Posted by Amy Johnson Crow on October 8, 2014 in Family History Month, Research

Discovering the origins of our immigrant ancestors is the reason many of us pursue genealogy. There is a desire to pinpoint that ancestral home. When it comes to immigrants, we often think of naturalization records and passenger lists, but it could be that the ethnicity itself holds keys to further our research.

Language and Ethnicity

Part of the list of newspapers in the 1872 Cincinnati, Ohio city directory
Part of the list of newspapers in the 1872 Cincinnati, Ohio city directory

Language has a way of binding people together like few other things can.  Consider the churches in many towns today. You might see the same denomination having services in any number of languages. Churches in my area regularly have services in Spanish, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese. Our ancestors were the same way.

Lancaster, Ohio had fewer than 5,000 people living there in 1840 and had a long-established Lutheran church. But in 1843, a second Lutheran congregation began. The two congregations for a time shared a building and held services on alternate Sundays. Why? Ethnicity. English members of St. Peter’s formed a separate congregation; German members kept theirs. After three years, the English members built their own church (First English Lutheran), which was less than two blocks away.

Your ancestors may not have gone to the church closest to them if it served a different ethnic group. Knowing which churches served which ethnic communities can help you find those valuable baptism, marriage, and death records. Look in city directories and county histories to sort them out.

Language plays out in other areas, including newspapers. In the mid- to late-1800s, it wasn’t unusual for a city in the U.S. to have multiple newspapers and not all of them in English. (In some cities, the circulation of German-language newspapers was actually higher than that of English-language papers.) The 1872 city directory for Cincinnati lists almost 4 dozen newspapers, including several in German.

If you’re not finding obituaries or news about your ancestor in the “regular” newspaper, ask yourself if that ancestor had a strong ethnic identity, such as an immigrant or first-generation American. His or her news might appear in a foreign-language newspaper even if the same announcement isn’t found in an English counterpart.

Ethnicity and Neighborhoods

My ancestor John Johnson was enumerated in 1850 in Bloom Township, Morgan County, Ohio. His place of birth is listed as Upper Canada, and his naturalization records were no more specific. Considering that Upper Canada represents approximately the southern half of the present-day province of Ontario and that Johnson is an excruciatingly common surname, it’s not enough information to start digging into Canadian records.

When emigrants like John Johnson left their homelands for America, they would often be followed by family and neighbors who would also be followed by family and neighbors. The result of this chain migration were communities of people from the same small section of a homeland who congregated together in new neighborhoods in America. This is good to know because, as a family historian, when you want to solve a location problem for your own ancestor, you may be able to find clues within the neighborhood.

When you look at the census records of an ancestor’s neighborhood, pay attention to your ancestor’s neighbors. What were their names? Where were they born? When did they immigrate to America? Take this information and extend your search for the neighbors’ naturalization records, passenger lists, church records, and death records and obituaries. You may find that rather than just seeing an Irish neighborhood, you’re looking at clusters of immigrants from Tuam or Ennis. And, armed with this information, you can look for your ancestor in those specific areas across the pond.

When it comes to researching our ancestors, we tend to think of events. But sometimes, it’s something about the person himself that is a clue. Ethnicity can be a clue that leads to whole new ways of looking at (and looking for) his records.

Amy Johnson Crow

Amy Johnson Crow is a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Amy Johnson Crow.