click to view original photo

Origins of Your Immigrant Ancestor

When researching your family tree, in many cases, you will eventually reach an immigrant ancestor.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1014 (approx.)
Short URL:

When researching your family tree, in many cases, you will eventually reach an immigrant ancestor. There may be stories within your family as to your country of origin. Just remember to take all family stories with a grain of salt. In all probability, there will be some truth to a family story, but since it has come down several generations, the details may be off -- sometimes slightly, sometimes a lot. As a rule, the country of origin will more than likely be correct, although many people know only they are from Great Britain. Over the years, the countries of England, Scotland and Ireland may have been interchanged in your family lore.

What do you do when you are ready to go abroad in your search? The first step is go back to the basics of asking family members about information. It is surprising what may surface when you go back and talk to your great aunt or uncle. As you are asking different questions, you may well trigger different remembrances.

This article focuses on research in Great Britain, specifically England. Hopefully, your family will be able to name a district or area of origination. For instance, one side of my family came from Cornwall, England in the 1890s. This was passed down from each generation, and the search was narrowed more by knowing that St. Ives was the nearest city. Unfortunately, on my Smallwood side, all we knew is that the family came over in the 1600s from England and came to Maryland. This presented an entirely different set of problems in searching for the origin of the immigrant ancestor.

Obviously, you can begin your search by looking through passenger lists. Some of these records may be located at Many more may be found on The United States kept relatively complete records for immigrants landing after 1820. If you are fortunate to find your ancestor on one of these lists, you may well find the departure point.

It is a good idea to use the LDS Family History Library to find out all the information that you can on your British ancestor. There may be a library near you, or you may access the material at Using the LDS Family History Library put down the foundation you need to search for your ancestor.

In England, all births, deaths and baptisms were supposed to be recorded from 1837 on. However, this did not always happen. Many people were suspicious of the government's intrusion into their private lives and did not report life events in the early years. Also, some people lived a great distance from a registry center, so a birth, marriage or death may not have been reported simply because of transportation difficulties. In order to use these records, it is necessary for you to know your ancestor's name. If you locate your ancestor, it will help pinpoint a specific locale in which to begin your investigation.

When you have a more recent immigrant, one that has come to the United States since 1801, you can begin your search using the census returns. The census has been taken every ten years since 1801. You can check for the census records. It is also helpful to check the for census returns. This is a free genealogy web site that will give you many options to keep looking for your ancestors.

If you know the area in England, you can look there in the census records, or you can look more inclusively. The LDS Church web site,, contains many of the English census records. Many of the census records are also available on CD-ROM and microfiche. Once again, check with your local library to see what is available.

The best advice for the genealogist is that once you have a general idea of an area to search, you need to get a map or gazetteer and familiarize yourself with the area. It is a good idea to get a large scale map in the beginning. Once you have isolated an area of concentration, you can get district or county maps for more detailed information. You can get these maps either off the internet or through more traditional channels, such as writing family history societies or government offices. Remember that district and county lines changed over the years. You may need to consult a historical atlas as you get more information through your research.

Once you know a general area, you can keep checking the census records back every ten years. You will be surprised at the information that may surface. For instance, in the 1851 Census, birthplaces are listed. This listing may well lead you into another district or parish.

The next step after the census records is to check the parish registers for your area. Almost all births, marriages and deaths were recorded in individual parish records, particularly before 1837. You may be fortunate and find your ancestors in an area that has records back to the 1500s. Be sure to check the church and parish records in order to be sure that you have searched everywhere.

Wills may be checked in England through the Prerogative Courts – one in Canterbury and one in York. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury served the south of England while the one in York served northern England. Most of the people listed in these courts were wealthy men and women, usually widows. The wills are on microfilm, and many of them may be indexed at The people listed may have lived in England or abroad. People who were not considered wealthy had their wills proven in the Church of England until 1858. At that time, district registry offices began to prove the wills. Once again, if you already know the area, it may be helpful to look under the districts or counties for information.

The suggestions listed here assume that your immigrant ancestor has come to the United States in the last two hundred fifty years. By following these guidelines, you have a good chance of finding your family and its point of origin in England.

Source Information: GenWeekly, 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.

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

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles