With the exception of the American Indians, all of our ancestors have come to the
Americas in the past 500 years. Tracing the voyage and finding the place our ancestors
once called home can be daunting. Often we consider ourselves lucky to know the
country of origin, but have no idea how to pinpoint the town or village. It's a
common temptation to first search immigration records for information on the town of
origin. However, depending on the time period, a thorough search of all other U.S.
sources will more likely result in success.
No record in the home country should be searched until all U.S. sources have been exhausted. Passenger lists and naturalization papers are excellent sources, but until the last part of the 19th century the town of origin was rarely mentioned. Clues may be hiding in family sources and previous research. Secondary sources such as family traditions, histories, biographies, and genealogies might provide key information. Libraries and historical societies located where your ancestor settled might have biographies and histories of early pioneers. These books can be extremely helpful in determining the origin of immigrant groups that settled there. Probate, court, census, land, vital and church records may provide additional information on immigrant origin.
Knowledge of history, immigration patterns and surname origins can help narrow the search for the native town. If my ancestor came to America in 1773 from Ireland, it would be helpful to know that crop failure in Ulster drove many to the New World. That bit of information would give me a vital clue that would certainly narrow down his likely place of origin. A careful study of surname origin can also be helpful after all available records have been searched. Some surnames can be traced back to a small region. However, this would only be helpful for immigrant research in cases involving uncommon names.
It's wise to uncover all available information recorded in the United States on your ancestor before researching in the area from which they came. Knowing his traveling companions, nicknames, vital dates, and other facts learned from U.S. sources wilL make it easier to identify him on the other side of the ocean. It's just good research methodology. I can hear the common genealogy phrase in the back of my mind: "Go from the known to the unknown, moving back in time from the present to the past." The more you know about your ancestor before you begin researching in his native country, the easier it will be to identify him when you get there.