Immigrant Ancestors


Make certain you have exhausted all records the immigrant and his family left in this country before attempting to cross the ocean. 

Get familiar with county resources for the county your ancestors live in.  Visit:

county Genweb site 

county GenWeb Archives site. 

is there a genealogical society in the area  (Google)

check the local courthouse (Google)

do a Switchboard Library search to see what libraries are in the area
   Go to Switchboard.com
   Under Business Name put Libraries
   Under location put the town where grandpa lived near
   Click "search by Distance"  (link is on the upper right of the page) put in something like 15 miles
If you find the name of the library but there is no link google the name of the library to see if they have a webpage.

check the LDS Family History Library Catalog - even if you don't think you will be ordering film it is a good place to see what kinds of things exist for a county


1.  Family Records -  have you checked with all family members (distant and close) to see if anyone has anything in their possession that help with place of origin?   Are there stories or oral traditions that help?


2.  Family Pictures - If your immigrant lived in the late 19th century or later were any family portraits done back in the old country or did they have any pictures of family left behind?  Studios and towns were often printed somewhere on the picture.


3.  Death certificates.    If your ancestor or any of his children died in the 20th century he may have left a death record that lists exact place of birth.  example 1   example 2

4.  Cemetery records.    If you have the death certificate it should list where your ancestor was buried.  If he or she died before vital records were recorded try Googling cemeteries in the county where you think they died. 

Visit Find A Grave
Check to see if there are gedcoms on sites like WorldConnect that might give place of burial.  example
Also google to see if there is a genealogy society in the area you are researching.  Many genealogy society sites include cemetery information.

Once you know where your ancestor is check the Directory of Cemeteries & Funeral Homes to see who you might contact to discover if any further records are held.


5.  Funeral Home Records.  You can start by going to Funeral Net for a listing of current funeral homes.  Usually if you contact a funeral home in the place your ancestor died they can tell you if they existed at the time of their death and if they have the records or who might have the records at this time.  Funeral cards often gave a birthplace for the deceased.  Funeral Cards Online is a growing database of these that give good examples of what you might get if you can track down a funeral card.  Sometimes more detailed records were kept  example

6.  Obituaries.  Most state libraries now have inventories of microfilmed newspapers for their state which can be interlibrary loaned through your public library.   To see what has been filmed and can be borrowed Google using a search like  Illinois Newspapers Microfilm and you should see links to libraries who have filmed collections.  Look carefully on their sites for directories and when you find the roll that you think will help you print the page and take it to the library when you request it be interlibrary loaned.  This will greatly help your librarian.

You might also want to look carefully at the state library site or google the local library where your ancestor lived to see if they have a policy that will look for an obituary if you have an exact death date.   An example would be Washington State Library's "Ask a Librarian" program where you can email a request for an obituary.

Ancestry & World Vital Records have growing collections of newspaper records.  World Vital Records is available to search at WAGS or the local Family History Library.

7. Marriage Records.  Particularly from the 1880s onward marriages often gave specific details on birthplace.   Some of these are filmed through the LDS Family History Library.  Some must be gotten by writing the county court where your ancestors were married.  There are also marriage databases on Ancestry and many county Genweb sites but remember that if details about birthplace were recorded they often have not been put in the database and you need to track down the original of the marriage.

8.  Census.  1850 is the first census that will list all family members and record the country of birth. 

1880 census is the first census that records the country where both parents were born

1890 census was burned but the census for veterans survived (and is on Ancestry)

1900 census asks for the year of immigration for each person and number of years in the U.S. and whether they are naturalized citizens. 

1910 asks  for year of immigration and if they are naturalized and if they are a veteran of the Civil War.

1920 asks for year of immigration and if they are naturalized and if so what year were they naturalized.

see the census page for help finding census records


9.  Military Records - particularly pension records will sometimes give an exact place of birth.  If they are the son of immigrant parents they will sometimes list parents birthplace in some manner i.e. "I was born in Adams Co. Pennsylvania.  My father was born in Switzerland and my mother born in New Jersey.

If your Ancestor was foreign born and served in the Civil War the act of 17 July 1862 said if he was over the age of 21 he became a citizen when he was discharged upon his petition without ever having to file a declaration of intent or having had more than one year of residency.  He still had to apply for naturalization but the first requirements were eased.  This continued in later wars.

 WWI Draft Registration cards are at Ancestry and when foreign born sometimes simply put the country but sometimes are more specific.

the National Archives information for Military Records is here and they now have some databases available with military indexes online


10.  Church Records - Lutheran ancestors often brought letters of introduction from their old congregation to their new.  Some vital records were recorded at the church level that gave birthplaces of parents etc.  Google is helpful here - try searches like:

Lutherans Hamilton Ohio
Lutherans Ohio
Lutherans Southwest Ohio
Lutherans Smallville Ohio
Lutherans Denmark Ohio


11.  County Histories - Usually published in the late 1800s often give detailed information of place of origin for people born outside the states.  Some places for finding county histories:

LDS Family History Library - you can check the catalog to see if the book has been filmed
Google the title in a regular Google search   also try a search using your state and digital archives or digital libraries as terms - many libraries are now building online digital archives and are scanning old county histories.


12.  Homestead Papers.  Start with BLM site and see if a patent for your ancestor is there.  Not all entries in the database are for homesteads but if your ancestor did apply for homestead  foreign born applicants were supposed to show proof of naturalization when they applied.  The applications are held by the National Archives but sometimes county courthouses also have various homestead documentation.  example 1

13.   Watch carefully the families around your immigrant household.  If grandpa is Danish are there other Danish families around him on the census?  Are there Danish names on deeds?  Can you find out more about any of them to get a sense of whether or not they could all be together; have come from the same place?

14.   Declarations of Intent show that the immigrant planned to become a naturalized citizen.    They are usually filed at the county courthouse  example 1 p. 1 example 1 p. 2  example 1 p. 3   example 2.  He could file this immediately after immigrating but there was a five year residency requirement for the applicant to file petition for naturalization.

15.  Newspaper Records if Grandpa lived in a small town.  Small towns often reported "Fred Schwarts had a visit from his cousin Johann of Gottisbunden Germany" etc.   Google something like Newspaper Illinois Microfilm  to find microfilmed newspaper directories and film collections.  Find the paper you need and print off that page to take to your public library for interlibrary loan.