(first published in Family Chronicle Nov/Dec 2003)
The United States is a country founded on immigration. This means it doesn’t take long for many people to run into a foreign-born ancestor as they trace their families back in time. However, beginning and experienced researchers alike often find themselves stumped at the edge of the ocean, unable to pick up their family’s trail on the other side. Just as crossing the ocean was an arduous journey for our ancestors, it can also be a trying experience for a researcher!
In order to make the trip successfully, a researcher needs one key piece of information: a town name. With the name of the foreign town, a researcher can access parish records of the local church, which were often kept meticulously, enabling him or her to extend a family back many generations. However, finding that allusive town name can sometimes seem like searching for a needle in a haystack.
It is true that there is no one source guaranteed to produce the town name. However, there are quite a few that may – and certainly some are more likely than others. Listed below are eight of the most promising sources that can help a researcher cross the ocean. Which one you should try first depends largely on what you know about your ancestor when you begin. (These sources are mainly targeted for tracing ancestors who immigrated in the latter nineteenth century. However, much of the information applies to other time periods also.)
1) Family Records: There is nothing more frustrating than spending dozens of hours looking for a town name, just to find out that Great Aunt Mary knew it all along. It is worth the effort to call some distant cousins and other long-lost relatives. Especially for immigrants that came more recently, often someone knows where the family’s town of origin.
2) Genealogy Records: The types and possibilities here are endless, but the point is someone else may have already taken the same steps you are now taking and located the information you need. A few places to check are the IGI (International Genealogical Index) which is available at familysearch.com, other genealogy websites, and libraries or historical societies near where your ancestors settled.
3) Church Records: If you know what church your family attended, (or if you know their religion and they lived in a small town), church records are a great place to start. Many churches in the U.S. kept detailed membership, birth, and marriage records. Especially if the church was tied to the ancestor’s ethnic heritage, town names can often be found here. Church records can usually be obtained by writing the church of interest, although some are available on microfilm through local family history centers.
4) Vital Records: Most promising are death and marriage records, although births records of children sometimes give birth places of the parents. Vital records are inconsistent in the level of detail they contain. Many request a place of birth, but the specificity of the answer varies. Some vital records have been filmed and can be ordered at a local family history center. Vital records can also often be ordered individually for a fee from the places they are kept, which could be the state, county or city. For more information see: Where to Write for Vital Records, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
5) Emigration or Immigration Compiled Sources: Compiled sources exist for many subgroups of immigrants and can be checked quickly and easily. For example, Germans to America, is an ongoing series that indexes German arrivals in the U.S. since 1850. Check the Family History Library Catalogue online (familysearch.org) or the online catalogue of a major research library near you to see what is available.
6) Passenger Arrival Lists: From 1820 on, most ports kept records of people arriving there. Passenger lists are quite likely to give a town name. However, the ease of using them depend on where and when your ancestor landed and the information you have already. Immigrants to the U.S. landed in a variety of ports. New York was by far the most important port, followed by Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Immigrants landed at other smaller ports also, although certainly not all the lists have survived. Some ports have indexes available. Many indexes and lists are microfilmed and available by order to local family history centers, at some major libraries and at the National Archives.
7) Passenger Departure Lists: Just as the U.S. kept records of people coming into the country, other countries kept records of people leaving. Although many lists have been lost or destroyed, some important sources still remain. As in the U.S., indexed sources are much easier to use. Perhaps most significant are the Hamburg Passengers lists. One third of emigrants from central and eastern Europe emigrated through this port. Indexed lists are available after 1850 from here. Many departure lists are on microfilm and can be ordered at local family history centers.
8) Naturalization and Citizenship Records: Naturalization is the process of granting citizenship to foreign residents of the U.S. Foreign-born citizens have never been required to naturalize, but many did. Their papers can contain valuable information, although information is more abundant for those who naturalized after 1906. Earlier records sometimes contain town names and sometimes only list a country as the place of birth. Many of these are available through local family history centers. Otherwise, contact the appropriate county clerk (the records were kept by courts) for more information on your locality.
By searching these records, you have a good chance of uncovering the hometown of your ancestor. However, if you still turn up empty handed, don’t despair. After all, there are many ways to cross the ocean! County histories, obituaries, probate records, military records, and other sources, although not as likely to produce a town name as those listed above, are also possibilities. Consult the Research Outline: Tracing Immigrant Origins (available at many local family history centers or order it online at familysearch.org) for further ideas and more detailed information.