4 Steps to Begin Researching Your Eastern European Immigrant Ancestors

By Lisa A. Alzo

Most genealogists at some point need to trace an immigrant ancestor back to his or her place of origin. But how do you get started? Here are four steps for beginning your search.

When researching Polish, Czech, or Slovak genealogy, you might be tempted to throw yourself into research and as soon as possible find the ancestor who braved the New World. But good research takes more time and attention than just jumping into records to find your immigrant ancestor. Rather, you’ll need a research plan to make sure you’re covering all your bases. Here are four steps to get started:

  1. Take stock of what you already know about your ancestors. Look through family documents, interview relatives and—perhaps most importantly—write it all down. This will help you establish where you are in your research and identify where you need to go.
  2. Establish the date of your immigrant ancestor’s arrival. This date serves as a benchmark moment in a person’s life. All records from before this date will be in the old country, while all records from after will be in the United States or Canada. Note that some “birds of passage” ancestors may have traveled the Atlantic multiple times before settling down. You can often use clues in US census records to help pinpoint the date of arrival. For example, the 1930 US census lists the immigration year for my Slovak grandfather, John Alzo, as 1910. A search of the Ellis Island Foundation (which requires free registration to search), turns up his passenger record. According to that, John arrived on 29 October 1910 on the ship Kaiserin Auguste Victoria. I can also view the entry on ship’s manifest page. While his surname is spelled slightly different there (Alzio), I also get another valuable clue: his original name, Janos, which is Hungarian for “John.” (Slovakia was under Hungarian rule until 1918.)
  3. Identify your ancestor’s original name and hometown. Scour home sources and name websites for possible spelling variations or nicknames that your ancestor might have used or other names his town might have been known by. Be sure to determine the exact name of the town or village because rather than general areas such as Prague or Krakow; your ancestor may have listed such bigger cities as a point of reference, you’ll need to be more specific to find the appropriate archival district and local church or civil offices in the old country This will help you make sure you’re searching for the right person and place.
  4. Search websites and online databases. Record websites, genealogical societies and message boards have digitized a growing number of records that can be searched online. Check large sites such as and as well as small, volunteer-generated databases.

Once you get across the ocean, you’ll have to take additional steps, such as: learning where the town or village is located today; doing onsite research in or writing to archives, churches, or registrars; hiring a professional researcher; and seeking out fellow genealogists researching similar areas. And of course, researching each individual ancestor may require you to adjust your research process.

Learn more tips and strategies for searching for your Polish, Czech or Slovak immigrant ancestors, by ordering your copy of The Family Tree Polish, Czech and Slovak Genealogy Guide today.