Posted by Juliana Szucs on January 5, 2016 in Website

Mekalski family, c1915There’s a unique thrill that comes when we identify an immigrant ancestor in our family tree. That ancestor’s decision had a huge impact on who we are today. Finding a connection to your immigrant’s place of origin in the old country can fuel our passion for family history. Here are ten places to look to find that “old world” location.

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 heirloom like a family Bible, or something a little more abstract, such as a piece of clothing or a pattern of lace that is native to a particular region. Photographs can hold clues as well. We found my paternal great-grandfather’s hometown in Poland written on the back of a photo from a cousin in Poland. Sometimes elements of the photograph like clothing, a sign in the background, the type of housing, or a photographer’s imprint can help.

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 a more specific location.

3. Marriage Records
If your ancestor was married in this country find their marriage record. Twentieth-century clues to a marriage date can be found in the 1900, 1910, and 1930 U.S. Federal Censuses. The 1880 census has a field for those married within the year. Use those censuses and other records to narrow the time frame and determine the location of the marriage.

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 the son of Irish immigrants in Chicago revealed that his father had been born in County Wexford, Ireland, and his mother was from Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland. He 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 researching the whole family 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 Co. Westmeath, Ireland in a book of dispensations for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. From there, Griffith’s Valuation helped us narrow it to the townland. In this case, there was only one Huggins family listed in Co. Westmeath and some of the neighbors were known associates of the family.

6. Gravestones
Unless your ancestors were frugal with engraving costs like some of mine were, tombstones can be another source of information when it comes to an ancestor’s origins. Check Find A Grave to see if your ancestor’s gravestone has been posted on a memorial page.

7. Newspapers
Newspapers often list the town of origin for the individual mentioned, particularly in obituaries. But don’t overlook other sections of the newspaper. Seek out any mention, and check for ethnic newspapers in the places where your ancestor lived.

For nearly a century, the Boston Pilot served as a beacon for Irish immigrants seeking information on loved ones they had lost contact with. Between 1831 and 1920, more than 45,000 advertisements were placed in the newspaper by recent immigrants looking for family who had come over earlier, by relatives back in Ireland, or by families seeking information on people who had moved elsewhere in the U.S. looking for employment. You can search extracts of these advertisements, which often list a town of origin, in Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in The Boston Pilot 1831–1920.

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.

Tip: Because of the way they were indexed and the format, these collections are best searched directly. Go to the Search tab and select a state from the map in the bottom left section of the page. Scroll down to the category for Stories, Memories & Histories. Click View all… and browse the titles available from there. You can narrow the results to a particular county by using the county selection box on the right.

9. Naturalization Records
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 too often only the country is listed. Ancestry has several large databases of naturalization records available, all of which can be searched from this page.

10. Passport Records
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.

11. Passenger Lists
Beginning in the mid- to late-1890s, immigrants had to provide more detailed information on passenger lists, often including a town of origin in the old country. By 1906 when manifests were standardized, last residence and place of birth was asked of all immigrants. Also don’t overlook the possibility that your ancestor came through Canada. also has collections of Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956 and Border Crossings: From Mexico to U.S., 1895-1964.

12. Military Records
You’ll often find immigrants serving in the military, so be sure to check for service-related 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. Also look for pension records. The Revolutionary War pension file for Mark Ad[d]ams revealed that he was “a native of County Derry in the north part of Ireland.”

Download a free PDF with these tips. 

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Denise

    Great ideas – I’m afraid I have already used them. Still unable to locate old records from the former Yugoslavia. One day I hope some of these records will appear in ancestry. Please contract me if you have any places that I try – areas Savnik , Bijela Boka Kotorska, Gacesa Selo and etc.

  2. Monika

    @Denise–Have you attempted to find out whether there are Census records in Jugoslavia? My heritage comes from a region that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is today part of the Czech Republic. I found about half of a century’s worth of Census records showing my ancestors and it was invaluable data. My entire tree of over 800 people comes from data NONE of which I found on ACOM. They had zero information on my ancestors. (One of the reasons why I found it easy to cancel my subscription after the New Ancestry debacle! 🙂 I grew up about 20 miles north of the the Jugoslavian border in Austria. Will investigate whether they have kept old Census records and let you know on this blog.

  3. Alice

    Thank you for the helpful notes.
    Can you tell me how I would go to a specific record, or specific historical collection. I seem to have problems navigating to say: DAR record collections and then doing search in it.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Alice You can locate a specific collection on Ancestry pretty easily via the Card Catalog .Here you can select a specific collection and perform searches there.

  4. Denise

    Monica Re: Denise
    Thank you so much for trying out Yugoslavia for me. Keep me up to date on this page if you find anything.

  5. My favourite sources for finding immigrants’ places of origin include hospital admission registers, benevolent asylum records, Police Gazettes and ‘missing friends’ records.

  6. jenny Little

    Agree with Eve – Do not like the new format at all. Much preferred the old profiles & also the old family & pedigree charts. I belong to a Family History Group & we ALL hate the new set up.

  7. Mary Smith

    How do I go about finding the current name of the village my Mother came from? It is in Romania and has changed several times. I was told it is next to impossible to find any info since it is still a communist country.

  8. I came hoping for some new ideas of places to look. Sadly, for my nearest immigrant ancestor I’ve found no help finding his city of origin in any of the places you suggest. I know I’ll look in all these places for the rest of my immigrant ancestors, though.

  9. Monika

    @ Denise – A little interim report for you, Denise: Savnik and Bijela appear to be in Montenegro. Cacesa Selo is in Croatia, which would have been included in the Census enumerations. But it would appear that most of the original Census sheets in Yugoslavia were destroyed. They kept the aggregate data for each town, but not the information for each individual house. This is similar to what happened in Austria. While the census records of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were maintained and are available to this day offering great details for areas like Bohemia, Moravia and other nearby areas, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and the current boundaries for Austria were established–what did the Austrian government do? They took all the Census records and turned them into statistical data. So, today you can find out how many doctors were in a town, how many butchers were in that town, how many farmers, tailors, etc. were in that town and how many people lived in that town in any given census year–and when they were done turning all this kind of data into statistics, they threw the original census records out/destroyed them. But it is too early to give up, because–when contacting some communities in Austria for one reason or another–I found that some communities did keep copies of these census records. So, I will try this from a different angle and get back to you.

  10. Denise

    Denise@Monica Thank you so very much for your help. Keep trying I do appreciated it! Happy New Year from Denise

    I would like to wish a happy 20th anniversary to ancestry team this year – congrats to all of you and keep up the great work. As a member of ancestry I do appreciate all you do for us.

  11. Monika

    @Mary Smith – Give me the name of the village where your mother came from! I’ll see what I can do. It took me six months to find the Czech name for the village where my grandmother came from. I only had the German name, since this was a region that belonged to Germany since the 12th century and lateron belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The German name for her village was Dittersbach and there were six villages called Dittersbach relatively close together. Kept writing to various individuals in these six locations until I narrowed it down to the right one. To my good fortune there is an Archive close to the accurate village where I struck gold.

  12. Darcy Hurst

    Hi Juliana,
    My GGfather William Johnston is now where to be found after 1880 in Holyoke, Hampden, Massachusetts. No death records in Mass. If I can’t find do I keep pursuing?

    • Juliana Szucs

      Hard to say without knowing more. How old was he at the time of the 1880 census? What did he do for a living? Did his family remain there? If the family was still in the area, he may have run off or perhaps gone elsewhere to find work. Families were often separated by necessity. I would go through directories year by year and see where he disappears. Does the wife begin appearing as a widow shortly after? That may help narrow time frame if he died. Ancestry has Holyoke directories in our U.S. City Directories collection that cover the 1880s and 1890s time frame. Hopefully that will help you pin down when he died or left the area. If he left, look into local history. Did something happen around that time that might have impacted his livelihood? I would keep looking. Also check newspapers, and check with local historical and genealogical societies to see if they know of unique resources that could hold the answer to your question. Good luck!

  13. Denise

    Hi Juliana, I found Milka Gacesa in the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index 1936 – 2007. She was born in Vojnic, Yugoslavia. Her Father Maksim Gacesa (Maybe my grandfathers brother). The record states that Milka changed her name (? married) in 1996 from Gacesa to Grujic. I have be unable to find any records in ancestry on her. Can you help me? Thank you, Denise

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