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Once upon a time during my college years…..I was studying abroad. I was in London to be exact. Before I left for the summer, my father made one request of me while I was there. He wanted me to see if I could find out anything about our Talbott family history and English ancestors.
So, off I went to the National Archives office in London to see what I could find out. At least, I think that was where I went. This was well before my genealogy days! I was ushered into a beautifully ornate office where I met with a cordial older gentleman. I explained what I already knew about our family – little that it was – and what I was searching for. He looked over his glasses and in simplistic tones (and a wonderful English accent!) asked who my immigrating ancestor was.
Uh oh. I had no idea who our immigrating ancestor was. He politely informed me until I knew this information, I was looking on the wrong side of the ocean.
I felt rather small as I left the building. This was my first brush with genealogy research and it was a humbling experience!
I had no idea years later (never mind how many!) how much I would come to understand and love genealogy research.
Where Did Our Immigrant Ancestors Come From?
Despite feeling a bit foolish and embarrassed during that encounter, the archivist made a very important point. Without this piece of information, we cannot narrow our search down enough to be successful.
We cannot research our immigrant ancestors abroad unless we know who the immigrating ancestor is.
This is a basic principle in genealogy research: Do not skip a generation. We must identify the generations here in America including our immigrating ancestor first. We must research him or her so completely here (in America) that we would recognize them if they showed up at our front door.
Within our American ancestors’ records we can find clues and answers to our questions about their lives prior to coming to America.
With today’s genealogy research, DNA can certainly help narrow our searches down, but DNA is not a substitute for our ancestors’ paper trails. DNA is not enough to allow us to skip the steps involved in researching our immigrant ancestor. DNA testing and paper genealogy research must go hand in hand.
What types of records can you use to learn more about your immigrating ancestor?
Census Records – This may seem a bit obvious, but don’t forget to look here for where your ancestor and/or his parents were born. Check all applicable census records. Include the years your immigrant ancestor would have appeared in the census records. Specifically, note the columns that state where the individual was born. If you are in the later census records, note where your ancestor’s parents were born.
Take a look at this example: Israel Lisson immigrated to America in 1886. The 1900 census shows Israel was born in Russia as both of his parents.
Before you leave your ancestor’s census records, take a close look at his/her children in later census years. The 1930 census record for Israel Lisson’s adult daughter, Mary Lisson provides further clues to the location of Israel’s birth place. Her parents’ place of birth is “
Russia” with “Lithuania” written above. Remember, country boundaries changed over time due to wars and politics. The Russia Israel immigrated from was Imperialist Russia that was originally Lithuania.
Tip: Know the history including changing boundary lines of the location you suspect your ancestor originated.
The census notes that Israel had been naturalized, too. TIP: If the census records indicates an individual was naturalized, search for these records. Unfortunately, I have not found Israel’s naturalization records, but the search continues…. I recommend checking out the Immigration page on NARA’s website for more information.
Ship Passenger Lists
Since this 1900 census record states Israel Lisson came over in 1886, a search of passenger ship records should be searched. In this case, Israel’s residence is listed. Success!
When the more traditional records do not provide the answers you are seeking….
Take a close look at the community where your ancestor settled. Immigrants often settled close to others from their same community and even family members who immigrated earlier. Were you ancestors religious? Look closely at the churches or synagogues or other houses of worship where your ancestor settled.
Keeping with the example of Israel Lisson, he settled in Rochester, New York and was an active member of a synagogue there. He settled his family among other Russian Jewish immigrants. One Russian immigrant, Barnet Lisson, frequently appeared alongside Israel Lisson both in New York, NY and in Rochester, NY. A closer search into Barnet Lisson is warranted and may lead to clues about Israel Lisson.
Did you recognize that FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) principle? Yes, the FAN principle applies here as well! (Can you tell FAN is one of my favorite genealogy research strategies?)
One Last Thing
Did you ancestor change his/her name to be more “American”? Was your ancestor’s name often misspelled in the records? Our ancestor’s names can trip researchers up quite easily. Unfamiliar accents, unfamiliar pronunciations and well, just bad handwriting can lead to transcription errors preventing you from finding your ancestor in the records. Truthfully, this can potentially happen with all of our ancestors!
Here are two tips that can help you:
- Ask your family (close and distant) for known variations of the surname or if an actual name change was made.
- Use wildcard searches when searching the databases. Staying with the Lisson surname, examples of wildcard searches could be: L*sson, Lis*, or L*ss*n. A wildcard search can uncover your ancestor under a different spelling you may not have considered.
In truth, not all questions are answerable when it comes to our ancestors and their previous locations in the “old country”. Wars happened. Country boundaries and names changed. Towns and villages no longer exist. Records were lost. Unfortunately, that is the reality for some researchers. DNA testing is offering many researchers to make those connections not previously made. Paired with old fashioned paper research, your brick walls just may come down!
Have you been successful learning your immigrant ancestor’s story? Leave a comment below and share you story. We can all learn from each other’s experiences.
Resources for you to further explore:
- They Came in Ships by John Colletta
- FindMyPast – Free and Subscription based records. The FindMyPast blog is an excellent (free) resource. Check out this post!
- Information on immigration records at the National Archives.
- When the time comes for DNA testing, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger is one of my favorite resources!
Related Posts of Interests
- How To Start Researching Your Irish Immigrant Ancestor
- Successful Research With A Genealogical Records Timeline
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