day

John and Elizabeth Alzo on their wedding day

1.  Determine where your ancestor was from.  Typically knowing that an ancestor came from Budapest, Kiev, or Prague is not good enough.  Because the records that you need to do your research in Europe were kept on a local level, your research cannot proceed unless you know the specific name of the town or village of origin.  To obtain this information, start your search for records in the United States and Canada.  If possible, talk to living relatives of your immigrant ancestor.  Look for personal information in sources you may have at home or you can get from family members, such as:  Bibles, journals, letters, pictures, military service papers, funeral home records, or naturalization documents. Then, expand your search to other records using Ancestry.com.  Start with Census records.  In particular, U.S. Censuses from 1900, 1910, and 1920, will list the year of immigration as well as the country of origin. This will help narrow your search for immigration records.  These can be found by searching the passenger lists for each port using the Ancestry Immigration Collection.  Follow up with searches for vital, military, and other key records.

2. Pinpoint the ancestral home.  Once you determine where your ancestor was from, you must verify the spelling and determine where that town or village is now (Eastern Europe has had a lot of border changes). You will also want to know what province, county or district had jurisdiction over the place. Maps and gazetteers (geographical dictionaries) are the best way to sort out locality questions or discrepancies.  Several outstanding old gazetteers are now available online through Ancestry. For example, you can view the Prussia, Municipality Gazetteer, 1905 (Gemeindelexikon für das Königreich Preußen, 1905).  Ancestry also has a partnership with FamilySearch and you can use their site to see what Eastern Europe gazetteers are available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and search the Wiki there to learn about record collections and other useful tips.

3. Know where the records are hiding.  Most of the smaller localities were not responsible for keeping records. Church records were kept by the parish, which may have included several small villages. Similarly, civil registration was under the jurisdiction of locally incorporated communities or townships. Gazetteers can assist with determining the parish or locality that had responsibility for keeping records for the place your ancestor lived.  Once you have learned where to find the key records, you can then create a plan to obtain them.

4. See what’s online first.  Once you are ready to cross the pond you will need to find a way to get to civil and church records. Typically this is done bySelected European Historical Postcards_Lisa_Alzo Guest Post writing to the records office or church, hiring someone to obtain documents on your behalf (see #5 below), or traveling to the location to do on-site research.  But these options can be expensive and time-consuming, so you should first check to see if any records for your ancestral locality have been digitized.  Check the Ancestry databases for Europe for your country of interest.  Examples include the Hungary Family History research page and the Polish Family History research page.  Be aware that many Eastern European surnames are difficult to spell and pronounce and there can be issues with indexing and transcriptions when dealing with online records.  Also, keep in mind that many immigrants changed their names upon settling in North America.  Knowing what the immigrant’s original name was in the old country (and how it was spelled in his or her language) can help when searching for records in Eastern Europe.  To help flush out those elusive ancestors, consider changing your search criteria for a favorite database by experimenting with different fields, or using alternate views to display results (where available).  For example, if you always view your Ancestry search results by record, click to view them by category.  If you routinely just check the Card Catalog to find what databases are available, try using the place pages.  For additional tips on maximizing your searches, consult the Learning Center for free helpful articles and videos.

5. Crowdsource your brick walls.  Don’t be afraid to ask others for help.  Start a member tree for free on Ancestry.  Collaborate with others through the message boards, community pages, and on social media.  Join an ethnic genealogical society to interact with others researching the same localities.

Contrary to popular belief, not all records are online. In fact, many of the key documents you will likely need to trace your East European ancestry are tucked away in the basements of foreign archives. Sure, you can submit a research request, but be prepared for a very long wait.  A better option is to hire a professional based in that country (who knows the language and is familiar with the archives) to get what you can’t.  Click the Hire an Expert button on Ancestry to find a researcher for your area of interest and get a free estimate.  You can also obtain referrals from ethnic genealogical societies, or other researchers.

Finally, remember to be patient.  Records access is improving for many areas in Eastern Europe.  Many archives and repositories are bringing their records online or forming partnerships to do so, resulting in new and updated collections in private or commercial databases.  Persistence is the key to your success.

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