U. S. Immigration Records: Finding the Town of Origin

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How do I research U. S. Immigration Records: Finding the Town of Origin?
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US Emigration & Immigration

Finding the Town of Origin

In order to research your family in their "old" country, it is essential that you have identified the place where they came from. You must know the city, town, or parish that they came from.

Important Tips

You must also know enough about the ancestor to positively identify him in the records. Dates (even if they are approximate), places, and familial connections are key to helping you decide if a person you find, who has the same name as your ancestor, really is your ancestor.

  • Do you know the name of his/her parents?
  • Do you know his/her birth, marriage, or death date or can you calculate an approximate range of years to search for his/her birth, marriage, or death?
  • Do you know the name of the spouse? Did they marry before or after coming to the United States?
  • Do you know the names of any of his/her siblings?
  • Do you know the names of any children born in before the family emigrated?

Documents in the Home

Often the document you need to pinpoint the place of origin of your ancestor is already found at home. These might include the following:

  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates or licenses
  • Death certificates
  • Obituaries
  • Funeral cards
  • Journals
  • Photographs
  • Letters
  • Family Bible
  • Naturalization papers
  • Citizenship papers
  • Military service records

Emigration Questions to Ask Relatives

Find the oldest living relatives that you can and ask them:

  1. What do you know about our immigrant ancestor? (open-ended)
  2. Have you ever heard mention of towns where the family lived in their former country?
  3. Do you have contact with any relatives in your ancestors' former country?
  4. Do you have contact with other branches in the United States?
  5. Did he travel with other family members?
  6. Do you know when _________________ arrived and which port city?
  7. Did _______________ever become a citizen?
  8. Did_________________fight in World War I or II?
  9. When they first came, were there already family members here who they joined?
  10. Did_______________ever mention their parents who either came with them or remained behind?
  11. Were they Catholic or Protestant?
  12. Do you have any old letters or postcards sent from your family's former country?
  13. Do you have any pictures of family members who remained behind in the country of origin?

Search Genealogies Compiled by Others

Records to Search Created in the United States

Census Records

  • Search census records, available for the United States, Canada, England, and other countries. Censuses are often taken every ten years.
  • Try to locate your ancestor in every census during which he or she was alive. This information provides a good framework for further research.
  • The censuses for 1900 to 1930 ask for the year of immigration and whether or not the person was naturalized. This information can help you find naturalization records or a passenger list.
  • Censuses can be accessed online. Links to both free and subscription websites are found at United States Census Online Genealogy Records.
  • State census records vary in availability and the type of information they contain, but they are always useful as another source to document an ancestor in a specific locality. See U.S. Online Genealogy Records by State for links to online state censuses.

Example: This 1900 census gives the month and year of birth, the birthplace of the listed person and his mother and father, the year he immigrated, and how many years he has lived in the U.S. "Na" means that he is a naturalized citizen.

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Vital Records

Vital records, or civil birth, marriage, and death records document important events in an ancestor’s life. Many states have posted statewide indexes on the Internet. Understand that any birth, marriage, or death certificate gives information about other people besides the primary person it is about

  • 1. It is important to remember that a birth certificate for a child might tell it's parents' birthplaces.
  • 2. Marriage certificates might name birth dates and places of the bride and groom. They might also give the names and birth places of the parents of the bride and groom.
  • 3. Death certificates are very important. Birth and marriage certificates might not have kept by a state during the earlier years of your ancestor's life. There is a greater chance that your ancestor died after detailed record-keeping began. Death certificates frequently state birth date and place. They also state the names of parents and their birth places.

There are wiki articles giving details on how to find vital records of each state.

Example: This marriage record gives the birthplace in France of the bride, the names of her parents, and the birthplace in France of her mother. You can estimate her year of birth by subtracting her age from the marriage date.
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Example: This death record gives the birthdate and the birthplace in France of the deceased, and the parents' names.
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Cemetery Records

  • Websites such as FindAGrave and Billion Graves are making it easier to get information from headstones, which frequently give birth dates, and occasionally give birth places.
  • Each state has additional collections of cemetery records. See U.S. Online Genealogy Records by State for links to other online cemetery records

. *Every state also has a Cemetery topic page you can search for links to cemetery records, for example, California Cemeteries or Washington Cemeteries, etc.

Example: This FindAGrave entry gives the birthdate and the birthplace in France.

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Example: This funeral home record gives the birthdate and the birthplace in France.

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Obituaries are an excellent source of biographical information about immigrants. In addition to names and death dates, you can learn about surviving family members, church affiliations, spouses, parents, occupations, burial places, and hometowns in the old country. Even if a place of origin is not given, an obituary may provide additional research clues, such as the date or ship of immigration or traveling companions. Much of this information cannot be found in other sources. For many immigrants, an obituary is the only “biographical sketch” ever written about them.

Example: In this typical U.S. Obituary Collection record, the birth place, parents' names, and siblings' names are listed.

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Social Security

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Military Records

Draft records for World War I and II ask for birth place, which can be listed as just Luxembourg or in greater detail.

Example: This World War I Draft Registration gives the birthdate and the birthplace in France.

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Example: This World War II Draft Registration gives the birthdate and the birthplace in France.'

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Passenger Arrival Lists

Passenger lists, especially in the 20th century, may list birth place, last residence in mother country, and name and residence of a close relative in the mother country. Study the records of fellow passengers, as frequently relatives and neighbors traveled together. United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records is a comprehensive list of passenger arrival databases that you can search right now from your computer. There are many, many databases. The following search strategy will make your search more efficient.

Suggested Search Strategy

  1. Check the partner website indexes, as these cover many, many databases at once. The FamilySearch Historical Records databases is free to search with a free registered account. The other websites are subscription-based but can be searched for free at a Family History Center near you. Try to search each partner site because their search engines can often bring up slightly different results.
  2. If it is difficult for you to get access to the subscription databases, next try Additional Nationwide Collections Not Included in Partner Sites. These websites have a lot of overlap with the subscription websites.
  3. Search a nationality, religious, or political group collection that applies to your ancestor.
  4. Search the state collection for the first state where your ancestor lived.

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Example: This passenger list gives the name and age of each passenger, their birth place, last residence in the home country, information on next of kin in the home country, and information on any relative they are joining in the U.S.

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Naturalization Records

  • Naturalization records may also list an ancestor’s birth place.
  • Prior to 1906 any U.S. court could naturalize foreigners. Many pre-1900 records only list “Luxembourg” as the country of citizenship; however, there are notable exceptions, so these records should be checked routinely.
  • The process involved two sets of papers: a declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen, and a petition filed some time later.
  • Beginning in 1906, naturalization records became more detailed, as the responsibility shifted to the Federal government.
  • More information about naturalization records, along with helpful links, is found at Beginning Research in United States Naturalization Records and United States Naturalization and Citizenship Online Genealogy Records.

Example: This petition for naturalization (citizenship) gives the birthdate and birthplace in France of both the petitioner and her husband. It gives their marriage date and place and the birthdates and birthplaces of their children. It tells the port, the date and the name of the ship for when she entered the U.S. plus the names she entered under. It gives her last residence in France.

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Passport Applications

Passport Records Online

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Alien Registration

Offices to Contact

National Archives and Records Administration

U.S. Citizenship and and Immigration Services Genealogy Program

The USCIS Genealogy Program is a fee-for-service program that provides researchers with timely access to historical immigration and naturalization records of deceased immigrants. If the immigrant was born less than 100 years ago, you will also need to provide proof of his/her death.

Immigration Records Available
  • A-Files: Immigrant Files, (A-Files) are the individual alien case files, which became the official file for all immigration records created or consolidated since April 1, 1944.
  • Alien Registration Forms (AR-2s): Alien Registration Forms (Form AR-2) are copies of approximately 5.5 million Alien Registration Forms completed by all aliens age 14 and older, residing in or entering the United States between August 1, 1940 and March 31, 1944.
  • Registry Files: Registry Files are records, which document the creation of immigrant arrival records for persons who entered the United States prior to July 1, 1924, and for whom no arrival record could later be found.
  • Visa Files: Visa Files are original arrival records of immigrants admitted for permanent residence under provisions of the Immigration Act of 1924.[1]
Requesting a Record


  1. "Genealogy", at USCIS, https://www.uscis.gov/records/genealogy, accessed 26 March 2021.