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The Immigrant Fascination, Part Six: Success in Spite of Record Loss

To begin research in Europe, genealogists must first pinpoint a family's specific place of origin. However, despite our best efforts to identify foreign birthplaces, sometimes that information is just not available in the United States.


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Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Nathan Murphy
Word Count: 595 (approx.)
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To begin research in Europe, genealogists must first pinpoint a family's specific place of origin. However, despite our best efforts to identify immigrant ancestors' foreign birthplaces, sometimes that information is just not available in the United States. This is the unfortunate truth and most genealogists never overcome this research obstacle. This article will discuss some strategies used by professional genealogists that will demonstrate how to overcome some of these difficulties and successfully trace immigrant origins in spite of record loss.


The first research tip is to discover more about the immigrants' neighbors and relatives in America. We may not be able to pinpoint birthplaces for our direct ancestors; however, by tracing collateral lines such as siblings or neighbors, following their tracks may lead us back to the same place in Europe where our ancestors originated. Identifying families that made multiple moves together in America will often help detect this pattern.

Geographic Factors

A mind-boggling amount of spatial and temporal factors come into play when discussing immigration. Only a few specific instances will be cited here. For example, in the colonial period, determining that immigrants settled in New England rather than Virginia has huge consequences. Historians combined with genealogists have long recognized that the majority of early Puritans originated in the region of England known as East Anglia. For Virginians, the majority of seventeenth-century colonists are believed to have come from within 60 miles of either Bristol or London, the ports they used to emigrate.

Likewise, early Germans in colonial America came principally from non-Catholic central and southern Germany. In the nineteenth century, economic depressions in Southern Italy led many Italians to emigrate to the United States. As for Irishmen, discovering that they followed the Presbyterian faith in America means that they were from what is now Northern Ireland, and were really Scottish. If Irish immigrants continued as Catholic in America, they probably came from what is now the Republic of Eire. Genealogists need to turn to history books to understand how these factors may have affected different ancestors.

Surname Sources

After using these factors to narrow the parameters, searches can begin in European countries. Not everyone fell into the patterns I've described above, but if a majority did, then it is highly probable that ancestors can be found amongst these groups. Many surname sources exist, such as current telephone books, military lists, taxation records, and sporadic censuses. We will need to learn which of these sourcesthat differ from country to country as well as over timecan help us reach our specific objectives. This is a backdoor approach to pinpointing parishes of origin, which will ultimately open up the details of our immigrant origins.

Some of us may spend most of our lives attempting to trace the origins of just a few of our immigrant ancestors. To those who put forth this tremendous amount of effort, I salute you. You are of great benefit to your families. In the future, hopefully with all the advancing technologies, this rewarding albeit prolonged process can continue to become easier and we can more quickly connect with our lost relatives throughout the world.

Read More About It

Gary T. Horlacher, "18th Century German Emigration Research," Internet, available at:

Nathan W. Murphy, "Origins of Colonial Chesapeake Indentured Servants: American and English Sources," in National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Mar 2005.

Other Articles in This Series

The Immigrant Fascination, Part One - The Experience

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Two - Departure

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Three - Ocean Passage

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Four - Arrival

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Five - Citizenship

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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