I admire my ancestors’ sense of adventure and determination to seek out better lives by migrating from Germany to Ukraine/Poland/Hungary to North America.
But I curse that same sense of adventure, because whenever they moved, they often left their past lives behind so completely that I can’t figure out where they came from.
Since most of us have had this problem with at least one ancestor, here are some hints for finding those hard-to-find ancestral towns.
1) Church/civil records
The first most obvious place to confirm a birth location is in local civil or church records, such as birth certificates or baptismal records. Of course, knowing which town’s records to search can be a problem if you really have no idea where your ancestor is from. However, in many of the German villages where my ancestors lived the churches maintained records of each family in the town that compiled data about each family member—including birth location even if it was in a different village. Becoming familiar with all the available existing records in the places where you know your ancestors lived can unlock important clues.
2) Death records
This includes a wide range of possibilities such as church burial records, death certificates, obituaries, and death notices in newspapers. These can be a gold mine of information, with one caveat—the person most familiar with their birth location is the dead person. So they (obviously) weren’t the ones to supply the information that is recorded. Their spouse or children did, and they may or may not know accurate information or how to correctly spell the town name. Still, this has been one of my main sources for finding my ancestors’ birthplaces.
3) Siblings and neighbors
Some of my ancestors hid their place of origin so well that I suspect they were early adopters of identity theft prevention techniques. If that’s true for you, try widening your search by looking for information on siblings and cousins and any other known relatives. By finding where they were from, you have a clear pointer where to look for your direct ancestor. This can also work if your family has close ties with another family (neighbors, frequent intermarriages, frequently serving as godparents, etc.) and if you can find that family’s place of origin. Word of caution though—even if you locate your direct ancestor’s sibling’s birthplace, you can’t automatically assume your ancestor was born there, too. It’s a clue, but you should still verify with primary sources.
4) Family papers or stories
Sometimes informal information—letters, diaries, word-of-mouth family stories—will give you a clue on where to look. If you don’t have these types of documents in your family, reach out to distant cousins to see what they have. I’ve never been able to find a primary source for the birth of my 2X great-grandmother, Katharina Bohlaender. But based on a letter written by one of her grandsons, which I received from a third cousin, I’m confident that I have her attached to the correct parents, Philipp Jakob and Eva Elisabetha (Koenig) Bohlaender. The letter described in detail each of her siblings (who I can verify with primary sources) and their spouses, as well as the occupation of her father and grandfather.
5) Local history books and newspapers
Local history books at the town or church or county level are often written for celebrations, such as anniversaries of the church/town/county. Oftentimes, these books publish individual family histories that include birth locations. And if your ancestor did something to gain prominence in their community (either good or bad…having a black sheep in the family can be a plus!), there might be an article in a local paper with biographical information that will help you pin down your family’s place of origin.
6) Passenger lists
The ship’s passenger list for your ancestor might provide valuable clues. Although these often just include high-level descriptions of your ancestor’s last residence (“Germany” or “Norway”), you might hit it lucky and find a more specific location. But even if you don’t, you still may find something useful. Look at who is shown next to your ancestor on the list as they may have been traveling together. Finding that person’s place of origin might lead to your ancestor’s. Look at who your ancestor listed as their contact at their destination. That’s likely to be a family member or neighbor from their place of origin.
7) Naturalization papers
When declaring their intent to become a citizen, your ancestor had to list their place of origin. If they were detail-oriented enough to list the town and not just the country, this can give you the information you need.
8) Emigration indexes
Although not available from every district or province, some governments required their citizens to get permission to leave. While that seems terribly authoritarian to me these days, I am ever so grateful that it occurred and that records were kept. This has been invaluable for finding the specific towns some of my ancestors were from when I only had a general idea of the region.
9) Military records
In the U.S., men ages 18 to 45 were required to register for the WWI draft in 1917 and 1918. Even if you know your ancestor didn’t serve, they would still have been included in this registration. Although these don’t show your ancestor’s actual birthplace, it does show where they were living at the time of registration. Their naturalization status also provides a clue about whether they were born in the U.S. or in another country. I would never have thought about military records as a place to find a place of origin, but it’s one more possibility in searching for an ancestral town.
10) Census records
I list census records last as I’ve never seen them include anything other than very high-level information (“Russia” or “Poland”). Still, you might get lucky and it’s wise to leave no stone unturned.
I hope this sparked some new ideas of places to look for your ancestor’s place of origin. Happy hunting!