we look at some general ways to determine where your
mid-nineteenth-century immigrant was originally from and when he
immigrated. These suggestions are meant to get the researcher started
on their journey. Not every immigrant can be located, and some are
easier to locate than others. As someone whose children have over
twenty separate nineteenth-century immigrants from seven European
countries, I can say that it can be done, but it is not always a simple
Complete Your Census Work
upon how long your ancestor lived, there are potentially several census
records that might provide some clues as to the year of his
immigration. Your ancestor might not have provided the same year of
immigration in every enumeration and, if he immigrated as a child,
might not have even remembered the year. Despite the potential for
error, census records should be searched for clues as to immigrant
origins. The following United States decennial census records ask the
following information related to immigration.
foreign born, whether naturalized or alien
naturalized, year of naturalization
foreign born male over 21, citizenship status
of years in the US
Census Clues Beyond Citizenship
extant federal and state census record for your immigrant ancestor
should be referenced, even ones before 1900 that do not provide
specific immigration information. These earlier censuses may help to
pinpoint years of immigration based upon the approximate year of
marriage, places of birth for children, and other residential
information contained in the census.
Who Are They Living With?
close attention to the first U.S. census enumeration for your ancestor.
If he is living in his own household, are there boarders living with
him? Could these boarders be relatives? If your ancestor is not in his
own household in this first census, is she living as a boarder with
relatives? Foche Goldenstein is enumerated as a boarder in Adams
County, Illinois, while living with his aunt and uncle. The census does
not indicate he is a nephew. I have seen numerous enumerations where a
relative is living as a boarder with a family and the relationship is
not stated. Unless it is blatantly clear your ancestor is running a
boarding house, consider researching the boarders in case they are
extended family members or former neighbors.
Who Are Their Neighbors?
the first few decades after immigration, many immigrants can be found
living in an ethnic neighborhood. That neighborhood may be as small as
a few city blocks or as large as an entire township. Immigrants to
urban and rural areas were not likely to initially settle where there
was no one from their homeland, particularly if they did not speak
English. My wife's non-English speaking urban forebears virtually
always settled near others from the same area of Europe, whether they
were Swedish, Belgian, German, or Swiss. My immigrants to rural areas
also settled where there were others from the same area. Neighbors, and
the neighborhood in general, should always be considered important
Clues Beyond the Census
are additional records and sources in the area where your ancestor
settled that may provide clues as to his origin and his date of
From Whom Did They Buy Property?
your ancestor purchased a farm upon his arrival in the United States,
from whom was it purchased? Was the property bought from someone your
ancestors knew in the old country? Several of my Ostfriesen ancestors
purchased their first farm in the United States from a fellow
Ostfriesen who had been in the United States for a few years longer
than my ancestor. This practice does not apply just to immigrants. My
Maryland-born ancestor purchased his first farm in Illinois in 1847
from a first cousin who was born in Ohio and had migrated to that same
Illinois county a few years earlier than my ancestor.
Who Witnessed Documents?
any of your immigrant ancestor's legal papers drawn up in the first few
years after his arrival? If so, look at the names of the witnesses. Do
they appear to be members of the same ethnic group as your ancestor?
Perhaps the witness was someone your family member had known for a
significant amount of time, even before his arrival in the United
States. Is there a chance that the witness was a member of the same
ethnic group as your ancestor who spoke better English and could
communicate easier? Is it possible that your immigrant forebear took
his American neighbor (also an immigrant who spoke your
dialect) with him to witness some documents because the neighbor had
lived in the United States longer, knew the â€œAmerican
ways,â€ and knew
English a little better than your ancestor? (Your ancestor's wife might
even have said "take the neighbor with you before you sign any papers,
he knows what he's doing . . .")
Look for an Obituary
ancestor's obituary may very easily contain information about his
immigration. While obituaries can easily contain errors, this source
should never be overlooked. If the ancestor immigrated with a spouse
and children, their obituaries should also be located for information
about their immigration as it would also apply to your ancestor.
Look for a Biography
biography of your ancestor in a county history may provide information
about his origins in the old country. Biographies of all his children
should also be referenced as should similar material for his
sons-in-law. Biographies of your ancestor's sons-in-law could easily
contain information on their wife's families, which would be your
Look for a Naturalization Record
immigrants who naturalized before the immigration reform of 1906
usually do not leave detailed naturalization papers. Most of these
records will only indicate the new citizen renounces his allegiance to
his former king or queen. However these documents should still be
accessed for the clues they may contain. Who served as a witness for
your ancestor's naturalization? It might have been someone your
ancestor met after arriving in the States, or it could have been a
relative or a person your ancestor knew in the homeland.
ancestor's naturalization cannot be located, determine if he applied
for a homestead. I could not locate the naturalization of my forebear
Foche Goldenstein who came to Adams County, Illinois, in the 1870s and
married there in 1881. A copy of his naturalization was contained in
his homestead application papers. His naturalization took place in
Galesburg, Knox County, Illinois. This was quite a distance from Adams
County, Illinois, in the 1870s before the modern highway system. Foche
was likely naturalized in that county because his uncle Jurgen Ehmen
served as a reference for him, and Jurgen was a resident of Knox
your ancestor's death certificate provide his place of birth? Many
times genealogists are disappointed when they realize the record only
indicates their ancestor was born in Germany or Ireland. Both locations
are relatively unspecific and inadequate to search for specific
records. If any of the immigrant ancestor's children died in a time
when the parents' places of birth were recorded, obtain those
documents. They may contain the information you are seeking.
record of your ancestor's death in her church records may indicate the
village where she was born. The county clerk may have simply noted that
her place of birth was Ireland, but the parish priest (an Irishman
himself) may have been more likely to specifically list the parish
where she was born. If your ancestor was a member of a denomination
that practiced infant baptism, pay close attention to the names of the
sponsors. They may be relatives of your immigrant ancestor.
Summing It Up
the genealogist is looking for a record on their ancestor that provides
their point of origin in Europe or the old country. Failing that, you
are looking for an associate of your ancestor in the United States who
was also an associate of your ancestor in the homeland.
Where's the Boat?
a future column, we will discuss working on locating the name of the
boat your ancestor arrived on and where that boat landed. For most of
us our initial work on our immigrant ancestor should concentrate on the
area where he settled in the United States. Once our work there has
been completed, we can begin our trek across the ocean.
John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of
Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also
on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael
is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the
editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society
Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of
genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several
genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical
Computing. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or
visit his website at www.rootdig.com,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.