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Resources for Tracing Your Overseas Roots

Unless you are of Native American descent, you will eventually need to look outside of American records to discover where your family roots begin. Although the basic research methods used for overseas records are the same as those used in the United States, there are some unique factors you should take into consideration when conducting your search.

A Few Quick Tips

First, consult sources in the U.S. before making the leap overseas. Many records are now available online, as with Genealogy.com's International & Passenger Records Subscription. You will also find that the The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints useful, as it has the largest collection of genealogical information in the world, including government, church, cemetery, and other records. It contains extensive records from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland. The library maintains branches throughout the United States and Canada, so, you may be able locate your foreign records without ever leaving home.

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 after arriving in the United States, anglicizing foreign last names, perhaps hoping to avoid 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.

 

January 4, 2001

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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 Soviet Union. 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. Always keep in mind that you may have to check for records in more than one country before locating those that you need. It might be helpful to learn a little about the history of your ancestors' countries before leaping into your research.

 

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. You could also copy the documents by machine or hand in order to consult an expert in the language at some later point.

 
Often, you only need to know a few key words in order make sense out of a foreign record.

Navigate carefully through the population and bureaucracy. Government officials in almost all countries are busy, and assisting you with your genealogical research may not be at the top of their list. For the most part, you will find that people will be very willing to help you in your search. However, you will fare best if you remember that you are a guest in their country (or the letter you send is your ambassador). Always be polite and patient, exploring all avenues for finding the information you seek.

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.

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.

Resources for Learning More

Even though foreign research may seem overwhelming, you will find that there is lots of information available to help you along the way. Here are just a few of the offerings here at Genealogy.com:

  • Tracing Immigrant Origins
    This free, self-paced, online course by Genealogy Research Associates takes you step-by-step through the process of locating your overseas ancestors. Topics include which records to use in the U.S. and overseas, as well as how research techniques change, depending on the time frame of your search.
  • But I Don't Speak the Language
    It's possible to find your overseas ancestors, even when you don't understand the language of their records. Learn the tricks for exploring these records like a pro.
  • Coming to America
    Did your ancestors come through Ellis Island? What was it like for them? Take a peek into the world of the "island of hope, island of tears."
  • European Migration & Your Family Origins
    Your ancestors said they were German or Italian, but maybe they didn't come directly from those countries. When the records suddenly dry up, explore the possibility of migration within Europe.
  • Immigrant Ancestors in Published Passenger Lists
    A quick inventory of books that might help you locate your immigrant ancestors in passenger lists.
  • Irish and English Research Topics
    A special selection of ideas and tips for those of you who have family roots in England and Ireland.
  • Locating Ship Passenger Lists
    How-tos for using the ship passenger list resources available through the National Archives and Family History Library.
  • Notes on Naturalization
    Once your ancestors arrived in the U.S., did they become citizens? The information in these records can be invaluable. Discover how to find it!

Writing Letters Overseas

Once you determine a possible location for records about your foreign ancestors, and you also know that those records aren't readily accessible to you here in the U.S., you will want to write letters to overseas offices. Form letters in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish may give you a helping hand. Even if you need a letter written in a different language, don't forget to take a look at our letter-writing tips.

And So the Hunt Continues...

Best of luck with your journey. Wherever it may take you, you're sure to learn a lot along the way.


About the Author

This article was written by Genealogy.com staff.
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