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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Immigrant Research in the 1900s
by Rhonda R. McClure

June 20, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Immigrant research must begin like all other research. It is important that you work from the known to the unknown. Researchers are often tempted to immediately jump over the ocean to the old country, but this usually results in disappointment and frustration. All possible records including vital records, census records, naturalization records, newspapers, probate records, and so on should be exhausted before jumping over the ocean.

Just as we are often guilty of jumping from one state to another when we discover the state of birth in a census for a given ancestor, we often try to take a shortcut where our immigrant ancestors are concerned. Although the wealth of information available on the Internet often allows us to find information more quickly, we should still exhaust all the records that an ancestor may have generated in the United States.

Shortcuts sometimes result in disappointment.

Where in the Old Country?

When researching family in most countries, it becomes necessary to know the town of birth or residence for the family before anything more can be accomplished. This is true of such countries as Ireland, Germany and Italy.

If your family immigrated after 1906, then locating them in passenger lists will supply you with the much needed place of birth, among other things. For the majority of ports, passenger lists are indexed. Of course, in order to effectively identify your ancestor, you must have some knowledge as to the year of arrival, the port of arrival and so forth.

Even if your ancestor arrived before 1907, the year they began to record the place of birth for immigrants, it is possible that your ancestor returned to the old country to visit family. You may be able to find record of their return to the United States. While such a record probably will not state their place of birth, as they are probably returning as United States' citizens, you may discover that they applied for a passport. Passport records offer much useful information, sometimes even a picture.

Finding Other Records

Passport records and other records are available in many places. Some of them are available on microfilm while others will require a personal visit by you or a professional genealogist hired by you.

The first step in your search should be to see what records are available on microfilm and through online services. A look at the Family History Library Catalog either through or by visiting your local Family History Center is a must. Don't just jump to the records of the old country. See what records are available for the areas in the United States where your ancestor lived and died. By gathering this information you will make it easier to identify him or her in the records of the old country.

Of course, once you have exhausted those records generated in the United States, then you will turn your attention to the records of the old country. Understand that these records are probably in a different language. There are many word lists and translation dictionaries and Web sites that can aid you with this type of research. You may also find a local college student willing to help you for a small stipend.

Again, your first step is the Family History Library Catalog and the Internet. While the Family History Library has spent much time and money microfilming records from around the world, it is still possible that the records you seek have not been microfilmed. Do not assume that if you cannot find something in the catalog that you cannot continue your research. You will want to visit the WorldGenWeb Project Web site for your country of interest. See who is researching there and begin to ask questions as to record availability. You will be learning from those who have already done some research.

In Conclusion

While it is tempting to jump the pond immediately, it is often the biggest mistake in researching immigrants. Take the time to research all records on your ancestor here in the United States before taking the leap. You will find that in the end you save time, and maybe even lessen the frustration level some.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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