Tracing a family's lineage back to another country is a landmark achievement for a genealogist.

Unfortunately that's as far as many people get - we know some things about our immigrant ancestors, but struggle to find evidence of them in their home country.

This is really a huge shame - how exciting it would be to open up a whole new country to research in! Sadly, language, geography and number of records available are insurmountable barriers faced by some.

It all depends on the country your ancestors came from.

The good news is that most of us with British or Irish ancestors are now in a fantastic position to make a real breakthrough - with more American, British and Irish records coming online every week, the information is out there.

It's just a matter of finding it, and we can show you the way.

Trace your transatlantic ancestors

Our search guide

It's no easy task to track a family back across a transatlantic migration, but there are some shortcuts you may be able to take.

There are several important facts you'll need to know, and there is no one source or even type of record that can be counted on to hold that information - you'll most likely need to query several databases in your quest.

To help you, we have put together a guide to achieve this lofty goal with ease. The strategies and American sources will apply to all researchers, regardless of their ancestor's country of origin. We recommend reading each article in order.

Table of contents

  1. Step one: Overview (you are here)
  2. Step two: Search US records
  3. Step three: Search UK & Irish records & verify
  4. Immigrants who returned home
  5. Origins of Colonial Immigrants

Before beginning: What to look for

In order to make an attempt at finding your ancestor in Britain or Ireland, you must know the following information about them:

  • Full name: Including middle name and any possible alternative names used in the old country. For instance, A Patrick in American records may be Padraig in Ireland.
  • Birth date: The entire date is ideal, but if you only have the year it's workable.
  • Birth location: This is really the key piece of information, and the more specific you can find the better. Knowing the country is obviously the absolute bare minimum, but without knowing the county or province at least, it will be difficult. The ideal result is discovering the city or town of birth.
  • Other family members: Knowing names and basic information about other family members is the easiest way to confirm we have found the right people in the homeland.

Any other information you know can be helpful. Things like their religion or occupation can provide vital clues to the region your ancestor came from in their home country.

After assembling any of this you already have, seek out family sources first. While we obviously want to find documentary evidence, we'll be also be happy with any lead we can get. Don't underestimate anecdotal evidence to get you started - ask some of your family members if they remember hearing where your subject was born or from.

These kinds of leads may provide supporting evidence for later discoveries, or failing any solid discoveries, can at least give you a hunch about where to look overseas.

Why you must begin with US records

Perhaps the most common mistake in this situation is beginning research in the wrong country. But think about the sheer numbers - chances are your immigrant ancestor produced more records in the United States than in their home country. Furthermore, we must always work backwards from what we know, so it's absolutely necessary to start off in the U.S. and work our way backwards.

You should have no trouble finding the bulk of the minimum information you need, but it's the birthplace that is tricky yet essential. Unfortunately, there is no one source that consistently records this fact, and quality and quantity of records available differs greatly depending on time and region.

Our advice for finding your immigrant ancestor's birthplace in American records is to move forward with a strategic, layered approach. Begin with already compiled genealogies, periodicals and newspapers, then move on to specific types of records.

Moving on to another country

Once you're armed with the necessary information, you can begin to search for your immigrant ancestor in foreign records. The step-by-step process is similar to the one you use for US records, but the sources are different. You will begin with any compiled genealogies or helpful periodical articles, and then move on to specific record sets, including newspapers.

The good news is that record coverage for both Britain and Ireland is strong relative to other countries, and it's rapidly improving on top of that. The United Kingdom has census records available for England, Scotland and Wales dating back to 1841, and over 500 million parish records cover several centuries earlier. Ireland used to present a challenge, but our recently released Catholic Parish Registers make it more possible than ever to find your ancestor in their home country.

Problems you may encounter

The most common problem is being unable to find your immigrant ancestor's birthplace. While this is definitely a difficult roadblock to overcome, it's not impossible. There are ways to make educated guesses as to the region your ancestor came from. As long as you have some kind of lead, it's possible to still make this discovery using some circumstantial evidence.

For instance, knowing the religious denomination and period of immigration of your ancestor could provide a vital clue: Most colonial immigrants came in groups, usually from very specific regions of England and Ireland.

Additionally, many are not aware that immigrants did go back home. Not everyone stayed. While scholarly estimates differ, it was far from uncommon and you may encounter multiple trips across the Atlantic. It's important to keep this possible solution to a mystery in mind - realizing your ancestor went back home will greatly affect the areas and time periods you search in.

Other helpful resources

Here are some other helpful articles that you may want to read, depending on where your research takes you:

Next lesson: How to find your immigrant ancestor's birthplace in US records

Trace your transatlantic ancestors