Ten Places to Find Immigrant Origins, by Juliana Smith

James Kelly tombstone -Calvary Cemetery pic.bmpThere’s a unique thrill that comes when we identify an immigrant ancestor in our family tree. Someone long ago, an ancestor who was born in a foreign place, left their home and everything he or she knew. That decision had a huge impact on who we are today. It determines the label we put on ourselves, whether it be American, Canadian, British, or some other nationality. Sherry Irvine’s column on The English in Scotland was a good reminder to me that these decisions impact people in pretty much every country in the world.

It’s connections like these that the fuel our passion for family history, inspire us to stay up late searching the depths of the Web, schedule vacations around graveyard and courthouse visits, and grill Great-Aunt Madge at the family reunion, seeking that elusive town name in Germany where it all began. (Of course by “grill,” I’m speaking figuratively. Don’t throw Aunt Madge on the barbie at the family reunion. It will just make her mad and you’ll be less likely to get information from her in the future.)

But Madge may not have the answer for you. What then? Here are ten places to look to find that location in the “old world” where our immigrant ancestor made that fateful choice.
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 obvious place like a family Bible, or something not as obvious like a piece of clothing or a piece of lace with a pattern that is native to a particular region. Photographs can hold surprising clues, again, sometimes as obvious as a name on the back as was the case when I identified my paternal great-grandfather’s hometown in Poland, or perhaps in some elements of the photograph like clothing, a sign in the background, the type of housing, or a photographer’s imprint.

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 the name of the town or county.

3. Marriage Records
If your ancestor was married in this country find their marriage record. In the U.S., marriage information is available in the 1900, 1910, and 1930 U.S. Federal Censuses, and the 1880 census has a field for those married within the year.

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 John J. Cullerton of Chicago revealed that his father had been born in County Wexford, Ireland, and his mother was from Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland. John 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 whole family research 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 Ireland in a book of dispensations for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. From there, Griffith’s Valuation gave us an even more specific location.

6. Gravestones
Unless your ancestors were frugal with engraving costs like mine were, tombstones can be another source of information when it comes to an ancestor’s origins. (Go to the blog for an example of one ancestor’s ever-so-informative headstone. There are seventeen family members in that grave.) Others however, are much more fortunate. In fact, dedicated researchers have compiled entire books on cemetery transcriptions. Two books in my collection focus particularly on graves where place of birth is given. (Old Calvary Cemetery: New Yorkers Carved in Stone, by Rosemary Muscarella Ardolina  and Tombstones of the Irish Born: Cemetery of the Holy Cross, Flatbush, Brooklyn, by Joseph M. Silinonte)

7. Newspapers
Newspapers often list the town of origin for the individual mentioned, particularly in obituaries. An obituary in the Brooklyn Eagle listed Balbriggan as the town of origin in Ireland for my third great-grandmother. But don’t overlook other sections of the newspaper. An ancestor’s “misdeeds” may have earned him a spot in the paper and anti-immigrant newspapers may have been all too eager to point out where he or she was from. Notices like the following from the New York Times were also common:

PERSONAL.–Thomas Talbot, formerly of Kilkenny, Ireland, wishes to find his sisters, who are believed to be in this City. Mary, Judy and Margaret were their names, and the first was married to a Mr. Prim of Kilkenny.

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.

9. Naturalization Records, Alien Registrations, and Passports
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 often only the country is listed. Ancestry has several large databases of naturalization records available.

Alien registrations are another source. When I requested my great-grandfather’s alien registration from the USCIS, it confirmed the location we had found on the back of the photograph as his town of birth. As I announced on the blog, you will soon be able to request these records online through the USCIS website.

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.

10. Military Records
You’ll often find immigrants serving in the military, so be sure to check for service 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.

What’s Your Immigrant Story?
How did you discover an immigrant ancestor’s origins? Share your story with us in the Comments section below.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

13 thoughts on “Ten Places to Find Immigrant Origins, by Juliana Smith

  1. Just for fun i entered my grandfather’s name in all three indexes for naturalization records and they came up with nothing. I have a copy of his papers so I know they should be in there. I run accross this problem quite often with Ancestry records. Simple basic records that should be in the system can’t be found even using just a name without all the extra details.What’s the problem?

  2. One set of my gr grands came from Kingdom of Hanover in 1863… and made a passport application in 1905 (a little vacation with the family to return to the homeland). That application is an extremely rich source of immigration-naturalization information. Would that some of the other ancestors had applied for passports!

  3. On my gg-grandfather’s 2nd & 3rd marriages he listed both parents names, including maiden name. Many times I saw where he said he was from Co Cork. His father’s name was Denis which wasn’t the most common in Ireland so I felt good about that. I searched Griffith’s Valuation land records for Denis. I found 9 Denis’s of the surname. I went to the Library in Dublin and started looking at film. About an hour in I found my gg-grandfather’s older brother’s baptism listing both parents. I soon found my gg-grandfather’s and his younger brother’s. Unfortunately, I did not find a marriage record of his parents even though the records went back another 25 years. It must be in another parish. I hope to get to Ireland this year. Of all the relations I’m delighted I found the line who’s surname I share.

  4. If you don’t have a paid subscription, you will come up with very little info. on Ancestry.com

  5. My best experience occurred while trying to find the birthplace of Henry (Heinrich) Seul who came to Wilmette, Illinois from Germany in the 1860’s. After exhausting all other records available (this was in the 1970’s–no Internet!), I started calling everyone in the Wilmette area phone books with the surname Seul. My 6th call connected me to an older gentleman who was thrilled to hear from me and had the funeral card from his grandfather, Henry Seul, that gave his birthplace in Germany! With that, I was able to trace the family back many more generations using microfilmed church records available from Salt Lake.

  6. There has been a lot of my family try to identify for sure who the orginal immigrant was for our family. It was either Henry Johnston or Hanay Johnston married to either Janet Sommerville or Marg. It is lore that Henry had his own ship and that he died in passage and was buried at sea. This happened between 1740 and 1741. There is a Janet buried in Hawbottom (Johnson) Cemetery near Middleton MD and she was the first one buried there through legend. Their son Thomas Johnston Sr. and a lot of the Johnson relation are also there.
    This leads to my question. If a ship came to the new land from the England/Scotland border area (where they are supposed to have come from) do you have any idea what records in regard to this ship (say ports) where I should check. All of the information above does not go back that far.
    Thank you anyone that can be of help.

  7. I found my great-great-grandmother’s town of birth in Germany on her confirmation record. Her family had come to Canada when she was 10, so the record gave me the ‘jump over the pond’ that I needed. I’d always figured confirmation records were nice to have for the sake of completeness, but hadn’t really considered them as important sources before… guess I was wrong!

  8. I have also found it useful to go back and look at materials I accumulated when I first began researching. I discovered that I had missed a lot of great stuff including a gg grandfather’s signature on one of the documents in his son’s Civil War pension file!

  9. I discovered that my great grandfather’s father was born in Ireland from the 1890 census. However, only the wife is listed in 1850 and so I don’t know his name to track him down. Other census information has mother listed as born in several different states.

  10. Just read a comment posted by Debbie on August 11, 2008 at 6:11am and was surprised to find the name Henry (Heinrich Seul) as that was my grandfather’s name, he was from Illinois as well. I am not certain, but it is quite a coincidence and I too will search further. Thanks Debbie for posting the comment!

  11. My ancestor John Nicholson with wife Mary and at least 2 children came from England in 1648. We found this out when he applied for a land grant from England in Annarundle Co., Md. His wife died and he then married Rebecca Beard and they had 6 children. My line is : John (b ? ) – John ( b. 1683) – John ( b. 1720 ) – Joseph ( b. 1788 ) – Nicholas R. ( 1835 ) – Walter (b. 1873) All born Annarundle Co., Md. Then I was (b. 1926 ) John Harwood Nicholson ( b. in Prince Georges Co., Md.
    My e-mail is : nnrnicholson @ aol.com If any one should want to contact me.

  12. My gr-gr-grandparents Bernard & Mary Ann (Roleman or Rohlman) Ross came to the U.S. (Boston, MA)from Germany in 1846. Bernard’s naturalization papers said he came from the village of Prusbach. I spent a lot of time searching but I was never able to find any record for this village or any village that sounded similar. I realized when Bernard said his place of birth it must have sounded like Prusbach to the person who filled out the naturalization record. Through an internet search my sister found a person who had done research on the Roleman (or Rohlman) Family. Luckily for us he had already found a German marriage record for Bernard & Mary Ann at a family history center of the Mormon Church. The marriage record gave the place and date of their marriage and also the birthplace and birth date for both of them, along with the names of their parents! They were married in Recke, Germany. Bernard was born in Riesenbeck. Mary Ann was born in Ibbenburen. At the Mormon church family history center I’ve searched church records of those three villages and found records that go back a few more generations.

    Kathy Brown

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