Where in the world are my ancestors?


Apparently, the world is getting smaller, travel has never been easier and the internet has the answer to everything!

But, this isn’t always the case when you are time-travelling in search of your ancestors. Some parts of the world have easy access to family history documents, with lots of on-line censuses, certificates and parish records. Sadly, other countries have hardly anything available, unless you’re prepared to learn the language and travel there yourself.

So, before you pack your bags and set off on a trip into your family’s history, let’s have a look at what you can expect:

Starting close to home – you are very lucky if your ancestors came from England, Wales or Scotland. On-line family history records are plentiful here, with good transcriptions and search engines on sites like Ancestry or Find My Past. And what’s more, information is being added all the time, particularly original parish records for births, marriages and burials. The only place to see original Scottish records is the Scotlands People website. Other than that it’s all transcriptions, which vary in accuracy. See my blog 7 tips for exploring your Scottish roots.

Irish ancestry poses some problems for several reasons: The first is the majority of the population was Roman Catholic and their registers did not begin until late in the 18th century. The second is the relatively few number of surnames shared by most of the population (this is also true of Welsh records). And finally, the Irish Public Record Office in Dublin, was destroyed by protestors against British rule in 1922. About half the Church of Ireland Parish registers, census returns, wills and other government records, were lost forever.

More and more Irish records are now appearing on-line on websites like Roots Ireland, but they’re still patchy at best and unless you know which parish your family came from, finding them can be very tricky. See my blog Help, my ancestors were Irish!

If we move across to our nearest neighbours on the continent, things start to get more difficult. Ancestry has some births, marriages and deaths for countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands, but very few European countries have published census records like we do in the UK. A good place to check is the Mormon website, Family Search. I’ve found Dutch census records on there before, although I had to get help with the language because there’s no translation available.

Moving east, I’ve never come across any solid resources for Eastern Europe or Russia. We did once put an English lady in touch with Polish relatives, but that entailed a lot of translation and letter writing to the Town Hall of her family’s hometown. Very few countries have centralised archives like we do here, so you have to deal with individual provinces or a city’s governmental office.

The only other places in the world where I have consistently found reliable family history records are the United States, Canada and Australia. America has very detailed recent census records available, although finding birth, marriage and death records may be more challenging because, again, it seems to depend on which state has released their records and it’s not very centralised. Canada has good passenger records on Ancestry and here and also some free downloadable military records here.

Australia has published some electoral registers and censuses, although they’re not as detailed as the UK ones.

As for the rest of the world: China, India, South East Asia and South America, for example, I’d feel lucky to find any online information at all. Currently, most of these regions are pretty much inaccessible to travellers through time, like you and me. However, as new records are being added all the time, here are my three favourite places to look, when all else has failed:

  • Family Search
  • Cyndi’s List
  • Google search for family trees submitted by the public. Just enter the words “[Surname] Family Tree” and see what comes up. Not all are helpful, but sometimes you can find other people who are looking for your ancestors, such as this one for the Drake family.

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