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Does your Family History involve Emigration?

Emigration might be a hot topic in the media in 2023, but people have been on the move forever. Emigration - moving from one country to another - is a story which many of us will have in our family trees. Finding out that ancestors moved from one country to another raises a whole lot of new questions, and sometimes the answer isn't as obvious as it might seem.

Why did my ancestors move?

This is perhaps the big question and the one which isn't always easy to answer. Sometimes the answer is obvious - war broke out in their home country, there was a devastating famine, they were sent overseas after committing a crime and never returned.

For most families though the reasons are more nuanced and in these cases it's important to understand what else was going on to encourage the move. Many Jewish families, for example, moved from Eastern Europe through the UK to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of discrimination, to pursue the "American Dream". (See my post about the Sukerts, a Jewish family who did exactly that).

Other families were tempted to Canada, Australia, the United States or New Zealand for economic reasons, the chance to own land, build a business snd provide new opportunities for their children.

Following your family history internationally

From a research point of view, once you start crossing international borders the research can get tricky. We all get used to dealing with the records of the country where we live, or where most of our ancestors came from. Suddenly having to get your head around the system in a whole new country and deal with records in different formats can be difficult. If your relatives emigrated to the UK or United States from another European country. records might be in a different language, using a whole other alphabet.

Top Tips for family history and emigration

If you've come across an emigration story in your family history, here are some clues about where to start with your research.

  1. Family Search Catalogue - FamilySearch has a very useful website where you can browse records are available by country. This can save you hours searching for records which are not online, or don't exist.

  2. Social History - understanding the reasons why your ancestors may have moved might open up new avenues of records to look at. The British Newspaper Archive is a good resource for people who moved to or from the UK.

  3. Passenger Lists - there are lots of passenger lists on sites like Ancestry and FindMyPast, and don't forget to look at the Ellis Island foundation if you think your ancestors went across the Atlantic to America though New York.

  4. Get help - save yourself hours by asking for help from someone who has experience in the research you are doing. Glasgow Genealogy is the obvious choice, but there are other options like specialist Facebook groups to help with deciphering Hebrew or Russian, or local family history societies.

  5. Don't believe the myths - there's a really common myth that clerks at Ellis Island regularly changed people's names for them on arrival in New York and this makes tracing them impossible. This isn't true, although some anglicisation of spelling is not unusual.

Good luck tracing your international ancestors - I would love to help you uncover their stories!

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