Finding Early Immigrant Ancestors
12/12/2011
These resources can give you a country of origin for your ancestor who immigrated to the United States before the 1820 law requiring passenger lists

To trace your pre-1820 immigrant ancestor's voyage back across the sea and do research in his homeland, you'll need more than a country of birth—you need a city or town, too. But if you're starting with no information, knowing the country can start you on the path to pinpointing a birthplace. The records listed below usually will name at least your ancestor's homeland:

Marriage: Many New England marriage records date to the beginning of Colonial settlement, and churches also kept track of marriages. State archives often have these records or microfilm. Also search for microfilm in the FHL's online catalog. The Library of Virginia has several online indexes to marriages mentioned in early newspapers.

Death: Your pre-1820 immigrant's state probably didn't mandate recording of deaths during his lifetime (see our Vital Records Chart). If it did, request copies from the state archives or vital-records office. Though it's uncommon, you might find a place of origin in your ancestor's tombstone inscription. Look for links to online cemetery indexes at Cyndi's List. You'll often find cemetery records at the local level, so contact the cemetery itself or an area historical society. Get more tips for locating death-related records in Sharon DeBartolo Carmack's Your Guide to Cemetery Research (Betterway Books, $19.99).

Census: If your pre-1820 immigrant lived long enough, he or she might be listed in federal censuses for 1860 or later, when enumerators asked about a country of origin. Search census records on the Web at HeritageQuest Online (available through subscribing libraries) or Ancestry.com ($155.40 per year); you'll find it on microfilm at National Archives and Records Administration facilities, the Family History Library and many large libraries.

Military: Immigrants served alongside native-born men in early conflicts such as the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Your ancestor's place of origin might be mentioned in documents he submitted to qualify for a military pension. Search Revolutionary War pension applications using HeritageQuest Online, or on microfilm at NARA facilities. Then you can look for microfilm of the original file at NARA in Washington, DC.

Don't assume you just can't trace your immigrant ancestors who arrived before the 1820 advent of passenger lists. See the July 2007 Family Tree Magazine for our guide to eight sources of information on early immigrants' origins.

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