Names are how our immigrant ancestors identified themselves to their friends and family, but it is not quite enough for family historians. Names are not totally unique. Often there are others who share our name. Some of us have first cousins with the same first and last name, perhaps even born in the same year. Our immigrant ancestors had the same situation. In many of our ancestral countries, the number of unique given or last names was much fewer than in today's culture. The frequency of common names, coupled with various naming patterns, wherein certain names were used again and again within an extended family, make it impossible to rely only on a name to identify an immigrant. Fortunately, there are additional ways to clearly identify an immigrant.
The immigrant's birth place is the best way to identify him or her, but then, this is usually the information we do not know and want to learn. Furthermore, within a single parish there may be more than one person with the same name as our immigrant ancestor. How then do we know which is our ancestor? We know this by associating other information with the immigrant. In addition to his or her name (discussed in the previous lesson) and the town of origin (which is the point of this whole series of lessons), we need to know two more items of information: a date and a relative.
Dating an immigrant
No, we're not talking about that kind of dating. Your immigrant already did that, when they found their spouse. Rather, what we mean here is knowing at least one very specific date when a key event happened to the immigrant in the old country. For most of our research, this is the birth date in the home land. However, it could also be the date of a church baptism or confirmation, a marriage date, a child's birth, or an emigration date. The key factor is that the date be:
- as specific as possible (day, month and year).
- an event that happened to the immigrant in the old country.
- an event that was recorded in a source we can retrieve.
This is why the birth date is preferred for identification. Many of the other events noted above may not have happened to your immigrant ancestor, or if they did happen, they were not recorded or they happened in the new country. But the immigrant's birth is a given. After all, if it did not happen in the old country, then he isn't an immigrant (see Lesson 1). Also, if we don't proceed on the assumption that such a record of the immigrant was recorded in his home town, we have little hope of locating the immigrant at all. While it is true that not all birth records have survived in your immigrant's home country, the vast majority of them did. Where they did not, there are often substitute records, usually identifying the person's age, that will help us be sure we have the right ancestor when we find him or her.
For some immigrants, the complete birth date, along with their correct, full name, is often enough to correctly identify an immigrant. If a source in North America says that Jakob de Jager was born on 14 November 1819, he may be the only one in his country with that exact name and birth date. In other cases even that will not be enough, but it will certainly keep us as researchers from connecting our family to another person of the same name born on a different date in 1819, or even in 1820. However, such false linkages would be common problems if we relied only on, say, a census record providing the age of an immigrant as a substitute for his or her birth date.
Where, then, do you find an exact birth date? Generally, you will find these on records dealing with the immigrant's death. This, of course, happened in his or her new country or else they would not be an immigrant. Cemetery inscriptions and death or burial records are some of the best sources for this information. A biographical sketch or obituary often gives a person's exact date of birth. Also consider other records that seek to fully identify a person, such as pension records (for the military or private businesses). Family Bibles often include exact birth dates, but locating ones that are not owned by your known family members can be difficult. Compiled records about the immigrant and his or her family, such as genealogies and periodical articles, may also include an exact birth date.
Census records are not a good substitute for this information. Even the 1900 U.S. census, which provides the month and year of birth is often incorrect. Probate and land records seldom include such identification. Neither do passenger lists. Naturalization records may provide the information, but generally only in more recent years. The same is true of civil marriage records.
If you thoroughly search the sources in the immigrant's new country, you will generally learn this vital piece of information.
Relating to the immigrant
By this time you surely know how you relate to the immigrant ancestor (Uncle Fred, Great-grandpa Snyder, etc.), but you also need to know about the immigrant's relative(s) in the home town.
In some places, one or two particular surnames are so common that children of different parents but the same surname may be born on the same day. Imagine the confusion (in the town and for researchers hundreds of years later) if both children are given the same first name. Within the parish they often used the father's name as a secondary identifier, so that two John Smiths were not confused with each other. The same principle works with genealogical research.
Indeed, our relationships identify us even better than a birth date or birth place. Genealogy is the study of genetic relationships. That's what we're always looking for, an ancestor's father, mother, brother, sister, or children. This is what makes us human -- our family.
An immigrant may have a common name, or be born on the same day as someone else with that name. Almost certainly others in his or her home town will share his name, but the unique combination of the immigrant's name with the father, mother, brother, or sister's name will likely not be duplicated.
In fact, it does not really matter what relative you identify for the immigrant, as long as the relative is:
- clearly and specifically identified (cousin has many definitions, brother has fewer).
- associated with them in the old country (the wife he married in Canada may not have been anywhere close to him in the old country).
- able to be documented with the immigrant in the home town.
For these reasons, the father is the preferred relative to use in identifying the immigrant. The relationship is clear and unique, and almost always identified in foreign records.
However, it can be difficult to learn the father's name from sources in the immigrant's new country. This is especially a problem if the father did not come over. Death and marriage records often name the father (as well as the mother), yet cemetery or Bible records may not. With cemetery records, the father may be present, but not identified.
Land and probate records are excellent genealogy sources, if the father or another relative also came to the new country. Naturalization records help find a relative only if the father was also naturalized. Passenger lists only include the names of relatives on recent registers. Of course, if the father traveled with the immigrant, then he will be on the passenger list as well. Compiled records (histories, biographies, genealogies) usually provide the father's name, as well as names of other relatives. Census records and tax lists only help if the parent or relative lived with, or near, the immigrant ancestor.
As you can see, the documentation is better if the father or other relative from the old country also came to the new country. This is why it is so crucial to learn as much as possible about the immigrant and his entire family. Whenever more than one person from a family immigrated, the researcher automatically has a key identifying element, a relationship, and can work on the name, date, and place elements.
Isn't this overkill?
Sometimes beginning researchers think that requiring this much information is not necessary. After all, what are the chances there will be two persons with the same birth year and name in the same small town? While that may be true in some cases, we won't know that until we locate the town, and that is the hardest identifier to find.
It is possible, that in some research cases, you will never find mention of the home town in the records of the immigrant's new country. However, if you have done your research well, all hope is not lost. In many such situations, you may be able to use a nationwide or statewide index in the old country to learn the town where your immigrant ancestor was born. If this is the case, then these identifiers are even more crucial, for, given just the country or state, there will be others who share your immigrant's name and year of birth. For example in the International Genealogy Index. A search for a name as uncommon as Mathias Jenne in the German state of Baden, yielded two different persons with this name born in 1724, in the same town!
What's up next?
We wish you the best of luck in locating the minimum identification for your immigrant ancestor. Remember, while you ultimately want to learn the town where he or she was born, you first need to learn the immigrant's:
- complete, full, original name, [Hilda Maria Nikodemusdr Nevanpera]
- an exact date (day, month, year) of an event (preferably the birth) in the old country [Born: 24 May 1854], and
- the name of a relative in the home town (the father or mother is best). [father: Nikodemus Larson]
Go ahead and check for this information in some of the records we've discussed.
The immigrant's death record is the first record you should obtain. Then, look for cemetery inscriptions, death or burial records, family Bibles, and genealogies.
In the meantime, we will be organizing the next lesson. Would you believe there are other "identifiers" you should be watching for? They may not be as crucial as the ones we've discussed so far, but they will definitely help you in your research.
About Genealogy Research Associates
Karen Clifford is the Founder and President of Genealogy Research Associates. She is an Accredited Genealogist, an instructor in an Associates Degree program in Library Science-Genealogy and Computers at Hartnell College (Salinas, California) and Monterey Peninsula College (Monterey, California). She has authored several family histories and textbooks including Genealogy & Computers for the Complete Beginner; Genealogy & Computers for the Determined Researcher; Genealogy & Computers for the Advanced Researcher, and Becoming an Accredited Genealogist.
Karen currently serves as Vice-president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and Vice-president of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). She is a member of the California State Genealogy Alliance, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the National Genealogical Society, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In 1998 and 1999, Karen served as Director of UGA's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.
She has received several awards for her volunteer work in the genealogy community including the FGS Award of Merit and the FGS Outstanding Delegate Award.