3 Steps To Finding A European Ancestor’s Town Of Birth

May 27
Family with tree roots

For many genealogical researchers, one of the most fascinating streams of research takes you back to your family’s country of origin. Whether your family came to North America four hundred years ago from England or emigrated from a small town in coastal Italy in the early 20th century, venturing across the sea and across time can help you connect with that ancestor’s life. While we’re lucky to have excellent genealogical resources in the United States, conducting research overseas is more complex. From missing details to language barriers to simply not knowing where to begin, international research can throw up unexpected barriers. The first step in many cases is identifying the birth place of your ancestor, which can be more complicated than you expect. Here are three strategies to help you get started.

  1. Build a strong profile of the immigrant ancestor

Your strongest weapon in your effort to find your ancestor in their country of origin is to collect as much information as you can about them before you take your search abroad. It’s important to mine all the information at your disposal from familiar, US sources to help you understand who that ancestor was. The more distinguishing information that you have access to, the better you’ll be able to identify records about your ancestor when you find them. You’ll be shocked how many John Williams’ entered the US in the 19th century from Canada or how many Maria Minettis came through New York in the same time period. Assume that you’ll need whatever information you can find. The most helpful details include:

  • The person’s full name, including first and middle names;
  • Maiden name, if applicable;
  • Date of birth;
  • Other important dates, such as christening or baptism, marriage or date of immigration;
  • Place of birth as specifically as you can find it – sometimes you’ll find a mention of a province or general region, if not a town or city;
  • List of names of close relatives, especially spouse, children, parents, and siblings. However, extended family and even neighbors can be helpful due to the fact that people often migrated in clusters;
  • Other identifying or distinguishing information, such as occupation, religion, previous military service, organizations in which they held membership, or schooling.

While you may not be able to formulate a full picture, the more details you have on hand from the list above the better position you’ll be in to obtain records in the country of origin

2.     Ensure you’ve checked all the relevant sources

If your ancestor is truly a mystery to you at this point, your head may be spinning at the thought of where to begin your search. After all, if you don’t have a birth certificate or birth record, the thought of locating a place of birth can be overwhelming. In many cases, it’s simply a factor of knowing where to look. If you haven’t started, use the list below as a reference point and should your search already be underway, the following list may provide a useful starting point for other ideas:

  • Consult the person’s death records, including death certificate and other reports for mention of a birth place and birth date;
  • Obituaries in local newspapers, and especially those published in ethnic community publications, may include more detailed information about place of birth;
  • Marriage records, especially if the ceremony was confirmed in the US, may contain the person’s place of birth and parents’ names;
  • US census records for throughout their lives may give insights into country of origin as well as other details like place of residence, age and occupation;
  • Immigration records, including those from point of entry and the ship’s register often include helpful hints;
  • Military records, fraternal order records, and other organizations may record personal details;
  • Family bibles, legends, autobiographies and the memories of older relatives can give important insights;
  • Church baptismal records of the person’s children may have more details about point of origin;
  • Published genealogies and local histories may include more detailed information.
  • Departure records such as Hamburg passenger lists.

Always consider these details a starting point and verify and document as much as you’re able to on your own.

3.     Work to verify the information at the point of origin

Once you’ve collected as much information as you can and leveraged US sources fully, it’s time to start searching foreign collections. Just a general note: Tracking down birth places can be tricky for several reasons. The first is that if you find reference to a location, it’s important not to assume that the town was where your ancestor was born. He or she may have emigrated within the country or to other countries prior to coming to North America. The second is that, particularly if the town listed is a major city, it may simply be the largest regional reference point. It’s similar to someone saying that they are from Boston or San Francisco, but actually living a short drive away in a nearby town. Finally, place names have changed and some local residents use shorthand to describe a specific area. For example, an ancestor in England might use a term for a village that’s subsequently been incorporated into a larger town. That’s why this kind of search often requires patience, ingenuity, and a bit of sleuthing.

Once you’ve identified the information, you’re ready to take your search overseas. You can begin by consulting any sort of national index or census; contacting a regional genealogical or historical society; or reaching out to the town hall or city government to find out about historical records.

If you need assistance solving a complex genealogical issue related to immigration or another topic altogether, contact us at Price & Associates today to arrange for a conversation to explore how a professional genealogist can help.  We have research associates who specialized in various global locations ready to help find your immigrant roots.