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Crossing The Water To Find Ancestors: Beginning The Process

Part one of three part series. Tracing a family back several generations in this country is challenging, but the greatest genealogical detective story of all is the search for the lineage of immigrant ancestors in their country of origin.


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Tracing a family back several generations in this country is challenging, but the greatest genealogical detective story of all is the search for the lineage of immigrant ancestors in their country of origin. If a researcher can learn an ancestor's approximate date of migration and connect him or her to a town or parish overseas, there's a good chance that researcher will be able to "cross the water" and begin tracing an ancestor in his or her homeland.

Those who have the time and resources can travel to other countries to search for records in churches, public offices and libraries, just as is done in this country. If any people living in a town bear the family name, a genealogist may be able to establish their relationship to his or her family. Often these people can provide information and/or family documents. And before returning home the researcher may be able to enlist their help.

Those who can't make a trip abroad can continue their work by mail and E-mail and in published sources here and accomplish a great deal by also eliciting the assistance of a professional researcher living in the ancestor's native country. Even if a researcher does plan to go abroad, it's a good idea to work by mail or E-mail ahead of time, gathering as much information and establishing as many contacts as possible before departure.

The process of tracing a family's heritage in another country is the same as it is here, but the sources vary somewhat from country to country. If a genealogist traces English ancestors to a certain parish, he or she can contact the rector for records of baptisms, marriages and burials. In France, it's important to identify the town in which ancestors lived, so that a letter can be sent to the hotel de ville or town hall for information. In German and Austrian towns researchers write to the standesamt.

The more recent an ancestor's immigration, the more likely it is that information can be found in his or her birthplace. The more stable the country—and the fewer natural or man-made disasters that have occurred—the more likely it is that records will have survived.

England is unique among foreign countries. Even though it's an ancient land, it hasn't been invaded since the Norman Conquest in 1066. But it has been attacked, and some records were destroyed as a consequence. During the bombing of Exeter in World War II, for example, all the wills of the southwest part of the England, which had been deposited at Devon, were lost. On the whole, however, there are numerous types of genealogically valuable records dating almost back to the Conquest.

In some European countries repeated invasions have destroyed a great many records, and in areas such as Latin America, where governments have been subject to frequent revolution and the climate is destructive, research is often difficult.

A tradition of education is a positive influence on record-keeping and family history. In England and Wales there has been central registration of births, marriages and deaths since 1837 and in Ireland and Scotland since 1855. Holland, India, Norway and Germany all have well-preserved archives and abundant genealogical material. But before Germany became a united country in 1848 it consisted of numerous little duchies and principalities, and unless a researcher knows the exact area from which an ancestor emigrated, tracing him or her can be difficult.

There are also excellent genealogical documents in some former British and European colonies and dependencies because preserving proof of their family history and evidence of their origins was a concern of many settlers.

During Communist rule, the prospects for genealogical research in Russia and Eastern European countries were quite dim, but today, the accessibility of records is much greater.

If a genealogist's ancestors came from a small, poorly developed country, he or she may not be able to find any records at all. In some places valuable genealogical information survives but has never been assembled in a central location. A researcher may have to do original research using records that haven't been studied for a century.

Some countries are "virgin territory" for genealogists. In places with high illiteracy rates, people are often reluctant to cooperate with record-keepers. No census has ever been taken in some countries, and in others whole classes of people have been ignored because of prejudice.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

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

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