Sometimes, even after exhausting the records in the immigrant’s new country, a researcher still does not know the specific town where the immigrant was born in the home country. Faced with the daunting task of finding an immigrant needle in a large, foreign haystack (often in a foreign language as well), there are unfortunately few sources in most countries with which to begin.
It is common in North American research to begin with statewide sources, such as vital record indexes or census indexes if one does not know the town where a relative lived. This works fairly well for the United States and Canada, depending on the state or province, and the time period. It is only natural to expect to use similar methods when seeking the birth of an ancestor in Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, or any of dozens of other countries.
While such sources for our immigrants’ homes are few and far between, there are some useful sources, depending on the country where the immigrant lived. Most of the sources discussed in this lesson are most applicable to British-born immigrants. Similar sources do not exist on a nationwide scale in most continental European countries. Some do exist at a country’s state or provincial level, but even in these situations, a nationwide source is rare.
Most record keeping in Great Britain and Europe was on a local level; the local town or parish kept the records of greatest interest. Where a larger jurisdiction did keep records, they are often not indexed, and are arranged by town or district. Therefore, despite the value of these sources, they will not apply in most immigration cases. Even in countries where there are nationwide sources, they usually pertain to a specific time period; and, therefore, will not document immigrants of an earlier (or sometimes later) period.
It is also important to keep in mind that the following sources were not designed simply to identify emigrants. Rather, they are generally comprehensive sources which try to identify all of the population at the time the record was made. Hence, immigrant origin researchers must take care not to simply find a person with the right name and age in such records and assume that person is the immigrant. Rather, use the identification information developed in your search of the records in the immigrant’s new country as studied in the previous lessons. Be certain you have identified the immigrant, by checking specific birth or marriage dates, parents names, or other information which matches information known to pertain to your immigrant. In other words, "Be sure you don’t jump to conclusions!"
Now let us discuss those few, but very important, nationwide sources which do exist in other foreign countries:
Census records are not unique to North America. In fact, some countries took limited censuses long before the 1790 U.S. census. The census records of Great Britain are of most value for immigrant researchers. Although census records exist in Continental Europe, Scandinavia, Latin America, and other localities, they do not have state or nationwide indexes as do United States census records. This situation is slowly beginning to change as more foreign censuses are being indexed. Often these indexes are only at the county or regional level, so they are not true "nationwide" sources. However, even when only portions of a census are indexed, or the indexes are only for smaller jurisdictions, it is still relatively easy and fast to search the indexes to locate families of interest.
British censuses are by far the most useful, but do note that most of the census records for Ireland were destroyed. Also, prior to 1841, the British censuses were primarily statistical in nature and do not list names, except for an occasional parish where names were listed. Many portions of the 1841 and later censuses have been indexed, but the only true nationwide index is for the 1881 census.
The 1881 British Census Indexes are alphabetical transcripts on microfiche and on CD-ROM of the 1881 census for England, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, and Scotland. There are separate indexes for each county, the Royal Navy, and miscellaneous. A nationwide index also exists which shows each person, with his or her name, age, sex, birth place, residence, and the name of the head of the family. With this information, you can then search the actual census, or quickly review the transcript forImage of Stonehendge and England that locality. More than 30 million names list almost everyone then living in those countries. The index is available through the Family History Library, as well as most British family history societies. The great value in these records is the fact that the individual’s parish of birth is recorded. This is a wonderful clue to further research.
Another indexed census pertains to the German Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin for 1819. This semi-independent German state was located in the northern section of the former East Germany, generally between Berlin and the North Sea. In 1819 the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin ordered the taking of a census of every inhabitant in the Duchy. Lists made by the mayor of cities and the councilmen of villages were to be given next to the pastors to check against their records for accuracy. The census identified about 393,000 inhabitants and is available from the Family History Library on 60 rolls of microfilm.
This census includes each persons' given and surname, the year and day of birth, the birthplace, the parish to which the birthplace belonged, and other information. Every person living in the household is listed. Between 1981 and 1986, Franz Schubert indexed this entire census, self-publishing it in two volumes, consisting of five parts: Mecklenburg-Schwerin Volkszv§hlung 1819: Register der Familiennamen. (Berlin; Gv?ttingen). The Family History Library, and other libraries with German collections will have copies of the index. Since the actual census is arranged by town, this index is the only effective way to search this census.
Census records exist for several other countries. Denmark, for example, took censuses regularly since 1787, and most are available on microfilm through 1911. Some even include parts of northern Germany which belonged to Denmark at the time of the census. However, there are very few indexes. Swedish census records date to the 1620s, but again, without indexes, they are not effective for locating an immigrant's origin in that country.
For Norway, all of the existing 1801 census has been indexed, but only on a local and county level. Two indexes exist for each parish. The first is organized according to the names of the farms, and the second according to the given name of each person living in the parish. Each county also has two indexes: one by given name and one by surname. Therefore, searching the 1801 census index requires you know the county in which your ancestor lived, or you can choose to search each of Norway's 19 counties.
Of course, effective use of these and other census records requires that the emigrant still be living in the old country when the census was taken. For example, many Norwegians came to North America after the 1860s, and were therefore likely born after 1830. Hence, they will not appear in the 1801 census. However, if they had an elderly father who came with them, he may be old enough to be on the census. A Scotsman who arrived in Canada in the 1840s will certainly not be listed in the 1881 British census, although a brother who stayed in Scotland will appear in the census, if he was still alive. These examples underscore the importance of knowing as much as possible about the entire family of the immigrant.
Civil registration is the government recording of births, marriages, and deaths. In North America we use the term "Vital Records" but most foreign countries use the term "Civil Registration." Government mandated recording of these vital events varied from country to country, just as did the taking of censuses. In most countries, civil registration took place at the local level, and the records are not centralized or indexed. This makes them fairly useless for locating an emigrant, if you don’t know the town or district where the emigrant lived.
Some countries, mostly part of the British Empire, have nationwide indexes to their civil registration. Of course, this increases their value immeasurably. Nationwide indexes are available for England and Wales after 1837, New Zealand after 1848, Scotland after 1855, and Ireland after 1864.
Countries influenced by France began civil registration records even earlier, but they are indexed only by town or county. These include France after 1792, Belgium after 1796, and the Netherlands after 1811.
Even where civil registration indexes exist, you must use caution when searching the records for an emigrant. Using England as an example, its civil registration and indexes begin with 1837, but each index covers only one quarter (three months) of a year. Further, the indexes only provide the name of the child, the registration district, and the volume and page citation. This is often not enough to clearly recognize which entry may be the emigrant. If you have not learned for certain when the emigrant was born (in which quarter of which year), you will have to search several quarters, which will likely yield many possible entries. Since the actual records are not available on microfilm, you must write to England and pay a significant fee to obtain a copy of every entry of interest.
Again, this reinforces the importance of knowing as much as possible about the emigrant before searching such records. For example, if you know the emigrant was born in Shropshire, you can eliminate entries for districts not within that county. If the emigrant was also married in England, you can seek the marriage entry in the index under both the groom and bride's names, thus assuring you that you have found the correct entry. Then, knowing the district where they married, you might find one or both of their births in the same district, or a nearby district.
If you know the names and birth years for siblings of the emigrant, you can seek them in the index to find which persons of the same name were registered in the same district (unless the family moved). Of course, if a relative of the emigrant had a less-common given name, such as Miles or Ralph, and the emigrant was named John or Henry, seek the less common given name, and then find the more common name in the same district.
If the ancestor was born shortly before a census, you could search the census microfilms for the same district where the birth was registered. If you find the family in the census, you may then be able to determine if this was the emigrant, or just another person with the same name. This will save the time and cost of ordering a birth record for the wrong person.
Access to civil registration records is surprisingly easy for many foreign countries. Many are available on microfilm through the Family History Library. Where the actual records are not on microfilm (such as England), indexes are readily available and easy to search. To see if civil registration records for your country of interest have been microfilmed, or indexed, search the Locality section of the Family History Library Catalog under [LOCALITY] - CIVIL REGISTRATION.
Of course, civil registration in most counties usually begins in the mid-nineteenth century, as it does in North America. You will not find colonial ancestors in foreign civil registration. Be sure to learn when the foreign government began recording these vital events (complete instructions are found in the assignment portion of this lesson). Also determine if your immigrant relative was born after that date. If your immigrant was born too early, perhaps a later family member, even a niece or nephew, was born after registration began. Using everything you know about the immigrant and his or her family will significantly increase your chances for success when using civil registration.
A directory is simply a list of residents in a particular locality. In genealogy, two types of directories are of value: city directories and telephone directories.
City directories are as common in foreign countries as they are in North America, but with two key limitations. First, many city directories are not nominal listings of all heads of families. Often foreign directories only include the business owners or shop keepers. The many laborers may not be listed. Second, they are less available to American searchers than are North American directories. The Family History Library has a fair, but incomplete, collection of foreign city directories. However, only a few other American libraries have a collection of city directories from foreign countries.
Another concern with city directories is that, prior to the last few decades, most persons did not live in a city. Further, as we have discussed in previous lessons, most emigrants came from rural areas, not from large cities. In addition, city directories are not true nationwide sources, since there are really no composite indexes showing all persons in all directories for any specific country.
How then does one use city directories to locate an emigrant? If you believe your immigrant came from a large city, and you have access to the city directories for the time period the immigrant was an adult in the old country, certainly search them for his name. But, be careful not to simply locate any person with the same name. Directories tell very little about persons, just their name, residence, and perhaps occupation. You will not learn his age, birth place, or relatives’ names.
Most researchers use city directories to localize a specific, uncommon, surname. This is also the best way to use telephone directories. Clearly, unless your emigrant is a very recent (mid-20th century) arrival, he did not have a telephone in his name. However, with the advent of nationwide phone directories on the Internet, it is often useful to check telephone directories for the surname of interest. If the name is not common, you might find pockets of the surname in small areas of the country. This suggests possible locations where the emigrant may have lived.
It is also useful to remember that, while the emigrant left the old country, he or she had relatives who stayed in or near the old home. Lady doing needleworkThey often have descendants, some of whom remained in the same town. Some researchers have had success in contacting present-day persons who share the immigrant’s surname. They inquire about a possible relationship to the emigrant, and find distant cousins who know about the emigrant and his family.
Computerized phone directories are available for most major European countries. Some are on compact disc, but even more are on the Internet. Search websites such as Switchboard.com or 555-1212.com. Follow their links to their foreign directories, type in the surname, and see what you find. Even if you do not find relatives of the emigrant, families with the same surname (if it is not a common surname) may know the area where your family originated.
Immigrant research libraries have good collections of city directories of the nineteenth century from major cities of several countries. To use older directories to localize a surname, search all available city directories for the country where the immigrant was born. Note the number of occurrences of the surname compared to the total names (or pages) in the directory. You will usually find that uncommon surnames are more strongly represented in one or two cities. This indicates the region where the name was most common.
This approach is usually easiest when used with other sources, such as the International Genealogical Index or surname books, and when you have narrowed the search to a part of a country.
Tax records can substitute for census records to find where families with a selected surname are most concentrated. However, most tax lists are local in nature, and are not easily accessed. Few British or European tax lists have been published or copied onto microfilm. Where they exist, they remain in foreign archives, and unindexed.
However, for Irish research there are two notable tax sources that all persons seeking Irish immigrants should learn about. These two lists are often combined under the title Ireland Householders Index. This index helps locate families in the absence of surviving census and church records of Ireland. It indexes two sets of tax records, the tithe applotment books and land valuation books. Both records identify where heads of households were living.
The Tithe Applotment books list people who paid taxes to the Church of Ireland between 1820 and 1840. Griffith's Primary Valuation Lists identify people who paid taxes to the Irish government between 1840 and 1864.
These tax records give the names of individuals (heads of households only), where they resided, usually a description of their property, and the amount of tax paid. Even though these records do not give specific information about ages, birthplaces, and other family members, the names shown can be used to help narrow the possible places to look for information about a person.
The microfilm version of the index, available through the Family History Library, is arranged by county.
While you will find some immigrants in these lists, if they left after the lists were made, most immigrants are not listed.Griffith's Valuation CD # 188 Many future immigrants were too poor to own land or pay taxes. Also, many immigrants were young people who departed Ireland before ever being assessed these taxes. If you know the name of the immigrant’s father, perhaps from the immigrant’s death record, you may have more success finding the father, or an uncle who remained behind. Most persons use the Irish Householders Index to determine in which parishes a surname was most prevalent.
Although nationwide sources will not locate most immigrants, they can be a very important part of a comprehensive research strategy. They are good indicators of where an uncommon surname was found within a country, and they do certainly list real people who lived in your immigrant’s country, some of whom may be relatives, if not the immigrants themselves. Adding the results of a careful search of these and similar sources to the growing amount of information you know about the immigrant(s) and their family, may eventually help you find the actual immigrant you are seeking.