In the past two lessons, we've discussed what we often call the minimum elements of identification: 1) the immigrant's original, full name, 2) the date of an event (usually the birth) that was recorded in the old country, 3) the name and relationship of a relative (usually the father), and, of course, 4) the name of the home town. In virtually every immigrant situation, this information will uniquely identify the immigrant. However, even if this is enough information to identify the immigrant, it may not be the wisest course of research to stop looking for immigrant "identifiers" with just these four elements.
First, your research in the immigrant's new country may never discover all four of these elements; one or more of them may simply never have been recorded on this side of the ocean. This is especially the case with Colonial era immigrants (before the U.S. Revolution), or if the immigrant died relatively young. The most likely element you may not discover is the original home town. Under these circumstances, you will have to use various records in the old country to learn where the immigrant came from. In such situations, any additional information you already know will help you recognize the correct immigrant.
Second, the information you learn may be wrong or incomplete. You may learn the year the immigrant was born, but never the actual date. Perhaps you learn the mother's given name (such as Mary), but never her maiden name. On occasion, the information we believe to be correct turns out to be false. In one recent immigration case dealing with a Croatian immigrant who arrived in America about 1914, the family initially had wrong information for the immigrant's name, age, and place of origin! The immigrant was under-age when he immigrated and had used his deceased brother's name and age on the passenger list. The place name the family believed he came from was identified in the wrong district in Croatia (where a town with a similar name is located). This of course meant that we could not identify him in the parish records. It was only through the use of additional identification that we eventually located the family.
Third, in the course of your research, you may find many persons with the same name in various records. Usually these records do not identify the persons as fully as you have. Thus, upon finding a John Meyer in a census record, you wonder if he is the immigrant. Knowing some of the additional identifiers can help you decide if the newly-found record pertains to the immigrant, or someone else with the same name.
Actually, any new information you learn about an immigrant is an additional identifier: from their occupation, to their internal migration patterns, to their children's names. All of these, and more, make our immigrant ancestor(s) unique individuals, each with a different story. However, our concern is learning where they came from in the old country, and there are some identification facts that simply are more helpful in this kind of research than others. Among other information, this includes:
- Immigration information
- Other family members
- Friends and neighbors
- Geographic clues
While immigration records seldom, before the twentieth century, name the specific town where the immigrant lived, immigration information can be a crucial means of identifying the immigrant. With the date, arrival and departure ports, and possibly the ship's name, the researcher is able to locate more information about the immigrant, including possible relatives. In cases where the home town is never learned, knowing exactly when a person, or family, immigrated, allows you to search the departure records (when they exist) in the old country. And, these records almost always provide the town of origin.
Other immigration information includes naturalization status. Again, prior to the twentieth century, most naturalization records do not name specific towns in the old country, but they do document immigration. Further, in the form of the witnesses' names in those papers, they may identify relatives or friends of the family (see the next page). Just remember, usually only adult males were naturalized, and while a colony still belonged to the mother country, immigrants from that country did not need to be naturalized (thus British citizens were not naturalized in the future United States until after the Revolutionary War, and in Canada not until after Confederation).
Other family members
Perhaps no additional information is more important than additional family members. Knowing the names of brothers, sisters, cousins, or even the immigrant's mother, can help not only in identifying them in the old country, but also in learning where they came from. If you are forced to search records in the old country, such as a census, knowing who the other relatives were helps to identify family members.
Recently we were looking for an Enoch Powell who arrived in New York in the 1890s. At first we knew little about him but his month and year of birth in Yorkshire, England. The 1881 census of England included a young man who could be the ancestor, but we needed more identification. With more searches in Troy, New York, we located a woman who seemed to be his mother, as well as a possible brother, but Enoch was never connected to them in American records. Finding the apparent mother in the 1900 U.S. census, we noted the brother, as well as the mother's grandchild (with a different surname) living with her. These same three persons, with the right names, relationships, and ages, all appeared in the 1881 census in England with Enoch! Clearly these other family members had been the key to proper identification of the immigrant.
Not only can additional family members substitute for a missing father's name, but they also serve as a cross-check that you have found the right family in the old country. In the Croatian example mentioned on the previous page, it was the mother's maiden name (on the immigrant's U.S. documentation) that pointed to, and helped confirm, the correct town of origin.
While religious freedom was not the overwhelming reason most immigrants came to the new world (most came for economic betterment), our immigrant ancestors were usually very religious, which can lead to more records, as well as better identification. Clearly knowing that an early English immigrant was a Quaker will provide a more unique identification for a "John Williams" than almost any other single item. It also points to specific sources to search in both countries, while keeping him separate from many other persons with the same name. In addition, one of the best places to locate references in the new country to the home town in the old country is an immigrant's church records (which we will discuss more in a future lesson). In order to find and search these records, you must know which religion your immigrant preferred.
Some ethnic groups were primarily identified with one religion (such as Italians with Roman Catholicism), while others, such as Germans, may have belonged to any of several major or minor religious groups. Often, conducting background research on the immigrant and the groups he traveled or lived with (see below), will reveal his membership in a specific denomination. This is especially useful for smaller religious groups, such as Mennonites or the Society of Friends (Quakers).
Many, if not most, of the records we use in the old country are church records. Therefore, knowing an immigrant's religion is crucial in order to identify him (or her) in their home town. Catholics just don't appear in Lutheran records, and vice-a-versa.
Friends and neighbors
Our immigrant ancestors did not, generally, immigrate alone. Either they were coming to someone they already knew, or they traveled with others from their original home. In many cases, both situations existed. Since there are no guarantees that you will ever find a document providing the key information you need for a specific immigrant, you may have to locate him through his associates. From a fellow traveler you might learn the date of arrival, or family religion. From a neighbor you may learn the foreign state they used to lived in (see below). With either situation, you may learn the specific town the immigrant came from.
Some of the friends and neighbors will turn out to be relatives. A neighbor in a census record may well be a brother-in-law, or an uncle on the mother's side of the family.
People really did emigrate in groups, although not always at the same time. It can be difficult to reconstruct that group, but in your research, you will usually find pieces of the group. Here are some things to watch for as you research:
- Consider all the neighbors in the census records. Pay particular attention to the families in the township who claim the same birth country as the immigrant.
- Review the fellow passengers on the arrival list (this is one reason immigration information can be so useful). Persons listed near the immigrant are the ones most likely to be related, or from the same town.
- Closely examine the witnesses (or sponsors) of the immigrant's marriage, or the children's baptisms, in the church records. Some of them were associated with the immigrant in the old country.
Read local histories to learn which immigrant groups settled the area where your immigrant lived. Often these settlers came from the same region, or even town, as each other. Even the names of new towns where they settled will provide clues to the origins of at least some settlers.
Another item to watch for, as you search for the immigrant, are clues to the geography where he lived. This includes learning the name of the foreign country and/or state. This is necessary whether you find the name of the home town or not. Just learning that a British immigrant came from St. Mary's won't help if you don't know if the town was in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or England. If you never find the name of the home town, it is much easier to locate a German in the small state of Lippe, then in the state of Prussia. If indeed they did come from Prussia, then it is helpful to know if they came from Posen or Rheinland (two of several Prussian states).
Sometimes in you research, you will not learn the specific town, but you may learn of a nearby city. Even such documented clues such as "she lived near Antwerp" can help if you need to localize the surname in a foreign country (a tactic we will describe in a future lesson). However, be wary of family tradition regarding an immigrant's origin in a large city. Usually these are poor clues at best, for emigrants usually did not leave from large cities (or else they would not be so large) and family traditions often become quickly garbled over just a couple of generations.
Even geographic clues such as "they lived near the North Sea" can assist as you narrow the possibilities of varying place names. Even occupations may provide geographic clues. While farmers may have lived almost anywhere, fishers and miners generally lived near the sea or mountains respectively.
There is really no end to the different kinds of additional information you can learn about an immigrant. Most researchers forget to learn all they can about an ancestor, and turn their "family history" back into "genealogy" (a study of names, places, and relationships of families). Not only will you come to appreciate the immigrant more, as you learn more about the family, you will find clues that will become the crucial link to the old world.
Remember, the more you learn about the immigrant in the new country, the better you will be able to find him or her in their old country. Many researchers prepare a "biography sheet" about key ancestors whom they are researching in depth. This includes most immigrant ancestors whose origins are not known. There are no specific formats for such a sheet, design one that meets your needs. You might want to place the immigrant's name at the top with some of the key information (birth date, parents names, etc.). Then, as you learn more about the immigrant, add the information to this page. You might want to arrange it as a time line, or by the places he lived, or in order of how you found the information. Perhaps you will place similar information together, such as neighbors, or geographic clues. Others put proven information at the top of the page, with undocumented traditions and stories at the bottom. The significant concept is to begin gathering and analyzing the information you know about the ancestor. You'll be surprised what you already know about "your" immigrant(s).
Indeed, there's your assignment for the next couple of weeks. Begin developing a "biography sheet" for a couple of your immigrants. It will help you as we proceed through our future lessons.
Of course, the records you search have much more information in them than just identification of the immigrant. In our next lesson, we will discuss some ways to search the records so you get the most out of them, and how to make sure you really have located an ancestral home town.