PROVO, Utah — Leslie Albrecht Huber wants to be very clear about one thing: If you want to do research on your immigrant ancestors, you need to know their hometown in Europe. "The town name. This is the key piece of information that you need to trace your European ancestor and to continue to have success in Western Europe. You need to find the name of the Old World town where your family lived," Huber said to a class at BYU's Conference on Family History and Genealogy on Thursday.
But that is the trick, isn't it?
Once the hometown is found, Huber said research is relatively easy — because people did not move around a lot and the records were usually local to the ancestor's local church. In fact, if you find that hometown and the ancestor's local records, Huber said there are often multi-generational records in the same place.
Oh, but to find that hometown isn't always easy.
Genealogical records can give sometimes give information like one entry Huber found that said an ancestor was born in Germany in the Empire of Germany.
"I'm going to tell you the good news about town names. And that is there are many possible places to find a town name," she said. "And now we have the bad news: None of these sources are guaranteed to have your family."
Even if a hometown is found, it may not be reliable, Huber said. The town could have been misspelled or translated (like the town of one ancestor in Sweden written as "Valley City." Not likely.). The town may not exist any more. The record may generalize — such as saying Hamburg when the ancestor really lived in a small town 10 miles from the city. And the town may be just plain incorrect. "Who knows why some of our ancestors tell us some of the things they do," she said.
Huber, an author and genealogist, shared eight ways to cross the ocean:
1. Family Records
The first place to look is in family records. "Ask your grandma first," Huber said. Although family records can sometimes be a mix of fact and fancy, they are an easy place to begin. For example, Huber was researching her husband's genealogy and asked a distant aunt if she knew anything about the particular ancestor. She said she didn't, but she did have a photograph. She sent the photograph, and on the back was written when the ancestor was born and in the German town of Erseolsheim. The actual town ended up being Ernolsheim and the records of that ancestor were found back to 1736.
2. Genealogy Records
Genealogy records are the secondary sources where people have already done work — such as pedigree charts, family histories and so forth. Huber said the information can be retrieved fast, but it has to be checked against original sources. For example, one pedigree chart listed a birthplace as Brenz, but it was really Benz. On the same line was a woman named Dorthea Ball. Wrong person. The correct woman turned out to be Sophia Engle.
3. U.S. Church Records
Churches often included vital information — births, marriages and death records. Huber said all you have to do is find the church where they went. The ease of this task depends on their town, ethnicity and how well the church kept records. Some records are at the Family History Library, others at state and local archives, but sometimes you need to go to the church.
4. U.S. Vital Records
Death and marriage records often give birth places. They were created at town, county or state level. Some are available online and at the Family History Library, but others need to be ordered (sometimes at high fees — $30 per in New York). "Where to Write for Vital Records" is an online resource that may help. Huber found one ancestor in New York death records. The hometown? Bavaria.
5. Naturalization and Citizenship Records
Foreign-born citizens didn't need to naturalize, but many desired citizenship and may have at least begun the trail of paperwork required. Before 1906 it was a state process and could take place in any court, Huber said. Some of this information is online. Some of this information is only found in the courts where it was done.
6. Emigration or Immigration Compiled Sources
These are the books like "Great Migrations Series," "Palatines to America" or "Irish to America." Huber said they are fast and easy to use, but incomplete and sometimes hit or miss. She said to check familysearch.org in its "maps, forms and guides" section.
7. U.S. Passenger Arrival Lists
Huber said there are more of these records online than any other records. Immigrants came to New York, but also other cities such as Boston. Some are available at www.ancestry.com, others at www.castlegarden.org (10 million people) and www.ellisisland.org (22 million people).
8. European Emigration Records
"I really want to put a gold star by this group of records," Huber said. Why? Because she said they are underutilized. Of all the records mentioned, these are the ones that, if found, are most likely to have the hometown. Some ports, like Hamburg, have good records. Others, such as Rotterdam, are lost.
"What if you go to all these places ,and you still haven't had any luck in finding your town name?" Huber said. "Well don't give up yet." She said there are other places to look. Any record could have the information needed — from census records, obituaries, military records, probate records and so forth.
Also be on the lookout for traveling companions — the friends and relatives of your ancestor. Your ancestor's record may be silent, but his friends may give the clue to their common place of origin.
When it comes to chasing an ancestor across the sea, there is no place like their hometown.
BYU's Conference on Family History and Genealogy concludes today. For more information go to familyhistoryconferences.byu.edu.