Identifying Your Ancestor’s Birthplace

Figuring out how great-grandpa ended up in Pennsylvania may be as easy as asking some older family members. But if you have little knowledge of your family history, or are an adoptee just trying to make family trees to link together some close DNA matches, this step is often quite easy if you try a few search methods.

Method 1: Use FamilySearch and do a general search on the target ancestor.

In this example, I already know the name of my great-great grandfather and that he was born somewhere in Hungary. I also know that several of his children emigrated to America around 1910. I enter his name and see what comes up.

There are plenty of other fields to try, but if this is all the information I have, it’s worth a try. I hit search and a list of results appear. I see an index from a passenger list with my great-grandmother’s name on it, Oswald’s daughter Mari.

I searched for my oldest known ancestor because as I’d hoped, it returned a list of several of his children who emigrated.

There is a passenger manifest attached to the index notes. This exact same document can also be found on Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, and The Liberty Ellis (Ellis Island) Foundation websites. Meaning, only 2/4 of these sites charge to view these documents. I plan to go into more detail on this topic in another article, but IMO, FamilySearch (free) and MyHeritage (not free) have the clearest images and their documents are more thoroughly indexed than those found on Ancestry or Liberty Ellis. As we’ve learned, not only are passengers searchable, but sometimes other people mentioned on the page will appear in the search as well.

Below is a close-up of the left-hand side of the manifest (with the empty and “ditto” parts in the middle cropped out).  We see Mari is listed on line 25.  She is 17 years old, unmarried, and a servant girl. The dittos reflect the same village of origin as the entry above hers. The last bit of info is “The name and complete address of nearest relative from whence alien came.”  Mari lists her father, O. Paar, from the village of Kondorfa. If I didn’t already know that is the correct village name, this would the “breakthrough” find to enable me to start searching in Hungary.

These passenger list pages are very wide, so I’ve cut the right-hand side into two parts.  Below, we follow line 25 all the way across (sometimes holding a ruler or piece of paper across the screen, under the line we’re trying to read, can help, especially when the images are crooked.  The dittos here are answers to the questions “Do you have a ticket to your final destination?” and “Who paid for the ticket” The answers were “yes” and “self,” which is pretty impressive, considering she’s a 17-year old servant girl. She still has $18 in her possession.

Next is the name of the person she’s planning to visit/stay with. It says bil (brother-in-law) Joseph Fabian, in Coplay, which is near Bethlehem, so this tells us Mari is going to meet and/or stay with her sister.

Often, these manifests would list the brother-in-law, rather than the sister, favoring a male relative over a female. Sometimes, a male with a different surname than the passenger is actually the husband of a female cousin, rather than simply a maternal-side cousin.

The last part of the line is a section that sometimes contains a hidden gem of information. I had seen photos of Mari and her husband together and thought he must have been very tall, but instead, I see that Mari was only 4’11”, so he just appeared tall standing next to her.  Also, I just learned she had blue eyes.

If step one didn’t return any info on your target ancestor, or your great-grandfather’s name was something like Janos Nagy, you have a bit more work to do. I chose Oswald Paar as an example of how to use unusual names to your advantage. Did your target ancestor have a sister with an odd name? I found one of my ancestors named Anna by searching for her sister Kunigunde. Sometimes we need to take roundabout paths, but we end up at the same place.

Method 2: Search Genealogy Groups

To further verify any information found in Step 1, try regional genealogical groups. If you suspect your ancestors were from Burgenland, Austria, check here for a list of over 22,000 people who emigrated to the US from that area. You can search by state and city.

There are also groups on Facebook and a very active message board on Ancestry. Even trying a Google search might bring up some information. Check public family trees on Wikitree, Geni, MyHeritage, or any of dozens of sites where one of your 2nd cousins may have uploaded a tree.

Method 3: Obituary Searches

If your target ancestor died after the 1950s (I’m estimating here, because I tend to find results more easily if the even occurred in the 1960s or later), you may find their obituary at the Library by using one of their newspaper searches, of at home by using Newspapers.com. If the ancestor died after 2000, their obituary may show up on a Google search, usually linking to a page on Legacy.com.

Obituary searches that include a location in the US are very useful when your ancestor has a common name. Instead of looking for Mari via her father Oswald, my next example will be finding her husband, Jozsef Horvath. Not only was this a very common name, but there were at least a few dozen men with that exact same name living in the same small Hungarian village at any given time.

I do know my great-grandfather died in Bethlehem sometime after 1950. If this was the only information available to me, I could use a newspaper search. Using Newspapers.com, I search the years 1950-1960 and find the following obituary within the first 50 results.

 

Now I know the middle name of Mari’s husband is Alex, so it should be easier to find him.  The article also confirms the year she arrived in the US by stating that she’s been a Bethlehem resident for 52 years and also lists my grandfather as one of her children. We also know her mother’s name was Rose.

Method 4: Death Record Searches

Some states like Pennsylvania have indexed and viewable death records going back to the late 1800s and going up to the mid 1960’s (this changes each year — currently, records are available up to 1966). Sometimes, they listed the deceased’s village of birth and usually they listed their parents.

Other states like Wisconsin do not allow unlimited access to death records, and instead offer indexes with some basic info. For a fee, you can order the records you need.

Often, the witness signing the death certificate was a child or spouse of the deceased, but sometimes it was a neighbor or friend. The accuracy of information on a death certificate varies quite a bit, depending on who provided the information. In Jozsef’s case, I wasn’t able to locate his death record with any useful identifying info, because (as I learned later) he died in 1969.

Method 5: Naturalization Record Searches

If the target ancestor’s village of origin still hasn’t been located after trying methods 1-3, you may have some luck with naturalization records. I say may, because not all records are online. Your ancestor may have a 5-page file digitized and available to view from your home computer, but some will require a bit of legwork to obtain. Some states and cities have indexed immigration records, while others require a trip to the county courthouse or a fee paid to a records retrieval service.

Jozsef’s naturalization documents are held at the Northampton County courthouse. Below is a portion of his declaration page. It includes his date and village of birth, as well as the birth dates and locations of his wife and their three children. The photo is an added bonus.

 

Additionally, I now have the date of Jozsef’s immigration as well as the name of the ship he arrived on, and most importantly, his date of birth.

Method 6: DNA

If you’ve taken a DNA test, look at the family trees of your DNA matches. Make a list of the town names that appear over and over and it may be the very same place your target ancestor was born.  Keep in mind, some regions experienced higher rates of emigration than others, and this method may be of little use if your great-grandfather has few descendants who’ve also DNA tested.

Other Methods:

WWI and WWII Draft Card Indexes – Occasionally, men would list their home village as well as country of origin. Images of these cards can be found on many websites.

Census Records – “Walk the neighborhood” where the target ancestor lived and try to find his home village by searching the people who lived near him. Browsing the census shows that in 1920, Jozsef was living next to his brother Gyorgy. When researching Gyorgy, I learned he lived to be 103 and had a full-page write-up in the newspaper, which included his home village and many very useful and interesting details.

Benevolent Societies and Churches – Some parish records are available online, but it varies by location.

Cemeteries – Sites like Findagrave.com often have photos and obituaries linked to ancestors.

Passenger List Searches – The Liberty Ellis Foundation offers a passenger search, as long as you create a free account. For arrivals before 1892, Castle Garden has a free search as well. These sites only cover New York City, so it won’t show those who arrived at Philadelphia, Baltimore, or via Canada, or other entry points.

There are many other ways to find an ancestor’s village of origin, and sometimes information appears in the most unlikely of places. There is no “one” right way to find answers. Don’t limit yourself to my suggestions, and be sure to share your discoveries with others, when appropriate.

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