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Finding the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor

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Once you've traced your family tree back to the immigrant ancestor, determining his/her birthplace is the key to the next branch in your family tree. Knowing just the country isn't just enough - you'll usually have to get down to the town or village level to successfully locate your ancestor's records.

While it seems a simple enough task, a town name isn't always easy to find. In many records only the country or possibly county, state, or department of origin were recorded, but not the name of the actual town or parish. Even when a place is listed, it may only be the nearby "big city," because that was a more recognizable point of reference for people not familiar with the region. The only clue I've ever found to my 3rd great-grandfather's city/town of origin in Germany, for example, is his tombstone that says he was born in Bremerhaven. But did he really come from the big port city of Bremerhaven? Or is that the port he emigrated from? Was he from a nearby small town, perhaps elsewhere in the city-state of Bremen, or the surrounding state of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony)? To locate an immigrant's town or village of origin you may have to gather clues from numerous sources.

Step One: Learn everything you can about your immigrant ancestor so that you will be able to identify him in relevant records, and distinguish him from others of the same name. This includes:

  • the immigrant's full name including her middle name or maiden name, if applicable
  • a date of birth or the date of another event (marriage, immigration, etc.) with which you may be able to identify your ancestor
  • a place of birth, even if it is just a country of origin for now
  • the names of all identifiable relatives -- parents, spouse, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc. Immigrants often traveled with relatives, or went to join one who had previously emigrated. These names will also help you to identify your immigrant's family in their country of origin.
  • Any other information that may help identify your ancestor, including religion, occupation, friends, neighbors, etc.
Don't forget to ask family members and even distant relatives about your ancestor's birthplace. You never know who may have personal knowledge or relevant records in their possession.

Step Two: Once you've determined the country of origin, look for a national index to vital records or a national census or other enumeration for that country in the time period in which your ancestor was born (e.g. Civil Registration Index for England & Wales). If such an index exists, this might provide a shortcut to learning your ancestor's place of birth. You must, however, have enough identifying information to recognize the immigrant, and many countries do not maintain vital records at the national level. Even if you do locate a particular candidate this way, you will still want to follow the other steps as well to verify that your same name individual in the old country is actually your ancestor.

Step Three: The next goal in your birthplace quest is to find a record or other source that tells you specifically where to start looking in your ancestor's country of origin. While searching, it is important to remember that your ancestor's last residence prior to emigration may not necessarily be their place of birth.

  • Look at research already done by others. In many cases, other researchers have already found where the emigrant came from. This includes searching through published indexes and genealogies, local biographies and town histories, and databases of compiled records.

  • Locate original records related to the immigrant's death, such as death records, church records, obituaries, cemetery records, and probate records. Obituaries published in ethnic newspapers are the most likely to contain specific information such as a town of origin.

  • Check both civil and church sources for a marriage record and records of the children's births.

  • Search other types of genealogical records which may reveal an ancestor's town of origin, including census records, court records, newspapers, and land and property records.

  • Immigration records such as passenger lists and naturalization records are another important source in the search for an immigrant's town of birth. While it may seem a better place to start, you usually need the information found in previous steps to enable you to locate immigration and naturalization records. In the United States, for example, census records provide especially good clues as to whether an ancestor was naturalized.
Search for these records in each place where the immigrant lived, for the complete time period when he or she lived there and for some time after his death. Be sure to investigate available records in all jurisdictions that may have kept records about him or her, including town, parish, county, state and national authorities. Be thorough in your examination of each record, making note of all identifying details such as the immigrant's occupation or the names of neighbors, godparents and witnesses.

Step Four: Sometimes after researching all possible records, you will still be unable to find a record of the home town of your immigrant ancestor. In this case, continue the search in the records of identified family members -- brother, sister, father, mother, cousin, children, etc. -- to see if you can find a place name associated with them. For example, my great-grandfather emigrated to the United States from Poland, but was never naturalized and left no records of his specific town of origin. The town in which they lived was identified, however, on the naturalization record of his eldest daughter (who was born in Poland).

Tip! Church baptismal records for children of immigrant parents are another resource that should not be overlooked in a search for immigrant origins. Many immigrants settled in areas and attended churches with others of their same ethnic and geographic background, and with a priest or minister who likely knew the family, increasing the likelihood that records were more specific than just "Germany" in recording a place of origin.

Step Five: Identify and verify the place name on a map, something that is not always as easy as it sounds. Often you will find multiple places with the same name, or you may find that the town has changed jurisdictions or even disappeared. It is very important here to correlate with historical maps and other sources of information to be sure that you have identified the correct town.

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