Tracing Immigrants Origin Search Tactics

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Tracing Immigrant Origins
Wiki Topics
Emigrants Leave Ireland long.jpg
News and Events
Part 1. General
Part 2. Country of Arrival

 Country of Arrival Search Tactics
 Country of Arrival Record Finder
 Country of Arrival Record Types

Part 3. Country of Origin

 Country of Origin Search Tactics
 Country of Origin Record Finder
 Country of Origin Record Types

For Further Reading
The FamilySearch moderator for Tracing Immigrants Origin is GoAncestry

Search Tactics[edit | edit source]

Hamburg-St. Pauli (Germany) port in 2005.
There are many record types you can use when searching in country-of-origin records. However, they are all not equally valuable. Most record types are best used together with other record types as part of a search strategy that includes one or more tactics. The following discussion of search tactics is based on a comprehensive strategy of narrowing the possible places where an emigrant may have come from.

Search records and indexes covering a large area first. Next search records that might narrow the possible locations until you have found the right one. Information and clues in the records of the immigrant's new country determine which tactics to use when searching the records of the old country. The following tactics can help you systematically search country-of-origin records. Whenever you learn new information, reconsider which tactic to apply next.

Survey Records of Previous Research[edit | edit source]

The first place to search in country-of-origin records is those records containing research already done by others. In many cases, other researchers have already found where the emigrant came from. A distant, unknown relative may have the information, or indexes may contain the emigrant's birth record.

This tactic is similar to the second tactic in “Part 2. Country-of-Arrival.” You may use some of the same types of records, but focus on country-of-origin records.

A survey of previous research should include indexes to and databases of compiled records, such as the International Genealogical Index and Ancestral File. Also search published family histories, periodical articles, genealogical dictionaries, compendia, and local histories of the immigrant's original country.

FamilySearch™ computers at the Family History Library and family history centers offer convenient access to many key sources such as the FamilySearch Catalog, International Genealogical Index, and Ancestral File at This is also accessible from home

Sections of this portal that describe previous research include “Biography,” “Genealogy,” “History,” and “Periodicals.”

Some genealogical societies encourage members to register their names and the ancestral lines they are working on. See the “Societies” section below.

Search Nationwide Records[edit | edit source]

Some countries of origin kept nationwide records. Where available and indexed, these records are an excellent tool that may identify an emigrant. For example, British countries have excellent national records, many of which are being indexed. You must, however, have enough identifying information to recognize the immigrant.

Records most likely to apply to this tactic are discussed in the “Census,” “Civil Registration,” and “Taxation” sections of this portal.

Search Departure Records[edit | edit source]

Where possible, search the records created when the emigrant left the old country. These include passenger lists, permissions to emigrate, and other lists of emigrants. Where they exist, records of departure are generally easy to access and almost always identify from which town the emigrant left. However, not all such records have been preserved, are indexed, or are available to search. Furthermore, some emigration was illegal. In such cases, few, if any, records of departure exist.

To search departure records, you must know the country the emigrant left. This is generally not hard to learn. However, you should also know as much as possible about the emigrant, including the state, county, or area where he or she likely lived and the port from which he or she probably departed. You can often find this information in biographical sources in the country of arrival. Immigration sources, such as passenger arrival lists, usually identify the port of departure.

Departure records are generally under the jurisdiction of the port city (such as passenger departure lists) or the state or national government where the emigrant lived, such as permission to emigrate. If you know the emigrant's state or region of residence or port of departure, see “Court Records,” “Emigration and Immigration,” “History,” and “Population.”

Localize the Surname[edit | edit source]

Some surnames are more common in certain areas than in others. It may be possible to determine what region or specific area the surname is found in, especially if you are dealing with an uncommon surname. Because records exist at all levels of jurisdiction, the more closely you can determine where your ancestor came from, the more records you can search.

If you cannot learn the state or region where the emigrant lived, determine the general region or area where the family came from or where the surname is most common. After that, you might find emigration indexes or other sources that cover specific regions or localities.

Many sources, such as census records and vital records in the country of arrival, may give at least a province name. Sometimes family information and traditions can give a province or county name. Family traditions may also indicate that the place was near a particular river, seacoast, or agricultural district. Any such information may help narrow your search.

If you search indexes (such as the International Genealogical Index) and do not find your ancestor, you may find that everyone with that surname came from the same province. The information found in tactics one and two often helps find the region where the surname is most common. You can use any general index that covers a broad spectrum of the population in this manner. Once you know which region the name comes from, search the records and indexes pertaining to that particular region.

Online surname atlases may also be of help.

Many sources can help you determine the region where the emigrant lived. See the sections below on “Civil Registration,” “Directories,” “Genealogy,” “History,” “Names, Personal,” “Periodicals,” and “Societies.”

Search Regional Records[edit | edit source]

Once you have found a probable region, state, province, or county where the emigrant lived, many sources could identify him or her. Even if these sources do not name the town of origin, they may help to localize the name to a few specific places.

Regional records to search include “Census,” “Civil Registration,” “Court Records,” “Emigration and Immigration,” “Genealogy,” “History,” “Military Records,” “Newspapers,” “Periodicals,” “Societies,” and “Taxation.”

Search Local Records[edit | edit source]

Eventually you will have to search local records. Hopefully your research has identified the specific town of origin. In such cases, search local records such as “Church Records” and “Civil Registration” to confirm the emigrant's origin and to extend the ancestry.

If you have not identified a specific town but are confident you know the region, search local records. Some records are formatted so you can easily search several localities within a region. In addition to church and civil records noted above, see “Census,” “Court Records,” “Land and Property,” “Newspapers,” “Population,” “Probate Records,” and “Taxation.”