If a 27-year-old third generation American girl can trace her family back to a town in Poland of 1,600 people, then anything is possible. Ancestry research is fun, rewarding, and can sometimes be heartbreaking. Ready to take an emotional journey? Here are 5 tips to successfully trace your ancestors from someone who’s done it.

Use the Ellis Island Passenger Search

This should be your starting point, as it’s completely free and provides the most basic information to help you get started in your search. Important information that’s worth looking at on the Passenger Search is the town or province of where it says your ancestor came from, who they came with, and who they were going to see. When people immigrated in the late 1800’s, they required them to say the address of where they were going, and the person’s relationship to them that they were meeting. People often overlook this area on the immigration records, but you may just discover they were meeting your great great uncle Bill! It’s all about connecting those family dots.

Tip: If it says if they traveled with someone, try looking up that person as well. A lot of people immigrated in small groups. My grandmother came with two other girls her age from Poland. If, for instance, it didn’t state where my grandmother came from in Poland, I might then look up her friend and see if it says on her records.

Don’t be afraid to follow weird paths that might not seem promising

Weird paths pop up all the time when searching for your ancestors. Sometimes they don’t see very promising, but every goose chase is worth it. In the end, you either find something amazing or you get to eliminate a possibility, so it’s a win-win. I discovered my grandmother was widowed and then traveled back to Poland to drop off her infant son (they did that back then if the child didn’t have a father). I discovered her husband died by following a last name other than what I knew her’s to be. Turns out, she was once married before she married my grandfather.

Use Google to clarify information

Google everything. But especially Google and search for the towns that your family immigrated from. These towns can tell you a whole lot about what life was like for your ancestors. I was able to find old cadastral maps online that labeled where each house was, and eventually, after digging up enough information, I could point to the house on the map where my family lived and grew up in. Often times the passenger’s place of origin can also be misspelled. No way an immigration officer is going to spell some little Eastern European or French town correctly. Google can help you to correct that misspelling and identify the correct one.

Do not disregard misspellings

That leads me to my next tip… Do not disregard misspellings. People spelled a ton of sh*t wrong back in the day. I mean just think about it. Picture our ancestors as Chris Tucker in Rush Hour: “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth.” The answer is no, even though they tried their best. If something is misspelled so badly that you’re not sure, make sure to follow other leads. Link up some other evidence that proves to you it’s the correct town. Again, maybe it’s a town another friend or family member immigrated from with them.

Tip: Last name misspellings are even more notorious. Do not disregard these either. Make sure you go down that path and rule them out. I was able to find the original marriage act of my grandmother to her first husband, even though literally everyone’s name was spelling incorrectly. They got married in America, so it’s no wonder they butchered all the Polish names.

But how can you know if a misspelling is a legitimate mistake, or if it’s a totally different person? Keep Reading!

Corroborate Everything

This tip is so important! You need to corroborate everything you come across, including mistakes in spelling. Make sure that timelines like births, deaths, marriage(s), and children all match up. It’s also important when you’re corroborating your findings that you know some history about the era. For instance, a lot of people had children very young, and no one batted an eye when a 17-year-old girl married a 30-year-old man (seriously). Also, knowing a little bit about the country where your ancestors were from is important too. That will dictate what life was like for them, and may lead you to be able to corroborate something based on that.

I hope these tips help you during your search! Nothing is more rewarding that connecting the pieces to your own family tree. Happy searching!

Want to see what my search was like? Watch my 2016 ancestral journey that led me all the way to Poland.

24 Comments

  1. This is such a fascinating post, Emily! I don’t know why I’ve never thought about tracing my ancestors – maybe simply because a lot of my family are still fortunately around and that seemed enough. But after reading this, I’m really curious! Some brilliant tips too!

    Musings & More

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  2. I’ve always been interested in really tracing my ancestors beyond my grandfather. These are great tips on putting together the pieces of the puzzle to figure out where your ancestors are from and perhaps what they did. Glad you were able to find out that your ancestors came from a little town in Poland when you did your search!

    exquisitely.me

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  3. These are such great tips! And a fun way to do your own research before spending money on an ancestry kit. My dad is from Vietnam and they immigrated to the U.S, when he was 12, so I’ll have to do a little extra digging for that! I think it’s incredibly powerful to know where you came from though. Definitely something I didn’t come to realize and appreciate until I was a little older!

    Susie | http://milehighdreamers.com

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    1. For sure! This will at least get you started. I have definitely spent some money on this though! As you’ve noticed, some things require a little extra digging, and once you exhaust all the American records it becomes quite difficult. I worked with (and paid) a company in Poland to help me find some things! Totally worth it though. 🙂

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  4. This is so cool! These are really great tips too. For my mom’s side of the family, I’ve only been able to trace back as far as my great-grandfather. He came to the Philippines from China and had changed his last name as a way of thanking the man who helped him sort his paperwork out. Anything before that, I wouldn’t know anymore, except that I do have family from the motherland, but I’ll never know who they are 🙁 Same with my great-grandpa on my dad’s side – he fought in WW2 and died, and my great-grandma ended up marrying a second time. So anything else, we don’t know much. Wish I knew more though, that’d be cool.

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    1. It sounds like quite the history! That one is definitely a tricky one to go at, but I hope you’re able to put the pieces together someday! Would be cool to find your relatives in the motherland too. 🙂

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  5. This is such a great post, Emily! I’m fortunate in that I have relatives on both sides of the family who were very into genealogy and, my grandfather, even went on a handful of trips like you did to trace our relatives back to England and Wales. I have always loved genealogy and, while grateful they did the hard work for me, kind of wish I got to play detective and discover it all myself. I loved your vlog about the process, it was like I got to live the experience a bit through you!

    Reply
    1. Thanks Kasie! That’s awesome most of it was already done. I started out with a lot done as well, except for one side of my tree which was a little bare, so I focused on that. You could say it was a family effort! 😉

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