10 tips for finding family that emigrated

4-5 minute read

By The Findmypast Team | August 17, 2020

emigrant ancestors

Did your ancestor move abroad for a new life? Here's how to trace their globetrotting adventures.

Migration is nothing new. Families were moving around the world in search of a better life centuries ago. Did yours?

These tips and techniques will help you find emigrant ancestors in your family's records and uncover their amazing stories.

1. Establish timelines

In family history, it's always best practice to start with what you know and move backwards. Some of the best emigration discoveries come from finding your ancestor's parent's information in records. When working with travel records, it's important to have a clearly defined timeline created for your ancestor so that you can dive into your research right from start.

Having an approximate date range of when your ancestor emigrated is key to starting your research so that you can narrow where to look.

It's also important to have a clear understanding of where your immigrant ancestor went. It will help you narrow things down in cases where the naturalisation process may have occurred over multiple courts and locations.

2. Check the attic for family keepsakes

Have a search around your house for clues that might tell you more about your family's travels. Look for family bibles, heirlooms from another country, postcards, journals, books with inscriptions written in them, photographs, or old passports. Don't leave any stone unturned, you never know what may be the key to unlocking vital migration details.

3. Did they go to America? Check US census records

If your ancestor, like so many, emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, US census records are your first port of call. The US Census includes sections for citizenship and naturalisation, so it can help you determine which of your ancestors emigrated Stateside and where they came from.

As with all records, keep in mind that some of the details might be worth taking with a pinch of salt. Historical census information was collected verbally from the head of household and wasn't fact-checked by the enumerators.

1880 US Census

An excerpt from the 1880 US Census showing parents' places of birth outside America.

US Census abbreviations

Abbreviations under the naturalisation columns in the census can provide clues about how your ancestors settled into their new lives and communities. Here are the common abbreviations in the naturalisation and citizenship columns:

4. Locate your ancestor's place of origin

If you can pinpoint where your immigrant ancestor lived before they moved, it will help you narrow your search as you explore records from their new country. You can often find this information in the records you've searched previously. Birth, marriage and death records, for example, can all reveal where your ancestor may have lived prior to journeying overseas. While census records can help you identify the country at very least.

5. Cross-reference and double-check

Information you didn't think was helpful initially, could end up being a key element in your family research later, so always revisit previous finds.

6. Search passenger lists

Luckily for family historians, ship manifests were required during the period of mass emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. If the record survived, it's likely that you'll find your ancestor in one of these lists. The information you can learn from passenger lists varies as each shipping line had their own way of keeping records.

early emigration records

An early migration record from 1638 found in Britain, Registers Of Licences To Pass Beyond The Seas 1573-1677.

Keep in mind that passenger lists are often kept by the departure country. If you have a general idea of when your ancestor emigrated, you can browse ship records by time period to try to locate them.

7. Harness the power of wildcard searches

Online search engines (including Findmypast's) use wildcard tools to help retrieve additional, variant results in your searches. When exploring travel records, this can be massively helpful if your ancestor's name changed due to miscommunication or language differences.

8. Next up, naturalisation records

Naturalisations are the records associated with the process your ancestor went through to become a citizen in the country they've decided to settle in. These records often include key details about your ancestors that you might not find anywhere else.

Naturalisations may also include extra ancestors for your family tree because they often include the family members of those who are applying for naturalisation. If a family member was born in the United States, for example, but their parents were not, their naturalisation could reveal where their parents came from.

Naturalisation records are often more than one page long and sometimes include photographs, so be sure to look through all the pages for extra titbits.

Did your ancestor live in multiple countries throughout their life? Be sure to look for naturalisations from all locations. Each one can reveal more details.

9. Find old passport applications

Passports started to become mandatory for travel abroad from the early 20th century onwards.

US passport applications can reveal your ancestor's country of birth

US passport applications can reveal your ancestor's country of birth.

The records of early passport applications are rich in detail, containing facts like:

10. Expand your horizons. Search by family name

It's a good rule of thumb to search for all the members of a family in travel records because vital details could be hidden in any of their records. For example, your ancestor's hometown might be listed in their sister's marriage certificate, but not in any of their documents. Your ancestor's close, or even distant relatives can provide additional clues to help you fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

All set to start your search? Dive into our immigration and travel records now and let us know what you find. We love hearing about your discoveries on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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