Research into your immigrant ancestors should start in U.S. records. Learn which records are helpful and strategies to use them.
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

Across Oceans and Generations: Discovering Your Immigrant Ancestry

Research into your immigrant ancestors should start in U.S. records. Learn which records are helpful and strategies to use them.

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.

Old photo of a ship. Text reads Where did my Immigrant Ancestors Come From

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.

Many if not most genealogy researchers have tested their DNA through companies like AncestryDNA  or FamilyTreeDNA. 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.

Example of 1910 census record entry for Israel Lisson
1910 Census – Israel Lisson was born in Russia (Source:

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.

Example of 1930 census record entry for Mary Lisson
Israel Lisson’s birth place revealed in daughter’s 1930 census record (Source:

Naturalization Records

Unearthing a naturalization record for your ancestor can feel like striking gold in the world of genealogy. It’s a tangible link to your ancestor’s determination to forge a new life in America. Each detail within these documents paints a vivid picture of their journey, providing a deeper understanding of their struggles, aspirations, and the steps they took to embrace their new homeland.

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 on the citizenship process. You will want to note the process and requirements evolved over time.

Types of Naturalization Records

  1. Declaration of Intent (First Papers): This initial step towards naturalization involves a formal declaration of the immigrant’s intention to become a U.S. citizen. It typically includes personal details, such as name, age, place of birth, and sometimes even the immigrant’s arrival date.
  2. Petition for Naturalization (Final Papers): After a waiting period, they file a petition for full citizenship. This comprehensive document often provides a more detailed account of their life, including family information and residence history.
  3. Certificate of Naturalization: This is the final document, granting official U.S. citizenship to the immigrant. It consolidates all the information gathered during the naturalization process.

Ship Passenger Lists

Ship passenger lists are official documents created by shipping companies and immigration authorities. They detail information about the passengers on a particular voyage, including their names, ages, occupations, places of origin, and intended destinations. These lists are invaluable resources for genealogists seeking to trace their ancestors’ immigration paths.

In the previous example, the 1900 census record stated Israel Lisson came over in 1886, a search of passenger ship records should be searched. In this case, Israel’s residence is listed. Success!

Passenger list for the Amerika out of Liverpool in 1886. Entry for Israel Lisson
Ship Passenger List for Israel Lisson (Source:

Finding Ship Passenger Lists

Access to ship passenger lists has been greatly facilitated by digitization efforts. Online databases, such as , FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast and Ellis Island’s American Family Immigration History Center, offer extensive collections of digitized lists.

Newspapers of the time often published information about arriving passengers. These newspaper listings can provide additional context and sometimes include details not found in the official records. They might include passenger names, the ship’s name, and even a brief description of the voyage. This is especially true in the unfortunate case of a ship wreck. These were often documented in newspapers and included the passenger list.

Newspaper with a ship passenger list.
The San Francisco Call and Post
San Francisco, California · Wednesday, July 16, 1913 (Source:


When looking for your ancestor’s country of origin, check the obituaries in the newspapers of your ancestor and other family members. Included in the life details, often the place of birth is mentioned and/or when they arrived in America.

Newspaper obituary for Minnie C Jacobs
The Daily Item
Lynn, Massachusetts • Wed, Jul 17, 1935 (Source:

In the example above, we learn Minnie Jacobs was born in Russia and had been in the United States for 54 years (1881). She arrived with her parents, which is another important clue for tracking her in the records.

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?)

 Overcoming Name Hurdles for Your Ancestor

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:

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  • Sue

    These are great tips for immigrant ancestors alive in the U S after 1850. All of my branches on my mom’s side and half of my dad’s family were here already in the 1700s. My mom’s were all in the south and records seem to be scarce, so I haven’t been able to find an immigrant yet. My DNA strongly points to Great Britain.

  • Joan Stewart Smith

    Lisa, like you, I also had an embarrassing situation when I first started family research – only my humiliation came when I got home! As a young girl, I visited the County Kilkenny parish of my Bergin ancestors. I approached a priest, wearing a Notre Dame cap, who was mowing the church lawn. This lovely priest gave me complete access to the old church records! So, what’s the problem, you say? I should have learned more about my immigrant ancestor beforehand. When I shared my findings, kind relatives pointed out that they already knew! But if one believes everything happens for a reason, this experience had a gift in its hands. Last week, I learned from a Wisconsin church record, the maiden name of my 3G grandmother. That name sounded familiar, so I looked back at my research from that trip. I’d already had that info for 30 years! But I’d been so chagrined when I got back that I never examined my notes. The moral of the story is that even novices who don’t do homework might add to the family story!

  • Stella Eames

    Hi Lisa
    I always read your emails with interest even though I am in the UK.
    If searching for information about UK ancestors, don’t forget to contact the local Family History Society here in the UK. Membership of North West Kent FHS for example is only £10 per year. But you don’t have to be a paid-up member to take part in the conversation on our Facebook Page ‘North West Kent Family History Society Group’.

    Family history news, old photographs, NWKFHS events, interesting websites and enquiries from out of town researchers wanting local knowledge. All these and more are on the NWKFHS Group Facebook page. Several hundred people regularly look at our page and, if you are a Facebook user, please ask to join and you can ask quick questions and contribute answers, photos and interesting topical info for the benefit of other readers. You may even find yourself in contact with people who share your surname interests.

    Have you got an email address? We welcome you to subscribe (free of charge) to our twice monthly e-newsletters. They tell you about our meetings and talks; say what workshops are being held on topics of interest, and report interesting developments in the world of genealogy. You won’t be bombarded, you can unsubscribe at any time, and your email address is never sold to third parties. To receive our free e-newsletter please email Stella at
    [email protected]

    • LisaL

      Thank you for this helpful information, Stella! Having genealogy friends in the UK will be so helpful for those crossing the pond with their research.

  • Julie McCauley

    I have been searching for where my maternal side came from for over 10 years!! With these tips I am excited to try other ways to see if I can find out more. I do have one question though. I have found several spellings of the last name I am searching, they are small changes, but changes nonetheless. Can we really use the stars in place of letters and find names?
    I did find 1 record this week where a great uncle lists the family as being Scottish, I don’t have any clue at all where in Scotland, nor when they came over, but it could be a start. Thank you for these tips!!

    • LisaL

      Yes, Julie, you can use those * in place of letters to find various name spellings. It takes patience as you can get a lot of results. With practice, though you learn to narrow down the best type of wildcard searches to do.

  • Diana L Gill

    I have been patiently researching my Lithuanian ancestors for 30+ years now…I was told I needed to know the village where they came from but all relatives my mother knew were deceased except for her great uncle living several states away. I called him at one point and he had such a heavy accent that I couldn’t understand him. Then I had an idea – his Lithuanian brother in law spoke English and I found his number and called him and asked him if he could ask Willie the village where they came from. Success! He told me “Kvedariskes.” Then where to go? I wanted to know if my great grandfather and great uncle who went back to live in Lithuania ca. 1920 had any descendants there. Many years passed and last year I found a DNA relative on GEDmatch who matched on the Lithuanian side. She gave me the name and email address of a researcher in Lithuania. He helped me get back several generations with names and places. Then I had an epiphany: why not plug in ALL the Lithuanian names I had into Facebook to see if I had any matches. There was one match that had friends with two more of my surnames. I decided to private message her – lo and behold, she answered me and lives in London but her mother was in Kvedariskes. She promised to call her mother and ask about my Lithuanian surname. Two weeks went by and I had a lovely email from a 2nd cousin in Lithuania! She does not speak or write English but her daughter does. We both said we were crying. She told me she thought that the two daughters my great grandfather left behind in the U.S. had died! NO! One of them had a daughter who had four daughters and one of them is me. Long story short, while my DNA tests have sometimes revealed surprises, if it wasn’t for this technology and computer social media and emails…it may have taken me many more moons to find my relatives. I am heading to Lithuania next month for my first visit. I’m nervous and excited. Just wish my mother was still alive to share in this discovery.

  • CR Morin

    I appreciate your page with its info. The other comments are very informative for me, as well.
    Here’s one issue no one seems to solve.(others have tried)
    My mother, born 1925, is on the 1930 census. After that I am unable to find her on any census. She grew up in the same town as her birth so the census should have her listed on the 1940 census. After that there is no mention of her in my search other than land deeds, starting in 1960. Thanks for letting me Express my thoughts.
    Thanks, again, for your email information!

  • Mary-Frances

    Thank you for ‘sending’ me to this page. My wall is this – my great grandfather was born in the 1850’s in Alsase “When it was French” (the emphasis is from how he supposedly always said it!) Alsase became German in 1871. By 1872 my grandfather was here already according to his naturalization form. So he left France right before the Franco Prussian War but I can’t find him on any immigration lists. There is a possibility he came to the US via the UK or Ireland but I can’t verify that either. Dilemma is did he come directly from France, Germany, Switzerland, or the UK. And did he come alone as a young teenager. My search continues – I feel like Sherlock Holmes!!

  • Joe D. Morgan

    I have traced my mother’s family back to Edward Doty who came over on the Mayflower in 1620 as the first immigrant in her family to go to America. I haven’t located any Morgan ancestors who first came to America. Morgan is Welsh but my DNA says I’m 37% England & Germanic, 37% Scottish, some Irish, and some Swedish. I don’t know whether to trust or not but I did trace some Morgans on Ancestry, supposedly in my line back to Wales and they were Counts, Countesses, Earles, etc., but I don’t know whether I descended from any of them or not. I keep saving these records on Ancestry just in case I’m right.

    How do I know who was the first Morgan immigrant? Would he be from Scotland? Or Germanic Europe (top of France, Germany, and the Netherlands) ? I also remember my dad talking about a great grandfather Schoonover who “game over on the boat” I always thought that was German but through genealogy research, I discovered it was Dutch. I haven’t been able to find any Schoonovers on my dad’s side of the family.

    Joe D. Morgan
    Piedmont, OK

    • LisaL

      Hi, Joe,

      Connecting your Morgans to the ones you have found an Ancestry, is more a matter of working your way back generation by generation than trusting Ancestry. Research the records and confirm each generation back from yourself and go where the records show. You are correct in not trusting someone else’s tree on Ancestry.

  • JoAnn Duvall

    Thank you so much for delivery your helpful information for the years I’ve followed you.
    I’ve been Searching for 20+ years: Wall is finding birth certificate 1887-88 of my maternal grandmother, Anna Spiegelhauer( deceased). I have the ship’s manifest for my maternal great-grandmother. It shows she lived in Wurtemberg, Germany. Along with her husband & 4 year old daughter, they immigrated to Philadelphia, PA. On the bottom of the ship’s log, I recently found a notation they disembarked with an infant. I assume that was my maternal grandmother, Anna. My great grandmother posted on census that Anna was born In Pennsylvania. How do I find out if the birth was in International waters or in the area designated as US territory in 1887 so I can continue? Any tips would be helpful.
    I am in NJ, close enough to travel to Philadelphia Historical Society. I can request a search.I have no idea if they would find anything given the situation. I have the Philadelphia street address where they family resided. My maternal great-grandmother died a year later. Her husband remarried rather quickly.

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