For example, most of my clients are Americans of Dutch descent, who need help tracing their ancestors from the Netherlands. Many of them come to me too soon; before they have enough information about their immigrant ancestor to identify them in Dutch records.
|Departure of an emigrant ship, 1949. Credits: Steenkamp, collection Nationaal Archief, the Netherlands (CC-BY-SA)|
The most important thing to remember when trying to find an immigrant ancestor in the country of origin is identity. In other words: You must know enough about the person to tell him or her apart from all the other people who ever lived on this earth.
Identity has several aspects:
- Name. Keep in mind that names change, especially if people move to another country where a different language is spoken. First names get translated (Jan/Johann/John/Jean/Juan) and last names get spelled differently or get translated too (Konings -> King, De Jong -> DeYoung).
- Date and place of birth. Often, the records in the country of destination do not include an exact date or place, or the date is off by a few days or even years. A large city may be given as the place of birth rather than the small village where the birth actually took place.
- Place of residence. Knowing where a person lived at a certain time will help to pinpoint the person. Finding out where other people in that place came from may point to a possible place of origin.
- Parents. The names of the parents may not be spelled correctly in records in the country of destination, especially if the parents themselves did not emigrate.
- Occupation. Most people would have been laborers or farmers, which does not help much in identifying an ancestor. But if your ancestor was a skilled laborer like a blacksmith or baker, he may have had the same occupation in the old country.
- Religion. For most people, their religion would not change upon emigration, although they might attend a different church if the specific denomination wasn't available in the new location.
- Associates. People often traveled in groups, so a neighbor in the new country may well have lived close by in the old country as well. Pay special attention to the people whom the immigrant ancestor associated with when they first arrived, since they are most likely to be connected back home.
Unless you know enough aspects about the identity of your immigrant ancestor, it is no use to go searching for him or her in the old country. If you try anyway, you may find a candidate, but without enough identifying information there is no way to tell if it is your ancestor or a person by the same name. In my experience, an immigrant ancestor whose identity is well established in the country of destination can often be found in the place of origin as well. The best place to start researching your immigrant ancestor is in the place where you know they lived, in the country of destination.
The strategies for finding records in the country of origin will differ from place to place. I wrote an article about how to find your immigrant ancestor from the Netherlands on my blog. If you have any tips for finding immigrant ancestors in other countries, please leave a comment, or write your own blog post and post a link in the comments.