Across the Pond: Researching Ancestral Origins

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

Identifying our immigrant ancestors and determining their origin are important steps in the genealogical process and, as difficult as it may be, researching those ancestors in their native land is something else again. Before we can even begin looking into records, understanding the history and customs of a country within a country and its regions, is key. If we think boundary changes in the U.S. are a challenge, we can only imagine the changes wrought by war and occupation in other lands. Once we have identified an area and know what records were created in a given time period and who has jurisdiction over those records, the next barrier we may encounter is language -- depending on its history, a single country may have records in more than one language. The final barrier is access. What records are available, where and in what form. In days past, correspondence or personal travel was our only recourse; today, we have the Internet. And while many records exist, not all have been put online. This series on International research, at present focused on European countries, aims at helping us better understand each country and its records, providing background and direction to aid the research. In addition, research principles suggested for one country can be applied to other countries, as well.

And, as if two calendars aren't enough, we learn the French, at least for a time, had their own calendar, which can have an affect on genealogical research. As with every country, France has it own unique characteristics and go-to records. In the U.S. one of the first go-to records is the census, whereas, in France, it is parish records, where the majority of vital records were kept until after the French Revolution. Post-Revolution research is almost a piece of cake, with the centralization of civil records. Providing background to better understand the history of this nation and its records, and identifying resources where records might be accessed today is the focus Finding French - cherchez la famille.

However, "before spending a lot of time of looking in old records, talk to old people." Sound advice no matter the research project, and the sooner the better. Networking is also key. Italians were one of the most populous groups emigrating to American, over 4 million strong between 1880 and 1920, resulting many descendants and many organizations across the country dedicated to Italians research. Where to look for information on both sides of the Atlantic, in addition to tips for researching and numerous resources are discussed in Illuminating Italian.

Names presents a challenge in language. In Denmark, as with other Scandinavian countries, the patronymic naming system was in place until about 1875; after that the Western surname tradition came into effect, albeit slowly -- and the question then becomes, what surname was chosen. This complexity of names and the importance of narrowing one's research to the parish level, along with a substantial list of useful resources is presented in Detecting Danish.

When it comes to languages, it's hard to rival the Swiss. We often hear that Switzerland has four official languages, German, French, Latin and Romansh, and they all come together at the federal level. What we might not know is that each language holds official status in different geographic regions, which can be significant for those researching their ancestral origins in Switzerland, a true European crossroads. The Swiss are a fiercely independent people with a fascinating history dating back to the thirteenth century. The distribution of language and its impact on research, emigration to the U.S., and multiple Swiss resources are discussed in Seeking Swiss.

The area known today as the Czech Republic has a long written history, dating back hundreds of years. Of primary interest to genealogists is the "large and impressive network of archives." And while many believe research must be conducted inside the country, work is going on to make more of these records available online. Insights and information, including a number of books and online resources is provided in Czech Out Your Ancestors!.

Understanding the history of country is important to understanding its records. "Poland is a proud country with a very long history. Because of its location, many of its neighbors have seen fit to invade it and, therefore. create a very involved mish-mash of records in varying languages." Challenging, to be sure, but the more information you can glean in advance, the better. Keen insights into the records, the languages, helpful strategies and the many avenues available for research in Poland and on the Internet is presented in Pursuing Polish.

Even with its barriers, researching our ancestors in their native lands is an opportunity to expand our knowledge, to see history become relevant through the lives of our ancestors, to learn more about our heritage and the day-to-day life and trials of those whose decisions and choices, sometimes amid great hardship, brought them to the point of emigration.

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