Most genealogists end up doing it at one time or another. We’re talking about crossing the pond, of course. Whether your ancestors sailed over on the Mayflower, sought to escape the Great Famine in Ireland, or helped form the mass migration starting in the late 1880s, your research trail will likely lead you to Europe—not necessarily literally, but definitely mentally.
Of course, the figurative journey back to the old country isn’t always a smooth one. Name changes, confusing geography, and records in unfamiliar languages and formats can easily intimidate even experienced researchers. But don’t let these challenges hold you back. With our 10 tips for tracing your ancestors “over there,” you’ll sail right through these potentially rough research waters.
1. Exhaust US sources first.
Gather as much information as possible on this side of the ocean before you try to cross it. You’ll want to learn your immigrant ancestor’s hometown in Europe, his original name, and other details to help you identify him in foreign records. Believe it or not, the best place to begin researching is at home. Talk to your relatives and ask them for copies of family documents such as birth certificates, passports, naturalization records, correspondence, and other papers likely to contain clues to ancestral origins.
Next, search genealogy records. The old standby, the federal census, usually provides only a country of origin. Even immigrant passenger lists can be hit or miss—sometimes they give a village or town; other times, just a province or region. Birth, marriage or death certificates and military papers may have clues. Obituaries may list where an immigrant was born, but because a relative or associate provided the information, it may not be accurate. In 1917 and 1918, male US citizens and aliens born from 1872 to 1900 had to fill out WWI draft registration cards, searchable online at Ancestry.com
and on Family History Library and National Archives microfilm. If the person had a Social Security Number, request his SS-5 (Social Security number application) through the Social Security Administration. It costs $27 if you know the number, or $29 if you don’t. (See the SSA’s FOIA guide
for more information.)
2. Get the immigrant’s name right.
It’ll be hard to find your ancestor “William Smith” in Germany if he went by Wilhelm Schmidt there. The names you find in North American records may be Americanized versions of their European equivalents, or altogether different. But don’t buy into the family lore about your ancestor’s name being changed by immigration officials at Ellis Island (or other ports). This simply didn’t happen
But many immigrants changed their own names once they arrived in America to make the name appear “more American.” Often, they’d change or drop a few letters. For example, the Polish name Jablonski might become Yablonski, or the first name Jan would become John. Or they’d switch to a phonetically similar name (Stanislaw becomes Stanley). Some bosses or teachers called immigrants by names that were easier to spell or say.
Connecting with others researching the name might help you determine its original form. A Google
search is a good start, but you might have better luck on a genealogy-oriented site such as Cyndi’s List
or RootsWeb’s Surname Resources Page
. Whatever the name, search for all conceivable variations and phonetic spellings in indexes and online databases.
3. Learn naming practices.
Studying European cultures’ naming customs can often help to clue you in to previous generations and extend your family tree. They can also be useful in determining siblings’ birth order or determining whether there were other children. For example, children’s names can give you important clues to likely names of the grandparents. In the Italian tradition, the first-born son is named for the paternal grandfather, the first daughter for the paternal grandmother, the second son for the maternal grandfather and the second daughter for the maternal grandmother.
Carpatho-Rusyns often named the eldest son after the father and the second son after the paternal grandfather. The third son was named after the maternal grandfather. The eldest daughter would be named Mary; the second, Anna; and the third, Helen. Subsequent children would be named after other relatives. This explains why the same given names seemed to be repeated through the generations in many of my own family lines.
Learn how different cultures use patronymics for hints to a father’s first name. In Scandinavian languages, the patronymic surname was formed by adding suffixes to the father’s first name: –son or -sen to indicate “son of”, and –dotter, -dóttir or -datter for “daughter of.” The Spanish use double surnames; when a woman marries, she keeps her last name, and adds her husband’s surname (Maria Pérez Álvarez).
4. Brush up on history.
Finding out the why behind your ancestors’ lives is just as important as the who, what, when and where. Sociologists and historians studying the migratory patterns of humans often refer to “push” and “pull” factors causing such movements. “Push” factors are conditions that drive people to leave their homelands, such as crop failures, epidemics, scarcity of land, poverty, high taxes, political or religious persecution, obligatory military service and wars. My paternal grandfather left Slovakia before his 17th birthday to escape a mandatory three-year service in the Austro-Hungarian army. “Pull” factors attract people to a new area, typically providing the potential for social and material betterment. These include the promise of political or religious freedom, or the availability of land or jobs. Perhaps you’ve heard stories about your ancestor’s “hope for a new life” or belief that in America, “the streets are paved with gold.” Sometimes you’ll find several reasons for your ancestors’ immigration decisions.
Creating a timeline with family and historical events can help you see what influenced their decisions. Start with our free biographical outline
, try the timeline generators on page 66, or use a free family networking site such as Footnote
to create profile pages for your ancestor. You also can generate a timeline from your genealogy software or with Genelines
($29.95 download, $34.95 on CD).
5. Study geography.
In order to successfully trace an immigrant ancestor, you’ll need the name of his town or village of origin. Usually, just knowing that an ancestor came from Ireland or Germany won’t help you research an ancestor in the old country. And even knowing that an ancestor came from London, Paris, Kiev or some other large city might not be enough. That’s because in most foreign countries, the majority of records were kept on a local level, in a town hall or parish office. But especially in US sources, immigrants often would give a large city as their place of birth simply because it was a more familiar point of reference.
To know where to look for records, you’ll need to know how boundary changes might’ve affected your family’s town (wars and political moves may have changed its name or the country it was in) and have a working knowledge of historical and current geography. See for free map resources by country on FamilyTreeMagazine.com
, and check your library.
Most cities, and even smaller towns or villages, have websites. Try a Google
search for town or village name (such as Donegal Ireland); add a province or county name if needed. To get more specific, consult gazetteers—these geographical dictionaries list the towns in an area and tell you about political jurisdictions (provinces, counties, districts) and where a town’s inhabitants went to church. The Family History Library (FHL)
has gazetteers in print and on microfilm (see tip 8). For more help putting the place name into context, see Place Names of the World—Europe Historical Context, Meanings and Changes
by John Everett-Heath (Palgrave Macmillan).
6. Bypass foreign-language barriers.
Don’t expect key records to be in English. The same applies to websites and correspondence. Therefore, you’ll want to learn some basic genealogical terms such as baptism, marriage and death; husband, wife, mother, father, occupations, and so forth. Consult the FamilySearch’s foreign word lists
and letter-writing helps
7. Find online records.
“Crossing the pond” doesn’t mean you have to hop on a plane or ship. Thanks to the Internet, you can make great progress even on your laptop. Explore the free FamilySearch Record Search
, a growing pilot project of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to digitize records and post them online for free.
Subscription site Ancestry.com’s World Deluxe subscription includes records from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden and other countries. UK-based FindMyPast
has more than 500 million records, including censuses, military documents, and civil registrations. You’ll need to pay for full access; plans range from pay-as-you-go to about $129 a year.
Those with Swedish ancestry can search millions of church records at Genline
(prices range from $10 for 24 hours to $254 annually). On ScotlandsPeople
, search wills and testaments and coats-of-arms databases for free. Viewing record images of wills, statutory registers, old parish registers, censuses and more will cost you about $11 for 30 page views to use within 90 days. Find more online resources at WorldGenWeb
and, for the UK and Ireland, GENUKI
8. Use FHL microfilm.
Although FamilySearch’s digital records are making headlines now, the Family History Library has been a well-known genealogical resource for years. It has the largest collection of genealogical records in the world: 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed records, including vital, census, land, probate, immigration, church and more from 100-plus countries, with extensive coverage of Europe. The FamilySearch Research Wiki
can tell you what records to look for from your ancestral homeland. Search the online catalog
for microfilm you can then order ($5.50 per roll) via one of the FHL’s 4,000-plus worldwide branch Family History Centers (FHCs). Search the catalog by a place or a keyword, rather an ancestor’s name. To search by place, click on Place Search and type in a place, such as Naples. You can also fill in the optional “Part of” search field—entering Italy will make sure you see records from the Naples in Italy, not the one in Florida. A keyword search helps get you to a specific record group or topic (for example, 1869 Hungarian Census).
When you find records of interest, print the listings and take them to your local FHC. Bring payment in cash—film rental fees are due when you order and most centers can’t accept checks or credit cards. You’ll get a phone call in four to six weeks when your film comes in; you’ll have 30 days to view the film on the FHC microfilm readers.
The FHL has a vast collection of books, gazetteers and other reference materials that don’t circulate to FHCs, so you may want to save up for a trip to Salt Lake to do some heavy-duty researching.
9. Write to archives.
Of course, the FHL doesn’t have all the records for all the countries in the world. Your next move may be to contact archives or churches of the area you’re researching. Knowing where records are located gives you a huge advantage. Check the International Vital Records Handbook, 5th edition, by Thomas Jay Kemp (Genealogical Publishing Co.). Or see Repositories of Primary Sources <uidaho.edu/special-collections/other.repositories.html>, which links to more than 5,000 websites of repositories worldwide.
Many archives post research request instructions and fees on their websites. When you make a request, follow the instructions exactly and make your question as specific as possible. Be brief and simple, using short sentences, and ask for records related to only one ancestral line at a time. Give dates European-style—day, month, year—for example, 10 February 1897. Be sure to provide an upper limit for the fee you can pay, if you have one. (See a sample request letter.) You’re more likely to get a response if you compose your letter in the native language, so use the foreign-language tips on page 30.
Responses will vary depending on the archive’s location, facilities and communications protocol. In general, don’t send money or a check with your request unless instructed to do so. Do include a self-addressed business-sized envelope, and at least two international reply coupons (available at your post office) to cover return postage. Not all countries accept them, though, so ask the postal clerk for advice. If you’re writing to a church, include a small donation ($10 or $15) in the form of an international money order. For links to more tips
10. Hire a pro to get what you can’t.
When you’ve tried all the other avenues and you still can’t get your hands on the records you need, consider hiring a professional researcher based in your ancestral homeland. He or she will be familiar with the area’s geography, history and languages, and will be able to access records available only in person.
Don’t let a few thousand miles keep you from finding your ancestors. With the right road map and careful planning, you can chart the course for genealogical success.
From the January 2010 Family Tree Magazine