The variety of records available in foreign countries is generally not as broad as in North America, and accessing those records is not as easy. However, this is no reason not to learn about a number of other foreign records which still have some value in your search for an immigrant's origins. Even more so than in North America, most foreign genealogical records were created by some level of government, with religious records (church and synagogue) being the major exception. Major, nationwide records, such as census and vital records, as well as records documenting emigration were the subject of recent lessons.
The remaining government records of value were often kept by local governments, and, since they do not focus on emigrants (as do departure lists, for example), they may be overlooked in your search for your immigrant's origins. However, before your immigrants left their home country, they may have been recorded in a number of records, just as happened while they were living in their new country.
Remember when using these records that a person with the same name as your immigrant is not necessarily the same person. The vast majority of persons in the old country did not emigrate, so the vast majority of persons in these records are not emigrants either. This reinforces one of the basic principles discussed in some of the very first lessons: You must have sufficient information about the immigrant. Now is the time that information becomes invaluable.
If you are seeking emigrants with names like Johann Schmidt or Patrick O'Brian, how will you know if the person you find in a foreign record is that emigrant, or just someone else with the same name. The answer of course is that, through your research, you know the emigrant's precise birth date, and his or her father's name, and perhaps the emigrant's middle name, spouse, brother, or other relative. The more such "identifying" information you know about your emigrant, the more likely you will correctly recognize him or her in these records.
These records may then identify the specific town where the emigrant lived before coming to the new world. That will then unlock the key to further information about the emigrant and his or her family.
Many of the following records may be difficult to access. Often they are not on microfilm, and exist only at archives in the foreign country. They may also not be nationwide in scope. Depending on the governmental level which kept the record, they may pertain to a county, district, region, or some other administrative unit. In such cases, it is best when your previous research has already suggested an area within a country where the immigrant may have lived. The more specific and limited that area, the better you will be able to make these sources work for you.
Therefore, begin by learning if published abstracts of a particular record for a specific country or region are available. Where such records have a bearing on finding the homes of immigrants, they may have been published, thus improving both access and availability.
Image of the EarthAlthough the desire to own their own land motivated many persons to emigrate, a few emigrants had owned land in their home country before they came to North America. If so, property records should indicate where they lived. Most British and European countries required the registration of land ownership, but this was almost invariably done at a local or district level. Most countries do not have nationwide land indexes, so you will need some idea of where the family may have lived before emigration.
Some land records, particularly in the British countries, document tenants on an estate, not just land owners, which increases your chance of finding an immigrant. Sometimes the land owner helped some tenants to emigrate. For example, during the great potato famine in Ireland, land owners sometimes found it easier to help their impoverished tenants emigrate rather than feed, clothe, and house them. A published account of some such records is Brian Mitchell, Irish Emigration Lists 1833-1839: Lists of Emigrants Extracted from the Ordinance Survey Memoirs for Counties Londonderry and Antrim, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989).
Land records can also be helpful for tracking the origins of Loyalists of the American Revolution. Many loyalists living in the united colonies had their land confiscated by the revolutionary governments of the newly declared states. Several of those families fled to the now Canadian provinces (notably Nova Scotia and Ontario). Land records in their former homes (Connecticut and New York, among others) will document their former residence. This can help when trying to learn where a Loyalist family in Canada came from in the lower colonies.
Conversely, some children of Loyalists chose not to remain in Canada, but to immigrate to the United States during the nineteenth century. The records of their father's or grandfather's land in those colonies still loyal to Great Britain can help you determine where they came from before they emigrated to the states. Sometimes the children themselves are documented in the Loyalist land records.
SoldierThe persistent family tradition in many families is that an immigrant ancestor left the old country to avoid military service. While some persons did indeed emigrate to avoid conscription, this situation occurred far less frequently than family myth would suggest. Indeed, many males only left their home country after their military service was completed.
Most European countries required some sort of military service by all able-bodied young men. This was not the case in England and other British countries, where conscription was rare, except into the local militia. Since many European men did serve in the military before emigrating, these records can be a valuable tool for learning an emigrant's origins. In fact, those who applied for permission to emigrate often had to show their military release papers before being granted permission to leave. However, most military records are not indexed, and they are often inaccessible or organized in a way that makes research impractical.
Because they are usually kept by country, or state in the areas which later became Germany, military records may be a useful place to seek an emigrant's origin when you don't know more specific details. However, you must almost always know the soldier's regiment to search the records. You might find this information in family records, such as photographs or certificates of military release. For British soldiers, a useful reference to learn which regiments were in certain places at certain times is John Kitzmiller, In Search of the Forlorn Hope, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Manuscript Publishing Co., 1988).
Sometimes military service introduced a young man to a new country, and he decided to remain after his service. He may even have deserted his unit to remain in the new country. The American Revolution may be the best example of this kind of immigration during military service. Some British soldiers remained in North America, settling in Canada, rather than return to England. Several articles by Clifford Neal Smith in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, published from 1978 to 1986 identify over 800 soldiers from various units who apparently remained in North America.
England had also hired troops from Germany to fight the colonies. Many German soldiers remained in the new United States, either due to capture, deserting their unit, or at the expiration of their term of service. You may find clues to such "immigrations" in local histories or published genealogies which identify immigrants as former soldiers. If you find such immigrants, search the military records of the country of origin, specifically looking for references to deserters or prisoners of war. A growing number of such references are being published. An excellent example is: Hessische Truppen in Amerikanischen Unabhängigkeitskreig (HETRINA) [Hessian Troops in the American Revolution], 6 vols. (Marburg, Germany: Institut für Archivwissenschaft, 1972-87).
Various local and state courts in an emigrant's home country may have had a reason to document a person who later emigrated. For example, in many German states, emigrants had to show their debts were paid to get permission to leave. Those who left without permission may be noted because the court tried to contact them regarding a debt or lawsuit.
In England, courts deported criminals to America until the Revolutionary War (after which they usually sent them to Australia). Some of these records have been published by Peter Wilson Coldham in The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988). Other court records mentioning emigrants (not as criminals) were among records published by the same author as The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1607-1660 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987) with subsequent volumes covering 1661- 1776.
If you know the region where an emigrant may have lived, you can search the local court records for reference to him. However, this is very difficult and not usually recommended unless you are aware that he or she may have been involved in some court action.
Since emigrants seldom died in their home country, researchers seldom think of searching the probate records for them. However, the emigrant may have been a beneficiary to the estate of a relative or friend who stayed behind in the native country. In some countries, probate jurisdictions covered wide areas, and the records are usually well indexed, at least by the name of the decedent (testator).
It is also possible that the emigrant held property in the native land at his or her death. If so, there should be a probate record in that country. As with most of these records, published accounts are easier to search. For example,
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills Proved in London, 1611-1775. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992.
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989.
- Waters, Henry F. Genealogical Gleanings in England: Abstracts of Wills Relating to Early American Families. 2 vols., reprint 1901, 1907. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981.
- David Dobson has issued similar volumes documenting the origins of Scottish immigrants to North America in three volumes: Scottish-American Court Records, 1733-1793, Scottish-American Heirs, 1683-1883, and Scottish-American Wills, 1650-1900 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1990, 1991).
Although we discussed census records earlier, some countries kept a similar kind of record of their inhabitants, including citizens, temporary residents, and transients. In countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden, this was kept throughout the country. In other places, the police kept records in the larger cities and seaports, particularly noting the transitory residents.
Population Registers can be extremely useful in determining places of origin, for they list birthplaces or previous residences. However, you must generally know a place where the family lived, for they are kept on a local level, and there are no nationwide indexes.
This discussion only touches on a few of the more common foreign sources which may identify where an emigrant lived before leaving his or her native country. Each country has kept different records, and sometimes kept them in different ways. For whatever countries your immigrant ancestors came from, and for whichever time periods they emigrated, you will have to learn about the available records.
While government records from the native country may not be easy to access, and may not be indexed, or available throughout the country, Immigrantsthey may well hold the answers to your immigrant's origin. Using all the information you have gathered to date, learn what sources are out there, and how to use them. You won't find every emigrant, but you may well find some.
- Pull together all the clues you have on your immigrant ancestor and his or her siblings, parents, and associates.
- Go to www.familysearch.org and select the Family History Library Catalog as explained in previous lessons.
- Select the country of origin without entering any state, district, province, etc., so you can look at the records that are available on a national level.
- Study the list of sources available by going deeply into each description provided about that source. If you need more help on the sources available, try to use the SourceGuide feature on that same Web site which explains more about these nationwide sources. [SourceGuide has also been explained in previous lessons.]
- Make a list of sources you want to search as you have time.