Tracking Your Ancestors’ Migrations

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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Americans have always been an itchy-footed bunch: Even in this country’s earliest days, people were pulling up stakes and heading westward in search of land and opportunity. Retracing their paths can prove crucial to retracing generations of your family—and these six sources and clues will help you follow their footsteps.

1. US Censuses

One of the best and simplest sources for tracing migrations is the US census. Beginning in 1850, it named all individuals, not just heads of household, and added the state of birth. From 1880 on, it also recorded the birthplaces of each person’s parents, giving you clues to where the family migrated from.

2. Birth-Certificate Substitutes

Check for birthplaces in cemeteries, church records, military records, family Bibles, probate files and newspaper obituaries. Remember, a family might have made an intermediate stop between their hometown and the place they settled for good. Many of my Southern kin, for example, were born in Virginia or North Carolina, lived in Georgia and died in Alabama. I’ve found valuable clues in their easily overlooked Georgia records.

3. Land Records

Land records, which may list a buyer’s or seller’s birthplace, can be useful even when the information isn’t so obvious. You can search databases of land records, such as the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office patents, for your ancestors’ legal footprints where they may have left no other evidence. That database contains information on government land sales; transactions between private citizens (deeds) would show up in county courthouses.

Once you’ve found an ancestor’s land, take note of families with neighboring tracts. Even if their surnames aren’t familiar, they may be your relatives, too, since neighboring families often migrated together and intermarried. Likewise, if you get stumped tracing your family, try searching for the neighbors. If neighbors of your Ohio family all came from Lancaster, Pa., it’s worth checking to see if your ancestors made a stop there, too.

4. Bygone Roads and Routes

Study the roads and routes that often brought people to your family’s hometown. Follow them eastward to identify locales where your ancestors might’ve paused-for a few years or a few generations. Then check census and other records in those places. It may help to compare the your family’s arrival date in each place with the timelines of possible routes they traveled and places they stopped. Consult histories of those places: Even if these books don’t mention your family by name, they can give clues to why and from where settlers arrived.

5. Historical Maps

Collections of old maps-many now on the Internet-can help you trace your ancestors’ route. The University of Alabama’s historical map collection, for example, helped me pinpoint where the Federal Road and the Tallapoosa River most nearly intersected. Many state archives have map collections, and the University of Texas’ Perry-Castaneda Library has historical maps from across the country.

6. Social History

Consider your ancestors’ possible motives for embarking on the often-perilous journey west, and match their movements to mass migrations at that point in history. Did the Gold Rush lure your family to California? Did they, like many of my forebears, catch “Alabama fever” in the first half of the 19th century, as former Indian lands were opened to settlement? Your ancestors might have had less pecuniary motivations for migrating, such as the Latter-day Saints who followed the Mormon Trail to Utah, or my great-great-grandfather the Rev. Robert R. Dickinson, a “circuit rider” Methodist minister in Alabama in 1840.

Migrations were involuntary for some, such as the 16,000 Cherokee who followed the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in 1838, or the Nez Perce who fled the US Cavalry in 1877. Histories of displaced tribes will help you sort out their movements, as will Bureau of Indian Affairs records at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Get help tracing your ancestors across the USA with Family Tree Magazine’s State Research Guides.