Locating immigrant ancestors

Those immigrants who traveled together to the United States had a shared and common heritage. In the “old country,” they may have all come from the same town, worshipped in the same church, spoke the same language and been related to each other.

When they arrived in the colonies – or the United States – many of these groups stuck together and formed communities to provide support and comfort to each other in language, business, education and religious and social activities. Then their new home wasn’t so “foreign.”

If you are researching such immigrant ancestors, always check the church records and the foreign language newspapers in the community where they lived. They brought their faith with them, and their names may have been printed in their language’s paper.

Exploring local histories

Accessing local histories is valuable in researching family histories.

These were published to mark an anniversary of the community’s founding and described events, ethnic and social groups, churches and cemeteries, schools and businesses.

And they rank among the best sources for biographical details of the founders and later residents to include occupations, religious affiliation, education, family members and military service. Some might include photographs of community leaders.

Typically published in limited numbers, city and county histories are often hard to locate. But today, many are being digitized online and some online tools may help you find copies in libraries, stores or with private owners. The Family History Room at the Lawton Public Library has quite a few covering towns and counties in southwest Oklahoma.

The old neighborhood

It was not that long ago that families did not move from city to city or state to state as they do today. But returning to the neighborhood your ancestors occupied may very well reveal some details about them and might help you with further research.

First, of course, you will look for the house your ancestor occupied. Then look for nearby sites such as churches, schools, businesses, clubs, organizations, shops and parks. How did people get around? Using census records, you may find other ancestors in the same neighborhood.

If the homes and businesses in the old neighborhood are gone or changed, you can use old maps, documents and photos to partially reconstruct it.

Remember that street addresses and ZIP codes are relatively modern creations.

Sanborn fire insurance maps

There is a valuable genealogical resource that you may not know about or that may not occur to you to explore.

That resource is the Sanborn fire insurance maps. Created in 1867 to evaluate potential fire hazards, these maps provided insurance agents with the size, placement, square footage and building materials of our ancestors’ properties.

They are most notable for their attention to detail, especially the material, such as stone, brick, adobe, etc.

Using a Sanborn map allows you to see the changes in the homes and businesses over several generations of your ancestors.

The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of digitized Sanborn maps. Your local public and university library may offer digitized or printed maps for the surrounding area.

Census enumeration maps

There is another resource that is rarely considered when looking for ancestors – census enumeration district maps.

Censuses are among the most useful records, and since 1880 the Census Bureau has divided states into numbered enumeration districts. Each district was sized so that one enumerator could count the population there in one day.

Each map marks the boundaries, which are usually along roads or railroad tracks and, comparing it to a current street map, shows where an ancestor’s neighborhood was. Landmarks, such as churches and schools, are labeled on some of the maps.

Go to FamilySearch.com to browse a collection of these maps from the censuses taken between 1910 and 1940 organized by state and county.

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