Researching European Roots Stateside

By Allison Dolan Premium


In this article:

The idea of tracing your ancestors overseas might seem overwhelming. How on earth are you going to get your hands on records from some faraway European archive? Well, we’ll let you in on a little secret: You can get many of the records you need right here in the United States—maybe even in your own backyard.

The Family History Library’s riches
How? By taking advantage of the Family History Library‘s (FHL) 2.4 million-roll cache of microfilmed records from around the world. These documents come from local and national governments, as well as churches and other organizations, and they cover the gamut: parish registers, censuses, military records, emigration lists, wills and tax records, to name just a few. You don’t necessarily have to travel to Salt Lake City to get your hands on them, either—the FHL rents out copies of microfilms ($5.50 per roll) through its network of local Family History Centers. With more than 2,000 in the United States and Canada, there’s likely one near you; just enter your location at FamilySearch.

To identify microfilms with the records you want, use the FHL catalog. You can find out what records are available for your family’s locality by running a place search: Enter the town or village name in the Place field, and the country in the Part Of field. The resulting screen will show all matching locations, including applicable province-, state-, county- and/or parish jurisdictions. Hint: If you have trouble finding the right place—or need more step-by-step help—try FamilySearch’s Research Guidance feature. This “wizard” walks you through how to identify and acquire available records by place and time period.

More places to look
Although its collection is unparalleled, the library doesn’t have every genealogical record ever created. So next, you’ll want to tap other North American repositories with collections covering your family’s heritage. Some, such as the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’s Naeseth Library in Wisconsin, specialize in a particular group. Others, including the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center, cover multiple ethnic backgrounds. Find these groups by surfing the links at Cyndi’s List or running a Google search on your ethnicity and genealogy.

You also can turn to genealogical societies focused on your ancestors’ country or culture: Not only might they have relevant records in their libraries, but most also offer newsletters, queries, e-mail lists and other networking tools that could help you connect with a distant relative (here or abroad) who’s already retraced your clan back to their homeland.

Letter-writing pointers
After you’ve exhausted stateside sources, you still needn’t book a ticket to the old country—instead, launch a letter-writing campaign. Determine which archives likely hold your ancestors’ records, then compose a query requesting information. Two general rules that will increase your chance of success: Write your letter in the native language (use the FHL’s letter-writing guides or hire a translator), and include any applicable research and copying fees, as well as enough international reply coupons to cover return postage.

The country-by-country resource listings in our International Genealogy Passport CD include many national archives, as well as other organizations to help you locate repositories and societies covering your ancestral homeland.

Have a tip for researching ancestors in the old country? Post it on our Forum. Read more about researching European roots in the September 2007 Family Tree Magazine.