To effectively search for ancestors in overseas records it is helpful
(if not necessary) to find a date of immigration and a point of origin.
However, sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can't find the exact
date of immigration for that troublesome ancestor. There may be reasons
for this failure, such as a lack of passenger lists for the period in
which your ancestor arrived, but this doesn't mean you can't establish
a timeframe for the event. The smaller the immigration window the greater
your chances for research success. Follow these few steps to unravel the
immigration mystery in your family.
Step 1: Be Methodical
As every experienced genealogist knows, it is best to work backwards.
Examine all of the documents you've accumulated on your immigrant ancestor
and put them in reverse chronological order from death to birth. Then
create a timeline for their life based on the records. Do you see any
trends? Have you missed any important events? Think about what you know
about your ancestor and try to compile a list of unanswered questions
including date of immigration, port of arrival and point of origin.
Step 2: Locate a Variety of Records
To successfully assign an immigration timeframe, you have to re-create
your immigrant ancestor's life one event at a time. Make a list of documents
that might exist for that ancestor and follow the paper trail for those
you don't already have. Remember that the types of documents someone created
in their lifetime depended on when and where they lived. For example,
you don't want to look for a birth record if your ancestor's birth date
predates civil registration. Start with the basics birth, marriage
and death records, church documents, indentures, land records, court records
and, of course, immigration materials.
Double-check that you've gone over all the resources such as letters,
diaries, and photographs in your own collection and those in the hands
of relatives. You can often find relatives to query by using online message
boards. Message boards provide a way to reconnect with even distant family
by posting a request for information on a particular surname. Include
a request for photographs and artifacts in your posting. It's surprising
how many documents, even Colonial ones, are still in the hands of distant
relatives and not in archives.
Oral histories are another type of record
that may provide unique insight. If you haven't already done so, interview
any relatives that may be able to provide an oral history of your family.
Oral traditions reveal pieces of your family history that don't exist
in the written record. Many families have stories relating to the immigrant
For early immigrants, you may not find any home documents or relatives
to tell immigration stories, so don't forget to try libraries and archives
for relevant material. Published books and magazines may have articles
or biographical sketches on those ancestors, while archives may have manuscript
Once you've collected these documents, go back through them and look
for clues. Keep a checklist of details to investigate further. This list
can jog your memory later in the search and shed new light on old questions.
It also helps you focus your research.
Step 3: Examine Immigration Patterns
One of the most important considerations in immigration research is historical
context. Regardless of when or why your ancestor immigrated, odds are
that they followed one of the following predictable immigration patterns.
The key to your mystery can be in the identifying the right one for your
Immigrants often settled near each other, thereby establishing a cohesive
community of persons linked by culture and language and possibly point
of origin. By identifying where certain ethnic groups settled you might
see trends that relate to your family. Try to locate any information on
your family's ethnicity in the community in which they lived. You might
uncover new sources of information such as organizational records or even
a newspaper. One researcher found her missing links by searching Swedish
communities in the Midwest for individuals with similar surnames. Her
techniques wouldn't work for more populous immigrant populations like
the Irish in New England or for common surnames, but if you have an unusual
surname or are working in a specific area you can be successful.
Family and Friends
Have you located correspondence and diaries of neighbors, similar immigrants
or friends? It is a documented fact that many immigrants traveled to America
with other family members or individuals from the same neighborhood or
village. Few people immigrated alone. By searching for groups from the
same area, you may stumble upon the clue you need to build an immigration
timeframe for your ancestor. This can supply you with an entry point and
links to family in the homeland. Even if your ancestor initially immigrated
alone, other family members probably joined them later on. Or, sometimes
a couple of siblings immigrated while other family members stayed behind.
By locating new home sources and following immigration patterns you can
often locate correspondence between the two families, which may give you
When you are fortunate enough to find a passenger list with your ancestor's
name on it, make sure that it was their only trip. While early immigrants
rarely returned home for visits, trains and steamships encouraged such
travel. In French Canadian families, for example, there are often several
border crossings recorded for relatives traveling between countries for
business or visits. Other immigrants traveled here for business or education
before deciding to reside in an area. Searching records for other trips
can save you valuable research time later on. You can miss vital information
by making assumptions about their travel habits.
Don't Forget Collateral Lines
Sometimes the path to success is not the direct route. Your ancestor
might be the youngest child in a family of twelve children. By the time
they were born the family may have stopped mentioning specific places
on birth and death certificates. Don't stop to think about the amount
of time it will take to track down information on those dozen siblings.
Concentrate on the end result. At any point in your search for additional
immigration information you could locate what you need. It sounds frustrating,
but a few names on a baptismal certificate provide new avenues for research.
Step 4: What's in a Name?
Part of the assimilation process included changing or anglicizing names.
The spelling or name you are familiar with may not resemble the name they
arrived with. Names were not changed at the port of immigration, but as
the family Americanized. For example, in one family half the siblings
may have changed their name to White while the others remained LeBlanc.
When researching collateral relatives, be sure to look for name changes
both official and informal.
Naming issues can be further complicated by language issues and educational
levels which can affect how a name appears on documents. If you are missing
records such as birth, marriage, and death certificates or census documents,
try spelling the surname a different way or saying it aloud to develop
a phonetic spelling.
Step 5: Watch out for History
While political, economic and religious events brought the majority of
immigrants to the United States, it may not be apparent why your ancestor
chose to immigrate. Studying the history of the area in which they settled,
the specific region or country from which they came, and immigration patterns
for that ethnicity can help you discover the reason. Locate information
about your ancestor's ethnic group. Reading publications about other immigrants,
such as published diaries, letters and interviews help you understand
the historical context of their immigration.
Searching for relevant facts means broadening your field of research
to include materials written by historians, social scientists and archaeologists.
Just because a particular community or surname doesn't appear in the genealogical
periodicals or publications doesn't mean it has never been studied. For
instance, use your public library skills to search online periodical indices
or other types of non-genealogy resources that are available. Town historians
and archeologists are also good resources of local history.
Finally: Retrace Your Steps
O.K. You've created a timeline for an ancestor, reexamined documents,
found new information and researched the background history. If you've
done all that, you should have a sense of when an ancestor arrived in
America. Even when I don't know exact details about some of my immigrant
ancestors, I can usually assign a span of dates for when they immigrated
based on their ethnic group and where they settled. I even know why they
came here based on their occupation. What I don't know and you might not
ever discover is the exact year they arrived. Does this mean I can't look
for records and family overseas? No. It makes it more difficult and time
consuming, but having a time frame and place helps narrow the possibilities.