Research History in Area of Immigration

Written By: Jayne McGarvey & Pam Holland

What We Will Cover In This Lesson:

  • Why Research History in Area of Immigration?

  • Three Approaches to Research Area of Immigration

  • Find The Local Record Collections Relevant to Your Ancestor at Time of Their Arrival.

  • What To Do Next.


Finding a trail back to a specific point of origin in Ireland can be one of the most frustrating and rewarding challenges a family history researcher can face. You may already have seen your ancestor listed in a local census, or other record, that shows Ireland as their birthplace. The temptation is great to immediately jump across to Ireland and start a search of local records to uncover more about your ancestor and their place of origin.

Stop for a moment!

Say you Irish ancestor was called “John Murphy” or “Mary Sullivan”. How many “John Murphys” were born in Ireland about the same time as YOUR John Murphy? How many “Mary Sullivans”? A lot!

You need to slow down and FIRST explore the records of your ancestor’s adopted country. Otherwise, you are likely to miss interesting information about your family’s first tentative steps in their new homeland AND you may walk right past the crucial information you need to find and separate YOUR ancestor from all the other individuals born in Ireland with a similar name, place of origin and date of birth.


Why Research History in Area of Immigration?

Our ancestors left Ireland for a myriad of reasons – some by force, some by choice and some because they had no other viable choice. Most of our ancestors will have immigrated to their new homeland sometime in the last 500 years.

That is a lot of time! Over that sort of time period, many changes occured in the types of administrative and historical records created, lost, or safely preserved in archives, court houses, basements or attics.

As a result, first gaining a little understanding of the history of the region to which your ancestor immigrated and the types of records created and kept around the time of their immigration can help you to:

  • Develop Your Research Goals further
  • Fine-tune your Research Strategies
  • Ensure your Research Plan has a better chance of success

We covered each of these concepts (research goals, research strategies and research plan) in the Stage 2 of the Research Road Map. I have also included a link to our “Research Planning Worksheet” for you to download at the end of this lesson.

As you begin to expand your knowledge about your immigrant ancestors you will typically uncover what professional genealogists refer to as “Ancestor Identifiers”. We also mentioned these in Stage 2 of the Roadmap. I also include a link to our Ancestry Identifier Worksheet at the end of this lesson for you to download, examine and use. It is crucial to gather as many Ancestor identifiers as possible so that when eventually head back to the Irish records – and faced with a number of possible “John Murphys” – you stand the best chance of deciding which, if any, is YOUR John Murphy.


Three Approaches to Research Area of Immigration

So, let’ now look at a systematic approach to researching the area to which your ancestor immigrated. The following steps illustrate some useful approaches to uncovering crucial information about your immigrant ancestor:

Approach 1: Uncover the Essential Facts.

Look at the records currently in your possession and establish at least some of the following information:

  • The name of your immigrant ancestor – and any variations in their fore or surname.
  • Approximately when they were born (or a possible date range)
  • Approximately when they immigrated (try to narrow this to a quarter of a specific century).
  • Names of other family members and their relationship to your ancestor.

If you haven’t done so already, you can capture what you discover on an Ancestry Identifier Worksheet.


Approach 2: Research Immigration Records.

Look at the records you currently have in your possession and try and establish:

  • Did your ancestor arrive alone?
  • Was your ancestor accompanied by his/her parents?
  • Did they arrive with a spouse and/or children?
  • Did they arrive with other relatives?
  • Did they have a person or employer they were joining listed on their immigration records?

If you haven’t done so already, you can capture what you discover on an Ancestry Identifier Worksheet.


Approach 3: Consider the Social History of Area of Immigration

Use the internet to undertake a little basic research of the area your ancestor first lived in when he/she arrived in their new country.

Try and find out some of the following:

  • Was the area urban or rural at the time of their immigration?
  • What were the demographics of the population?
  • What were the primary industries?
  • Did any of the employers employ people from a specific place in Ireland?
  • What was the main religion practiced in the area?
  • What were the dominant Irish surnames in the area?

The amount of research you do for the three approaches shown above will depend on the time period during which your ancestor arrived. For example, if your ancestor was an early immigrant then many of your answers may be best located in County history information and local historical societies.

On the other hand, if your ancestor arrived in the last 50/100 years then information discovered using the three approaches above may be more of interest than relevant to your research – as you can often jump straight to a wide variety of local, state and federal records.  Examples of more recent record types include:

  • Vital Events (birth, marriage, death)
  • Church records
  • Land records
  • Census records
  • Tax records
  • Probate records
  • Burial records/headstones
  • Newspaper reports
  • Club/Society records
  • Educational records
  • County histories, records and maps
  • Genealogical Pedigrees (often held by historical / genealogical groups)

As a final thought, don’t ignore a record collection because you may have to visit a Court House or Family History Centre in person. In my experience it is well worthwhile taking our face away from the computer screen for a while to pursue such visits. They often result in interesting conversations with people of knowledge that we would rarely find online.


Find The Local Record Collections Relevant to Your Ancestor at Time of Their Arrival.

So, the next step you will typically take is to discover which record collections are available to search in your ancestor’s area of immigration.

Let’s take an example of how to approach this step:

Let’s Take an Example:

In this example, we use to find out which main collections of records survive for the time period your ancestor arrived in the area in which they lived.

We start by following the link then choosing the region your ancestor emigrated to.

Use the the map to narrow to first Country, then State and then County for your preferred location of research.

Let’s make our example a little more detailed. First we narrow our search to North America, then to The United States, then to Alabama – and we are then presented with a series of Research Guides, a Clickable County Map and other resources such as Alabama Migration Routes.

This clickable listing of resources provides an excellent kickoff point for further exploration and research. You can find out more about this approach in our Quick Win Training: 4 Steps to using the Family Search Catalog.



I like to call this type of research “pre-research” research! I want to emphasise how crucially important it is to take the time to understand what record sets were created before and when your ancestor was alive.

The more you expand your knowledge about your ancestor’s post-immigration life then the greater your chance of finding relevant information that will link your ancestor back to a specific location and family in Ireland.

What To Do Next:

  • As you examine the local history of the area to which your Irish ancestor immigrated. Be sure to add discovered facts to your Ancestry Identifiers Worksheet.
  • Use to discover the various types of record sets available in the area to which your Irish ancestor immigrated. As you explore these suggested record sets, be sure to add discovered facts to your Ancestry Identifiers Worksheet.
  • Share your discoveries and questions with our genealogists in the Ask the Genealogist section of the Green Room Forum. See link below.

In the next lesson we move on to the next step of your Researching Your Ancestor in their Area of Immigration – Updating Your Research Plan and Timeline.



Click Here To Ask Our Genealogist a Question Related to This Module.



Related Resources.

Downloadable Worksheets:

Related Quick-Win Training:

Other Resources: