How to Find Your Roots: Seeking Ancestors Abroad

Finding Your Ancestors Around the World
Seeking Ancestors Abroad (photo via thegenealogycorner.wordpress.com)

Canada, like many “daughter” countries, has received immigrants from hundreds of nations throughout our history. For some, travelling back overseas to find what life in the old country was like is a great way to spend a foreign holiday. Let’s look at some advice for travellers hoping to retrace their ancestor’s footprints.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

Researching genealogy is a time-consuming hobby, and if you want to combine your research with a trip abroad, you’d best give yourself a few months or longer to plan. For one thing, it’s easier to get a cheap flight if you book ahead, and for another, you may be able to pinpoint more specific information about your long-lost relatives if you give yourself time on the ground first. Once you’ve done some digging into your family’s history since they migrated to Canada, then you will have an idea of where to start in your search for old family homes and surviving relatives abroad.

Additionally, the planning of your trip will evolve as you learn more about your family’s history.  Let’s say, for example, you learn that one of your ancestors was described in historical documents as being from Russia. It might be tempting to go right out and book a flight to Russia, with the idea that you’d be back in the motherland. However, the borders of the nation we call “Russia” have changed many times over the past two hundred years, due to empires shifting, treaties and war. In fact, your ancestor may be from a village that on today’s map is part of the Ukraine, or Poland, or Latvia. You’ll need to double-check the exact location of the ancestor’s hometown against maps of that time and the present day. Further complicating your trip may be the travel visas necessary to visit some countries, which you’ll want to check with the embassy of the country before you leave on your trip.

Access More Records

Once you’ve determined the names and ages of your family members who arrived in Canada, you’ll have a good idea of their cities of origin in their old countries.  After you know you’ve got the right people on your family tree, you should look at some overseas sources to help you in your search for ancestral homes. For example, the Irish Times newspaper’s website has an interactive search engine that can help you look for the locations of households occupied by certain surnames in the 1800s. You might find it helpful to book your travel for ancestral research to counties or cities that had a larger number of people with your family’s surname, and to do more research there. And, if you have Scandinavian ancestry, the Digital Archives of Norway is another example of a foreign resource that can help you pinpoint specific family members.

Interview Family Members

Even though the majority of your genealogical research may be done online or in libraries, don’t forget the power of interviews. Once you find some cousins overseas, or even people you have reason to believe are descendants of close friends of one of your immigrant family members, you can contact them and ask for an interview. Even before you travel abroad, you might be able to have a video conference with them. And, along the way you might find a cousin or two who will want to come on your trip with you to reunite the family.

Contact Immigrant Associations

If you come from an ancestry that had many immigrants to Canada, in your town or city you may be able to find an association of people from your heritage. This association may have records of its own, or may be able to help you regarding major points of emigration from the country of origin.

Have Fun

However you research, don’t let your hobby overwhelm you. The sheer numbers of immigrants to Canada, coupled with cross-migration to the United States and the United Kingdom can make your search for old family locations seem like a never-ending project. The most important thing is that you enjoy the research as well as your upcoming trip abroad.

My name is Gareth Leonard, a Marketing Director turned World Traveler with a passion for slow, meaningful travel. I have been traveling the world full-time for the past 9+ years and document it all on Instagram and YouTube. Come join me!

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