The past few lessons should have provided a foundation for you as you begin to search for the origins of your immigrant ancestors. We have discussed how to properly, and fully, identify the immigrant, how to search the records, and how to interpret the place names you eventually hope to find. However, all of this is just preliminary to the core of our course: a discussion of the various sources you can use to learn the place name of an immigrant's home town.
Although we have identified, and will discuss, at least 20 different sources for finding that elusive town name, not all sources are created equal. For that matter, source A may be better than source B under some circumstances, while B may be better than A at other times. Knowing which sources to search, and when to use them will be the focus of our discussions in the following lessons.
No Magic Source
Clearly, there is no magic source; one that always correctly indicates which town an immigrant came from in the old country. The lack of such a source makes this aspect of family history perhaps the most difficult, and surely one of the most fascinating. Each source is valuable under different circumstances.
The following factors all affect the value of any source for naming an immigrant's home town:
- How comprehensive the source was in listing immigrants
- Time period of the source
- Information the source recorded
- Ethnic group of the immigrant
- Religion of the immigrant
- When the immigrant arrived
- The age upon arrival of the immigrant
- When the immigrant died (including how soon after arrival)
- Gender of the immigrant
- Other family members who immigrated
The key consideration as to which source to use depends on in which time period the immigrant arrived. Some sources didn't even exist when the earliest immigrants arrived in North America. Most sources changed over time, usually adding more information, to the point that some eventually required the inclusion of the home town. Some sources are better at times simply because they have a better chance of including your immigrant.
Remember, almost every person reading this lesson descends from more than one immigrant to North America. Often we can count dozens or more immigrants among our ancestry. On some surname lines there may be three immigrants (grandfather, father, and son). Adding the other family members who immigrated means your search may include a hundred or more immigrants!
In our discussion of sources, we will discuss each source under the time period(s) to which it best pertains, as well as time periods where specific comments are needed about that source. However, since you may have immigrants in every time period, and since most sources have at least some value for searching in any time period, be sure to read each lesson.
Even if you don't have an ancestor in a specific time period, the comments about the sources may help you use that source in your ancestors' time periods. In addition, you likely have friends researching immigrants who arrived in a time period you are not; you may be able to help them with concepts you learn here. For example, one researcher has ancestors who arrived in the earliest and latest time period, while his wife's ancestors arrived in every time period, except the most recent.
Four Major Time Periods
Since the early 1600s, upwards of 60 million people have arrived at the shores of North America. Some have moved on to other countries, or returned home, but more than 50 million stayed, and most of those who stayed left many descendants, including (perhaps) you! For the purposes of tracing their origins, they can be divided into four broad time periods. These periods are not precise, as indicated by the approximate dates we have given them, but they are a useful way to divide the discussion of sources into meaningful groups.
These four major time periods pertain to the immigrants' dates of arrival, not to their birth or death dates. They are listed in order of most recent to earliest.
1890s to the Present
By far the most immigrants have arrived since the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, with about 40 million coming to the United States since then. But Ellis Island is not the reason for the beginning of this time period. Rather, the government records of immigrants begin to get very specific during this time period. Passenger lists usually name the town of last residence, and after 1906, naturalization records require much more identifying information. In addition, most families have memories of the immigrants who arrived during this time period, and with those memories are often family records that identify the home town.
Most researchers consider this the easiest era for research, and that is generally true. However, it has numerous pitfalls, including records that are hard to read, surnames whose spelling has changed, a wider range of countries from which immigrants came, and other problems.
1860s to 1890s
The Civil War is not just a watershed event in the history of the United States, but that time period also divides nineteenth century immigration almost in half. After the war (there was little immigration during the war for obvious reasons), the face of immigration began changing. The predominance of Germans and Irish began to give way to Scandinavians, Italians, and eventually others from southern and even eastern Europe. In addition, the growth of the great Midwestern states, as well as the settlement of the far west created some records that are uniquely useful during this time period, such as local histories and biographical sources. The use of steamships, with faster crossing time and larger capacity, began the era of massive immigration to North America. More than 10 million people came to the U.S. during this generation.
1820s to 1860s
This is often the forgotten period of North American immigration, but it was essential to the growth of both Canada and the United States. Much of Ontario owes its population growth to immigration during this period, as does the settlement of the U.S. Midwest. Passenger lists began to be kept (in the U.S.), so immigrants are more easily documented. This period also brought a steep decline to British immigration to the United States, as British citizens had choices within the Empire (such as Canada, Australia, South Africa, and other locations). Between 5 and 6 million people arrived in North America before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War.
Prior to 1820
While only about one million immigrants arrived in North America prior to 1820, and that included thousands of slaves who are difficult to document, they likely have as many, if not more descendants than all the later immigrants combined. This, of course, is due to them having arrived much earlier (up to 300 or more years earlier) than recent immigrants. While the number of their descendants has no bearing on the ease (actually difficulty) of locating their foreign home, it does address the level of genealogical interest in these persons. With thousands of descendants, there is much greater interest in any one of these "early American" immigrants than in later ones.
However, researching the origins of these immigrants is generally considered the most difficult of genealogical tasks. There were virtually no systematic lists of passengers, and most of these arrivals were not naturalized (British citizens did not need naturalization before the Revolutionary War). Vital records were seldom maintained in this time period, and newspapers were rare. Other records have suffered loss and destruction. But, don't give up hope. There are many sources you can search, and origins of these immigrants are being found by dedicated researchers almost every day.
Our discussion over the next several lessons will cover the key sources used in each of these time periods, from the most recent, back to the earliest period of immigration. Later discussions will often build on concepts presented in earlier lessons, so don't wait for, or skip ahead to, the time period you are most interested in.
A Variety of Sources to Search
Just like all aspects of family history research, there are a variety of sources where you can find information about an ancestor. Immigrants were recorded in the same sources as all of our ancestors, and in some additional ones as well. Whenever a source asks for information about birth, there is the potential for immigrants to record their foreign birth place or home town. However, in most cases, and in most records, only the country is listed.
The Immigrant Sources Chart shown below identifies the different sources we will discuss in the rest of this course. Alongside each source is listed the likelihood that, for any given immigration period, that source will give the immigrant's home town. (We suggest that you print out the chart for future reference.)
|Record Type||Before 1820||1820s-1860s||1860s-1890s||1890s-Present|
|Family and Home||2-2||4-3||6-6||8-9|
|Land and Property||6-2||6-2||7-2||5-3|
|Newspapers and Obituaries||2-2||2-2||5-7||7-7|
|Social Security Records||0-0||0-0||2-8||7-9|
Probability of Source Naming the Town of Origin
The Immigrant Sources Chart on the previous page suggests the probability, in loose terms, that a specific record will identify an immigrant's town of origin in his or her native country. It is only a guide and in any specific case, any of these or other sources may provide the town name.
The first number indicates the likelihood of the immigrant being found in the record. The second number is the likelihood that, if the immigrant is in the record, the record will give the town of origin.
Likelihood (scale from 0 to 10)
The likelihood of either an immigrant appearing in a record, or that record naming the home town is described on a scale from 0 to 10. While 0 represents a lack of any chance that an immigrant would appear in a certain record or that their town of origin would be recorded, there are no 10s represented. This is due to the imperfectness of almost all records. (There will always be missing people and information.)
The numbers in between can be correlated with the following adjectives: 1, very unlikely; 2, seldom; 3, occasionally; 4, sometimes; 5, fair; 6, good; 7, probable; 8, usually; 9, very likely.
Make a list of all the immigrants you are searching by printing out and using the blank Immigrant Overview Form on the next page. If you would like to practice on several subjects, include the immigrant ancestors of your spouse or in-laws. Arrange the list by approximate date of immigration. Include birth and death dates, and country of origin. You will refer to this chart as you read the future lessons. Below is a sample chart showing what types of information to record.
Immigrant Overview Form
|Year Immig.||Name||Birth/Death Yrs.||Foreign Country||Comments, Thoughts and Research Ideas|
|1909||George Meyerink||1908-||Netherlands||Parents traveled with him|
|1851||George Sticht||1815?-1860s||Germany||Watch for name spelled differently|
|1752||John B Kleinscmidt||1720?-1780||Germany||Examine other passangers on the arrival list|
|1620||William Brewster||1580?-16??||England||Obtain copy of his biography|
|c.1860||Anders Eskildsen||18??-18??||Denmark||Check church immigration files|
|c.1864||Franz Albertine||1830-1890||Norway||Not in Bergen departures|
|c.1720||Richard Somes||1690?-1783||England||"of London"|
|c.1680||Cornelius Doremus||1650-1714||Netherlands||See Doremus book (revised)|
|c.1630||John Drake||1600?-1659||England||Royal line disapproved|
Surely the most important concept to remember is that there is no fail-safe record, so researchers need to examine as many records as possible to find clues to immigrant origins. The value of those records depends on many factors relating to both the immigrant and the date of arrival. However, it is not as complex as that sounds. Perhaps it's best to think of the various sources as a checklist, and our future discussions as a way to prioritize that checklist.
Our next lesson begins the discussion of useful sources for Twentieth Century Immigration, specifically home sources and vital records. So, review your family records for any recent immigrants you may be searching. There's more in those records than you think!