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Tracing Immigrant Ancestors

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Content by
Linda Jonas 2006

Tracing Your Immigrant Ancestor to the British Isles

What's special about your immigrant ancestor?

Tracing your immigrant ancestor can be one of the most interesting and rewarding things you have ever done in the field of genealogy. As you no doubt know, genealogy is very exciting and addicting. Once a person gets into it, he is usually "hooked for life." But as exciting as tracing your American ancestors can be, there are few thrills that can compare to finding the origins of your immigrant ancestors.

Your immigrants never led normal lives. These are people who did something extraordinary; they left their homes, possessions, families, friends, and homeland forever to try to find a better life. Some of your ancestors left for religious reasons, such as the Puritans who came to New England from 1629-1640. Most came for economic reasons, such as the Irish immigrants who left their homelands after the Great Famine (about 1846-1851). Sometimes there were both religious and economic motives. But all of them left the only life they had known and came here with hope for a brighter future. Some of your immigrants did not come by choice. English prisons were cleared and convicts shipped to the American colonies. Women and children were kidnapped from the countryside and off of the streets of cities such as London and Edinburgh to provide needed colonial laborers. When they arrived, your ancestors did not find the American streets to be paved with gold. But whether they came to the wilderness or came to a large city already settled with people they knew from their homeland, your immigrants were pioneers.

Why did your ancestor leave the British Isles? Where did he live and how was his life there? What were the circumstances there when she left? Whom did he leave behind? How difficult was the "farewell"? Did he have property to sell? Did he distribute goods to family or friends? What did she decide to take with her? How much money did she have? How long was your ancestor in the port city before departure? Who paid for his passage? Who came with him? How long did the ocean crossing take? Was it a rough journey? How was the weather? Was your ancestor hungry or seasick? Was he frightened? Did anyone die along the way? What was his first impression of his new land? How long was he detained at the port of arrival? Did anyone meet her? How long did it take before he found work? Was he able to quickly acquire land? Was he indentured, and if so, how did he feel about his master? Was she able to write to family and friends in her town of origin? Did he encourage others to come over? Did he ever return to the British Isles? Did anyone search for him? Were there people he loved that were left behind and never seen again? Did he find a better life? Was it worth it?

The details of your immigrants' lives do not fit on a pedigree chart or family group sheet. They had more than three events (birth, marriage, and death) in their lives. Do you know the answers to the above questions? I can point you to documents available for the U. S. and British Isles that will allow you to retrace your ancestors' steps and reconstruct their stories. But it is up to you to go beyond compiling the names, dates, and places that fit on a pedigree chart and begin to find out how your ancestors really lived. Once you have discovered the stories about your family members you will understand more about them, your country, and about yourself. Your immigrant ancestors usually have beautiful and often heart-wrenching stories to tell. It is up to you to tell them.

The first steps to finding your immigrant ancestor

As with any ancestor, it is always best to start your immigrant's life at the end. Genealogy is done in reverse, working backward through time. Therefore, you will begin to reconstruct your ancestor's story by searching for indexes, books, and documents that were generated after his death. The first step is to interview family members to see what they know. Don't neglect to see great aunts and uncles, cousins, and more distant relatives. Look for old family documents and family bibles; look at the backs of photographs.

When you have compiled all that you can from home sources, you are now ready to begin your own research. Your first step should involve a computer search to see if information on your family has already been compiled. See the Where to Begin section for information about using the Internet sources for finding out what's already known about your family.

Where to go next

After using the above resources to see if someone else has already discovered the origins of your immigrant ancestor, go to Naturalization Records.


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Project Administrators:  Roy Keys and Linda Jonas