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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 all.

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.

Church Records

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.

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