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 Tracing Immigrant Origins

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Lesson 4:  Identifying the Immigrant (part 3)

In the past two lessons, we've discussed what we often call the minimum elements of identification: 1) the immigrant's original, full name, 2) the date of an event (usually the birth) that was recorded in the old country, 3) the name and relationship of a relative (usually the father), and, of course, 4) the name of the home town. In virtually every immigrant situation, this information will uniquely identify the immigrant. However, even if this is enough information to identify the immigrant, it may not be the wisest course of research to stop looking for immigrant "identifiers" with just these four elements.

First, your research in the immigrant's new country may never discover all four of these elements; one or more of them may simply never have been recorded on this side of the ocean. This is especially the case with Colonial era immigrants (before the U.S. Revolution), or if the immigrant died relatively young. The most likely element you may not discover is the original home town. Under these circumstances, you will have to use various records in the old country to learn where the immigrant came from. In such situations, any additional information you already know will help you recognize the correct immigrant.

Second, the information you learn may be wrong or incomplete. You may learn the year the immigrant was born, but never the actual date. Perhaps you learn the mother's given name (such as Mary), but never her maiden name. On occasion, the information we believe to be correct turns out to be false. In one recent immigration case dealing with a Croatian immigrant who arrived in America about 1914, the family initially had wrong information for the immigrant's name, age, and place of origin! The immigrant was under-age when he immigrated and had used his deceased brother's name and age on the passenger list. The place name the family believed he came from was identified in the wrong district in Croatia (where a town with a similar name is located). This of course meant that we could not identify him in the parish records. It was only through the use of additional identification that we eventually located the family.

Third, in the course of your research, you may find many persons with the same name in various records. Usually these records do not identify the persons as fully as you have. Thus, upon finding a John Meyer in a census record, you wonder if he is the immigrant. Knowing some of the additional identifiers can help you decide if the newly-found record pertains to the immigrant, or someone else with the same name.

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