How To Trace Your Family Tree

3 Strategies to Find Your Ancestor’s Previous Location

Where did my ancestor come from?

This is one of the most common questions I am asked as a genealogist.  Let me put this in a little more context.

3 Strategies to Find Your Ancestor's Previous Location

You have been researching your family’s genealogy.  You know a quite a lot about the family and where they lived in Tennessee. The records indicate your first ancestor appearing in Tennessee migrated from North Carolina.

Your next research question?  Where in North Carolina did the family originate?

Initially, the tendency is to start looking for you ancestor in North Carolina. But North Carolina is a big place with many counties. (Modern North Carolina is made up of 100 counties.) Where in North Carolina should you start your search?  The answer to the question may very well be in Tennessee records.  If the actual answer is not found, clues to where in North Carolina can be found.

Genealogy Strategies to find Find Your Ancestor’s Previous Location

(Continuing with our example above)

1. The census records

Check all of the census records back through 1850.  The place of birth for your ancestor will be listed. Sometimes, more detail is provided beyond “North Carolina”.  Look at your ancestor’s spouse and children?  Where were they born? For those census years where the birthplace of your ancestor’s parents, this is another place to look for information.  If you do not find your ancestor, search the  federal census for North Carolina for the parents.  For example, if you find your ancestor’s parents in Wake County, that would be a good place to start searching for your ancestor.

2. Your ancestor’s neighbors

Your ancestor most likely did not migrate to Tennessee alone. Family and friends often moved together. Sometimes church congregations went together.  Look closely at the people your ancestor associated with in Tennessee.  Is the neighbor’s  previous location(s) known? If, for example,  your ancestor’s neighbors migrated from Chatham County, North Carolina, that would be a good place to start searching for your ancestor.

3. The Local History of Where Your Ancestor Currently Lives

Do you know the history of your ancestor’s current location?  Research the area’s history through local heritage books, local history books and/or the local historical society.  A knowledge of how the county was settled and common migration paths into the county will also provide clues to a possible previous location for your ancestor.

Now it’s your turn!  What strategies have helped you locate your ancestors’ previous location?


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  • MarcineL

    I found out where my U.S. ancestors came from by looking at the Lutheran church records of the local church they attended. My oldest ancestor’s brother’s death record included a notation of where he was born (in Germany). None of the other siblings had any indication of their birthplace except for the one brother. From there I was able to write to the Lutheran Church in the small town they were from in Germany and find info on all the siblings along with a few who stayed behind. Church records have been extremely helpful to me.

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