Q&A: Locating Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Hometown

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Q. Without knowing my ancestor’s hometown, I can’t seem to find information from his country of origin. How can I learn this key fact?

Q. I think I found the name of a town in Europe where my ancestor came from, but how do I find out where it was?

Q. Without knowing my ancestor’s hometown, I can’t seem to find information from his country of origin. How can I learn this key fact?

A. After home sources, such as letters and family Bibles, the best place to find an immigrant’s town of origin is US naturalization records. This is especially true for later arrivals: All naturalization paperwork after 1906 lists the new citizen’s town of origin; earlier documents may or may not.

Other naturalization procedures before 1906 also lacked uniformity, reflecting the fact that any court—local, county, state or federal—could handle your citizenship paperwork.

Duplicates of records after Sept. 27, 1906, are with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services; request them using Form G-639. The agency can take a long time to respond, however, so try other sources first.

FamilySearch has microfilmed many naturalization records and indexes, which you can rent to view at your local FamilySearch Center. The catalog can tell you what records are available; you may even be able to browse them online at Family­ has a database indexing naturalization records from 15 states. and World Vital Records have an index of 3.7 million naturalization records. The limited information in an index will likely mean a follow-up to retrieve a complete copy of your ancestor’s paperwork.
You can search digitized documents from a dozen states at Also check the regional branch of the National Archives closest to where your ancestor would’ve filed his papers.

You’ll find three types of naturalization records—declarations of intention (“first papers”), petitions for naturalization (“final papers”) and certificates of citizenship. The petitions—filed after a waiting period, typically five years—usually give the most detail. Note that women rarely applied for citizenship before 1922; until then, wives became citizens when their husbands did.

You can narrow the time period for your search using the 1920 US census, which listed citizenship status (Na for naturalized, Pa for filed first papers, Al for alien) and year of naturalization. The 1900 and 1930 censuses listed citizenship status, but not the year.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Q. I think I found the name of a town in Europe where my ancestor came from, but how do I find out where it was?

A. The single most important piece of information you need to trace your family abroad (besides their names, of course) is their home village or city.

Knowing just that they hailed from Poland or Portugal—or even a province such as Saxony or Sicily—won’t get you far. Most foreign records are kept and organized at the local level, just as they are in the United States. Even the Salt Lake City-based Family History Library (FHL) catalogs its holdings by locality.

Further, national identities and borders have changed significantly over the centuries. Italy as a unified nation has existed only since 1861, and Germany since 1871. The countries your ancestors left may not even be on the map anymore—think of Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Ottoman Empire (which once encompassed much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East). But archives and their records tended to stay put. So if your “Austrian” great-grandmother’s village is in what’s now the Czech Republic, you’d have little luck trying to find her birth or death records in modern-day Austria.

The impact of those political changes can trickle all the way down to the search for your ancestors’ town. In areas where land changed hands, cities may have had multiple names reflecting the languages of the various political entities in power. For instance, Bratislava, Slovakia, originated as Pressburg; Ribeauvillé in France’s Alsace region was known as Rappoltsweiler until the 1800s. Then there are the differences in English versus native-language spellings: We know Venezia, Italy, as Venice, and København, Denmark, as Copenhagen.

For these reasons, you shouldn’t make a mad dash to the atlas when you uncover a town of origin’s name in your research. First, figure out the correct spelling of that place, whether the name has changed since your family lived there, and if the word you’re looking at is a city at all. To do that, turn to a gazetteer, a geographical dictionary, for your ancestral country. Gazetteers tell you a town’s location (so you know where to look for it on a map), alternate names and jurisdictions it belongs to (district, province, even the parish in some cases).

You can find historical gazetteers at major public libraries, as well as the FHL and its branch Family History Centers (FHCs). We like the online worldwide gazetteers listed by the New York Public Library and Falling Rain; check the listings for your ancestors’ region or try a Google search on the place plus gazetteer to find country-specific sites. Many online gazetteers even will plot towns on a map for you.

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