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
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.