Using Locating Ancestral Origins, by Juliana Smith

Matthew Huggins home, Co. Westmeath, IrelandIt’s a question I see frequently in my editor’s mail: “How do I locate a town of origin in (England, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway) for my ancestors? To the non-genealogist, the town of origin might seem to be just another insignificant piece of trivia about our ancestors, but to those of us with a passion for learning all we can about our ancestry, it is one of the most exhilarating finds there is. To be able to reach back in time and actually take our history to a place that you can see on a map, and hopefully someday even visit, is a feeling that’s hard to beat!

The trouble is, that information is not always where you might hope to find it, and it often takes a bit of digging. But there are clues in many records that could help point you in the right direction. Let’s take a look.

Home Sources
The first stop is always at home, and even if you thought you had exhausted all that you can find and interrogated every relative, it can still be worth a second look. For years we asked my grandmother if she knew what town her father had come from. She knew that it was northeast of Warsaw but couldn’t remember the name. Years later she shared some photographs from the old country and there it was on the back of a photograph–Wyszkow. The city was later confirmed with my great-grandfather’s alien registration.

So when you’re asking a relative, don’t just ask for a name, ask about any memorabilia from the old country. Also, if the name evades him or her, try a more generic approach. My grandfather knew that the part of Hungary his parents were from, after boundary changes, fell in Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). His baptismal certificate, which he kept over the years, gave their place of origin as Gomor Megye, and his sister later sent us correspondence with the town names of Horka and Hosszuszo. (More on boundary changes can be found in the article on maps and gazetteers in the Library.

So, when Aunt Bertha doesn’t respond to your grilling at the family barbeque as to exactly where the family hails from, back up a bit and ask if she knows even the general region. Ask her about photographs, heirlooms, and anything else that might hold clues. Compliment her detective skills and ask her to do a little sleuthing for you when she gets home.

Were there cousins in the old country that family corresponded with? Examine family Bibles, correspondence, funeral cards, and heirlooms for clues, and interview everyone. You never know where you’ll find that clue.

What Else?
However, not all of us are blessed with those rich home sources. For my Irish ancestors, many of whom came to this country more than 150 years ago, we didn’t have anything like that to lead us. Here’s a laundry list of some places to search:

~ Obituaries
We found the obituary of my great-great-grandmother, Jane Howley, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Wednesday, 17 July 1912, pg. 5:

Jane Howley, widow of Thomas Howley died yesterday at her residence, 630 Park Place. She was born in Balbriggan, Dublin County, Ireland. She had lived in Brooklyn for 62 years. Her husband died in 1884. She was a member of St. Teresa’s R.C. Church where a mass of requiem will be celebrated Friday morning and leaves two daughters, Mrs. Madden and Mrs. John Dalton, a son Thomas W., 14 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.

Years later, when my mother went to Ireland, she was able to get Jane’s birth record from the church in which she was baptized.

In searching obituaries, check multiple papers. Some papers are better than others when it comes to including birthplaces. The following is from the New York Herald for 7 January 1870. (Several years are available online at

“On Wednesday, January 5, at the residence of her uncle, Thomas Laine, 424 Second Avenue, Catharine, youngest daughter of Mathias Callaghan, of Upton, parish of Knockaville, County Cork, Ireland…”

The New York Times for that same date doesn’t include that obituary at all.

~ Immigration and Naturalizaton Records
You may find a town of origin on passenger arrivals, but this is rare for earlier, pre-twentieth century arrivals. I found my great-grandfather, Janos Szucs, in the Ellis Island database. He arrived in 1902, listing his ethnicity as Hungary/Magyar and his last residence as Horka. With earlier passenger arrivals, you’re more likely to get just a country, but there are exceptions, so these records should be explored as well.

Naturalization records can also vary widely as far as home origins, but post-1906 records are most likely to have more detailed information. Still, there are notable exceptions in early records and these should always be checked as well.

~ Church Records
Church records can also prove fruitful and should always be explored. We found the county of origin for one of our Huggins ancestors through a book compiled by Joseph Silinonte, Bishop Loughlin’s Dispensations, Diocese of Brooklyn, 1859-1866, Volume I. (You can learn more about these records in the Library. Armed with a starting point of County Westmeath, using Griffith’s Valuation, 1848-64 we were led to one Huggins family in the townland of Rathcaled, Rathconrath Parish, Co. Westmeath. With the help of Irish genealogist and friend, Eileen O’Duill, my mother was also able to locate what may be the family home and was able to get birth and marriage records for the family from the parish books.

~ Local History
If your ancestor was a prominent citizen, you may find biographical details in a local history. In the History of Cook County, Illinois: from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, one entry reads,

GEORGE PHILLIPS, builder and contractor, was born in Merryworth, County Kent, England, May 28, 1825, and was raised a builder, this being the calling of his father and grandfather. He came to Chicago in the fall of 1871, and there followed his trade. In 1875 he came to Cummings, where he is now erecting for himself the Union Hall. Mr. Phillips married, in 1852, Mary Wiley, who died in 1859, when he married again, in 1860, Frances Bartlett. They have three children–Elizabeth, Emma, and George, Jr.

What a treasure trove of information!

~ Localized Help
There are also unique records available depending on where your ancestors lived. I found our Kelly origins in the Emigrant Savings Bank database at The entry for my fourth great-grandfather, James Kelly, reads:

Date: Nov. 19, 1857
Account #15751
Name: James Kelly
Occupation: none, infirm
Address: 34 John St.
Native of Glackmore, Coy. Donegal & arrived at Halifax 30 yrs ago. Wife dead Bridget McLoghlin & ch. James, Mary, Jane & Elizth.

(More information on this database can be found in the Library.

Other databases like the Chicago Irish Families, 1875-1925 contain entries like the following:

Sexton, Mr. Laurence, and Miss Johanna Powers were united in marriage at St. James’ Church on April 9. They are both natives of Co. Kilkenny, Ireland. Residence will be at 1030 W. 12th st. -April 19, 1890.

Torphey, Mary, nee Vaughan, wife of John, mother of Patrick, James and John Torphy, Mrs. Mary Porr, Mrs. Lizzie Scheck, Mrs. Annie Perry, Mrs. Ellen Powers, Mrs. Kate Neher, native of Thurles, Co. Tipperary, aged 52 yrs. Funeral from resid., 751 S. Halsted st. to Sacred Heart Church to Calvary. -Jan. 4, 1898

It’s a good idea to check database listings at by location and browse through what’s available. (Go to the main search page, and select your area of interest from the maps.)

RootsWeb is home to a ton of user-contributed content. Search mailing list archives, message boards, and user-contributed databases. I tend to forget about these gems, but when I revisit, I’m like a kid in a candy store!

Check the websites of local societies, libraries, historical museums, and municipalities for databases and information on how to request records. Often the local USGenWeb site or WorldGenWeb site can help you find a location that will include links to content specific to that area.

~ Publications
Keep your eye out for publications based on local records. There are handfuls of dedicated individuals who compile important records in publications like Tombstones of the Irish Born: Cemetery of the Holy Cross, Flatbush, Brooklyn (by Joseph Silinonte, Brooklyn, NY) and Old Calvary Cemetery: New Yorkers Carved in Stone (by Rosemary Muscarella Ardolina, Heritage Books, Bowie, MD) as well as the previously mentioned book of marriage dispensations. Books like these have opened many doors thanks to the hard work of the compilers. Check for local society publications and make it a habit to regularly browse used book distributors like and is another good place to look for titles both in libraries and for purchase from used book exchanges like the ones I mentioned above.

Cast a Wide Net
The availability of transcriptions–online and off–and a growing number of online databases allow us to cast a much wider net than was practical ten or fifteen years ago. Search for collateral relatives and even trace the ancestry of sponsors and witnesses or other associates, particularly those whose surnames seem to pop up frequently in conjunction with your ancestor. Best of luck searching for your ancestral origins!

Have you located ancestral origins in a place that I missed? Please add your experience to the comments section below.

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Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.



11 thoughts on “Using Locating Ancestral Origins, by Juliana Smith

  1. Julianna! Wonderful article for those whose ancestors came over during the Great Migration, but what about those of us poor unfortunates whose ancestors (ALL OF THEM! HA!) apparently missed the Mayflower, but must have followed soon thereafter? I’ve traced both parents folks back to the late 1600’s in VA,NJ & MD, but no further. I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to assist folks like me that are “stuck on this side of the pond” in the 17th century. Thanks for all you do, Janice

  2. What a great article!!! Thank you so much; you inspire me to finish my third family history book, and begin to search for English/Welch/Scots/Alsace Lorraine homesites.

  3. Julianna, thanks for another very helpful article. I have had some personal success locating towns of origin for two of my ancestral families in local U.S. Catholic church histories (usually centennials). In order for this method to be useful, you muct know the town in which your ancestors lived in the U.S. (this is usually much easier to determine using census records). If you are lucky, the town will be small with only one church. The University of Notre Dame library has a great collection of Cathloic church histories which are available through interlibrary loan or can be copied for a fee.

  4. Hi Juliana, I was able to find the villages of origin for my great grandparents when one of their daughters died just after 1900. At that time, the death certificate information (in Wisconsin)asked for the parents’ exact place of birth. While it was sad to see that the daughter died as a teenager, this was the only source I had found to get me across the Atlantic, and back several generations.

  5. Hi Julia, Since I was a child it was also ingrained in me where my paternal great-grandparents came from. It was written on their tombstones! Many people were so proud of where they came from that they included the information on tombstones. Thanks.

  6. Hello, Julianna. I also enjoy your articles. In this one you mention the Immigrant Savings Bank. I did a basic search of my great-grandfather’s name on Considering the fact he was Jewish, you can imagine my surprise when I got a hit for the Irish Immigrant Savings Bank. The introduction did state that while most were Irish individuals, there were a few who were not. It gave his year and place of birth, the year immigrated (1852), and the name of his deceased wife, plus one more surprise! It listed the name of the ship, Eliza. I found no ship Eliza arriving in NY in 1852, but I did find a ship Elise arriving in December. In addition, this basic search also provided his naturalization record. What a day! Thanks again. Keep up the good work!

  7. Great article…these tidbits of information of where to search are invaluable, especially to a fairly new researcher. I can’t wait to check some of these sites as I’m fairly close to “crossing the pond”.

  8. This is a good opportunity to reiterate researching siblings. A siblings obit or death certificate may have more information than that of the direct ancestor!

  9. thanks for aiming a beginer in some direction to begin. i have some facts, i can go on from here. thank you again!

  10. I found one of my lines through a passport application, after he became a US citizen and went back to Europe to visit.
    Thanks for the useful tips.

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