Tips from the Pros: Finding Immigrant Origins in the Old Country-A Dozen Possibilities, from Loretto D. Szucs

Cove of Cork.jpg1. Death certificates of immigrants will often include the name of the town in which they were born in the “Old World,” and depending on the time and place, some marriage and birth records will give you the exact birthplaces of their parents.

2. Records pertaining to your ancestor’s relatives and even close friends may point to their mutual hometown or birthplace. Family members and friends who emigrated from the same place usually settled close to one another in their new homeland.

3. Gravestone inscriptions sometimes include the birthplace of an immigrant. If your ancestor’s grave did not include that clue, be sure to look at graves of relatives or close friends who may have come from the same place.

4. Obituaries frequently provide the exact town in which the subject was born or lived in their home country.

5. World War I Draft Records include birthplaces of adult males who were living in the U.S.–even if they were foreign born.

6. Naturalization records, particularly those filed after 1906, include birthplaces, and often also include birthplaces of spouses and children. Although naturalization records filed prior to 1906 generally do not include specific birthplaces, there are many exceptions, depending on where and when an alien filed for citizenship. In cases where an ancestor was not naturalized prior to WWII, alien registration papers (available through CSIS) also provide precise birthplace information.

8. Ethnic collections including published histories of specific nationalities and fraternal organizations, neighborhood collections in libraries, and foreign language newspapers may include hard-to-find biographical sketches. Special collections like Immigrant Savings Bank found at also include the exact birthplaces of individuals who had accounts in that bank. Irish, German, Polish, and other ethnic genealogical societies have collected and indexed unique collections of biographical materials.

8. Church Records often include the birthplaces of parents and those godparents and witnesses of marriages. Often entire congregations emigrated together from Europe and founded churches in their new homeland so by understanding the history of a particular church, it may be possible to determine the origins of the entire group.

9. Old letters, photographs, journals and diaries as well as old world souvenirs often contain clues to our ancestors’ past. If you are not fortunate enough to have inherited any of these items, it may be worth asking older relatives or cousins who may be willing to share information or copies of documents or photographs. 

10. Old Newspapers have a lot more to offer than obituaries, consider wedding and engagement announcements as well as other events that may have earned immigrants a place in the social pages. Wedding Anniversaries, business accomplishments, visiting relatives, travel abroad, social gatherings, club news, awards and accident reports are also places to look for immigrant origins.

11. Probate and other records generated in the courts sometimes include the birthplaces and former homes of immigrants. Many unmarried immigrants bequeathed their belongings to relatives in the old country, thereby making it possible to determine home towns.
12. Online sources such as published local and families histories, family trees, and message boards are also worth searching for leads that will help you determine an immigrant’s homeland.

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8 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Finding Immigrant Origins in the Old Country-A Dozen Possibilities, from Loretto D. Szucs

  1. There’s another option if you really can’t find anything linking your immigrant ancestors to their original place of birth: check for immigration patterns and name patterns. For example: If your ancestors have a name like ‘Hoitink’ (ending in -ink) and live in a town where many people came from Gelderland in the Netherlands such as Sheboygan, WI or Clymer, NY, chances are that your ancestors are from that area too.

    Local historical research centers or libraries will often know the ethnicity of the people in the area, and can often help you find out which ethnicity your ancestors had just by looking at their names. Often, immigrants traveled and settled in groups so in one town you often find people that were originally neighbors too!

  2. In many instances the same applies for internal U.S. immigration. Entire families would pack up and move to another state. My particular family immigrated to West Virginia from Kentucky. Kentucky; what a large place!!!! Within the community in WV, extended family members and members of other families they had married into were present in the 1920 Census. Through looking into the background of the general community for clues about the specific county of origin, this was narrowed to three different counties – a much more managable prospect for brute force record searching.

    Another comment lay with interviewing older relatives. Everyone knows to do this. What is often times overlooked are those aunts and uncles that are not blood kin – spouse of your relative. Sometimes they will recall as much, if not more, about your family’s origins than your relative. Don’t assume they will not know much. Being married into the family for many years, they will often absorb a great deal of knowlege of their spouse’s family. I have found some clues leading to break throughs by interviewing them too. These were clues no one else offered up.

  3. Hello, Loretto. What is CSIS, as in “In cases where an ancestor was not naturalized prior to WWII, alien registration papers (available through CSIS) also provide precise birthplace information.” ? Thanks for your good article. Dolly in Maryland





  5. Dear Dolly,

    I’m sorry I did not do a very good job with my description here. USCIS is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and the genealogy page can be found by following this link.

    Best wishes,


  6. Hello, Loretto,

    As much as I enjoyed your article, I believe you may have left out one more most vital option for locating immigrant origins from the “old country”. So I hereby submit item #13, if I may: passenger manifests into this country. While the older lists will only give the country of origin, the more recent ones–from the early 20th Century onwards–will frequently mention not only the country, but the exact town.

    This can be a valuable research tool for yet another reason–it can lead to detarture passenger records from the country where the immigrants came from. And these will sometimes give the town where the people came from, even if the subsequent passenger arrival list DOESN’T offer this. I know of whence I speak, because I encountered this situation when researching my paternal grandmother’s trip from Hungary to the US in 1881. The departure record, although written in German, revealed the town she and her family left from in Hungary!

    Robert M. Kern
    Yonkers, New York

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