One of the biggest challenges in researching the origins of immigrants is getting them back to their place of origin. Passenger lists and naturalizations are the first place we look for. But they are often unavailable. Then it is time to turn to other resources that can provide valuable information — or not.
1. Church Records
The records of churches can provide detailed information about immigrant origins. Start with the type of church they attended. For example, people who attended a Polish Catholic church are more likely to be from Poland. The ecclesiastical records (e.g., baptisms, marriages, and burials) may tell you where the couple originated. Administrative records, such as membership rolls, may also give you clues to origins as well.
Death notices and obituaries can be extremely valuable. Although they will more commonly name only a country, they can sometimes provide exact places of origin. You must be careful not to trust the information outright, however. Remember that the information in obituaries often comes from the survivors, not the deceased. And people who come from small, rural communities will often give the name of the nearest large municipality once they arrived in America. This same warning goes for other resources as well.
3. Grave Markers
We are used to thinking of grave markers providing the names of the deceased, and dates of birth and death. But they can also provide much more information. For example, Jewish grave markers will often have the names of the father of the deceased, written in Hebrew. But grave markers can also provide immigrant origin clues. They may provide places of birth as well as the date. Just remember that the place of birth may not be the place from which the immigrant left his or her original home country.
4. Organizational Records
Social organizations of all kinds can provide valuable information on origins. Membership records for groups such as the Masons can be very helpful. These records won’t usually tell you where someone is born, but they will often give the name of the place from with they came to the United States. Mutual benefit organizations proliferated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these groups were based on nationality or ethnic origin, and their records may provide more specific information about places of origin.
5. Compiled Genealogies — Maybe!
Many authors of compiled genealogies include information on immigrant origins. Many genealogies published in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries included information on European origins, especially those with origins in the U.K. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these are undocumented. Even worse, the origins are incorrect. Unscrupulous researchers at the time made up entire lineages (or made vast assumptions, linking families hundreds of years apart with no evidence). If you see an immigrant origin in one of these genealogies, you need to conduct research in primary source material to ensure that the lineage is correct. In most instances, it will likely be easier to start from scratch entirely. Modern published genealogies that meet the scholarly standards of sources are more trustworthy, but in most instances you may want to review the original sources to be certain that the authors interpreted them correctly.