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Using an Area's History to Find Your Ancestor's Origin

Oftentimes, we wonder where our ancestor was born or was raised. It's not unusual to still have this question after we've researched for the answer. Fortunately, though, we can study the history of the area where we know they lived for a few hints and clues about where they originated.

black and white photo of a horse drawn wagon

What Events Affected the Community?

Knowing an area's history can help with genealogy research by providing context for the community's migration patterns, such as events that may have led to population movements. Even reading a general history of the area may offer clues. Wars, famines, economic opportunities, development in transportation routes, etc., all played a part in motivating our ancestors to move. By studying these events of an area, you may discover why your ancestor moved there and where they started.

What Do the Records Reveal?

By mining the area's records, such as censuses, deeds, and church records, we can provide specific information about where our ancestors' neighbors originated and their movements. Our ancestors did not live in a vacuum and formed relationships with peers. So much so that groups of neighbors and friends would move from one place to another together. By surveying the records of many individuals in our ancestors' community, we may well see a pattern and be able to develop a hypothesis about where our ancestors originated.

What Types of Records Can Help?

For genealogy research, the following types of historical documents could reveal migration patterns of your ancestor and/or the community as a whole. Gather as many of these as possible and create a timeline of places. Can you determine where they started? Can you "draw a line" from the latest point to the earliest and predict where they originated? These documents can provide information on an ancestor's place of origin, places of residence, and movements over time.
- Census records
- Passenger lists
- Naturalization papers
- Land and property records
- Military records
- Church records
- Emigration and immigration records
- Obituaries
- Vital records (birth, marriage, death)
- City directories

History and migration patterns are closely tied to each other. By learning the history of an area, you may be able to discover why and from where your ancestor arrived there.


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