You’ve been working hard on your family tree. You’ve traced your family line back through your grandparents, maybe even your great-grandparents. In fact, you’ve made it all the way back to the family’s first immigrants!
Some people call this discovery “crossing the pond”—backtracking with an ancestor to the other side of an ocean—a genealogical feat that, quite frankly, isn’t easy to do.
So, is it possible? Absolutely! With a little hard work, a little bit of luck, some well-known best practices, and some historical records—including immigration records—you can find that elusive hometown.
4 Things to Think about as You “Cross the Pond”
1. Historical Records
Understand the different kinds of historical records that might mention your ancestor’s hometown, including immigration records. Many of these records can be found for free on FamilySearch.org.
- Census records. Make sure you view every census record available for your ancestor, since the questions in them can change. The right census record can be a powerful tool for building your family tree.
- Vital records. These records include your ancestor’s birth, marriage, or death certificates. Aside from dates and locations, check vital records for the names of spouses and children.
- Church records. These records are especially rich with information when the church is associated with a specific ethnic group.
- Newspapers. Many obituaries contain information about a person’s birthplace.
- Naturalization records. These are the documents your ancestor had to submit in order to become a citizen in their new country.
- Other immigration records. Various countries have other records with detailed information about immigrants (such as alien registration records). To learn what these records might include, type a country’s name and the word “immigration” into the search bar on the FamilySearch Research Wiki.
- Social Security Death Index. For ancestors in the United States, don’t forget to check the Social Security Death Index for a birthplace.
- Emigration records. Some countries keep records of people who move away to other countries.
Any of these documents could contain information about your ancestor’s place of birth. With that said, don’t overlook items in the living room bookcase—the family Bible, for example, a family photo album, journals, Grandma’s recipe book, and so on. These can be the richest, most insightful sources of all.
2. Learn about the Location
Learning the name of your ancestor’s place of birth in an elusive immigration record is only one part of the challenge. After that, find where that town or city is actually located so you can begin searching local records for more information.
Depending on the location, this step can be harder than it sounds. What if there are multiple towns with the same name? What if the name you think is the town is actually the county—or vice versa?
This is where family history skills and detective skills overlap. Try to get your hands on a good gazetteer. Go to the FamilySearch wiki, and enter the name of the country, followed by the word “gazetteer.”
You can also try looking at a surname distribution map of a particular country to see where your ancestor’s last name is most often found.
Remember that no detail about your ancestor’s life is unimportant. Have you discovered anything about his or her occupation? Does it point you toward a certain region on the map?
3. Search Local Records
Once you are ready to search databases of local historical records, be sure to triangulate your search. Or, in other words, try to use three data points.
A search involving your ancestor’s name (one data point) and his or birth date (two data points) will likely turn up hundreds, if not thousands of results. Include the name of a family member—spouse, child, or parent (a third data point), and suddenly the search results often become manageable.
4. What to Do When the Search Gets Long
The fourth piece of advice is simple: Don’t give up. At times you may feel like you’re searching for a needle in a haystack—no, for a needle in a field of haystacks!
This kind of searching can take time. In the meantime, be open to discoveries that you weren’t at all expecting—the name of the ship that carried your ancestor, an occupation you didn’t know about, the names of spouses or children that were previously unknown to you.
All of these are important elements of the story—your ancestor’s story, as well as your own.
For more ideas about tracing your family line back to your ancestral homeland, visit FamilySearch Blog > Genealogy Records. You can also visit the Learning Center on FamilySearch.org to find video tutorials like this one.
Many thanks to Ellie Vance, Joseph B. Everett, and Debbie Gurtler for their presentations at the 2019 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. The subject of this article was inspired by their presentations, and some of their tips proved invaluable in informing this post.
The BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy is held annually and offers many classes on how to discover more about your ancestors. Keep an eye on the BYU conference page for announcements about next year’s schedule and when registration opens.
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