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Spots to check as you track immigrant ancestors


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

Third of three parts.

There are worse experiences than trying to determine your immigrant ancestor's country of origin. Sticking pins in your eyes comes to mind. But success is possible, and that's what gives dedicated genealogists a reason to press on, even when their eyes cross from trolling through mounds of documents.

A fortunate few can even walk right into the county courthouse where their ancestor lived and pluck the proper documents from a tidy file, alphabetized by surname. If you're one of them, buy a lottery ticket now. The rest of us must muddle though the naturalization maze, bumping into one dead end after another.

As I wrote in a previous column, you should be able to obtain copies of any naturalization records from the Immigration and Naturalization Service if the paperwork was filed after 1906. Finding paperwork for those who arrived before 1906 will push your patience to the limit.

Once you've exhausted courthouse resources, head for the state and regional archives. If you're researching from afar, see what microfilmed records and books of compiled records are available at your local library and Mormon Family History Center. Online? Check the appropriate county's genealogy site. Many offer full or partial indexes of local courthouse records. If you get a hit, write to the courthouse and request the files.

Try a random search at Pick your state, enter "naturalization records" or "citizenships records" in the query box and click. Another good site is, and you can simply put "citizenship records" in your browser's search box and click. You'll be surprised at what pops up. (You get more hits by using the word citizenship instead of naturalization.)

Feel the need to really beat your head against the wall? Then passenger ship lists are for you. They're incomplete. You must know the port of arrival and time frame, and you run the risk of confusing your relative with others who share the same name. Libraries, Family History Centers and online sites such as and have these records.

If your ancestor took a trip abroad, he might have a passport application on file. The National Archives and Records Administration keeps passport applications from 1795 to March 1925. After that, the U.S. Department of State has them. Homestead records are also stashed at NARA. Late 19th century immigrants who wanted to homestead had to prove citizenship.

It's a long shot, but your ancestor might have left some worldly goods to an heir in the "old country." Check wills and probate records just in case. While you're there, look at the voting records. Only citizens could vote and hold public office. Local history books, though often inaccurate, are possible sources. So are obituaries and family Bibles.

Don't give up before checking the 1900, 1910 and 1920 census rolls. Questions about citizenship were asked. The records should show whether the residents were foreign-born and, if so, the year of immigration and if they were naturalized. In both 1910 and 1920, residents were asked if English was their native language and, if not, what language was spoken.

Use census records only as guidelines. Census takers were not particularly diligent. But even if his spelling is atrocious and he used Wurttemburg and Germany synonymously, you just might latch onto something useful.

No matter what records you dig up, don't jump to conclusions. The biggest mistake novices make is ending their research prematurely. Too many people in the same area shared the same name, particularly since immigrants from the same country tended to live near one another.

When I found citizenship papers for both James Murray and Anna Karnock after one pass through the Prothonotary Office in the Fayette County, Pa., courthouse, I was thrilled. Then I took a closer look. The names and ages were right. The time frame fit.

But neither one is a twig on my family tree.

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Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Home & Garden, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at

Civil War veterans ceremony scheduled

New grave markers honoring two local Civil War veterans will be dedicated during a ceremony at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Worth Cemetery in Durant. The public is invited to attend.

The markers will be placed on the graves of Joseph P. Wood, a private with the Union Army, and Frederick Worth, a captain with the Confederate Army, by members of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans of the Civil War.

Detachments from the SCV Honor Guard will officiate.

Both groups have been instrumental in cleaning and restoring the small cemetery, located at the corner of Durant Road and Colewood Lane, in eastern Hillsborough County.

For more information and directions, call Gerry Leonard at (813) 254-5820.

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