Where to Start Tracing Origins

A scene from Genealogy Roadshow with Mary Tedesco.A scene from Genealogy Roadshow with Mary Tedesco.

The process of finding immigrant origins is an exercise in problem solving. A genealogist is like a detective, searching for clues in the records. But there are so many records, located in so many places, in every nook and cranny on earth. So where should one begin? Where are the right records located? Narrowing down the search parameters before delving into arcane international resources is a necessity. Begin at home on your laptop. Research all online resources first and extract clues from them. Then, using a systematic approach, research all available sources of information in the United States. Only then are you effectively ready to look toward resources in your ancestors’ countries of origin.

It is most helpful to gather a few pieces of information about your immigrant ancestors before accessing international resources. Especially important are your immigrant ancestor’s original name, his or her precise place of origin (i.e. exact town of birth — not just the region of the country), and, if possible, your immigrant ancestor’s parents’ names.  Here are some examples of genealogical resources that could hold the key to finding this vital information:

  • Home sources (such as old passports; letters; other documents)
  • Census records
  • Passenger lists and border crossings
  • Naturalization records
  • United States passport applications
  • Vital records (birth, marriage & death)
  • Religious records
  • Military Records (draft registration cards or lists, pension files & others)
  • Newspapers, including obituaries (both in English & the native language of your immigrant)
  • Cemetery records / Tombstones
  • City directories
  • Academic records
  • Social Security Applications
  • Compiled genealogies.
  • Local history books (city, town, county, etc.)
  • Ethnic history books of a specific area
  • Voter registration records
  • Land records
  • Tax records
  • Court records
  • Employment records
  • Wills and probate records
  • Mary Tedesco-fade_x.png The records of ethnic societies, groups, and fraternities
  • Many more local sources unique to the place your immigrant ancestor lived here in the USA.

Researching immigrant ancestors can sometimes be challenging. Information may be scarce, or worse, incorrect. But no matter how difficult, it is important never to lose sight of your research goals. Never forget why you are doing it: for your family, for yourself. When you are stumped, it’s a good idea to broaden the scope of your research: Have you checked all birth, marriage, and death records for your immigrant ancestor’s spouse and all of his/her children? Have you researched all collateral lines uncles, aunts, cousins, etc? Find the records of people closely associated with your immigrant ancestor. They could hold the key, as immigrants often came to the United States with family and friends.

Another strategy is to analyze your immigrant’s surname and associated surnames. Where is your immigrant’s surname most commonly found in your country of origin? Is the surname concentrated in only one place? Many of our ancestral towns historically have had a unique combination of surnames with a specific frequency. This data, when available, could be extremely helpful to your search.

So just keep at it. Keep digging. Be a detective. Try new resources. Find new clues. And no matter what, NEVER GIVE UP!

— Mary Tedesco

Tracing Your Italian roots

Tracing Your Italian roots

Tracing your Italian ancestry is one of the greatest adventures you can ever undertake.

Connecting to Royalty

Connecting to Royalty

Rumors of royal connections often run rampant in a family tree.

Researching Free People of Color

Researching Free People of Color

How do you know if your ancestor was a free person of color?

| Genealogy Roadshow
Choose Station
When to watch

Genealogy Roadshow

Local Station:

Choose Station

Video tips for your genealogy search

African Americans on the Federal Census

Posted by Genealogy Roadshow Editor on

Dig Into Probate Records

Posted by Genealogy Roadshow Editor on

Ellis Island Detention Lists and Records

Posted by Genealogy Roadshow Editor on