Where is That? Strategies for Finding Your Ancestral Town or Village

by Lisa Alzo | May 16, 2011

Lisa Alzo

Many genealogists eventually hope to "cross the pond" to find out more about their ancestral origins. In order to successfully make that jump, there are two key pieces of information you will need: the immigrant's original name and the name of his or her hometown. Sounds simple enough, right? The truth is that obtaining these two very basic pieces of your family puzzle can often be one of the most challenging tasks of the research process.

Determining an immigrant ancestor's original name can be problematic if he or she altered, shortened, or changed it after arrival. In addition spelling variations and/or transcription errors in official records, indexes, and online databases may result in many failed searches and much frustration. But, while name issues can often be handled with trying any number of alternate spellings or search combinations, pinpointing the name of the ancestral town or village, however, is often more difficult. When researching some North American sources, you may find that immigrants would only list a large city (Dublin, Kiev, Naples), or perhaps even just a country (Ireland, Hungary, Russia) as their place of birth, simply because it was a more familiar point of reference. Such generalized place notations unfortunately won't help you much when trying to find information about an ancestor in the old country. This is because the majority of record sources were kept in foreign countries at the local level, by the town or parish. Therefore, it is essential to learn the name of the town or village of origin. Here are seven strategies to help you get there.

Talk to Your Relatives

The first place to check for town or village names is at home. If no family documents have been passed down to you, then ask all of your aunts, uncles, cousins if they have a bible, baptismal certificates, passports, letters and envelopes, photographs, naturalization papers etc.--all potential sources likely to list a place of origin.

Put on Your Detective Hat

If you come up empty during your family treasure hunt, the next step is to check for clues in records created about/for your ancestor on this side of the ocean. These may include: birth, marriage, and death records (both civil and church), immigration records and passenger lists, obituaries, naturalization petitions, and U.S. Census records, military draft, service, or pension records. Many will be available to you online, usually at least in an indexed format, and sometimes with accompanying actual images. However, in some instances you may need to follow up and submit written requests for printed records and certificates as needed. For a general overview check the finding aid Research Guides.net.

It's worth noting, however, that some sources may be more likely to contain specific ancestral town/village information than others. And even if you do obtain copies, often these records are incomplete, or contain incorrect information. For example, church records (baptismal, marriage and burial records) often have more details than their civil counterparts since the priest or minister usually knew the family. U.S. Census records will not give specifics--usually just a country, but can be used to find clues such as "Year of Immigration to the U.S." or whether a person was naturalized. See CensusFinder.com to learn what questions were asked on each Census. Passenger lists or arrival records may contain the name of the town or village (earlier lists may only contain the country).

If your ancestor went through the naturalization process, look for his or her Declaration of Intent (also called "first papers"), and Petition for Admission to U.S. Citizenship. You may also locate the Certificate of Arrival. Papers filed later than 1900 very likely contain ancestral town/village information. Pre-1900 likely will not. See the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program for more information; for Canada see the Canadian Genealogy Centre. Other records such as World War I Draft Registration cards, or "U.S. Social Security Act Application for Account Number" (Form SS-5) may state a town or village. But, remember, just because something is listed on an official document, it doesn't mean that the information is 100% accurate. Place names, like surnames can often be written or transcribed incorrectly, and some may have even been changed or altered due to administrative changes in the country or region over the course of time.

Check the "Cluster"

Keep in mind, immigrants often traveled together and put down roots among relatives, neighbors, and friends, forming "cluster communities." If you're stumped trying to identify the name of your ancestral town or village, applying some locality-based research techniques may help. Say, for example, you've located your family in the 1930 Census. Don't just stop there. Notice who lived around them. Perhaps they lived near their siblings, or good friends from the old country. Search for records for family members or those who may have associated with your ancestor at church, or in a fraternal or social organization. Perhaps their records list key details about place of origin not noted in your ancestors' records.

Google It

If your online database searching turns up a potential name or general location, plug that name into Google, both on its own, as well as the your ancestor's name plus the locality. Most cities, and even smaller towns or villages, have their own web sites. Try a Google search for town/village name. For example, I found my grandmother's village, "Milpos, Slovakia". You can add a province or county name, or try advanced search to be more or less specific as needed. Try Google Earth for a virtual view and don't overlook the "Images" tab on the main Google page to narrow in on possible photographs, or Google Books for historical books/references. You should also search the Google Domain in your ancestral homeland to search for sites that may be listed there but may not show up on U.S. version. For example, for Slovakia, I would search Google.sk. Be aware that the result will be returned in the native language of the country you're searching and if a page does not have an English version available, you will have to find a way to translate the information.

Go Mad with Maps

Perhaps you have a general idea of the region or county, or if you're lucky, you actually found a village name. Now, you'll want to pinpoint it on a map. Maps and historical atlases can provide clues to where your ancestors may have lived and where to look for the appropriate written records. There are a plethora of resources available both on and offline. See the United States Geological Survey's "Using Maps in Genealogy Fact Sheet 099-02" for a list of helpful maps, atlases, directories and other available locality finding aids, and where to find them. See the "Additional Resources" at the end of this article for more guidance.

Grab a Gazetteer

Current geography does not necessarily equal historical geography. You will also need to know how boundary changes might have affected your family's migration, as well as any name changes for the town or village so that you know where to look for records. Gazetteers are geographical dictionaries listing all the towns in a particular country that tell you about political jurisdictions (provinces, counties, districts), how many residents practiced various religions and where the inhabitants went to church. The Family History Library (FHL) has an extensive collection of gazetteers in print and on microfilm. Check to see if your local library owns a copy of Place Names of the World - Europe Historical Context, Meanings and Changes by John Everett-Heath (Palgrave Macmillan, out of print). If not, check WorldCat to see if you can borrow a copy of this book, or other reference guides via Interlibrary Loan.

Ask Around

With message boards, Blogs, Web sites, family tree building and sharing sites, and social media such as Facebook or Twitter, it's easier than ever to connect with family, discover long-lost relatives, and network with other researchers who may be searching the same localities. Search for family trees and/or scour message boards at RootsWeb, and consider posting queries with surnames and ancestral villages. Check Geneabloggers for Blogs related to a surname, ethnic group, country, or other specific resources. Plan to cast as wide a net as possible. You may need to put your family history bait on the hook and wait. But it could pay off big if you find someone who can help you determine exactly where your ancestors hailed from.


Identifying the correct place of birth or last residence in the old country for an ancestor can sometimes seem like looking for the proverbial "needle in a haystack." But by following the steps above and being flexible in your research, you'll have a greater chance of success making the genealogical journey back to your homeland.

Additional Resources

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