August 15, 2002
Many of us will find that our research eventually takes us from the United States across an ocean to the "old country." Research at that point often stops. For some the reason for stopping is that there are so many other unresearched lines to pursue in the United States. Others, though, find that their lineage heads over the pond much too soon. These researchers often stop researching such lines because they feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of researching in a foreign country.
Educate, Educate, Educate
We seem to forget that when we first began researching our family history that we knew nothing of vital records or census records or any of the other records and resources we find at libraries and archives. For many of us the Internet didn't even exist when we first started our research.
Some of use joined genealogical societies. Others purchased how-to books, though these were few and far between until the last fifteen years or so. Still others were lucky enough to know someone who was researching their family tree. I took my grandmother's application for the Daughters of the American Revolution and set out to recreate her research. That was my first step in learning how to research my family tree.
Today there are many different avenues available to those who want to learn, even if that learning is about foreign research. There are books on just about every conceivable subject now. Many of these books cover ethnic research or how to research in different countries and these books often include useful tips for those researching from afar, as many of us find we are doing.
The Internet is another option available now. While it does seem that the majority of Web sites and databases are devoted to the ancestry of the United States, there is actually an impressive amount of information out on many other countries. One of the first places to begin such research is the WorldGenWeb Project Web site. Just like its U.S. counterpart, this volunteer project is designed to share information and data for those researching in the many different countries of the world.
The Language Barrier
A few years ago I was responsible for taking a few individuals who were interested in family history to the local Family History Center. One of them was a second generation Italian American. He actually had the town of birth for his grandparents and in searching the Family History Library Catalog we found that there were records for the time in question. He was surprised, though, to find that the library catalog entry was in Italian. I pointed out to him that the records would also be in Italian at which point he said that he would have a certain amount of trouble doing further research on his own since he didn't read or speak Italian.
Many of us find that we have a similar problem, especially when our research is back more generations. While this will certainly slow things down a little, it should not stop your research completely. There are guides, word lists, and dictionaries that will help you get started. You may also find a college student who is willing to help you translate records for a small fee (they get the chance to use what they are learning and make some money at the same time).
There are word lists for many countries available through the Family History Library and most Family History Centers. These word lists are geared toward genealogical research and often have specialized words and phrases that would not show up in a general language dictionary.
When working online you may also find that some of the sites you are interested in are in the native language. Some will offer an English translation. If they don't you might try a online translator such as the one found at Altavista.com. These allow you to copy the text from the site or put the URL for the site in and then ask for a translation. Often the translation is not perfect, but you will usually find that you get enough of a translation to know if the site will be of use to you or not.
Finding the Records
The first place to look for records from a foreign country is the Family History Library. They have microfilming crews that travel the world microfilming the very records that we need to use in our research. The microfilmed records, with few exceptions, can be ordered to your local Family History Center and allow you to continue your research even if a trip to France or Italy isn't in the picture.
Some ethnic research may be made easier by joining a society in the United States that is devoted to the research of that ethnic group or country. Thanks to the Internet, most genealogical societies now have Web sites. If they haven't posted their information on the site, they will at least give you information on how they can help you with your research and a contact person. Membership in such societies is usually advantageous in that you will learn about repositories and records useful in your research. If the society has a bulletin board, mailing list, or publication you will also find yourself in contact with others sharing the same research problems, and perhaps solutions, as you.
Usually when working in any foreign country, it is necessary to know the city from which your ancestor was born. Many of the European countries have filed their records at the city level. Finding the city often requires that you exhaust records generated in the United States including passenger lists, naturalization records, vital records, biographies, and obituaries to name just a few.
To effectively find the records in the "old country" it is often necessary to investigate and exhaust all the records in the United States first, though the temptation to jump to the foreign country is present. Making such a jump before you have all the information needed will result in frustration with little to show for it.
Researching your family history in a foreign country does not signal the end of your research of that line. Instead, it just means you must go back and find out what is available, how to get records, and where they may be found both on microfilm and in their original format.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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