During the course of your research, you have surely learned more about the family, including additional relatives and more event dates. You have also begun to narrow down the possible places where the family may have originated. These places allow still other approaches to your immigrant origins research.
Perhaps previous assignments have lead to an area where the surname seems to be more common. Once the geographic region of an ancestral surname is identified, then the networking concepts below will work. If you have not determined a locality, try a study of the surname.
Sometimes a linguistic analysis of the surname may suggest regions where the name may have originated. For example, certain suffixes may indicate a likely region for a surname.
- A German surname ending with -li almost always comes from Switzerland, or at least southern Germany.
- The ending -ski is often from Polish areas.
- Patronymic endings such as -son or -sen suggest Scandinavian areas, or if German, the province of Schleswig-Holstein.
- German families with French given names may be from areas such as Alsace-Lorrain, on the French side of the Rhein River.
- Prefixes such as Mc- and O’ in Scottish and Irish surnames suggest a specific clan, which usually had an ancestral area within their respective countries, although the immigrant may not have been raised in that area.
This approach can be quite complex, and usually requires the assistance of persons well versed in the language and culture of your immigrant family. Sometimes talking the subject over with a local university or college language department will help.
Books about the origins and meanings of surnames for the country of interest are a useful way to begin such a study. One useful book for German surnames, which summarizes the clues and hints in several German language sources, is Bruce Brandt and Edward Reimer Brandt’s Where to Look for Your Hard-to-find German-speaking Ancestors in Eastern Europe: Index to 19,720 Surnames in 13 Books, with Historical Background on Each Settlement, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Clearfield Co., 1993). Although focusing on Germans in Southeastern Europe, this volume shows what can be learned from a careful study of appropriate sources. Its approach could be duplicated by others for persons in non-German countries as well.
Networking as a Research Strategy
The concept of networking is certainly not new to genealogists; they have been using this kind of approach to their research for well over one hundred years. However, it is seldom taught, and even less seldom practiced when dealing with immigrant origins.
The principle behind networking is that someone else knows information of value to you, and in genealogy this is almost always the case. Others have researched parts of your ancestry before you, and all you have to do is locate these people. Close family members almost always have information about relatives which is not known to more distant researchers.
When considering immigrant origins, many foreign families know of relatives who left their old world home for North America. This is handed down in their families, much as stories of immigrant arrivals and their experiences are handed down in American families. The difficulty in applying this concept to immigrant origins research is in finding those families with such information.
Networking is simply the process of finding those persons. Persons or families in the foreign country with knowledge of your immigrant fall into two groups:
- Those who are actively looking for others involved in their family’s history, and
- Those who are not looking for relatives, but still possess important family emigration information.
Traditional networking focuses on finding the first, and smaller, of these two groups. However, it is also possible to locate some, if not all, of the second group.
Genealogical societies exist in every country, but they are very popular in British and European countries. Usually there are several such societies, each with a different purpose. Most foreign genealogical societies, just like North American societies, focus on research in a particular region or province. Often they will have indexes to records for their region, access to records you cannot search, and a better understanding of the families, culture, and emigration from their region. In addition, they have members seriously interested in family history, some of which may even be distant relatives.
One example of a regional genealogical society with an excellent collection of information about emigrants is the Institut für Pfälzische Geschichte und Volkskunde [Institute for Palatine History and Folk Culture] (Benzinoring 6, D-67657 Kaiserslautern, Germany).
Further, each of those members has their own personal network of persons, some interested in genealogy and some not, but all of whom are (like virtually all humans) interested in family. Once a foreign genealogical society, and its members, knows of your interest in a particular surname and immigrants from their region, you will have marshaled a small army of helpers.
This is why it is so important to determine, where possible, the region or area of the foreign country where your immigrant lived. With that information, you can contact the societies which cover research in that area. Be sure to apply for membership. You will almost surely get additional benefits, worth more than the membership fee.
Directories will help you locate societies in foreign countries. Two of particular value are:
- Johnson, Keith A., and Malcolm R. Sainty, eds. Genealogical Research Directory...and Guide to Genealogical Societies. London; Washington: K. A. Johnson & M. R. Sainty, annual.
- Thode, Ernest. Address Book for Germanic Genealogy. 6th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997.
To learn about societies in other countries, read guidebooks to research in those countries. They will usually include a section with society addresses, or at least identify a directory of societies in that country.
Of course, today many societies have a presence on the World Wide Web. Be sure to check Cyndislist.com as well as Genealogy SiteFinder and the various search engines to locate foreign research sites.
Periodicals for Networking
Genealogical periodicals are another way to network and find others interested in your family research. Periodicals include articles about families, so their indexes are a key part of your research. Even if you don’t find an article that mentions your immigrant, if you find one about your surname, particularly if the family is in the region you believe your immigrant came from, contact the author if possible. He or she may have notes about other branches of the family, or others with that surname, which may indicate who emigrated out of that country.
Foreign periodicals also publish queries from their members and interested researchers, just as do North American periodicals. You may find family members seeking descendants of their relative who left the old country—and that may be you!
If you don’t find a query or notice seeking relatives of your immigrant, or for your surname, place one yourself! Just because no one has placed such a query doesn’t mean that no one is interested in your family. Perhaps other researchers of your surname are just beginning, or they don’t know about an immigrant yet, or their efforts have focused on their other ancestors. Perhaps they don’t read that periodical, but their friend or neighbor does, and your query may encourage a reader to discuss it with others.
Before placing a query, try to review a copy of the periodical. This way you can become familiar with their style, as well as the content of the periodical. If dealing with a foreign language, try to find someone fluent in that language to help you write your query. Be certain to keep it brief, but complete. Be sure to identify the immigrant and provide all the information you know about the family in the old world, including names, ages, and any known places.
Most genealogical periodicals are published by genealogical societies, so the society directories mentioned above should help you find appropriate periodicals. Spend some time searching the collections of major research libraries for the country of your immigrant. There you will find most of the current genealogical periodicals, and can better determine which one(s) may pertain to the area where you believe the immigrant lived. Also check the guidebooks for research in that country. They should have a list of periodicals, or publishers, or a directory of them. Societies are not the only publishers of periodicals. Don’t overlook periodicals published by commercial groups or private individuals.
Newspapers for Networking
Newspapers are a common research source in North America, but Man reading a newspaperfew foreign researchers think to seek answers there. Previous lessons have mentioned newspapers as a source of immigrant lists, either as substitutes for passenger lists, or as lists of persons recently emigrated from an area.
However, newspapers can also be an excellent way to network, and to find interested researchers. Consider writing an article for a foreign newspaper about your research. For local papers, there is always interest when an article deals with a local family, especially if it has international ties. Perhaps your immigrant became a county judge in America, or founded a long-lasting company. Stories of local persons who succeeded elsewhere have significant human interest appeal.
Part of that appeal includes how descendants of this local emigrant are trying to find relatives in the old country. This approach provides broad readership, even among non-genealogists. Of course, you will need to have some idea where the emigrants lived (the region or province), and then you need to target a newspaper which serves that population. Major daily newspapers which cover most of the country will not be interested in your story, but town and district papers will. If the immigrant is from a non-English speaking country, draft the article, then ask someone fluent in that language to translate it for you.
If you cannot raise the interest of the local editor in a story, a brief letter to the editor for publication in the newspaper might help. Perhaps you can connect your search to your local school or community’s celebration of that country’s ethnic culture, such as St. Patrick’s day for an Irish immigrant, or Octoberfest for a German. Letters to the editor can discuss any topic of local interest, and most get published. In addition, that section is one of the most widely read in most newspapers.
Another approach is to place an advertisement in the newspaper of choice. You can try a classified advertisement, but will likely get little response. If you can afford a display ad, even if it is only two or three column inches, you may well get results. Offer a monetary reward for the first person to find your ancestor for you. While many readers may have interest, a reward will get them to act, rather than to just think, "I might know the family they are looking for."
Directories are available for print and broadcast media for most major countries. These may be mentioned in genealogical research guides for your country of choice, but are often overlooked by those authors. You may need to check with a specialized research library, or a large academic library to find the appropriate media directory.
Telephone and E-mail to Network
Telephone BookWe mentioned telephone directories in a previous lesson as a way to learn where an immigrant may have lived. Of course, your immigrant ancestor almost surely did not have a telephone, and few, if any, directories exist of early telephone numbers. The strategy is to use those phone directories to learn who shares the immigrant’s surname, and currently has a telephone. This works best if the surname is not common, and if it generally is found in just a few localities, or if the largest concentrations are in one or two areas.
However, this approach goes beyond determining where the surname is most common. You can also use it to directly contact possible relatives. Telephones are virtually universal in the countries from which most of our immigrant relatives came. Using Internet directories, you can find others with the same surname and contact them directly about your research. You may be surprised to find a relative of the immigrant, and someone who can help you document your immigrant.
This approach requires much more caution than the less direct avenues explained above. Using queries, advertisements, and human interest stories encourages those with interest to reply, if and when they want to. Direct contact requires (or encourages) persons to respond, whether they want to or not. If you telephone someone, you may be contacting them at a bad time. From their perspective, you are no different then any other solicitor. Hence, it may be better to write to persons with the same surname, using the telephone directories only to obtain addresses. This is less threatening to many persons.
Be certain that your contact message is sincere, clear, and relatively brief. Include a request that if they don’t have any information, can they suggest someone who does. They may have a relative with a different surname (whom you would not have contacted), who has a complete collection of family history information.
Your contacts must understand what you are seeking, and what you are not seeking. You will get several rejections. Even with letters, some people will write back saying "We are not related, please do not contact us again." Don’t worry about the rejections. With such responses, experience shows that they generally are not related, or certainly don’t know anything about the family history. If you are clear and concise, you will almost surely get the attention of at least some family members, if you do contact any. Remember, you don’t need an overwhelming response. One good answer is all you really need.
While telephone and direct mail approaches may reach the most possible relatives, e-mail may be more effective in our current society. Many people are conditioned to reject phone and mail solicitations, even before they take time to understand your request. Persons active in the on-line community tend to be more open, and willing to share information. Yes, they do get their share of unwanted e-solicitations, but few of those carry a message line about their family! Thus, they will open your e-mail, and since they are often on line, they will often respond promptly, especially if you keep it brief.
The downside, of course, is that there are no good, comprehensive lists of e-mail addresses which are tied to surnames and residences. If you find several names with addresses in the on-line phone directories, you can then query that company's e-mail database for any matches with those addresses. As e-mail directories improve over the coming years, this approach will work increasingly better.
In the meantime, consider other ways to find possible relatives on-line. Do an Internet search for the surname of interest. This will provide hundreds or thousands of hits, but some will be to persons sharing that surname, hopefully even in your country of interest. Of course, you are certainly already monitoring the many surname mailing lists at major genealogy sites. If there is no such mailing list for your surname, begin one right away. Others are often more willing to respond, than to begin one themselves. You should even consider a web page about your immigrant family. Using the surname in the title of the web page will cause many search engines to pick it up, so others searching for that surname will find you.
In today's ever-shrinking world (in terms of communication), there are a growing number of ways to network in order to find other researchers. You can choose many ways to find others, but the most important rule of networking is: Make yourself easy to find. You must begin with the presumption that others are also interested in your immigrant, after all, that's why you are trying to network. Given that simple assumption, you need to make yourself easy to find. Others can then find you!
By the way, when non-relatives do contact you, be certain to be courteous while you explain that they may be "barking up the wrong family tree," just remember how you want others to respond to you!
- Post messages on bulletin boards.
- Contribute your electronic family tree to many sites.
- Keep your phone and e-mail addresses public.
- Register your e-mail with the directory services.
- Develop a family web site.
- Do anything else you can think of to register your interest in a particular surname.