Useful Sources for Tracing the Origins of US Midwest Immigrants
by Nathan W. Murphy, MA, AG®
In the mid-19th century the Midwest became a popular destination for US immigrants. The Great Lakes area encompassing Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and up and down the Mississippi River, including Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa attracted recent arrivals from all over the world. Families from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Poland, Hungary, and other various locations dot the US Censuses in this region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Nordic families remarked that places like Minnesota with its 10,000 lakes nostalgically reminded them of their former residences in Scandinavia. Places such as New York City and New Orleans witnessed the scene of hundreds of thousands of immigrants passing through their ports on their voyage to a new land. In the pre-railroad days, waterways such as the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers provided easy access into the interior of the United States. The problem confronting genealogists is now to trace ancestors’ steps back in time to the place of birth in order to continue extending the pedigree. Your ancestor may appear in a variety of US sources, the most important of which will be discussed in this article. Since the author is most acquainted with research in Minnesota, its sources will serve as a case study, although similar strategies can be applied to each Midwestern State.
The first and most easily accessible source to check is the census. Census data acts as a snapshot of a person’s household for a specific year. In the Midwest, in addition to federal censuses taken every 10 years (1860, 1870, 1880), state government often took their own censuses in differing years (1865, 1875, 1885). Censuses can provide valuable clues such as a person’s birth month and year, year of immigration, number of years in the current residence, year of marriage, country of birth, and indication of whether or not a person became a naturalized US citizen. Based upon the information found here, researchers will have leads to follow in a variety of sources.
Records generated at the time of an ancestor’s death often reveal birthplaces in foreign lands. Sadly, many immigrant ancestors died atrocious deaths, being assigned the most dangerous jobs in factories, etc. after their arrival; however, on the positive side locals often sympathetically wrote detailed accounts of immigrants’ lives that died tragically. Newspaper obituaries, religious burial records, sexton registers, and death certificates should all be scrutinized. The Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul has gathered all extant newspapers for its state. For many localities, newspapers date back as early as the Civil War period. They can be ordered through interlibrary loan. Obituaries in newspapers in this region became popular in the late-19th century and often contain short biographies on the deceased. To find out if the Minnesota Historical Society has copies of newspapers that can help your research, visit The Ask Ron Newspaper Database at http://collections.mnhs.org/newspapers/arsearch.html.
Many of the countries where Midwest immigrants originated maintained state religions. Lutheranism prevailed in Scandinavia and was also very popular in Germany. Others practiced Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Search for church registers of the same religions in the town or county where ancestors settled in the US. Also, be aware that ancestors may have adopted new religious practices to assimilate into a new culture. Marriages and burials often disclose individual’s towns of origin. Always investigate civil marriage records. Some of these records have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library. If documents have not been reproduced, inquiries to courthouses and old churches in the area can produce tremendous results.
By the end of WW1, every state in the Midwest had begun requiring death certificates to be generated for deceased persons. Of particular significance, clerks asked informants where the defunct person was born. Death certificates may only identify a native country; however, they should never be overlooked. The Minnesota Death Certificates index covers 1906-1996 and can be searched at http://people.mnhs.org/dci/Search.cfm.
Based upon the information supplied by US censuses, many researchers will discover when an ancestor immigrated to the US and whether or not he or she became naturalized. Many passenger lists have been indexed, such as Germans to America, Russians to America, Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, New York Passenger Lists, 1851-1891 (indexed at www.ancestry.com) and Ellis Island at www.ellisisland.org. Passenger lists often reveal an immigrant’s place of birth. If they do not, remember to determine which European port the ship disembarked from, as out-going passenger lists, which could disclose an immigrant’s birthplace, may exist in Europe. If an ancestor became a naturalized US citizen, the paperwork created during this process could provide leads to ancestral origins. For an index to Minnesota naturalization records from 1854 to 1957, visit the Iron Range Research Center’s Web site at http://www.ironrangeresearchcenter.org/genealogy/collections/naturalization/.
US military records and local histories are oft-overlooked sources for immigration studies. Many immigrants served in the Civil War. If the soldier or his widow lived long enough to obtain a pension, the soldier’s town of birth may be listed. Ancestry.com contains the following databases: Minnesota Civil War Soldiers and the Civil War Pension Index Database available by subscription to facilitate finding your ancestor in these records. Additionally, requests to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. can be made to find out if your ancestor enlisted.
Local town and county histories may contain biographies on progenitors. A good collection of local histories is available at the HeritageQuest Web site at www.heritagequestonline.com. This subscription Web site is available at many public libraries.
Record indexing projects, such as those described in this article for Minnesota, are greatly facilitating the process of identifying immigrants’ origins. Genealogists can quickly check a variety of sources to find ancestral birthplaces. Always remember to check for variant name spellings as American clerics often phonetically wrote down what they heard a foreigner say. Finding an immigrant ancestor’s hometown is a crucial first step to connecting US families with their European cousins.
Special thanks to BYU Professors Gerald Haslam and Roger Minert and Family History Library Director Raymond S. Wright III for tips on tracing immigrant origins.
Originally published by GenWeekly. Republished by permission.