Sources and Strategies for Discovering Immigrant Origins

To research the ancestral line of an immigrant, a reliable connection must be made between that person and his or her place of origin. Tracing immigrant ancestors involves examining a wide variety of sources, and sometimes requires implementing strategies that can provide clues to possible places of origin.

The first step toward researching an immigrant’s origins is to gather basic information about the individual and his or her life in the destination country, including where they lived, what religion they practiced, who their relatives were, where they worked, and when they died. These key pieces of information are necessary to identify and locate records that can be searched for evidence of ancestral origins.

Passenger Lists
Passenger lists for immigrants who arrived in the United States are widely available online and through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Manifests from the early 1800s to the mid-1890s include only the passenger’s country of origin. Beginning in the mid-1890s, the passenger’s last residence (often their place of birth or somewhere nearby) was included on the manifest. After 1906, the passenger’s last residence and place of birth were included on the manifest. Some passenger lists also include the name and address of the immigrant’s relative or friend in the country of origin, and the name and address of the person that the immigrant was joining in the United States.

Naturalization Records
When researching twentieth-century immigrants, naturalization records are often the most useful source for identifying birth locations. Post-1906 naturalization records include a specific place of birth (city or town in the foreign country) for both the petitioner and his or her spouse. Earlier naturalization records usually include only the individual’s country of allegiance, although the types of records created as a result of early naturalizations varied by court of jurisdiction, and there are some exceptions. Naturalization actions took place in several different courts (federal, state, county, and local), so there may be multiple record sets to check in order to complete a thorough search. Naturalization records may also be of interest even if census records indicate that an individual never naturalized. Many immigrants filed declarations of intent, hoping to naturalize, but never followed through with the rest of the process. Some immigrants may have even filed naturalization petitions that were denied. See “A Primer on United States Naturalization Records” for a general overview of naturalization records.

Alien Records
Immigrants who were not naturalized by August of 1940, or who entered the United States after that date, were required to register as aliens with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Anyone who fell under this category would have filled out an alien registration card, which identifies the immigrant’s birth location, arrival date and place, and details about their lives before immigration, such as military service abroad. Alien registration cards, as well as other documentation, are held by NARA and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). For an overview of the different types of alien records available, read “Finding and Using Alien Records.”

Visa Files
Non-citizens who entered the United States after July of 1924 were required to present a visa at the time of immigration. Visitor visa files have been destroyed, but immigrant visa files survive and are now held by USCIS. Visa files include a variety of forms and records that provide the immigrant’s date and place of birth. Most often, they also include records documenting the immigrant’s origins, such as a birth certificate, baptismal certificate, or affidavit providing the date and place of birth.

Census Records
Federal and state census records typically provide only the immigrant’s country of birth; however, they often include information that can lead to other records that are likely to provide additional information. Many federal census enumerations specify the naturalization status of foreign-born individuals. The 1870 census includes a checkbox for male U.S. citizens who were twenty-one years of age or older. The 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 census enumerations indicate naturalization status—“NA” indicates that the person was naturalized; “PA” indicates that first papers (a declaration of intention) had been filed but the naturalization process was not yet complete; and “AL” indicates that the person was an alien, and had not filed a declaration of intention. The 1920 census also includes the individual’s year of naturalization. The naturalization information provided on census records is useful for narrowing down the time frame in which a person was naturalized, and determining a likely court of jurisdiction for the naturalization.

Federal census enumerations for 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 indicate each foreign-born individual’s year of immigration, which can be useful in searching for and analyzing passenger lists. Military service is indicated on the 1910 and 1930 federal census enumerations, and can lead to other records that may identify an immigrant’s place of birth. And, although census records typically only provide the country of birth, the manner in which that information is recorded can sometimes suggest a region—for example, if the place of birth is recorded as “Bavaria,” “Austria Poland,” or “Irish Free State.”

Social Security Applications
Any individual who applied for a Social Security Number filled out an SS-5 form, which includes a field for the applicant’s place of birth. SS-5 forms exist for anyone who is listed in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), and also for many individuals who were alive after 1935 (when the Social Security Act was enacted) but are not included in the SSDI. Information from many (but not all) SS-5 forms, including place of birth, can be found in’s U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936−2007 database. This database is created from original SSDI applications and claim records, which can be ordered online or via mail.

Immigrant ancestors who became naturalized and who travelled frequently may have been issued United States passports. Passport applications include the applicant’s date and place of birth, as well as the applicant’s father’s name and place of birth, making them an important source to consult for both immigrants and immigrants’ children. Passport applications from 1795 through 1925 are available online through’s U.S. Passport Applications, 1795–1925 database. Passport applications from 1925 onward, held by the Department of State, are subject to privacy restrictions and must be requested through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Military Records
Pension files for veterans and their spouses sometimes include pension application forms that note foreign places of birth. Additionally, documentation such as foreign birth or marriage certificates may have been submitted as proof of age or marital status. World War I and World War II draft registration cards are one of the best military sources for identifying the birth locations of immigrant men who were born in the later part of the nineteenth century. For many World War I and World War II veterans, surviving military personnel files include various records that may identify the veteran’s place of birth.

Civilian and Employment Records
Men and women who were part of the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, or other work programs have federal government personnel files that can provide details about birth location. Although some of these programs were for American citizens only, naturalized citizens were eligible. For details on WPA and CCC records and how to access them, read “Records of the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.” Other types of private employment records may also provide similar information.

Organizational Records
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many immigrants were members of ethnic fraternal organizations. Records can include membership applications, insurance policy documentation, and other sources that can provide information about place of origin. Availability of these organizations’ records varies, but some have been made available online through various genealogical societies and subscription websites. For example, some of the records for Emigrant Savings Bank, established by members of the Irish Emigrant Society in 1850, are available through’s “New York, Emigrant Savings Bank Records, 1850–1883” database.

Newspaper articles—especially obituaries and marriage announcements—sometimes include the place of birth of parties mentioned in the articles. Ethnic newspapers that cover immigrant communities in specific areas provide an individual’s place of origin more often than general newspapers. Several newspapers, such as The Boston Pilot, also printed advertisements from those living abroad who were seeking information about their relatives in the United States.

Vital Records
In most cases, vital records identify only the individual’s country of origin, and not a specific region, county, or village. However, there are exceptions, and these basic genealogical sources should be exhausted during any quest to discover immigrant origins. A comprehensive search should include records not only for the immigrant but also for other relatives who were born abroad (siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins), and the children of those individuals.

Church Records
Church records—especially for churches with parishioners that were primarily of a specific ethnicity—may include information on foreign places of birth. Often, this information is not included in church-issued baptismal and marriage certificates or in civil marriage certificates, since it may not have been required on the pre-printed forms used to create those documents. Original parish registers should be examined to determine what additional information they may provide.

County Histories and Mug Books
Although most county histories and mug books are undocumented, they can still provide valuable information about the origins of an area’s prominent individuals and early settlers. Much of the information for these publications came from the memories of individuals who were living when the books were written. Many county histories and mug books are available at local libraries and historical societies, and many have also been digitized on and Google Books. Additionally, researchers may wish to consult any surviving personal papers of authors or compilers, as they may include information that didn’t make it into the publications.

Family Sources
Many of the best genealogical sources can be found at home. Naturalization papers, family Bibles, foreign birth certificates, photographs, and correspondence from relatives abroad can provide foreign places of birth, as well as addresses or clues that can help identify an immigrant’s origins.

Many sources can provide direct evidence of an immigrant’s birth location, and further research in foreign records can confirm the validity of that information. However, for some elusive immigrant ancestors, direct evidence of a birth location cannot be found. In those cases, several techniques and strategies can help uncover clues that suggest places of origin.

Many immigrant ancestors can be connected to friends, neighbors, and associates who were also born abroad. Identifying the immigrant origins of these individuals, especially those associated with the person being researched during his or her early years in the United States, can provide a possible place of origin to be further investigated. If no associates can be identified, or associates’ origins cannot be discovered, researching others in the community can be helpful. Often, large numbers of individuals from a town abroad immigrated to the same town in the United States, and lived among the same people they knew from the old country. For example, the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Polish immigrants who lived in the towns of Mayfield and Jermyn in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, were almost exclusively from the small villages of Brzezowa and Mrukowa in southeastern Poland.

In many countries, surnames can be tied to specific areas or regions, and research into the ancestral origins of individuals with the same surname as the immigrant can be helpful. Some of the best sources for this type of research are the World War I and World War II draft cards, naturalization records, and passenger manifests.

Additionally, several types of DNA testing can offer clues to ancestral origins. DNA tests match the test taker to genetic relatives with whom they share DNA. Each tester’s genetic match list includes relatives of various degrees—siblings, second cousins, fourth cousins, and so on. Clues to a brick-wall immigrant ancestor’s birth location can sometimes be found in the documented pedigrees of DNA matches.

The information that we gather from these strategies won’t serve as proof of an immigrant’s origins, but it can provide us with possible places of origin to focus additional research. To learn about how an NGSQ author identified a nineteenth-century Irish immigrant’s place of birth when no other source provided that information, read “Indirect Evidence to Identify an Ancestral Homeland,” in the June 2016 issue of NGS Monthly.

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