Thinking Ethnically: A Different Approach to Your Ancestors

by Jennifer Holik | Sep 19, 2013

Jennifer Holik

As each of us researches and writes about our family history, we explore different avenues. Some may focus on the accomplishments of a family; the migration patterns; the religious traditions; or their rise in society. One thing we sometimes fail to include is their ethnic story.

By exploring the ethnicities of our ancestors, we may be able to uncover additional record sources and resources we might not have thought about. These resources can help us paint a picture of the lives of our ancestors.

Thinking ethnically means to examine resources for our specific ethnic groups. Learn that group's history both where they lived after immigration and their home country. What makes that group tick? What makes them different from other groups? What traditions did they pass down that makes your family what it is today? What are the family stories that were passed down that may provide clues to answer these questions?


Many genealogists today blog. They write about family memories, neighborhoods, towns, traditions, post photographs and ephemera, and discuss historical events. Where can you find ethnic blogs? These may be blogs written by ethnic genealogical and historical societies or a genealogist who has an interest in his ethnic background. Geneabloggers has a section that lists blogs by type and here you can search for your ethnic specific blogs.


Cemeteries are a resource every genealogists uses but have you considered them from an ethnic standpoint? In larger cities especially, you may find cemeteries started by specific ethnic groups. Alternatively, you may find cemeteries with a specific ethnic influence. Czechs founded Chicago's Bohemian National Cemetery in the late 1800s. Those buried in that cemetery are primarily Czech and the cemetery has signs of that culture. Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Chicago area was started by the Catholic Church but has a high number of Italians buried there. Those gravestones often hold photos of the deceased, a practice started in Italy before they immigrated. Look for cemetery books that outline the history of the cemetery and the ethnic groups buried within their walls.

Church Records

Ethnic groups built churches within their enclaves or colonies. These kept records that may have been written in their native language. Churches typically kept books for births, marriages, and deaths.

If the church had a school, as many Catholic Churches did, you may discover yearbooks, old school newspapers, class photographs, and grades. Churches in existence for 25 years or more may have commemorative books outlining the history of the church with photographs of the building, pastors or priests, church members past and present and other church history.

To locate church records, contact the church or diocese where the records may be located. In some cases, such as the Catholic Churches, the records are sent from the parish to the diocese and sometimes, depending on the age, the archdiocese archives. The best place to start though is with the actual church.

Examine the Neighborhood

Examining the neighborhood in which your ancestor lived through Sanborn Maps, city directories, census records, and local histories may give you an idea of what life was like for your ancestor. Through census records you can track migration in and out of a neighborhood or town. You can see how those in your ethnic group moved up the ladder financially and educationally.


Read histories of the country from which your ancestor came to get an idea of what life was like at the time before emigration. Explore reasons why the family emigrated. Then read histories of the area in which your ancestor immigrated. What were the reasons for moving to that specific area? Farmland or manufacturing jobs? Mining jobs or was family already established in that location with the promise of jobs?


Check for ethnic museums in the area in which your ancestor lived. These may be small, unknown establishments or large, new and well-known establishments. Many ethnic museums contain more than museum artifacts. They may contain libraries, traveling exhibits, archives, art galleries, and various mini-museums. These institutions may offer classes on language, history, genealogy, art, and other ethnic-specific topics. Some institutions have offices for various groups within that ethnicity.

One example is Casa Italia, the Italian Cultural Center in the Chicago area. At this institution you can find a Veterans Museum, Library, Art Gallery, the Italians in Chicago Exhibit, various Italian groups that have offices within the campus, and plenty of activities based around Italian language and culture.

The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa offers a museum, library, archives with photographs and oral histories, lectures, offers field trips for school groups, film viewings, and other activities for researchers and families.

Visiting ethnic museums with your children or grandchildren also offers a way for you to engage them in your family's history. Children view things with different eyes and they may say something about the culture or your family you had never considered. That observation may send you down a new research path or open up a new avenue for you to research or write about your ethnic heritage.

Newspapers and Magazines

Ethnic groups often created their own ethnic language newspapers in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. These newspapers often have obituaries, news articles, and announcements that didn't appear in English newspapers in the area. Look for these within the Library of Congress' Chronicling America collection of newspapers. The Newberry Library has the Foreign Language Press Survey, a transcription of many ethnic Chicago newspaper articles. Check area museums, libraries, and archives for copies for your ethnic groups.

Ethnic language magazines may also exist. The Fra Noi an Italian-American publication, published in Chicago has been existence for most of the 20th century and still runs strong today. This magazine contains articles written by Italian-Americans on specific topics such as real estate, the arts, genealogy, and various Italian-American organizations.


Many organizations established fraternal organizations which provided medical and death benefits to families. These groups also served as a social outlet for immigrants. These organizations served as insurance agents. When immigrants were new to a town or city, they would form these groups. Look for area ethnic groups that exist today. These organizations may have records, photographs, commemorative Gala books honoring an individual, and have a running membership.

Final Thoughts

The resources for ethnic research are many. Utilize these resources to learn new and interesting things about your heritage. Write about those things in your family history. Engage your children and grandchildren as you visit some of the suggested places and when you write. By thinking ethnically we can add another dimension to our family histories.

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