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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   Immigrant Ancestors

 

Discovering Your Immigrant Ancestors


All Americans, except those descended only from Native American forebears, have immigrant ancestors. These ancestors link us to another country and culture. The founders of our families in America, and in some case the ancestors from whom we receive our surnames as well, are often our most elusive forebears. And yet it is natural to be very curious about them. We want to know who they were. When and where were they born? Where did they live in the "Old World"? When did they come to America? Whom did they marry? When and where did they die?

In addition to this basic genealogical data, we are eager to discover the circumstances surrounding their immigration. Were they fleeing war or persecution? Were they running from starvation? Did they come as slaves or indentured servants? Were they attracted to the New World by a sense of adventure or the alluring promotions of railroad and land companies offering land and promising instant prosperity?

Whatever motivated them, Europeans, Asians, and Africans came to America in astonishing numbers, beginning with early 17th century Spanish and English settlements in Florida and Virginia and culminating in the massive flood of people from eastern Europe in the decades around 1900. Altogether some fifty million people immigrated to America. The peak year, exactly three hundred years after the settlement at Jamestown, was 1907, when the nation accepted 1,285,349 new inhabitants. The genealogist's task is to identify among this great flood of people the handful or several hundred (of 17th century) individuals and couples who began our own particular family lines.

The search for immigrant ancestors will employ many of the methods and sources that have proved helpful in tracing other generations. Like the native-born American, the immigrant leaves behind a trail of documents through which his personal history can be traced. As is the case with American-born ancestors, part or all of the trail may sometimes been destroyed. But what is distinctive about the immigrant is that his history begins outside the United States. To discover much about his early life, you may have to learn a foreign language and become familiar with local records in the country where your family originated.

Information about our immigrant ancestors was often recorded while they were in transit from the Old World to the New. You may be able to find information in the ship's records on which they took passage to America, in data recorded by customs officials as they entered the country, or in naturalization records. It also worth looking out for some more unusual sources, such as a published list of indentured servants or a missing persons column in a foreign-language newspaper.

Following the basic method of all genealogical inquiry, the search for your immigrant ancestors starts from the known and proceeds to the unknown. You need to be sure that your earliest known ancestor in any given line was indeed an immigrant, not the son, grandson, or great-grandson of an earlier settler. You also should aim to exhaust all family and American sources before consulting foreign records, because, even if you have the exact place of origin (county or province, and country), using foreign records can be immensely frustrating.


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