Recently we had a visit from a patron who only had about 30 minutes to spend in The Genealogy Center to find the birth date and birth place of his immigrant ancestor. The patron explained that his sister was currently in Greece on vacation and needed the information TODAY so she could search for the family at the General Archives of Greece. This ancestor, let’s call him “Demetri,” came to this country from Greece around 1890* (*details changed to protect patron privacy). We were able to help the patron find Demetri’s birth date from his tombstone via the free website, Find a Grave, and from a World War II Draft Registration (found on Ancestry), although the two dates did not match exactly. A specific place of birth for him was not found, although it might have been possible, had the patron more time to spend on this question. While the patron seemed satisfied with what was found, I’m not sure how successful the sister’s search was at the Greek Archives, with only this sketchy information. What could this family have done differently to ensure greater success?
Just as you apply for a passport, make your plane reservations, and arrange hotel accommodations all way in advance of your departure date, you need to do your genealogical homework beforehand for an overseas research trip as well. The most important thing you can do to prepare for your trip is to start researching your immigrant ancestral origins as soon as possible. There are many factors outside of our control that can make your particular ancestor search easier or harder. Finding an ancestor who came to the United States within the past 120 years is generally easier because more records were created and have survived from that time period. The search can be complicated by an immigrant’s decision to Americanize their name, and by political upheaval in Europe that has resulted in geographic boundary and town name changes. You will want to look for records created after the immigrant’s arrival in America that provide clues of immigrant origins, specifically, those that might show an ancestor’s date of birth, parents’ names, and/or birth place in the old country. Types of U.S. records to consult include: ship’s passenger lists, naturalization records, death certificates, marriage licenses, Social Security applications, obituaries, organizational records, land records, employment records, newspaper articles, probate records, family papers or Bibles, and church records - most of which are not typically available on the internet. Remember to research all members of the family who immigrated (father, mother, their children, siblings of the parents, cousins, etc.) because if you find where one of them originated, chances are the rest of the family was from the same place. This research may take some time to complete, but will be worth the time spent, if it helps you find your immigrant origins, right? Armed with this data, you can then travel to the old country with the correct information and increase your chances of success in foreign archives and libraries. You might also be able to pre-arrange a visit to your ancestral village(s) of origin.
A second important task you should complete before your trip is to find the website for or current information about any foreign libraries/archives you wish to visit; check their hours, location, and holdings; and try to set up an appointment via email or telephone for a specific date and time to look at specific records. Not doing this can lead to upsetting situations, such as arriving at an archives on a Monday, only to find out that the building is closed to the public on Mondays or that the English- speaking archivist is only in the office on Wednesdays.
We want your next family history trip to be a success. So remember to plan ahead for possible future trips, come and see us in The Genealogy Center, and start researching your immigrant ancestor today!