While there are researchers who are blessed with the knowledge of an exact location in the old country that their ancestor came from, the rest of us are usually burdened with knowing only the name of the country. How do we proceed from there? There is no foolproof method for locating an ancestor's county of origin, but there are many resources to consult that will either tell us or help to narrow it down.
In order to describe the different records available that may give us answers, the records themselves have been broken down into two distinct types: country of arrival records (records
in the new country) and country of origin records (records in the old country).
Below are the country of arrival records. I have uploaded this first, since most of the pertinent information will be gathered in the United States. I will upload the country of origin records shortly.
Country of Arrival Records
Since this website deals with the New York City area, the country of arrival spoken of is of course, the United States. It is widely known that there will be more records available pertaining to immigrants here in the United States then in their country of origin. Most immigrants naturalized, voted, purchased land, etc. In fact, most immigrants spent their adult lives in their new country - so logically more records will exist for them. The following list will give a brief description of which records are most likely to hold a county of origin.
Please make sure you speak to older family members. They may have heard a specific location in the old country mentioned a few times. There may also be old letters, diaries or photographs with a place mentioned. Or they may know where at least one relative lived in the old country.
Archives & Libraries
Most state and local archives and libraries have extensive local holdings, including but not limited to: biographies; directories; church, cemetery, immigration and court records; newspapers and other records that are just for that area. These holdings are usually cataloged or indexed for easier searching.
Tombstone inscriptions and sexton's records are the best sources for determing a location in the old country. You are more likely to find this information if the cemetery is attached to a certain church. Roman Catholic cemeteries often have locations in the old country on the tombstones. Even if the tombstone itself does not give a location, it may give clues to other relatives (who's origin can be traced). Be cautious however. Tombstone inscriptions are only as accurate as the person who gave the information. The same is to be said for sexton's records. While the sexton's records may direct you to relatives buried nearby (or even list a place of origin), they may not be accurate.
The United States federal census provides immigration information for the 1900 through 1920 censuses: country of birth, date of arrival and citizenship status. The 1920 specifically asks for a province or city of birth for anyone born in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia or Turkey! The 1925 New York state census gives alittle more information on this topic. It specifically asks for the date and place of naturalization. Please remember, whichever census you view, federal or state, birthplace usually means state or country, not a specific town.
Certain denominations kept better records than others. Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed are the most noted examples of excellent record keeping. You are most likely to encounter the place of origin in marriage or death records from these churches. In the Roman Catholic faith, a member is required to complete all sacraments prior to marriage. When an immigrant went to marry in their new church in their new country, they may have had to supply the Roman Catholic Church with dates and locations in the old country. Or at the very least, the name and/or location of their previous parish in the old country. (I can attest to this from personal experience.) Whether or not the priest recorded this information is a different matter. The Quakers (Society of Friends) sometimes recorded foreign origins of newcomers in their Monthly Meeting Records. As did the early Dutch and German Reformed churches.
When contacting the church or religious institution, it never hurts to specifically ask for any information they may have pertaining to your ancestor's country of origin. You never know what the church has recorded! I have also found from personal experience that if you don't specifically ask for it,they will not send it to you.
Court records can be helpful because they can list family members and even property holdings in the old country. This is especially true if your ancestor was the plaintiff, defendent or witness. While most court records post-1900 are not indexed well, it is still worth a look. Court records from colonial times are more often indexed well. If your ancestor was a laborer or farmer, chances are high you will not find them in any court records. You are more likely to encounter an ancestor who was professionally employed.
If you should locate an ancestor in court records, make sure you review all the documents. The case file, known as the packet, contains the testimonies, depositions, affidavits, etc. It is in the depositions and affadavits that you will most likely encounter a place of origin.
Passenger lists vary in the content of information. Early lists usually do not give a town in the old country, while late 19th century/early 20th century lists do. If you do not know the exact date your ancestor arrived, you can start by searching the vessel arrivals for the time period you seek. You can match up the ship name with the port of departure. From there, you can view that ship's passenger list.
If your ancestor came to the United States prior to 1820 (when the federal government required passenger lists be kept), you may want to view the following from the LDS:
Filby, William P. Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography 1538-1900. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. FHL book # 973 W33p 1988.
Filby, William P. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. FHL book # 973 W32p.
Also keep an eye open for passports. It's very possible that your ancestor went back to the old country to visit family. If so, a passport would have been required. (They were more widely issued in the 20th century, however there are some from as early as 1795.) For further information on researching passports, please see Immigration.
Land & Property Records
Many immigrants to the United States jumped at the chance to purchase relatively inexpensive land. These records may contain many clues! If land was purchased directly from the government (ie: homesteads), there is more of a chance of discovering information about their place of origin. Deeds show the place of residence for both the buyer and seller. If your ancestor purchased land shortly after arriving in the US, the deed should show place of residence in the old country.
Many areas required an immigrant to naturalize, or at least file a declaration of intent, before purchasing land. In this case, there may be copies of the naturalization papers kept with the land records.
It is estimated that thousands of immigrants served in the US army in the 19th century. Some military records may provide you with clues to a place of origin. The most informative are:
Pension Applications: These records usually give name, rank, military unit, and date and place of birth, among other information.
Service Records: These records are a documentation of the soldier's stay in the military. Rolls or enlistmentpapers may give place of birth.
The above records can be obtained through NARA. You may also want to look into veterans' organizations, unit histories and national cemetery records.
These records vary in content by area and date. You are most likely to find name, age and country of birth, rather than a town or village. Naturalization records for the 20th century are more informative. Keep in mind that not all immigrants naturalized. Also, naturalization was not a requirement for the British settlers in North America prior to the American Revolution. (America was a British colony.) Regardless, when searching for naturalization papers, make sure you get all the documents: delcaration of intent and the actual petition.
Local and ethnic newspaper can provide an abundant source of information. They list obituaries, new arrivals to the area, notices for missing relatives, marriage announcements, and much more. Most of these newspapers are now on microfilm and will circulate on interlibrary loan. Check with your local library to see what's available.
Everyone who has an obituary, in effect, has a small biography. Not only do obits list names of survivors, but sometimes religious and political affiliations and the hometown in the old country. Even if the obit doesn't list the county of origin, it may list survivors who may hold the key if you trace their origins. You are more likely to find an obit for your ancestor in the community newspaper. Keep in mind however, that not everyone chose to post an obituary. To locate an obit, you will need to have a date of death - or a good estimate. Make sure you search for the full week after the date of death. If the newspaper was printed weekly, search for two weeks after the date of death.
In order for a person to retire, they would have to have showed proof of birth at sometime in their employment. (Remember, the laws were different then than they are now. How many of us had to lug our birth ceritifcate to work to enroll in the pension plan? I for one did.) If the pension was going to the surviving spouse or heir, they may have had to supply proof of birth. So pension files should contain some relevant information. Pensions from private or public companies hold the most information, but usually only since the early 20th century.
Probate records from the colonial period are more likely to state a place of origin than their modern counterparts. Colonial probate records are often indexed and can be found at state archives and the LDS. Immigrants who were well off usually kept property in the old country. This is likely to be mentioned in probate records. The same if the immigrant left family members behind.
Twentieth century vital records are more detailed in the information they required than those from the 19th century, especially marriage and death records. These records may simply give a country of birth, but may provide clues to the church they attended or the informant on the certificate. Keep in mind that death certificates can be notoriously inaccurate. They are only as accurate as the person giving the information.
Voting records for some areas, such as Kings County, give a lot of information: date and place of birth, number of years residency in the city and state, date of naturalization, etc. Other areas may not have required such detailed information. However, in order to vote, an immigrant had to naturalize. By searching voting records, you will know when the immigrant first registered to vote, which should help greatly in narrowing down the date of naturalization. Voting records can be found at the county courthouse.
Country of Origin
You are more likely to locate your ancestor's county of origin in country of origin records if the surname is uncommon. A good place to start is to determine the country your ancestor was from, and then attempt to localize the surname. Some surnames are simply more common in certain areas of a country than others. While this method is not foolproof and may not lead you to your ancestor, it may hook you up with another ancestor from that region.
Although census records exist for various areas of the world, such as the UK, Asia, etc, most of these censuses (if they still exist) do not have indexes. For example, most of Ireland's censuses were destroyed, while the only UK census that is widely indexed is the 1881. It is best to familiarize yourself with the availability of census records
(and how they are set up) for the country you are interested in.
Emigration can produce a paper trail. Many countries required the emigrant to obtain permission to leave. They also had to book passage and board the vessel. These records of departure in the foreign country
are known as emigration records. Most emigration records are detailed, stating name, age, travelling companions and residence. You must know the country of origin (even more helpful is knowing the port of departure). Emigration records
break down into the following three areas:
Departure Lists: Some ports kept records of departing passengers. These records can contain the name, age, occupation, last known residence and birthplace. Some records no longer exist, while others have been microfilmed by the LDS. The LDS has departure lists for the following cities: Denmark, Finalnd, Norway,
Sweden and Hamburg among others.
Passports/Permission to Emigrate: Passports and emigration applications are
available at the LDS for certain areas such as Baden and Hesse.
Illegal Emigration: Many people left their homelands without permission of their government. In turn, sometimes the government would try to locate them after their departure.
Please be sure to check the LDS catalog for the records pertaining to your country of interest.
The above records can be found under the subject "Emigration and Immigration."
Most church records are kept at the parish level. You will need to know the place of origin before searching them. It is best to use foreign church records to prove you have found your emigrant, then to locate him/her in the first place. Several countries have published church records or indexes to these records, such as Germany and Scotland. It is also possible to access some church records from the archives in the county you are searching.
This is known as Vital Registration in the US. It encompasses birth, marriage, death and sometimes divorce records. They are usually kept on the national or local government level, depending on the country. If you find your ancestor in civil registration records, then you have found your place of origin. Civil registration records are not generally a good way to locate an emigrant. Many countries do not have indexes to 19th century records. Also, civil registration
may not have been a requirement at the time your ancestor was born. If the records are indexed, then it can be helpful in determining where your ancestor came from. It is best to familiarize yourself with the availability of civil records and indexes in the country of interest. Make sure you determine how the records are indexed: on the national, county or town level.
In some countries, emigrants had to prove that their debts were paid off before receiving permission to leave. Germany is one example. In other countries, people who left without permission were considered fugitives and may also be mentioned in court records. Also, there is the case of England who deported criminals to America and Australia. All of these cases leave a paper trail through the courts. Many of these countries now have published abstracts
and/or indexes to their court records. If there are no published abstracts or indexes for you to search, you may want to hire a researcher in the country of interest to tackle the job of leafing through old court records.
Nineteenth century directories can be enormously helpful in locating an ancestor. The LDS has many of these on microfilm. There are two things to keep in mind while searcing directories: if the surname is common, you may have a hard time identifying your ancestor and directories are usually printed only for larger cities. Most emigrants did not live in large cities.
The history of your country of interest can be enormously helpful in locating the areas that saw the most emigration. Local histories can be the most beneficial since many emigrants prior to the mid 1800s left from small villages and settled together in the new country. If nothing else, a local history may aid in localizing your surname. Of course searching local histories is only fruitful if you've been able to pin down the county of origin and are after the name of the village. Local histories can be found at the LDS and the the genealogical or historical society in the county of interest.
If the emigrant sold property prior to emigrating, you may be able to locate a place of origin in the land records. Most countries do not have nation-wide indexes to these records, so this will probably be more helpful once a county of origin is suspected. Even if your ancestor was too poor to own land, they may have been tenants on an estate who the land owner helped to emigrate. (This was not uncommon in Ireland during the potato famine, for it was cheaper to pay for a ticket then to feed, clothe and house the impoverished.) Many land records have been microfilmed by the LDS.
Some countries kept records on those deemed temporary residents or transients. This usually took place in the port city. If you know what port your ancestor left from, you may want to contact the city or regional archives for that area to see what records
are available. They may include:
Police Records: In several European cities, including those in Germany, the police were required to register all citizens and transients. The LDS has these transient records for the city of Hamburg. The records are indexed by year.
Hotel Registers: Some port cities kept hotel registers of transients awaiting emigration. You will need to contact the city or regional archives in the port city to see what is available.
Many countries required their young men to serve in the military. These records can be useful in learning the place of origin and more. Since military records are kept on the national level in most countries, you don't need to know a county or more
specific location to search them. The downside to this is that you may need to know the soldier's regiment, depending on how the records are indexed - if they are indexed at all. Discharge papers (aka certificates of military release) are the best way to determine the regiment. This is also a good time to speak to elder family members to see what they know. Many immigrants served in the military once entering the US. These records will usually reveal a place of origin. To locate these records in the US, you will need to contact either the state archives where the immigrant resided, the National Archives for records prior to the 20th century, or for 20th century military records:
National Personnel Records Center
Military Personnel Records
9700 Page Blvd
St Louis, MO 63132
Current newspapers in the country of origin may hook you up with living relatives. If you only know the country and not a specific area, try to advertise a personal ad in the newspaper with the largest coverage. If you know the county or even village, try the newspapers in that locality. Most newspapers can now be accessed online. Newspapers published during the period your ancestor emigrated may have listed him/her. Many families also advertised in newspapers to locate missing relatives. The old newspapers are generally microfilmed and can be found at libraries, archives and genealogical and historical societies.
Tax records have become a wonderful substitute for census records in countries where the census records are no longer in existence (ie: Ireland). They can help you localize surnames down to the exact village. For those researching in Ireland, the most helpful tax records are the
Ireland Householders Index which helps to locate families in both the Tithe Applotment Books (1820-1840) and Griffith's Land Valuation (1840-1860).
Emigrant Savings Bank
The Emigrant Savings Bank was formed by the Irish Emigrant Society in 1850. Located on Chambers Street in New York City, it served as an institution for Irish immigrants to deposit money for the purpose of bringing others over from
Ireland. Its years of operation were 1850-1880.
To open an account, an emigrant had to supply personal information such as address, place of birth, year of immigration, ship's name, parents' and siblings' names, etc. This information can be found in the Test Books. These records contain information
on over 66,000 account holders.
All 59 volumes can be found at the New York Public Library on 14 microfilm reels:
NYPL call #: N.Y. L M314.72 E42 microfilm.
The indexes are in chronological order, then by first letter of surname. The index gives the account number. Microfilm reels:
Reel 1 Index Book 1 1850-1866
Reel 2 Index Book 2 1867-1877
Reel 3 Index Book 3 1878-1880
With the account number, you are able to proceed to the Test Books. Microfilm reels with corresponding account numbers & dates:
Reel 4 acct #: 1-12,482 Sept 30, 1850-Sept 4, 1856
Reel 5 acct #: 12,483-25,000 Sept 5, 1856-Aug 9, 1860
Reel 6 acct #: 25,000-32,521 Aug 10, 1860-Nov 22, 1862
Reel 7 acct #: 32,522-40,129 Nov 24, 1862-April 16, 1864
Reel 8 acct #: 40,130-47,702 April 16, 1864-July 7, 1865
Reel 9 acct #: 47,703-58,999 July 7, 1865-May 20, 1867
Reel 10 acct #: 59,000-66,756 May 20, 1867-Aug 24, 1868
No Test Books after August 1868 have survived.
Transfer, Signature and Test Books
If a passbook was lost, another would be issued if the emigrant could answer the questions contained in the Test Books. New passbooks were then recorded in what was known as the Transfer, Signature and Test Books. Not every account holder will be listed in these records as not everyone lost their passbook. Microfilm reels:
Reel 11 Volume 1 acct #: 28-69,994 Oct 3, 1850-March 8, 1869
Reel 12 Volume 2 acct #: 70,003-103,999 March 9, 1869-July 3, 1874
Reel 13 Volume 3 acct #: 104,403-122,999 July 31, 1874-Sept 12, 1877
Reel 14 Volume 6 acct #: 155,001-170,000 July 6, 1881-Jan 5, 1883
Volumes 4 and 5 are missing.