Written by:Jake Fletcher
My overarching goal when I began genealogy was to learn the origins of my ancestors who immigrated to the United States. As an American, discovering that I have ancestral roots in seven European countries was an amazing journey of genealogy education, research challenges, and self-discovery.
In my own personal observations of the genealogical community, this desire to cross the pond runs high on the list of people’s agendas for their research. It suggests a desire to seek solidarity with our deep heritage, after generations of family members may have foregone the past to ground themselves in a new life.
The greatest sense of connection comes from learning about and walking in the footsteps of ancestors, whether it’s on city streets or through tiny hamlets in the countryside.
However, crossing the pond or finding ancestral origins in genealogy can be challenging. In fact, it took me several years and patience to reach my initial goal.
Through my own experience, these are five tips I would offer to anyone seeking to trace immigrant ancestors:
1. Research the Records in Your Ancestor’s Adopted Home First
Much as genealogy lives by it’s golden principle of working from the known to the unknown, this applies directly to the methodology of immigrant research.
Exhaust all known sources in the country they emigrated to before researching overseas. The main reason is because we are more likely to correctly identify our ancestor in their native country if we have clues as to their exact locale or origin from other records.
Vital records, naturalization papers, passenger lists, obituaries, military records, and oral/written traditions within your own family are just a handful of go-to genealogical sources for tracing immigrant ancestors.
Reconstructing their life through records from their adopted homeland is a vital first step.
2. Utilize the FAN Principle
FAN is an acronym coined by genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, which stands for “Friends, Associates, and Neighbors.” The F can also be substituted for family.
Researching collateral lines and the network of your ancestor can break down a lot of brick walls. In immigrant research, The FAN Principle reflects the larger phenomenon of chain migration. A community or sections of it would often migrate together, settling in the same geographic locale.
If you find your ancestor in census records or city directories, examine the makeup of the neighborhood. These neighbors may have arrived from the same city or town as your ancestor, therefore their records can offer vital clues in your family history research.
3. The Myth About Ellis Island
Any notion that immigration officials in Ellis Island or other ports changed the names of our ancestors shouldn’t be regarded as historical fact. Passenger manifests in the United States were filed at the port of embarkation, not the port of arrival.
Immigrants took it upon themselves to alter or anglicize ancestral surnames. My great-grandfather, for example, known to his family as Henry Anderson, arrived in 1905 at Boston, Massachusetts from Malmo, Sweden under his birth name Henning Isaakson.
When researching passenger manifests, examine all the information they provide and check other people arriving on the same ship. They could be family members or neighbors that emigrated with them, providing more evidence to prove or disprove the person in question is your ancestor.
4. Examine Social Patterns and History in their Ethnic Community
The process of transition into life in a new country or assimilation, is a difficult step for any immigrant to take in their journey. This factor propelled the massive demographic shift in cities and towns to hold ethnic neighborhoods, because immigrants looked to each other as a resource.
I’d recommend when researching your immigrant ancestor to examine the history of their adopted community. Take note of any churches, social clubs, and institutions that served as a resource for that immigrant group.
Chances are there may be more records for you to uncover, but it also helps deepen your own understanding of their immigrant experience.
5. How to Utilize Genetic Genealogy
The field of genetic genealogy has advanced rapidly over the past few years. DNA test kits from Ancestry.com and 23&Me analyze and report to customers how much of their DNA is attributed to various populations throughout the world, offering a breakdown of their “ethnic origins.”
DNA is an excellent tool for genealogical research. When assessed correctly and when the limitations of it’s reliability are understood, it is solid empirical data.
But the fact is, DNA is a tool. it should not substitute other parts of your research. Unless you find a cousin through DNA testing who shares immaculately documented research with you, DNA testing should be used in conjunction with the paper trail.
Tracing immigrant ancestors has its challenges, but also has its rewards. Understanding and recognizing your immigrant origins leads to a greater sense of yourself.
Using these strategies, along with others, will help you to cross the pond. Underscoring all of these tips is the necessity for continuing your genealogy education.
There are many educational offerings and resources that expand on these strategies and also help you to familiarize yourself with the records in your immigrant’s country of origin.
Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).