There’s a unique thrill that comes when we identify an immigrant ancestor in our family tree. That ancestor’s decision had a huge impact on who we are today. Finding a connection to your immigrant’s place of origin in the old country can fuel our passion for family history. Here are ten places to look to find that “old world” location.
1. Family Correspondence and Memorabilia
As with many aspects of family history research, often the best place to start is at home (or Aunt Madge’s home, or Grandpa Joe’s home, etc.). A clue to your ethnic origins may lie in an heirloom like a family Bible, or something a little more abstract, such as a piece of clothing or a pattern of lace that is native to a particular region. Photographs can hold clues as well. We found my paternal great-grandfather’s hometown in Poland written on the back of a photo from a cousin in Poland. Sometimes elements of the photograph like clothing, a sign in the background, the type of housing, or a photographer’s imprint can help.
2. Birth Records
Locate the birth records of all your immigrant ancestor’s children. While your direct ancestor’s birth record may only include a country of origin (or no information at all), a sibling’s record could include a more specific location.
3. Marriage Records
If your ancestor was married in this country find their marriage record. Twentieth-century clues to a marriage date can be found in the 1900, 1910, and 1930 U.S. Federal Censuses. The 1880 census has a field for those married within the year. Use those censuses and other records to narrow the time frame and determine the location of the marriage.
4. Death Records
Death records may also include the birth place of the decedent, and sometimes that of his parents. A 1927 death record for the son of Irish immigrants in Chicago revealed that his father had been born in County Wexford, Ireland, and his mother was from Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland. He was one of twelve children and although he was not the direct ancestor of the person who was being researched, it was one of those times where researching the whole family paid off greatly.
5. Religious Records
Where civil records don’t include an immigrant’s exact place of origin or where civil records aren’t available, turn to religious records. I found my great-great-grandmother’s county of origin in Co. Westmeath, Ireland in a book of dispensations for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. From there, Griffith’s Valuation helped us narrow it to the townland. In this case, there was only one Huggins family listed in Co. Westmeath and some of the neighbors were known associates of the family.
Unless your ancestors were frugal with engraving costs like some of mine were, tombstones can be another source of information when it comes to an ancestor’s origins. Check Find A Grave to see if your ancestor’s gravestone has been posted on a memorial page.
Newspapers often list the town of origin for the individual mentioned, particularly in obituaries. But don’t overlook other sections of the newspaper. Seek out any mention, and check for ethnic newspapers in the places where your ancestor lived.
For nearly a century, the Boston Pilot served as a beacon for Irish immigrants seeking information on loved ones they had lost contact with. Between 1831 and 1920, more than 45,000 advertisements were placed in the newspaper by recent immigrants looking for family who had come over earlier, by relatives back in Ireland, or by families seeking information on people who had moved elsewhere in the U.S. looking for employment. You can search extracts of these advertisements, which often list a town of origin, in Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in The Boston Pilot 1831–1920.
8. Local Histories
Local histories often include mentions of groups who immigrated and settled together within the community. Also, family members may be profiled like the following entry from the History of Cook County, Illinois: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time (Chicago: A.T. Andreas, 1884.) which is available at Ancestry.
John S. Forster, florist, was born in Yorkshire, England, February 20, 1851. He came to Chicago in 1871, and after a stay of several weeks went to Wisconsin, where he was engaged in railroad surveying for four years, when he came to Evanston, in 1875, and first worked for W.T. Shepherd, florist, whom he bought out and has since carried it on for himself. Mr. Forster was married to Miss Fredrika Schlucter, of Gosler, Germany, February 14, 1876, in Chicago. They have four children–George H., Annie L., William J., and Charles R.
Tip: Because of the way they were indexed and the format, these collections are best searched directly. Go to the Search tab and select a state from the map in the bottom left section of the page. Scroll down to the category for Stories, Memories & Histories. Click View all… and browse the titles available from there. You can narrow the results to a particular county by using the county selection box on the right.
9. Naturalization Records
In the U.S., you may find clues to ancestral origins in naturalization records created post-1906 when the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), took over and standardized the forms used in the naturalization process, requiring more personal information. Prior to that time you may find the occasional record with a detailed place of origin, but too often only the country is listed. Ancestry has several large databases of naturalization records available, all of which can be searched from this page.
10. Passport Records
If an ancestor had to travel back home to settle a family estate or visit relatives, he might have requested a passport which could also bear the name of his hometown. Ancestry has images of U.S. passports available to members.
11. Passenger Lists
Beginning in the mid- to late-1890s, immigrants had to provide more detailed information on passenger lists, often including a town of origin in the old country. By 1906 when manifests were standardized, last residence and place of birth was asked of all immigrants. Also don’t overlook the possibility that your ancestor came through Canada. Ancestry.com also has collections of Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956 and Border Crossings: From Mexico to U.S., 1895-1964.
12. Military Records
You’ll often find immigrants serving in the military, so be sure to check for service-related records. In the British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920, I found an entry for Hyman Samuel Baumander that stated that he was from Lodz, Poland-Russia. Also look for pension records. The Revolutionary War pension file for Mark Ad[d]ams revealed that he was “a native of County Derry in the north part of Ireland.”
About Juliana Szucs
Juliana Szucs has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.