Anyone who has attempted to trace their ancestors back to Eastern Europe understands how border changes, language differences, and exotic-sounding surnames often complicate the research process. It is likely you have encountered some brick walls in your genealogy research along the way. If tracing your roots back to Eastern Europe has you stuck, you will want to register for my upcoming Legacy Family Tree webinar Break Down Brick Walls in Eastern European Research – Tips, Tools and Tricks on 2 September 2015. In this webinar I will share some of the secrets from my 25 years of experience performing Eastern European genealogical research. Click here to register for free.
In the meantime, here are three tips to help you find even your most elusive Eastern European ancestors.
|Štátny Archív V Prešove, June 2012 (Photo by Lisa A. Alzo)
|1. Get the name right. “But…our name has always been spelled that way.” Don’t listen to relatives who insist on the spelling of a surname because it is more likely than not that your immigrant ancestor’s surname is spelled differently in European records. For example, my grandfather “John Alzo,” is listed as Ján/János Alyzsó in Slovak/Hungarian records. Be aware that many Eastern European surnames are difficult to spell and pronounce and there can be issues with indexing and transcriptions when dealing with online records. Also, keep in mind that many immigrants changed their names upon settling in North America (Names were not purposely changed at Ellis Island. This is a myth. Read the article “American Names: Declaring Independence” by Marian L. Smith to learn more). Knowing what the immigrant’s original name was in the old country (and how it was spelled in his or her language) is essential when searching for records in Eastern Europe. To help flush out those elusive ancestors, consider changing your search criteria for a favorite database by experimenting with different fields, or using alternate views to display results (where available).
2. Determine the exact place of origin. Typically, knowing that an ancestor came from Budapest, Kiev, or Prague is not good enough. Because the records that you need to do your research in Europe were kept on a local level, your research cannot proceed unless you know the specific name of the town or village of origin. To obtain this information, start your search for records in the United States and Canada. If possible, talk to living relatives of your immigrant ancestor. Look for personal information in sources you may have at home or you can get from family members, such as: Bibles, journals, letters, pictures, family correspondence, military service papers, funeral home records, or naturalization documents. Look for clues in census records (for example, US Censuses from 1900, 1910, and 1920, will list the year of immigration as well as the country of origin. This will help narrow your search for immigration records). Two excellent resources to help you find passenger lists online are Ship Passenger Lists and Immigration Records: A Genealogy Research Guide, (Joe Beine) and Olive Tree Genealogy(Lorine McGinnis Schulze). Then, expand your search to locate vital, military, and other key records. Once you determine where your ancestor was from, you must verify the spelling and determine where that town or village is now (taking account of any number of border changes). You will also want to know what province, county or district had jurisdiction over the place. Maps and gazetteers (geographical dictionaries) are the best way to sort out locality questions or discrepancies. Several outstanding old gazetteers are now available online (type in your country of interest and the term “gazetteer”). FamilySearch and you can use their site to see what Eastern Europe gazetteers are available through the Family History Library, and search the FamilySearch Wiki by country to learn about record collections and other useful tips.
3. Check for online records. Your eventual goal will be to find documentation for your ancestors in civil and church records located in Eastern Europe. In the past this was exclusively done by writing to the records office or church, hiring someone to obtain documents on your behalf or traveling to the location to do on-site research. But these options can be expensive and time-consuming, so you should first check to see if any records for your ancestral locality have been digitized either by FamilySearch, or on individual archival websites (countries leading the way in these efforts include Estonia, Czech Republic, Latvia, and Poland). Keep in mind that not everything is online, so you might need to search the Family History Library Catalogfor microfilmed records, or revert back to one of the other strategies noted above (send a written request, go on-site yourself, or hire a professional researcher). Remember: Once you start researching records across the ocean, be prepared to see them written in a variety of languages including Latin, German, Hungarian, Russian, among others. Check for links to available Word Lists on the the country’s FamilySearch Wiki page.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Collaborate with others through message boards, community pages, and on social media. Join an ethnic genealogical society to interact with others researching the same localities, and when needed, hire an expert based who lives in the area you are researching.
Want even more tips? There are several Legacy QuickGuides™ available on Eastern European Genealogy, (these guides are available for purchase in PDF format).*
Finally, remember to be patient and persistent. Records access is improving for many areas in Eastern Europe. Many archives and repositories are bringing their records online or forming partnerships to do so, resulting in new and updated collections in private or commercial databases. Your Eastern European genealogy brick wall could soon start tumbling down.
*[Disclosure: I am a paid freelance instructor for Legacy Family Tree webinars and receive a speaker’s fee for my webinars. I am also a member of the Legacy Family Tree Affiliate Program. What does this mean? If you click on the link and make a purchase, I get a small sales commission].