Interest in family history is almost as old as mankind, and is not exclusive to North America. In fact, British and European families were interested in their ancestry long before it became popular in the New World. With that interest has come thousands of published sources dealing with the ancestry and/or descendants of thousands of families in Western Europe and Great Britain.
It is axiomatic that we always search compiled records when starting our search, but too often we focus only on such sources in the country where our immigrant relatives settled. We reason that they, and their descendants lived here, in the new country. Therefore, we think there won't be any compiled records for them in foreign countries.
That is an unfortunate notion, for the interest that North Americans have in finding their immigrant origins is almost matched by their foreign cousins' interest in finding that elusive relative who left the homeland for the New World. Of course, researchers in the home country have a distinct advantage when researching their family. They have better access to the records, and, usually, a better understanding of the language and handwriting. With that information, they will have complete information about the immigrant in the home country (birth date and place, parents names, etc.). They will also likely know approximately when the subject(s) immigrated, but often not the exact place where they settled. This is where your knowledge of the immigrant in North America comes in.
Published accounts of families in foreign countries exist just as they do in North America: as book length treatments, as individual families in genealogical compendia or dictionaries, and as periodical articles.
Family history books published in foreign countries often follow family branches down to the family member who emigrated. Thus, knowing what you know about the immigrant, you should be able to recognize an emigrant in a foreign family history as being your relative.
Book-length genealogies are not quite as common in other countries as they are in North America, and they differ in some significant ways. In North America, many descendant genealogies begin with the immigrant, and the descendants are arranged in family groups, with each child having a number, under which they are continued later in the book. Versions of this format are called the "Register" or "Record" style of descendancy.
Foreign genealogies don't have an immigrant with which to begin. Rather, they tend to begin with the earliest known ancestor. For most families, this means someone born about 1600 (give or take 50 years). Descendants are then discussed in an outline style, with children and descendants of the first child discussed before the second child, etc. As with all published accounts, some branches are more fully researched and developed than others, depending on the records, as well as the ability and interest of the researcher.
If you find a foreign genealogy book for your family, remember, it will usually be written in the language of that country. Books published before about 1950 in Germany will also usually be printed in the old "Fracture" typeface, wherein some letters look radically different than the typefaces used today. However, when you find an immigrant's name in the index, you will find ways to overcome these difficulties.
Of course, the index will not identify persons as emigrants, but the text almost always does. After the information about the person's birth will be some notation that he or she emigrated in a certain year, or on a specific date. Often there will be no other information. If foreign family members kept in touch with the emigrant, or the researcher found additional documentation, it might indicate where they were thought to have settled. If they married in the old country, of course the spouse and any children should be listed.
This is why it is so important to know all you can about the family in their new home. If the foreign genealogy does not tell where he or she settled in North America, how will you know you have found the right emigrant? Surnames in foreign countries are often not as unique in that country as they are in the New World. Thus, you can't just rush out and find a history of the Murphy family in Ireland and expect that an emigrant John Murphy listed in its pages is automatically assumed to be your immigrant relative.
Thousands of family histories exist for the major countries from which emigrants came (Germany, Ireland, England), and hundreds from the smaller countries (Netherlands, Switzerland, France, etc.). Most of these are listed in the Family History Library Catalog, but only if that library has the book. However, the catalog does not index every surname in the book, rather it identifies the four or five most prominently featured surnames in the book. Some of the indexes and bibliographies described below identify many of the family histories for specific countries.
In many countries, books are published which collect genealogies (lineages) of hundreds or thousands of families. These publications are called genealogical compendia, or dictionaries. These collected genealogies are brief treatments of different families and often mention emigrants. Many are published serially, over many years, and may have cumulative subject indexes. Usually the families come from the same geographic region, or social rank. The higher classes tend to be better represented in most compendia. An outstanding example of a series, which now has about 200 volumes, covers all of Germany and is the Deutsches Geschlechterbuch (Limburg an der Lahn: C. A. Starke, 1889-).
Where the foreign country was itself heavily settled by immigrants, some compendia focus on immigrant families. Of course, members of these same families may have later emigrated to yet another country, such as the United States or Canada. Two significant collections are:
- Gillen, Mollie. The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet. Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989.
- De Villiers, C.C. Genealogies of Old South African Families = Geslagregisters van die ou Kaapse families. 3 vols. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1966.
Previous lessons have discussed the value of genealogical compendia which discuss entire groups of families, often in the same geographic area of the new country. By their nature, these sources usually discuss immigrants and their families. The same kind of sources exist for some foreign countries which focus on groups of persons who emigrated (left) a region, usually for the New World.
Of particular interest is the attention being paid to groups of German emigrants, particularly those Germans who settled Pennsylvania in the 18th Century. Leading this effort has been Annette K. Burgert with several brief pamphlets detailing the origins of certain German emigrants. She has also produced four definitive volumes discussing, in great detail, the origins and families of several hundred emigrants. Her first two volumes, Eighteenth Century Emigrants from German-Speaking Lands to North America ([Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society, Vols. 16 & 19] Breinigsville, Pa.: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1983, 1985) cover The Northern Kraichgau (Volume 1) and The Western Palatinate (Volume 2) and document at least 1,100 emigrants with detailed discussions of their families, both in Germany and in North America.
While these volumes detail families from areas of heavy German emigration, a later volume covers a less popular area. Eighteenth Century Emigrants from the Northern Alsace to America (Camden, Me.: Picton Press, 1992) covers only a portion of modern France from which at least 628 persons emigrated, still providing the depth of information and documentation all researchers seek.
In addition, Burgert co-authored a similar volume with Henry Z. Jones, Westerwald to America: Some 18th Century German Immigrants (Camden, Me.: Picton Press, 1989) which documents 265 emigrant families or individuals from one region in southern Germany who settled in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
While these emigrant compendia may be very useful, diligent researchers must not stop with these. Learn, from the instructional literature about the countries of interest, what published genealogical dictionaries exist. Then make every effort to examine those publications for evidence of your immigrant.
Genealogical Bibliographies and Indexes
Accessing the published compiled literature is made easier where reference tools identify the existence of appropriate sources. Bibliographies of published family histories exist for many countries. Each includes alphabetical indexes to the major surnames. The genealogies cited in these bibliographies and indexes often mention emigrants, but the names of the emigrants are not cited specifically in the indexes, as they are generally just surname indexes. Of course, the comprehensiveness of these bibliographies and indexes varies by country.
Two outstanding examples are:
- Arnaud, Étienne. Repertoire de Généalogies Françaises Imprimées. [French genealogical bibliography]. 3 vols. Paris: Berger Levrault, 1978-1982.
- Van Beresteyn, E.A. Genealogisch Repertorium. [Dutch Genealogical Bibliography]. Den Haag, Netherlands: Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie, 1972.
English Indexes. Most colonial ancestors have origins in Great Britain. For the family historian seeking ancestors in England, some important indexes are available. Researchers should begin their search with four major indexes. George W. Marshall edited The Genealogist's Guide, often called Marshall's guide, (Reprint of 1903 ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980) as an index to pedigrees published in English books prior to 1903. John B. Whitmore's A Genealogical Guide,( London: Walford Bro., 1953) is a Colonial Publication Imagecontinuation (with corrections) of Marshall's guide and indexes all genealogies in more than 500 British publications from 1900 to 1950.
For the period from 1950 to 1975, consult Goeffrey B. Barrow's The Genealogist's Guide, (London: Research Publishing, 1977) which indexes genealogies in British periodicals and includes an unpublished addenda to Whitmore's guide. The above guides generally focus on the briefer accounts generally found in compendia. If you are seeking book-length family histories, check Theodore Radford Thomson's A Catalogue of British Family Histories, (2nd edition, London: Edward O. Beck, 1935).
Many Irish family histories are indexed in Brian de Breffny, ed. and comp. Bibliography of Irish Family History and Genealogy. Dublin: Golden Eagle Books, 1974. In addition to books, this source also indexes many Irish pedigrees and genealogies published in periodicals.
Journals and periodicals published by genealogical or historical societies in the country of origin can also help you trace an emigrant's origin. Here again they are most helpful when you already know as much as possible about the emigrant. In this case, you should know the region within the country from which immigrant ancestor most likely came. Most periodicals cover a county, state, or region within a country and generally deal with only the records and the people of that area. The articles of particular interest to tracing emigrants include lists of surnames members are researching, inquiries, departure lists, and indexes.
Many periodicals have a section where society members (and sometimes others) place inquiries asking for information on a particular ancestor. This is a way to find living relatives and others who are tracing the same family. It is often free for members, but there is usually a fee for nonmembers. You can either place a query or look for inquiries in previous issues that might be about your immigrants. Many periodicals contain indexes to various types of records. Some have indexes to people leaving an area or country.
You will find periodicals in many libraries, archives, and record offices. Some research bibliographies list genealogical periodicals. Directories of genealogical societies list organizations likely to publish genealogical periodicals. For example, for addresses of societies and periodicals in German-speaking Europe, consult Ernest Thode's Address Book for Germanic Genealogy (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, updated regularly). Addresses, services, and fees change, so always use the most recent edition of such sources.
An excellent example of an index to foreign periodicals is Familiengeschichtliche Quellen. Some 2,000 family histories published in Germany are available in this thirteen-volume, family-name index compiled between 1926 and 1950 by Oswald Spohr. The index has been reprinted by Franz Heinzmann Verlag, Am Gengelstraesschen 19, 4000 Dusseldorf 30, West Germany. Volume 14 was issued in 1983. A microfilm copy of the complete set is available at the Family History Library and through its centers.
One of the best indexes for English journals is Smith's Inventory of Genealogical Sources in England, compiled by the staff of the Family History Library. It is a subject and surname index to articles within selected periodicals, books, and films. You can order the microfiche edition at your local Family History Center.
For Irish families, in addition to the de Breffny title mentioned above, you should also use Richard J. Hayes' nine volume, Sources for the History of Irish Civilization: Articles in Irish Periodicals (Boston : G. K. Hall, 1970).
Review the Family History Library's research outlines, and other instructional sources for various countries to identify major periodicals and significant indexes to the periodicals of that country. These research outlines are available on-line at FamilySearch and click on How-to-Guides. Then scroll down to country of interest.
While the compiled genealogical literature of your immigrant's home country may not be as extensive as similar publications in North America, it is still significant. The interest in genealogy continues to grow in those countries, as it does throughout the world. More and more sources are appearing on-line, and a surprising amount of information is hidden in the published literature. It is often indexed, and is certainly easier to use than most of the manuscript sources we discuss in other lessons. It is certainly worth researching.