Posted by Ancestry Team on March 5, 2015 in Ask Ancestry Anne

shipFor many of us, knowing where our ancestors came from is a primary goal.  Here are some tips on where you might start looking.

  1. 1850 – 1940 U.S. Census records. Census records list the person’s birthplace; 1880 – 1930 also list parents’ birthplace.  This is obvious place to start looking!  Make sure to check every relevant year – information may vary for any given person.  Also check siblings and cousins for consistencies and other clues.
  2. Check the neighborhood.  Is everyone in the neighborhood on a census from the same place.  That might be a clue as to where your family came from even if your ancestor is listed as being from the U.S.
  3. Death certificates.  Some death certificates ask for parents’ names and places of birth.  Makes sure to look at death certificates for siblings and cousins for the information as well.
  4. Family histories.  Family histories often discuss the origins of the family.  Not every detail may be correct, but they are worth a look.
  5. DNA.  Your DNA won’t tell you which line came from where but it will give you some clues.  And always test your oldest family members to narrow your search.

Ancestry also has lots of great research guides with more information on finding foreign ancestors



  1. tomes jeferson mathews be 1867 tx deth 1941 ok his father james mathes be 1826 mo deth 1879 tx mother eliza buff be 1832 I’ll deth 1878 tx her father marten buff be 1792 nc deth 1878 Washington state mother phoebe season by 1800 nc deth 1832 mo looking four cherokee ancestry all elders in famle clame apprentie en any info indain shows alot in family thinks four help

  2. christy

    Buddy Lee turner, was adopted..trying to find his biological parents, for my husbands health, and my children’s health

  3. Brenda

    So thankful for Ancestry. I just found evidence of my biological father. I never knew my father wasn’t my father but wondered why I looked different. I now have cousins that I’m anxious to meet for the first time. Best part is we live not to far from each other! It was the DNA match that pointed me in the right direction. yay. Feeling thankful

  4. Roxanne

    Thinking I was 100% German from immigrant great grandparents what a shock to find my father never knew his whole life his real first name was Frank…not Junior… and his line goes back in America before the Revolutionary War!

  5. Linda wise maeker

    Great, great grandfather-born South Carolina 1831-left alone to Texas 1848. No info on his parents or any sc family. 1840 cenus is almost useless…no name or specific ages… No idea of county..seems hopeless.. Death certificate has n o info on parents … Lost in Texas

  6. Sandi

    Thanks to census tidbits discussed here, my husband found that he wasn’t an orphan from immigrant parents after all. We found not only his present family (who have been looking for him his whole life) but his American roots back into Plymouth Colony and beyond, including Native American ancestors. Every discovery is a thrill.

  7. Delbert Gossert

    Tracking Hawaiian ancestors is very hard, name changes and shorten names are hard to follow. Any suggestions.

  8. Helen Bryant

    Who is my great great grandfather Elijah Calk’s (born 1770 VA first wife who died @ 1818 in Clarke Co, Alabama, after her son, also named Elijah Calk, was born there on that date?

  9. Jo Best

    I am having great luck finding ancestry lines that date way back into many countries. But one stickler: My 2nd great-grandfather, William N. Proctor.b. about 1802 in England is all I can find. I only know he lived in Elizabethtown, NY because his son, my great-grandfather was born there in 1830. I would appreciate any help on when he came to America or where he lived and died. Thanks. Jo Proctor Best

  10. Lissa C.

    love this site, but after a while. Very frustrating. my dad was adopted by his biological fathers wife. I have info on his biological mother but still can’t find a trace. what’s even more frustrating because I can’t afford a new account. best of luck to all of you hunters out there I hope you find what you’re looking for.

  11. Saskia

    Seeing as I know my own family back to ~1590, it’s a bit boring 😛 but ancestry has shed some light on my husband’s shtetl which is incredibly exciting. is a great site once you find out your shtetl.

  12. Eileen Forster

    I ran into a dead end when my ancestors came from Germany and Austria. Always thought I was 100% German. DNA results showed I was 66% Italian. 4% Western Europe. My DNA matches led me to my biological father who is still living, and is Italian. Family Tree has found a couple more 3rd cousins. The records in Germany seem to be missing. ANY suggestions?

  13. Carolyn Graham

    I’ve been searching 6 months for parents and grandparents of my GGM Catherine Butler McDonald (born 9/5/1833 in Dublin, Ireland to Pierce & Ann Butler and lived in a CASTLE! But found too many Pierce Butlers and none match with daughter Catherine and mother Anne.) Against her father’s wishes (relatives are afraid she may have been DISOWNED?), Catherine, at age 17, immigrated to America on the ship GEORGE EVANS, landing in New Orleans on 11/23/1850. I have found much on Catherine, records on her immigration, marriage, even her christening with “Pierce and Anne” as her parents. But there’s nothing on her parents! ANY suggestions?

  14. Richard Miller

    I had my DNA done a few years back on both my mom and dad’s side of the family. I had always heard from my mom that we had Native American on her side of the family. The DNA confirms that but can not find anyone in her line that I can prove is Native American!

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