Posted by Crista Cowan on October 14, 2013 in Family History Month, Website

America is often referred to as a land of immigrants. More than 95 percent of Americans descend from people who did not live on this continent in the 18th century.  That means that sooner or later most of us will be looking for our ancestors who “crossed the pond.” However, before you try to search for records in the old country review these tips to make sure you are climbing your own family tree and not someone else’s.

Finding Immigrants

One of the most common mistakes I see people make, is spending time searching for their ancestor in Ireland or Germany or Italy or Austria with only a limited bit of information. The problem with this is that Ireland maintains most of its records at a county level. Germany as we know it is a fairly new country. Before that the boundaries shifted regularly and there are no national level records. The same is true for Italy. People often listed that they were from Austria when, in fact, they were from the Austro-Hungarian Empire – another region of Europe where boundaries were constantly shifting until the empire collapsed in 1918.  Knowing a specific town or region is necessary for success in tracing your ancestors who crossed the pond.

In order to be successful in discovering more about your immigrant ancestor in the old country you first need to discover everything you can about their life here in this country.

1.  Identify all the children of your immigrant ancestor. Naming patterns can often reveal clues that will help you learn more about their origin. Death certificates for those children may also list the birthplace of their parents.

2.  Beginning with the 1850 census, the birthplace of every member of the household is listed. Starting in 1900 through 1930, the census listed a year of immigration and naturalization status. Collect every census record in which your immigrant ancestor appears. Pay special attention to children born both before and after immigration. Create a timeline with all of these dates and places in order to resolve conflicting information and help focus your search.

3.  Once you have collected all of the census records, don’t jump right in and start searching passenger lists. Did your ancestor become a U.S. citizen? Naturalization status will be listed in the 1900-1930 census as AL (for alien), PA (meaning they have submitted papers to become a citizen) or NA (for naturalized). These important documents often contain birth date and place for both the immigrant, his wife and children. They also contain the date, ship and port of arrival in many cases. You can find some naturalization indexes and packets (including declaration of intent and petition to naturalize) on Ancestry. If your ancestor is not included in our online collection, contact the county courthouse where they lived at the time of naturalization.

4.  Locate a death record or obituary for your immigrant ancestor. Often those records will list a more specific place of birth than just a country. Parents’ names are also included when the informant knew that information.

5.  Now, search those passenger lists – and don’t forget that many immigrants came in through Canada and then crossed the border down in to the United States. Pay special attention to other people travelling on the same ship. Often extended family or people from the same town or village would travel together. Go back to the census records and see if you find those same people living near your relatives in later years. You may even discover intermarriage between their children and grandchildren. There may not be a record of the specific location your ancestor came from but one of those traveling companions may provide the clue you need.

6.  Once you identify the specific town or region your ancestor was from, visit the Ancestry Card Catalog to find out what records exist online for their country of origin. Be sure to use our historical map collection to identify shifting country borders over time. You may have to look for records in multiple locations.

My great-great grandparents immigrated from Prussia in 1869 – as teenagers, at different times, on different ships. They met in Texas, where a group of German immigrants formed a community, worked and worshiped together. Some of their family members came before them and some came after. Some never left Europe. Because of diligent research I now know that these German speaking ancestors of mine actually came from the Province of Silesia – which is now part of Poland and the Czech Republic. Had I been looking in Germany I might never have found them – or worse, I might have found someone with a similar name, assumed they were my ancestors and spent a lot of time climbing someone else’s family tree.

Have fun climbing YOUR family tree!

P.S. – For a more in depth look at finding your immigrant ancestors download our free research guide or visit our Immigration Playlist on YouTube.

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Google Twitter


  1. FHC Librarian

    This is a good article. Researching the immigrant ancestors is full of pitfalls. Some may be lucky enough to be able to connect all the dots but most of us will have to really work at this.

  2. You forgot to mention the “certificate of landing” which is sometimes included with the naturalization papers. This is from the port they landed at. It lists the name they used on the ship manifest in addition to the vessel name and date of arrival.

    For my ancestors (Jewish from Eastern Europe arriving 1900 -1910) this was the critical tool to locate the ship manifest.

    They often used their European Yiddish name on the ship and changed it after arriving to an Americanized name that I knew. You can find the naturalization papers with the Americanized name but you usually can’t find the ship manifest with it.

    Again if you are lucky, the ship manifest might have more accurate data about where they last lived and where they were born than the naturalization papers.

    In my research, I found that my grandparents did not always give precise accurate birth place information to the naturalization officials. Often they told them the nearest large city near where they were born rather than the small town where they actually were born. As far as I can tell, the naturalization officials accepted what they were told and did not check anything, as long as there were witnesses to vouch for the person. Of course, the witnesses rarely knew where and when the application was born and exactly when they arrived in the United States.

  3. Michel Bryson

    “. . .PA (meaning they have submitted papers to become a citizen). . .”

    THANK YOU! I had misread that on the 1900 census and thought he had immigrated through Pennsylvania.

    Now I know I can start looking for naturalization records on my great-grandfather!

  4. Toni

    I can’t go backwards other than the Mayflower because there are no records. I can’t even find a death record that happened between 1865 and 1870 because it wasn’t required to keep them and I have no idea what town or county they were in, only the state of Arkansas. OR they might have moved on from there and died somewhere else. My only hope would be to find a grave with a stone somewhere possibly between Wisconsin and Arkansas. Another greatgrandmother might be buried in/around Payson, Illinois. I have too many dead ends for events that happened before it was required to keep records. Church records would be a great help if I knew where to look- IF they went to church!

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