The most prominent local sources for most of our ancestorsí
countries are civil (government) records of births, deaths, or marriages
and church records. Often these are the only records in which we will
find evidence of our immigrant in the old country. Many of our immigrant
ancestors did not own land, nor were they mentioned in probate records
in the old country (they didnít die there, and usually their father was
too poor to bother with probate). Most countries did not have a regular
census, or else the immigrant left before census records started. Tax
lists are meager, incomplete, and difficult to access, if they exist at
Hence, the records of choice for documenting an immigrantís
birth and life in his or her birth country are the local records of birth,
marriage, or death kept by the church or the government. For most countries,
however, the government did not begin keeping civil records until very
late in the 1800s, so church records are the "default" records
we turn to.
Unlike the United States, virtually every European and
British resident belonged to a church and was recorded in its registers.
Often there was only one church because it was the "state or established"
church. In some European countries, there may have been two or three churches,
but in any given locality, the great majority of residents belonged to
just one denomination. That denomination was usually Catholic, the Church
of England, the Church of Scotland (Episcopalian or Presbyterian) or a
Protestant church such as Lutheran or Reformed. Smaller church denominations,
such as Quakers, Mennonites, Baptists, or other religions, such as Judaism,
comprised only a few percent of the population, at most.