Where Oh Where Did They Live?
By Ancestry.com 01 April 2010

It’s exciting. You know the immigrant ancestor and you’re ready to take your research overseas. But how do you get started?

“First, do your homework in Australia,” says Ancestry.com genealogist Suzanne Russo Adams. “Flesh out all of the Australian records you can find: passenger lists, newspapers, birth, marriage, and death records, everything you can get your hands on here. If you do your homework in Australia first, it’s easier, and you’ll probably find the name of the town your family came from.”

Here’s some useful tips to help you find information about your ancestor’s home town:

Take note. Family legends and stories may include place names. Jot them down, plot them on a map, keep them in the back of your mind. While you may not find the true town of origin, family stories may at least help point you in the right direction or to the approximate region your ancestor was from.

Dig around. Start digging through old storage boxes, filing cabinets and cupboards and look for “home sources” such as mementoes, papers, and other items left around the house. Each can hold a clue that will lead you back to the homeland. Look at letters and postcards – do they have postmarks or mention towns? Turn photos over so see if locations were written on the back. Read engravings on awards and details on award certificates. Search school photos for the school name and town.

Go online. Find your ancestor in the Ancestry.com.au Immigration & Emigration Records Collection. Scour his or her passenger list record for town names and for the address of the relative back home (note that not all years asked for this information). Look at naturalisation documents and border crossings to see if your ancestor listed a place of birth, including hometown, after arrival. Trial records may also provide a vital link as they often recorded where the individual was born.

Research other relatives. Even if your ancestor was tight-lipped about a town of origin, his or her sister, mother, children, or friends may have told all. Look at immigration records (passenger lists and naturalization records) and home sources and family trees associated with your ancestor’s family members – even some of the distant ones – to see if someone else let the name of the hometown slip.

Ask about the Neighbors. Chain migration, where people from the same village in the old country moved into the same ethnic enclaves in Australia, was common among immigrants. If you can’t find your own ancestor’s hometown, look for the hometowns of their neighbors – it could be the same as your ancestor’s. Bonus if you find it listed in a family tree: that could indicate that another researcher who could help you with your search.

Read tombstones. Tombstones may contain valuable clues, including, on occasion, the city of birth. If your ancestor’s doesn’t, someone else’s in the family might, so check neighbouring rows.

Try alternate sources. Still haven’t located the hometown? A number of other records at Ancestry.com.au may surprise you with the answer, including the following:

  • Newspapers. Look carefully in historic newspapers for mentions of people visiting your ancestor from the homeland, for articles about groups of immigrants who emigrated from the same town, and for obituaries, which may list town of birth.
  • Birth, marriage, and death records. Birth certificates offer a birthplace, which may include the town. You may also find the same mentioned in christening, death, and marriage records, as well as indexes.
  • Military records. Military records can be full of details, which may include the town of birth, too.

ANZAC Memorial, 1914-1918

Australia's Fighting Sons of The Empire. Portraits and Biographies of Australians in the Great War

British Army WWI Pension Records 1914-1920

British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920

International records at Ancestry.com.au. Go directly to the source for census records from Germany, the US, Canada, and the UK, as well as passenger lists, newspapers, military records, and other international collections. Look for your ancestor as well as relatives, who may have been born in the same town.

And finally, review your finds. While you may have landed on a hometown for your ancestor, make sure it’s consistent throughout documents – if not, see if you can determine which record is most accurate or why the town may differ from document to document (you can also vet it against documents associated with your ancestor’s family members). Then search for the town via the Internet to learn a little more about its history. Locate the town on a map from the time period during which your ancestor lived there as well as on a map today. Is the town still there? Did the name or spelling change? And note the nearest big city – your ancestor may have left a trail there, too.

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