Where Were Our Ancestors Born?

How can we find the records for our immigrant ancestors? Most are available online and are cataloged by the name of the town where officials created the record. So, we need to find documents or stories that will give us town names. It is also essential to find as many names as possible – do not stop when you find the first town name even if it is stated as their birthplace. There are usually more than one location with the same name so you will need more than one name to find the correct location on a map.

Here is the list I used to find these clues:

  • Documents and letters from the old country – Look in the shoeboxes and desk drawers for the papers your immigrants saved. I was lucky when researching my grandfather’s origins because I found a copy of his birth record. He needed to prove his age for his Medicare application. The document listed the village where he was born, the parish of his baptism, and the diocese. We also found copies of birth records for my wife’s great-grandparents that they brought with them. Note: officials, clerks, and priests transcribed these copies, and we should find the original registers later.
  • Family oral history – Interview older relatives for immigration stories because this may be a great source of clues. However, be careful. Many immigrants gave the name of a large city and not the small villages where they left. Also, the town name may have a phonetic spelling. Still, use all town names as clues to be sorted out when you have completed your list.
  • Marriage records – Civil and church records may list where the bride and groom were married. I was lucky and found town names listed on these records for my ancestors. I also found many priests insisted on listing in the church marriage registers where the bride and groom were baptized
  • Naturalization Petitions – In 1906, the U.S. Congress changed the immigration law and required specific additional information in the naturalization petitions. The petition then included when and where the immigrant arrived. It also listed when and where they were born.
  • Passenger Manifests have various formats, but all have columns indicating their last residence, and some include where the passengers were born.
  • Death records such as death certificates and obituaries may include information but not always. Another caution is that these documents may not have accurate information because the person giving it may not know what is correct.

Do not stop the search when you find one name.  Collect as many names as possible. Save all of the names that you find even if you believe the spelling is not correct. Remember that some clues give a phonetic spelling. Save every name because most countries have multiple locations for towns with the same name. So, you will need to have more than one place name to point the way.

Additionally, you should research the documents of children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends of your ancestors if they were born in Europe. The place names on documents for these relatives should point to the same area as your ancestors.

This process is similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. The town names are on the pieces, and the completed jigsaw puzzle is similar to a map showing most of the town names from the list that we compiled.

After you have exhausted your search through the documents, you will find that one of the names may be the name of the county (powiat), another one the township (gmina), another town will be the location of the parish church. Other towns on your list may be surrounding villages. All are needed to find your ancestors. You will know where you are going when you see the cluster of the names on a map.

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