Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Common Mistakes People Make Tracing Immigrant Ancestors

NERGC is over now for two years. It was such a fun conference that I was sad to see it end. I‘ll post a couple of pictures at the end of the post.

Over the past three weekends, I have spoken at three fairly major conferences: The Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference, The Ohio Genealogical Society Conference, and the New England Regional Genealogical Conference. During those three weeks, I have had lots of opportunities to talk to people about their immigrant ancestors – and their immigration research hurdles. This has gotten me thinking….

Of course, there are a wide variety of reasons that we may have trouble finding our immigrant ancestors. It is certainly possible that a person could be doing everything “right” and still be having trouble finding their immigrants ancestors. Some of these research problems can be very tricky and our ancestors aren’t always in the records we think they should be.

That said, I have noticed two major mistakes that people tend to make that prevent them from finding their ancestors. If you’ve been doing research for a while, you may not find these surprising. (And you may have different opinions. I’d be curious to what others feel are the most common mistakes that prevent people from finding immigrant ancestors.)

1) Flexibility in name spellings. There’s a quote I use in one of my lectures from William Thorndale in The Source that says, “An enormous amount of genealogical research fails because people do not take simple precautions in searching for spelling variants.” This is ESPECIALLY true in immigration research. (And no – it wasn’t because your ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island. You can read my thoughts on that here.)

There are lots of reasons that our ancestors’ names change spelling and many of them are covered in my post on Ellis Island. But what it comes down to are a couple of things: our ancestors spelled phonetically – based on how things sounded instead of how they were written. Spelling was not important to them. Add to that the language barriers that occurred when our immigrant ancestors said their names to US record keepers. Often they were unfamiliar names spoken with unfamiliar accents and sounds. And the record keeper wasn’t that concerned about spelling either. Think of EVERY possible way your ancestors could have spelled his or her name. Also become familiar with how the name may have been pronounced in the country of origin. As a researcher, you must be flexible – and sometimes creative. You can read more in my article here.

2) Trying to jump to Western European records without fully utilizing US records. Often people ask me what GERMAN (or SWEDISH or ITALIAN etc.) records they can use to find their immigrant ancestors. In many cases I tell them, “You can’t use any German records. You need to use US records.” In most cases, you need the European home town FIRST before you can start using Western European records. Sometimes, if you have fairly specific information, other Western European records will be accessible before you have a town name. For example, if you know the state or county etc. and it happens to have some type of large, indexed database available, you might be able to check this.

Even if this is the case, before you jump across the ocean and start trying to use those records, gain everything you can from US records. I always ask people if they have already gathered (or tried to gather anyway…) some of those basic sources such as census records, vital records, church records, naturalization records etc. You may find the town name you need. Even if you don’t, you’ll be able to narrow your search in other records more effectively.

Also, the more information you know about your ancestor on this side of the ocean, the more likely you will be able to confirm that you have the right person on the other side of the ocean. For example, if you know your ancestor is named Johann Schmidt and he was born in 1857 in Mecklenburg and you find a birth record that “matches”, will you know you have the right person? Of course not. Similarly, often people find a person with the “right” name on a passenger list – but it can be difficult to determine if this is really your ancestor. If you know the age, traveling companions, occupation, home region, year of travel, port etc. – all this can help you identify your person.

On a side note, don’t dismiss someone who doesn’t match up perfectly either. Just as name spellings aren’t perfect in the records, other information isn’t perfect either. Having an age off a bit should not alarm you. Similarly, if the naturalization record says your ancestor came 17 years ago, but the passenger list shows 16 years – this is not a cause for throwing out the record.

The point is that the more you know about your ancestor, the more likely it is that you will be able to find him in the European records – and the more confident you will be that you are really looking at a record for your ancestor.

Here I am at NERGC with Ed Zapletal and Rick Cree at the Family Chronicle booth where my book was available for purchase

I was one of the NEAPG (New England Association of Professional Genealogists) table hosts at the luncheon on Saturday. My table's topic was German research.

Elissa Scalise Powell came for a post-NERGC visit


  1. Absolutely spot-on regarding flexibility (= "creativity") with spelling. And it is worth it to pay close attention to some of the "crazy" things put down by the people who wrote the records. I dismissed the names [scribble-scribble] Rose and Rosie Rose as the bungling of an inept census-taker, but it turns out he was trying to write "Rossi"!

  2. Excellent points, Leslie. I was discussing the spelling challenges with a colleague today. Those Irish names that can be McGsomething, MacGsomething or Magsomething can drive you to distraction! And one missing consonent in a transcription can mean even Soundex can't help you. That said, perhaps we need to take the time to browse through every page looking for where our people might be, and sounding out every name, instead of letting a database search tell us they're not there.

  3. Reminding people to be open-minded about spelling and other "facts" they "know" about their ancestor is always helpful. One of the first things in trying to solve a "brick wall" is to write down just how it is that you "know" something. If it is conjecture or family lore, then it may be suspect and taking that mortar out of the brick wall will let it crumble.

    Nice pictures, by the way.

    -- Elissa

  4. Good points. As someone who is researching in the opposite direction (following those who left my ancestors' villages), some additional considerations:
    - People who knew each other (relatives and friends) tried to stick together for support. When researching the records and passenger lists of immigrants, also look at the neighbours and contacts: their records may have the name of the home village or that of a parent who was left behind.
    - Recognize the creativity of place spellings. Besides the same factors that affected surnames, placenames changed with changes to borders but also with the ethnicity of the speaker. Also many placenames have multiple places associated with them; knowing the region will help narrow down possibilities.
    Finally, a couple of statements that may be obvious but are important reminders:
    - A lot of people confuse ethnicity and citizenship when asked for nationality.
    - Surname frequency changes over time and across geography. A rare surname in the US may be common in the home region.

  5. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.