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One of most genealogists’ primary goals is to trace their ancestors back to the old country—which, for many Americans, means an area of Europe. Generally speaking, just about anyone can make that leap, thanks to the centuries of records European nations have preserved and the resources archivists and family historians before you have created to help you tap them. How easy or difficult the process is, however, depends largely on three factors.
Somebody back in the old country—typically a government or church—had to keep records in the first place. And certain nations outperformed others at tracking their citizens. Scandinavians, for example, kept downright persnickety records through the state-sanctioned Lutheran church, even of non-Lutherans.
You’ll turn to church records for most European ethnicities, as many governments have vital-record (“civil registration”) droughts: Croatia, for instance, didn’t start keeping them until 1946. Even if your ancestral homeland kept meticulous records, they might have succumbed to wars or other misfortunes. Pre-1650 German records, for example, are scarce because of the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648). In general, warfare has taken the greatest toll on central and eastern European records, while those in Scandinavia and Great Britain are largely unscathed.
Accidents did damage, such as the 1922 Dublin Courts Fire that burned almost all Irish census returns from 1821 through 1851. Well-intentioned but destructive neatniks struck, too. After compiling statistical data, Irish officials pulped censuses from 1861 through 1891. Sometimes multiple misfortunes wreaked their havoc, as with the emigration passenger lists from Bremen, Germany—Europe’s top departure port. Archivists authorized the ongoing destruction of all but the most recent records until 1909. Then WWII bombings did in many of the remaining manifests; less than two decades of lists (1920 to 1939) survive today.
Immigration records have their own issues. So many English arrivals to America came in Colonial times, when passenger lists are sparse, that finding your link back across the Atlantic may prove tricky. Luckier are those whose ancestors waited until after the 1892 opening of Ellis Island—they’re probably in the immigration station’s mammoth passenger database. Though people from all lands passed through the island’s “golden door,” this comparatively late crowd was heavy on emigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe and Russia.
The biggest ancestral researchability wild card is records access. Even the most complete, best-preserved records stretching to the dawn of written history won’t help if you can’t get to them. Preferably, in this Internet age, all a nation’s most important genealogical records would be online for you to pore over in your pajamas. Sweden comes the closest to eternal sunshine here, thanks to the mammoth efforts of the subscription site Genline (see page XX). Neighboring Norway excels at giving away data with Digitalarkivet. But the online-access champ is probably the Netherlands, thanks to the free site Genlias.
Many common ancestries, alas, lag behind in online records. German and Italian researchers, for example, can only look longingly at a site like Genlias. Their next best hope is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) has microfilmed records—then they’re accessible through local branch Family History Centers (FHC). You can search the FHL catalog online, and visit an FHC (find one using FamilySearch) to borrow the film for a fee ($5 to $6 per reel).
The FHL has more than 28,000 rolls of film for Italy alone, primarily of civil registrations from the 19th and early 20th centuries. But even researchers with less-recorded ancestries will find happy surprises at the FHL: Church records from Hungary and Slovakia, for example, are microfilmed from the early 1700s to 1895, when civil registration began, and Croatian church books on microfilm date to the late 1500s. It’s hard to declare a winner here, as FHL microfilming efforts have been so exhaustive for so many places, but notable gaps ding ancestries such as Russian in our rankings.
Even if the FHL hasn’t gotten around to your ancestors’ homeland, some countries make more genealogical bounties accessible than others. Archives in both Ukraine and Belarus, for instance, at least have helpful Web pages—in English—with instructions on requesting records. Spanish researchers can consult several archival holdings catalogs, and find the archives themselves online.
Say your ancestry’s records are plentiful—they’re still no good if you can’t tell where to look. Some ethnicities face more geographic challenges than others—victims of shifting boundaries due to those nasty wars, or lack of a clearly defined national homeland. In the classic case, German researchers tend to talk about “Germanic” ancestors, because they don’t all fit within the neat boundaries of present-day Germany. “Germans” could hail from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Alsace (France), Poland, Luxembourg, Denmark, the Czech Republic, even Russia. (See the December 2006 Family Tree Magazine for a guide to tracing these ancestors.) While England, France and Spain, among others, unified centuries ago, German-speakers never got together in a true nation-state until Otto von Bismarck became Germany’s first chancellor in 1871. Combine the country’s ever-shifting map with its place-name changes, and finding your ancestor’s village can be like harnessing a hurricane.
Geographic issues bedevil most ethnicities of Eastern Europe, where your ancestors’ “country” may have changed multiple times. Villages’ new landlords often renamed places with each new wave of conquest. The Federation of East European Family History Societies works hard to help researchers overcome such obstacles, but many of these ancestries remain among the most difficult to trace.
Language can be another research barrier. Happily, you’ll find that English is a de facto second tongue in many countries—notably Scandinavian ones—which eases correspondence and Web surfing. You can study up on basic genealogy terms (born, married, died and so on) in 15 languages with the FHL’s helpful word lists (go to FamilySearch and click on Search, Research Helps, Sorted by Document Type and Word Lists). But some languages’ traditional handwriting is particularly difficult to decipher. Early German documents are written in a style called Kurrent, which has several nearly identical characters.
Keep in mind, too, that although most European languages use the familiar English alphabet, many omit some letters while adding others. You’ll need to know where these “extra” letters fall in the alphabet when it comes to looking up records. The winner in the language category is, of course, England, along with—to a lesser extent—other British Isles ethnicities. Irish researchers, thankfully, don’t face many Gaelic records, but they may have to deal with Latin, the language of government records until 1733 and some Catholic church records until the 1850s. Scottish researchers may stumble over Latin in documents as late as 1847, and on tombstones. Names might be in English (James) or Gaelic (Hamish).
For researchers tracing a surname back through the ages, European ancestries can hold confusing surprises. The notion of an unchanging surname arrived relatively recently in Scandinavia, which for centuries used the patronymic system: A child would take his or her surname from the father’s first name. So if your dad’s first name was Anders, in Sweden your last name would be Andersson (Andersdotter for a girl); in Norway or Denmark, you’d be Anderssen or Andersdotter. Romania and Bulgaria also used patronymics, and Russians typically use a given name, patronymic and surname. The French gave their children multiple Christian names and nicknames, and some used two surnames (a family name plus what’s called a dit name).
Then, of course, come the puzzles arising from post-immigration name Americanization. They’re worst with the most-unfamiliar languages and alphabets—another strike against research in eastern Europe (František became Frank in the States; Václav turned to Wenzel) and the former Soviet Union.
On the other hand, some ethnicities give you a hand by assigning first names that are clues to previous generations. Italian families traditionally named the first son after the father’s father, the second after the mother’s father and the third after the father; daughters’ names followed a similar pattern beginning with the father’s mother. Better yet is the tradition in Spain and Portugal, where women retain their maiden names after marriage. Plus, children typically took both the father’s and mother’s surname, with the father’s name first in Spain and second in Portugal.
Read our rankings of the five easiest and hardest ancestries to trace in the September 2007 Family Tree Magazine.