Guide No. 27: Ethnic Roots
Polish, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Slovenians, Hungarians, Greeks, Russians and other European links
Preparing for Old Country Research
Finally found your immigrant ancestor and are ready to start researching in the old country? Save yourself frustration and dead-ends by doing your homework before you undertake research in the old countries. It can be the difference between success and failure. All clues you will find in American records should be explored thoroughly. Don't get stranded at the "salt-water barrier."
Know your gateway (immigrant) ancestor's name in the old country. Many family names were changed or the spelling altered after the family's arrival in America. Because such changes often occurred informally, your best source about the family name will be found in the family itself. Talk to all your relatives who may have personal knowledge or oral history about your family's name. You must know what the surname was in the old country before you can continue.
Interview all your relatives who might have knowledge about the immigrant ancestor's trip to this country. Ask specific questions concerning the migration itself. Learn the port of entry, name of the ship, and name of the town or province where the family resided in the old country. Find your immigrant ancestor on a ship passenger list — if it exists. Foreign- and English-language newspapers also can be useful in tracing an immigrant's origins.
Search for naturalization records. Not all of our ancestors became citizens, but many filed their intent papers though some never completed the process. Naturalization records often contain the exact place of birth of the immigrant — this information, of course, is what you need to locate your family's records in the old country. Remember that many immigrants lived briefly in other countries (often Canada, the Caribbean islands or South America) before coming to America. You may have to trace your ancestor back through other countries before you are ready to tackle the records in Ireland, for example.
U.S. federal census records are immensely useful in tracing immigrant ancestors who arrived after 1880. Even if your ancestor immigrated to America much earlier, say 1840, some information about his origins can be surmised from the 1880 and 1900 censuses — if he was still alive at those dates. Be sure to check the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses.
See also Tracing Immigrant Ancestors
For Jewish ancestors in various European countries please see Guide 25.
Millions of Americans can trace their roots to Polish ancestors, many of whom arrived less than 100 years ago. The Poles are one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States, with the first Poles arriving in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608 with some Germans to help develop the colony's timber industry. However, it was not until the American Revolution that several hundred more Poles arrived, coming to fight with the American colonists. Official estimates indicate that about 2.5 million Poles immigrated to America between 1850 and the end of World War I.
The journey from Poland to American changed little during the years between 1880 and World War I. When a Pole decided to leave the old country, he usually bought his passage from a local transportation agent or more likely received his ticket from a contact in America. Most immigrants sold their personal effects, livestock, or borrowed from the local moneylender to provided the necessary funds. If your ancestors came after 1880, they probably arrived on a steamship and sailed from a German port. Two of the most popular lines were the North German Line out of Bremen/Bremerhaven and the Hamburg-American Line.
The majority of Poles landed in New York — at Castle Garden if they came prior to 1892 and at Ellis Island after that date. Their destination was almost always one of the already established Polish settlements. The Prussian Poles who came to America in the mid-1800s either became part of the German or Czech communities or established separate Polish colonies in farming areas. However, large cities such as Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia became home to many Polish immigrants.
Regardless of when your Polish ancestors came or where they first settled, research should be conducted in American records first.
PolandGenWeb is where you will find help or information regarding:
- alphabetical list of all major cities, counties, and some towns in each of the current provinces of Poland; new towns are added periodically
- locating the town your ancestor came from and other FAQs
- basic research — general resources for information in America and other countries
- Polish Genealogical Societies — worldwide
- what records are available in Poland and what info you need to find them
- lesser known American resources
- pages explaining the location and history of various regions (past and present) in Poland, including links to maps of these regions
- general Poland maps and bookstores
Polish Records Transcription Project
Birth, marriage, and death records for many towns have been donated to PolandGenWeb. Check to see if one of these towns is where your ancestors came from.
Czechs and Slovaks
Two things are critical to finding information about your Czech or Slovak ancestors:
- Actual name of your immigrant ancestor
- Name of the ancestral village or city
Some 400,000 Czechs have immigrated to America, most of them arriving between 1848 and 1914. However, because most Czechs came from Bohemia (Bohmen in German, Cechy in Czech), they were often called "Bohemians" before World War I.
In 1918 the former country of Czechoslovakia was created from parts of Austria and Hungary. It was formed from the Czech-speaking Austrian provinces of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia and a small section of Prussian Silesia, plus from the northern area of old Hungary, called Slovakia, and the northeastern section of old Hungary inhabited by people who speak Rusin, a Ukrainian dialect. This area, named Sub-Carpathia Russia or Ruthenia, was ceded to the Soviet Union after World War II.
There were three main ports of embarkation for Czechs and Slovaks: Bremen, Hamburg and Antwerp. Or they may have sailed from Rotterdam or LeHavre. However, the majority came through Hamburg (Germany) and these ship passenger lists should be searched first. They are available on microfilm through the Family History Library.
In order to locate parish, civil or other records it is necessary to determine the specific place from which your ancestor originated. The best source for this information will be found in family records. Talk to older members of the family and ask them to search for old documents, Bibles, and prayer books. Death notices can often give valuable clues about the place of origin as well as information on survivors. Tombstone inscriptions often give clues about the birthplace of the deceased. Always check cemeteries.
Slavic Studies Trails on the Internet (University of North Carolina Greensboro)
Croatians and Slovenians
Between 1899 and 1924 about 485,000 Croatian and Slovenian immigrants came to America, with a third as many Serbians, Montenegrins and Bulgarians arriving here. Another 53,000 came from the subgroups called Dalmatians, Bosnians and Herzegovinians. Driven from their homeland by poverty, too little land on which to earn a living, high taxes, military conscription or oppression by foreign powers, plus the "American fever" (favorable reports from friends and relatives already here) — the Southern Slavs, with so many of their surnames ending in "ic" or "ich," made the long journey to America.
The Croats are one of the South Slav peoples who inhabit what formerly was Yugoslavia, and they began coming to the United States in significant numbers about a century ago. Today there are between 500,000 and 750,000 American who are entirely or partially of Croatian descent, making the Croats the most numerous of the South Slav groups that have settled in this country. Some authorities argue that their number is more than a million. However, precise figures cannot be obtained because in the 19th century Croatian immigrants tended to identify themselves in terms of the region from which they had come — Slavonia, Dalmatia, Istria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Until 1918 the U.S. Immigration Service did not distinguish Croatians from Slovenes or other immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is estimated that 300,000 Slovenes (both immigrants and American-born descendants) reside in the United States. Caniola, the central Slovene province, provided the large majority of Slovene immigrants to this country.
The single largest wave of Croatian immigrants (approximately 400,000) came between 1890 and 1914. However the return migration to Croatia was high. During this time one of every two Croatians and Slovenes returned to their homeland, at least for a while. The earliest Croatian settlements in the United States were on the Gulf of Mexico and in California. In the 1890s Croats began to arrive in New Mexico to work in the coal mines. The largest Croatian mining settlement between 1881 and 1914 was in the copper fields of Upper Michigan. At the turn of the century, Butte, Mont., had a major Croatian colony that included Slovenes and other Slavs involved in mining there. Later some of the Croats in this locality moved into other trades, ranching and restaurant operations. Hundreds from the Lika region settled in the Minnesota Iron Range, in Utah, Wyoming and other western states.
After 1880 most of the Croatian immigrants came from the interior regions of Croatia proper, Slavonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many of these settled in the East and Midwest, especially around Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and in the metropolitan Chicago area. By the beginning of World War I, there were also sizable settlements in Ohio, Missouri and Indiana.
Like so many of our ancestors, most of the Southern Slav immigrants were poor people who came to America. Many left their country illegally. They often traveled on foot, slipped across a border and eventually reached France or another country on the Atlantic.
Like many European countries, Hungary has a diverse political history and its boundaries have changed many times. Following World War I, Hungary's territory was reduced to one-third of its pre-war geographical area. Some territories were allotted to the Austrian area of Burgenland, to Romania and to the former countries of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. After World War II, some of the territory allotted to what was then Czechoslovakia (the Ruthenian area) was given to the Ukraine, which then was in the former U.S.S.R. In cases where an ancestral line is said to extend into Hungary, it may mean the old historical Hungary and one may have to research not only in present-day Hungary, but also in several other countries.
Many Hungarians who immigrated to the U.S. prior to World War I came from the northern part of old Hungary. The major emigration started about 1870 and ended about 1910. Many of them left from the port of Hamburg, Germany. The first Hungarian group of a substantial number to arrive in the U.S. came in 1849, and approximately 800 Hungarians served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. However, most Hungarians immigrated to America between 1890 and 1914.
The Family History Library has filmed many records of what is present-day Hungary. These include church, census, nobility and military records and some genealogical charts. Approximately 8,000 rolls contain parish registers of the different faiths, dating from the early 1700s to 1895 when civil registration started. These records are written in the Latin, Hungarian and German languages. Among the records available on microfilm are the parish registers of the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic, Reformed and Evangelical churches covering the time period of early 18th century to 1895. Parish registers cover all of the present-day Hungary, including records from Burgenland, Austria, the Bacska region of old Hungary, 53 places in Romania and 77 places in the former Yugoslavia.
Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began on October 1, 1895 in Hungary. The records are kept at the civil registrars' offices in the town halls of each city or town and duplicates are located in the county archives or in the National Center of Archives.
While Greeks have been coming to America since Colonial days, most of those who came to make permanent communities arrived in the 1890s or later. Your immigrant ancestor probably settled in a city in a northeastern or north-central state, or in California. New York and Illinois are two other states with large Greek populations.
Although there were some skilled workers and professionals among the more than 350,000 Greeks who came to this country between 1890 and 1920, the majority were poor farmers. Relatives in American frequently sent money "home" to pay for the trip, while other emigrants borrowed from moneylenders — often men who had returned from America with money they had saved. Some sold their farms to raise money. The two main ports in Greece were Piraeus, just outside Athens, and Patras. From these towns, the emigrant went to Naples, Italy, or some other European port where he had to change ships for the trip to America because there was no direct steamship line until 1907 when one was established at Piraeus. Most Greeks traveled in steerage, enduring the dirty, overcrowded conditions that were so common on the ships.
If your immigrant ancestor became an American citizen, his naturalization papers may reveal the name of his ancestral village, which is what you will need in order to find genealogical records in Greece. Many secular clubs, local and national ones, were formed to help the immigrant Greeks. The largest and most influential were the Panhellenic Union, founded in 1907, AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), founded in 1922, and Greek American Progressive Association (GAPA), founded in 1923. Genealogical information is often available in the records of such fraternal organizations and associations. Start your search for these private records in the cities where your immigrant ancestors lived.
Church records are the primary source for genealogical research in Greece. The Greek Orthodox Church — the only church in Greece until recently — has some registers as early as 1707, but many have not survived. Most of those predating 1850 have been deposited in departmental archives. The Family History Library has filmed pre-1850 church records in some of the nomes (departments). There are no central records of church registers in Greece; the records, for the most part, are in the individual churches. Greece is divided into "Metropolis" areas (each under a metropolitan, or bishop) and these include the many individual parishes. If you know the village from which your Greek ancestors came, then write directly to the priest there. You are more likely to have success if your letter is in Greek, as village priests may not be able to read English.
Civil registration in Greece dates to 1831 and the records are kept in municipal offices, but many have been destroyed. If you know the exact place of origin, write to the mayor of the village or city and request information about the specific vital event.
Mikhail Kroutikhim maintains an attractive website, and it is in English. He shares advice on unique problems posed by Russian research and provides a beginner's guide to Russian research (see below). There also are lists of archives in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine with addresses and phone numbers of each. The site was reviewed in the January/February 2000 issue of Family Chronicle.
Researching Russian Roots: How to Begin
For Jewish ancestors in various European countries please see Guide 25.
- Cyndi's List: Eastern Europe
Links in this Guide (in order they appeared)
- Family Names
- Interview All Your Relatives
- Foreign- and English-Language Newspaers
- Naturalization Records
- U.S. Federal Census Records
- Tracing Immigrant Ancestors
- Guide 25
- Polish Records Transcription Project
- The Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base & Society
- The Carpathian Connection
- Family History Library
- Czech Republic Genealogy
- Slovak Republic GenWeb
- Slavic Studies Trails on the Internet
- A Guide to Finding Your Town in Romania
- Family History Library
- Mikhail Kroutikhim
- Family Chronicle
- Researching Russian Roots: How to Begin
- Ukraine (WorldGenWeb)
- Guide 25
- South America
- Central America
- Caribbean Islands
- British Isles
- Central Europe
- Middle East
- Eastern Europe
- Pacific Islands
- Cyndi's List: Eastern Europe