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Tips for international research

Unless you are of Native American descent, you will eventually be forced to look outside of American records to find more family information. At some point, you may event have to extend your research overseas. Although the research methods used overseas are similar to those used in the United States there are some unique factors you should take into consideration when conducting your search:

  1. Remember that your family's surname may have changed over time. For a variety of reasons, family surnames may have changed over the years. First, people in earlier times were generally much less literate than they are today. As a result, your ancestors and those they dealt with may have spelled the family surname like it sounds rather than paying particular attention to the exact spelling. Thus, "Baker" could show up different places in your search as Bayker or Baecker. Second, your family surname may have been changed by your ancestors or by immigration officials upon arriving in the United States. In many cases, immigration officials decided to anglicize foreign last names, willfully changing Tukhachevsky to Toland or translating Sonnenschein to Sunshine. Or the immigrant himself may have changed the name upon entry, perhaps hoping to avoid later discrimination against specific national groups. Finally, one of your ancestors may have legally changed her name at some point, a fact which can be confirmed by consulting court records. All of this means that you should conduct your research carefully, making sure to check for different spellings when the current spelling doesn't produce any records.

  2. Know how historic shifts in international borders may affect your search. It is important to recognize that many national borders, particularly in Europe, have changed over the years. Germany, for instance, was just a region of kingdoms and principalities prior to unification in 1870. From 1870 to 1949, the borders of the country changed several times as the result of wars. Historically, German lands (and those with large German minorities) were incorporated into Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Lithuania, Poland, and the former USSR. After the war, Germany was divided into two distinct countries for more than 40 years. Similar circumstances prevailed in parts of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania, where international conflict and colonial rule by European and other powers had dramatic effects on populations and governments. These events, mirrored in various ways throughout the world, mean that your ancestors and their home towns may have come under numerous different jurisdictions over the centuries. You may have to check for records in more than one country before locating those that you need.

  3. Prepare yourself for any linguistic difficulties you may encounter. While in most cases the records are standard, and you will only need to know a few key words such as birth, death, and marriage, there are other cases where you will need more language skills. In many cases, even if you know the modern language of the home country, you won't speak the language of your ancestors. For instance, in Great Britain, you may encounter documents in an old dialect of English or perhaps even in Welsh. Similarly, in Korea, you may come across writings in the dialect of Chinese used prior to the introduction of the Korean writing system. In these cases, you may wish to purchase a dictionary or other reference to aid your translation or you could also copy the documents by machine or hand in order to consult an expert in the language at some later point.

  4. Navigate carefully through the population and bureaucracy. Unlike the United States, where civil servants are generally expected to serve the public, government officials and other important people in foreign countries whom you ask for help may not be immediately interested in assisting you. In these cases, you will fare best if you remember that you are a guest in their country, remaining polite but persistent, exploring all avenues for finding the information you seek. For the most part, however, you will find that most people will be very willing or even eager to help you in your search.

  5. Be aware of what's available. If you do go overseas, be aware of the different types of records that are available in foreign countries. In most countries, you can find vital records, church records, census or tax lists, and land records. You may not find all of these records for any one locality, but usually there will be some records such as these that will help you get started in tracking your foreign ancestors.

  6. Check the validity of your documents. As a final reminder, be sure to check the validity of the documents you discover. Do the dates and places cited in the documents agree with each other? Don't be afraid to challenge documents, particularly those from old sources -- this is crucial to piecing together an accurate picture of your ancestry.
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