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From the Ancestry Daily News

  Michael John Neill -- 2/17/2005

Mid-nineteenth-Century Immigrants--Michael's other immigration articles

This week 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 task.

Complete Your Census Work
Depending 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.

  • 1930
    Year of Immigration
  • 1920
    Year of Immigration
    If foreign born, whether naturalized or alien
    If naturalized, year of naturalization
  • 1910
    Year of Immigration
    If foreign born male over 21, citizenship status
  • 1900
    Year of Immigration
    Number of years in the US

Census Clues Beyond Citizenship
Every 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?
Pay 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?
In 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.

Clues Beyond the Census
There are additional records and sources in the area where your ancestor settled that may provide clues as to his origin and his date of immigration.

From Whom Did They Buy Property?
If 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?
Were 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 ancestor‘s dialect) with him to witness some documents because the neighbor had lived in the United States longer, knew the “American ways,” 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
Your 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
A 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 ancestor's family.

Look for a Naturalization Record
Those 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.

If your 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 County.

Vital Records
Does 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.

Church Records
The 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
Basically 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?
In 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.

Michael 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 or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Michael's Other Genealogy Articles