Genealogical Smackdown: Colonials vs Immigrants

I had to knock down a brick wall with my own hands to find my ancestors!

In this corner, weighing in with over 300 years of American roots, crossing the ocean on the Mayflower and other sailing vessels, we have the sons and daughters of the Revolution, the founders of the Republic, our COLONIAL ancestors!

In the opposing corner, coming to the ring in the late 19th and early 20th century, the tired, poor, and huddled masses of Ellis Island and other ports, emigrating from many different European countries, our IMMIGRANT ancestors!

Let’s get ready to RESEARCH!  Who will win the genealogical research match of the ages?

[Note to readers: Yes, I fully realize that the colonials were once immigrants, too, but just work with me on the analogy…]

Only a very small percentage of Americans can call themselves “native” to our great country; the rest of us are immigrants.  However, in the world of genealogical research, I have always pitted what I call the “true” immigrants – those who came late in the country’s history – against the colonial immigrants.  As the great-granddaughter of Europeans who immigrated in the first decade of the 20th century, all of my genealogical research has been strictly in the Immigrant camp.  In the early days of my research, as my fellow Immigrant-researching friend and I slogged through misspelled Polish names on census records and tried to decipher passenger arrival lists, we looked on with envy as her Colonial-descending husband went back six generations in the time it took us to find our eighty possible matches in a poorly spelled index.  My then-boyfriend, another Colonial, would search the internet and find instant cousins who could document the family tree back seven generations (to this day, I swear he is related to at least three Colonial genealogy bloggers).   While the Colonial guys did the genealogical happy dance together, we Immigrants would share a sympathetic look and charge on, sometimes for years, before going back one more generation.

Without any Colonial ancestors of my own to research, I never thought much about any pitfalls that Colonial researchers face.  All I saw from my Immigrant side of the fence were published record books and the English language.  Nor did I ever consider anything about Immigrant research to be “easy” even though the internet has speeded our searching considerably.

But, the grass is always greener on the other side.  Leave it to Randy Seaver to make me think.

Back in March, Randy of Genea-musings wrote a post called “Can you document all names back 10 generations?” based on a debate on another blog. 

In discussing European records (i.e. what I call Immigrant records) he commented “the civil records and the church records usually go back to the 1500s, unless there are major record losses in the country or provinces.”  In comparing to his own research on his New England ancestors (i.e. what I call Colonials), Randy points out that states did not have civil registration rules until the mid 1800s – “but there is not 100% coverage within a town or 100% coverage of all towns. That’s just the facts of genealogy life in the USA. We generally use military, church, land, probate and tax records to try to define our families and relationships before 1850.”

I have to admit – Randy has a point!  I thought of one of my “easier” Immigrant lines that I’ve researched.  Finding the immigrant’s hometown was the difficult part, but once I did, the town’s records are available on microfilm at the FHL.  Back to 1597.  Yes, 1597.  (On this line, I am “only” back to the late 1600s since the handwriting on the earlier records is hard to decipher.)

So were my original assumptions about Colonial research completely wrong?  Or did I just need to consider the subject objectively?  What I really wanted to know after all these years of genealogical research was:

Which “camp” has it easier when it comes to research?

Both Colonial and Immigrant research has some pros and cons.  For Colonials, researchers get to deal with the English language and there are many printed compilations and resources available.  But, even research of records written in English can be hampered by bad handwriting, and despite printed resources it may be hard to determine where to find them.  Rules on vital record registration varied from town to town, and there is no central repository for records.

In contract, Immigrant researchers may find that their ancestors’ hometowns have church records that go very far back, and thanks to Napoleon, most European countries required civil vital record registration beginning in 1808.  But, it is also common to find that a town’s records were destroyed in a war, and researchers have to learn some basics of foreign languages for effective research.

There really is no “winner” in this research match, because a lot of the research depends on luck…if only the town of your ancestor has records and if only you are able to access them, you can find another generation.  Instead of a boxing match in which one opponent needs to “knock out” another to win, perhaps a more appropriate representation of the Colonial vs. Immigrant research is that of a race.  From the starting line, the Colonial researcher is able to quickly sprint ahead several generations.  U.S. federal census records alone can often allow a new researcher to go back a few generations if their ancestors have been in the country for a long time.  But then the Colonial research might come to a halt or a much slower pace while record resources are sought after.

Meanwhile, the Immigrant researcher is barely out of the gate, plodding along trying to find clues to their ancestors’ hometowns in the old country.  With diligent research however, at some point the Immigrant researcher may actually go past a Colonial on the track if the hometown has readily available and accessible records.

In the end, who wins?  In genealogical research, there is no end unless you’ve reached the end of recorded history for your ancestors.  The bottom line is that whether you are researching COLONIALS or IMMIGRANTS or both, genealogical research is HARD WORK!

In truth, the counting back of generations isn’t necessarily the end goal, just part of the process of learning and finding out where our ancestors came from, how they lived, and who they were.  Who wins?  Both Colonial and Immigrant researchers!  Whether it’s a small tidbit find or knocking down the proverbial brick wall, it’s all fun if you’re a genealogist.  Get your boxing gloves on and get to work – put up a fight to find those ancestors!


7 thoughts on “Genealogical Smackdown: Colonials vs Immigrants

  1. Really neat post. Because I have colonial/southern roots and my husband has the NY/NJ immigrant thing, I think about this a lot. Mostly it has seemed to be more difficult to research the immigrants, but I think your more balanced assessment is closer to the mark.

  2. As someone who is completely 50/50 with that type of ancestry, I have to say colonial ancestry is harder. As a great-grandson of Slovak immigrants I knew three of the four home towns of those immigrants (I knew 3 of my four grandparents very well). I had to wait for the politics to change, but as soon as Communism failed. I was off back in all lines 200 more years.

    European church records are so much more rich with information than any comparable U.S. records. I get biographical information here, but strictly on ease of use documenting one generation to another, there’s no contest. European immigrants–much easier.

  3. My own ancestors are European immigrants. For the sake of my children, I did some work on my ex-husband’s ancestry, and was stunned to find Colonial ancestors–Essex County MA. I can say that I find Colonial genealogy much harder–because so much research has been done. There are a plethora of family trees online, and they don’t always agree! I had a very nasty exchange with a woman who insisted HER genealogy was correct when I’d only e-mailed her to say that I had seen a chart where Colonial X had a different wife than she said. Oh, my. I don’t use online trees for any standard of proof, but I do use them to find somewhere to start. As hard as starting from scratch is, I think it’s easier than trying to verify much-researched colonials.

  4. My own ancestry is 25% “immigrant” (Grammy came through Ellis Island) and 75%ish colonial (Mayflower, etc. with a few who came as late as 1650, LOL!) However, I married a first generation American, and I have to say his ancestry was quite easy. Like Martin said above, once you have the village you can go back as far as the records possibly go – in this case back to the Napoleonic era or late 1700’s. Not all colonial lines are easy, I have plenty of deadends and brickwalls in 1600s and 1700s New Hampshire.

  5. Randy may have made some good arguments, and you certainly presented both sides very well but I still think researching immigrant ancestors is harder. The two main advantages that researching in the U.S. has that would make it easier are: 1) I speak/read the language (that is a HUGE advantage!) and 2) There is a much greater variety of possible sources to check out. Researching in Poland, my only shot at finding ancestors is in church records. There may be other records but I don’t know of them or how to access them from here in the U.S. My only choice is to pay someone else to do the research… and where’s the fun in that???

    Here in the U.S. you have choices… census records, vital records, newspapers, military records, probate records, slave records, church records, voting records, books and magazines, and cemeteries! If you can’t go out and look for something yourself, you can ask someone else to do it on RAOGK or compare notes on message boards with someone who lives in the area. Oh how I wish I could do that!

  6. Pingback: 10 generations back | mrog::blog

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