Mobile Ancestors: Why They Moved And How To Find Them

by Diane L. Richard | Mar 19, 2010

Diane L. Richard

Our ancestors moved - A LOT! Though there were families who remained in the same town or nearby for generations, there were also a lot of people who moved. And, many of those people might have made a few stops along the way to their ultimate destination, only staying a few years here and there.

This article will talk briefly about those ancestors - discussing some of the reasons why they moved, exploring some typical "patterns" of movement, and examining some of the records that might help you track them through their travels.

Why They Moved

Reasons why families moved, whether from another country or to another state are endless and there are some circumstances to look for that might help explain why your ancestor moved along with an example or two.

  1. Economic Opportunity - think the great Irish Migration of the mid 1800s, the influx of Europeans in the 1890s to the 1920s. If your ancestors were poor, starving and with no hope for the future, they may have moved for the "hope" of prosperity. Or, like my Finnish "landless peasant," who was the youngest son in a family where the oldest son would get the entire farm, there was no future.
  2. Religious Freedom (or to avoid persecution) - The migration of Quakers to Pennsylvania in the late 17th to mid 18th centuries and the Catholic Irish under Protestant rule.
  3. Forced Migration - examples are my Galician (now Poland) ancestors forced to relocate to the Ukraine (as they were Russian Speaking and associated with the Russian Orthodox Church), English prisoners to Australia and Japanese Americans held in interment camps.
  4. Safety/Security - maybe your ancestors came from a war-torn country (Germany) or a new country (such as Israel) was created or in eastern North Carolina the Tuscorara Indians were less than pleased with your presence and so you migrated northwards into Virginia to remain safe.
  5. Land - many who migrated westward from the Eastern states were in search of inexpensive land and to escape the "crowds." Many moved west of the Mississippi for just this reason.
  6. Depletion of Resources -- In the 1700s the naval stores (which made NC a leading producer of tar and terpentine) was a dominant industry for more than a century until depletion of the longleaf stands caused production to shift south by 1890. When the industry moved, so did many of those working in it. Alternately, farmers and others appreciated the cleared land better suited to agriculture and pasturage. By the close of the Civil War in 1865, NC was perhaps only one-third forested.
  7. Natural or Man-Made Caused Catastrophes - Droughts, typhoons, hurricanes, mud-slides and fires are just some of the ways that can debilitate an area and force its residents to move, temporarily, and sometimes permanently to other places. The web-sites GenDisasters and Disasters: Natural and Man-Made focuses on just these type of events. (also check out the timelines discussion that follows)
  8. Plagues etc - nothing like a deadly disease to encourage individuals to relocate. Find information about many of them can be found on Cyndi's List (also check out the timelines discussion that follows)
  9. Family Moved - sometimes people moved because their family moved, for any of the above reasons. Once they moved, extended family often soon followed - an extended network of Malecki half-siblings, all separately emigrated between 1900 - 1910 from Galicia to eastern Massachusetts, always referencing one another as their "destination."

These are just "some" of the reasons why an ancestor might have moved. Some resources where you can learn more about our mobile ancestors and their reasons for moving, check out these web-sites, Immigration: The Living Mosaic of People, Culture & Hope, How Human Migration Works (from How Stuff Works), and Timelines of Historic Disasters & Epidemics (

Okay, so now we know that they moved, let's talk about how this might add to the challenge of finding and documenting them.

Common Problems Tracing Ancestors Who Moved

Moving was typically very challenging for our ancestor - think about how many moved from one country to another whose language they did not speak. And, much of the documentation about our ancestors was NOT written in their own hand, it was written by clerks with shipping companies and railways, who often "heard" the information or if handed a document from another country, were not proficient in Chinese or Russian or Arabic or Finnish (in the case of my great grandparents, their forenames and surnames were reversed on the passenger list - instead of Bazyli Barna and Kladyga Barna, they were listed as Barna Bazyli and Barna Kladyga -- never mind that they traveled from Europe via different routes in different years!).

Then as our ancestors moved to their new homes, with many of them illiterate, again, a series of clerks would fill out paperwork for them. Read about the challenges associated with tracking an ancestor whose name may never be spelled the same way through time as well as other reasons or circumstances that make us wonder "where did they go or where did they come from?"

Lets now talk about a small proportion of the research challenges I have experienced tracking mobile ancestors:

  1. Name Changes - most name changes did not occur at Ellis Island, as the myth is perpetuated, as ancestors did have documentation that they carried and the information on passenger lists was written/typed at the port of embarkation, not debarkation as Ellis Island was. And, name changes did occur as our ancestors moved to their future homes - sometimes they decided to Anglicize their forenames and surnames.

    I was researching a French Canadian family who first went to Vermont and then into up-state NY, the parish records in New York had the surname as Green while the Vermont records had them as Vert. Vert is the French word for Green. If I did not have some familiarity with French, I might not have made this connection.

    The aforementioned Barna family, retained their surname though changed their forenames to Wasil and Claudia.

    Or, my ancestors changed a very Finnish name Kujanp�� to Acey - this is not an Anglicization. Upon checking with native Finnish speakers and others, "A-see" also does not "sound like" any Finnish word. The best we could guess is that maybe they were honoring Esaias, the older brother of the emigrant, who until he drowned, was previously married to the younger brother's wife. And, the daughters, born Lempi and Hedvig, became Lillian and Helen.

  2. Remarrying (also could result in a name change) - sometimes stories of someone dying or divorcing are untrue or premature. It may be that they remarried before or after they moved and so that adds to the challenge. There was one female that I traced around various counties in Indiana who had a different surname in each county as she ultimately married 3 times. When I finally obtained her death certificate, it nicely had her maiden name and all her prior married names (thank goodness). Or, what about the husband, whose wife dies young and who when he remarries sends his children to go to live with their maternal Grandma, in another county or state? Or, a woman with children is all of a sudden found by listed in the census with no husband - she's listed as single, though you know she was previously married - does this mean her husband died? Did they divorce? You can't find his death certificate, you don't find divorce papers and yet after much research you eventually find a death certificate for a child, or an obituary, or some other document that reveals that dad didn't die then, he left home, remarried, and had a whole other family.
  3. Common Names - Obviously, this just isn't an issue for our mobile ancestors as it can be a challenge even when they did not move. Just because you find a John Smith, born at about the correct time and in the correct place in an earlier record, this may not be your John Smith at all. Be very cautious of assuming that this person is "your ancestor." Though many of us are familiar with common names like John Smith - within a community or family, you might find that what seems to be a unique name, is actually not! On the surface, the name Hezekiah Farrow, seems like it would be pretty unique. That is until you realize that in the late 1700s and early 1800s in eastern NC, there were several Hezekiah Farrows, all contemporaries or the son's of contemporaries (just think each male having a son named Hezekiah and then those Hezekiahs or their siblings similarly naming children Hezekiah), living and moving between 3 counties! So much for that "unique name" making it easy to separate out the various families in the three contiguous counties.
  4. People Not Wanting to Be Found - There are some people, either to abandon their family, as a result of illegal activities, who just "leave" to never be heard from again. In one instance, church funds were taken - after much research, the individual was found to have rattled around the Midwest living and working at WPA camps (marrying 2 more times, without being divorced), moving to the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon, marrying 1 more time) and eventually dying in New Mexico. We eventually found him as he wanted his WWI military pension and requested paperwork giving his new address!
  5. No Social Security Number - Though we use our social security number as a unique and constant identifier, that has not always been the case. Until 1936, there was no such thing as social security. And, for many years until the late 1980s, only if an individual was earning an income, would they apply for a social security number (now, most children get social security numbers as soon as they are born in order to be claimed as dependents on their parents tax forms).
  6. Renting - Land ownership makes it easier to track a mobile ancestor. There are often clues as they buy and sell land (though, this is not always true) as to where they came from and/or where they are going. What about the person who did not own land? Whose occupation was minister, teacher, migrant farm or other industry worker, etc? Sometimes without a detailed obituary or some other documentation, it can be impossible to figure out where they went. Recently I had an individual, from NC, who is mentioned on the death certificate of her mother in NYC. Another document a few years later gives a Portsmouth VA address (confirmed by a couple of directory listings) and then no more information could be found. Desperate, I did some research into the local African-American cemeteries and found where she was buried. Using this information and appreciative that Norfolk had an African-American newspaper, an obituary was found which identified her spouse and children and allowed us to re-create her trail from NC to NYC then back to NC and finally to VA.
  7. The Big City - So many of our ancestors arrived in Ellis Island and stayed in the NYC area or eventually moved from the family farm to a nearby big city, etc. The nature of big cities is that there are so many people, that more of the material is not as readily available. Where a small town newspaper has wonderful and detailed obituaries, you might be lucky to find even a death notice in a large city newspaper. Where in a rural area, your family might have remained on the farm for generations, it's not unusual in a city to find people changing apartments regularly.

The above has just scratched the surface of the challenges we might face as we research our mobile ancestors. I know it can seem a bleak prospect to find these mobile and often poorly documented ancestors and there are many types of records that provide us clues and sometimes a "trail of breadcrumbs" that we can follow. We'll now talk about a few of these.

Where Do We Find Clues?

First, there are clues particular to your family in some of the documents that hopefully you are researching into and collecting, e.g. Census Records, Immigration Records, Land Records, Vital Records (Birth, Marriage, Death), Obituaries, Local Histories, etc. Let's look at a few of these document types and talk about how they might help you find your mobile ancestor.

  • Census Records - these can tell you a lot about a family's movements in at least two ways:

    Starting in 1850, the census lists "where" each person was born (and sometimes, for this census, I have found that the enumerator didn't just list state or country and sometimes they listed the "county") and starting in 1880, the nativity of the parents is also listed. Also look for those with the same surname and birthplace who live nearby - might be extended family.

    When you look at a family, really look at their birth places. Do you find that the father was born in NC, yet his children were born in TN and IL? Or, that his wife was born in TN? Use these clues to learn about your ancestor where he lived after he left his birth state - can you find a marriage in the state where the oldest child was born? If he was age, did he serve in the military? (since so many records are held and organized at the county level, you want to check state-level records first)

  • Land Records - Did your ancestor get land in one of the GA land lotteries? If so, research the rules that applied to that lottery. Did he purchase land in his new locale? Obtain the deed or land grant and see if it says anything about where he was "of."
  • Vital Records - For some states, these documents request information about "where" the individual was born and sometimes where the individual's parents were born - if you are lucky, that information might be specific.
  • Obituaries - Was an obituary published for an ancestor? Especially if in a smaller community or one with a dedicated newspaper, you might find some great information. I have read obituaries which talk about how the person's father was a pioneer of the county who came from xxxx in about the year xxxx. If you don't find an obituary for your ancestor, or it's not as detailed as you hope, do check out the obituaries for siblings, cousins, etc. So, often, the clues found that "break" the brick wall of a migratory ancestor comes from things written about extended family members.
  • Family or Local Histories - Like an obituary, a lot can be learned by books created in years past documenting family history, location history, church history, etc. Again, don't just look for your ancestor - look for any extended family members. It might be that your ancestor was a relatively poor farmer and it might be that his brother was a Presbyterian minister and whom much was written about.

    Second, in addition to clues from documents that are directly about your ancestor or his/her extended family, there are clues that you can take away by learning more about the minutiae of your ancestors lives and/or something about where your ancestors ended up or where they started - both in terms of what the conditions were in these locales and then also about "how" people "typically" migrated from one place to another. So, let's briefly talk about Timelines and Migration Paths.


These are a great tool to "show you" some of the gaps in your ancestor's life. If your ancestor, in 1850, is living in MS and yet was born in NC circa 1800, this is too much of a gap to try and bridge (you typically don't want to go "fishing" for your ancestors in another state or country without having a fairly narrow idea of where they might have come from and/or moved to). You need to first focus on trying to find him in the 1840, 1830 and possibly 1820 censuses. If you cannot do that, you need to look at local records, working backwards from 1850 - can you determine when he first appears in the county? Timelines show you where there are gaps in information to be filled, what information you have so you can determine if it's true (was the son really born in GA? Or was it more likely TN like his siblings?), and they can also help you separate out other candidates for your ancestors. It is not unusual to do some research and learn that there is more than one person who "could" be your ancestor - timelines can sometimes help solve this problem by making it very apparent where there are conflicts. No, I don't think John Jones was 120 when he died? I don't think Jeff Smith's father was Abner Smith when Jeff was born in 1845 and Abner died in 1842. Or, was Kate Bell really 60 when she had her son Timothy?

A timeline provides a linear method (or matrix if you have several parallel family members or families to track) to help make sure that the known facts "fit" together and make logical sense.

To learn more about timelines, check out these resources:

Migration Routes

Another tool when you just don't know where someone came from or where they went to is an understanding of migration routes. We'll briefly talk about both US land-trails and overseas emigration routes favored by some of our ancestors.

Since it is rare that an individual traveled by themselves (though, it did happen), understanding some of the popular routes taken by ancestors can help you either with determining where they came from or where they might have gone. It's not unusual to find, with some research, that the ancestors who ended up in MS from NC, came with a bunch of neighbors or church members living in the same community. And, the odds are, that they would have traveled over established routes (many based on the travels of Native Americans or wild animals). This write-up explores a group leaving NC, The Jordan Migration from North Carolina to Alabama. Similar articles can be found on groups who emigrated from one country to another, such as The Migration of the Scots-Irish to Southwestern NC and The Finnish Pioneers of Minnesota.

To learn more about Migration Routes, check out these resources:

Though our ancestors may have been mobile, that doesn't mean that we cannot find them! It does often mean that we have to look a bit harder into their lives. The silver lining is that this extra research can both help us learn where they came from or went to, while it also enriches the portrait we eventually paint of their lives. Though please do not mix fact and fiction willy-nilly. We don't always know what happened, but if we carefully document what we know and clearly state what we "theorize" it is fine to write a narrative that includes a lot of facts along with some "color commentary". This will help us weave a story of what we "think" was the experience of our ancestors as they migrated.

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