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 Tracing Migrant Ancestors Who Left Britain

Information on what is possible when tracing migrant ancestors from Britain

This is part of my range of genealogy research information sheets.

Information Sheet 6—Migrating Ancestors

I often get enquiries from clients whose ancestors were from Britain, and understandably, the clients wish to follow their migrating ancestor back here.

The enquiry is usually something like tracing John Doe, who was born about 1640, and was in Massachusetts by 1680 and that is the limit of what is known. This isn't enough information to trace an ancestor in the country of origin. Even if a candidate can be found, perhaps a baptism around the correct time, it is nearly always impossible to prove that it was the same John Doe who left, rather than someone with the same name. The pool of given names was small, and many individuals shared the same name.

It is rare that records survive in Britain that show someone left, and so the only “proof” is that they can’t be traced forward. There are many reasons for why someone disappeared from records here, and it doesn't imply that it was because they emigrated. Even this is very slow (therefore expensive) as each candidate must be examined throughout their life. This early, many records haven't survived, and those that have aren't all indexed, so there are likely to be further candidates who aren’t even considered. The only conclusion usually is that there was a John Doe, baptised in say London in 1639, who can't be traced forward; that isn't proof he is the correct man.

The extra information needed, almost always, has to come from the destination country. By having a broader understanding of the person once they arrived there, for example names of close relatives, friends and kin, or where others in their community came from, there starts to be a chance to prove their origin. Below are a few examples:

  1. If a man arrived with a wife and son, then there will be three people who could be checked back in Britain. A John Doe, with wife Mary, and son, Henry (born about 1665), gives a much better chance that a baptism for the John Doe, can be tied to a marriage of a lady named Mary, and the baptism for a son named Henry in about 1665.
  2. If our man arrived with a brother named Bonaventure Doe, and there can be found a baptism of a Bonaventure Doe in a particular village (say 1636), followed by a John Doe in 1638, it would make the conclusion far more likely. Sometimes, other kin would emigrate to the same area, even if not all together.
  3. If its known that many people in a particular community came from a small area of Britain (by that I mean a parish or two), then the research could be concentrated there. Another of the emigrants might well have left better records that stated where they were from.

In the examples above, more knowledge on John Doe, his kin, or community, gathered once he was in America is what would give success back in Britain. This would require an American genealogist.

If nothing more than a name John Doe can be located in the destination country, then it is very unlikely that any attempts to locate the person back home will generate enough proof to be sure when the correct person is found.

Case Study 1

A client contacted me about their emigrant ancestor. It was stated that their ancestor was baptised in Westminster, on a particular date. He was sure of this, as this was the only baptism he could find, and around 150 other people had the information in various online trees. There was indeed a baptism for the boy at the particular church in Westminster, the records of baptisms for that place had been widely indexed. What the client wasn't aware of is that poor boy died a few days after birth and his burial was recorded in the register about a week later. The burial records hadn't been indexed, but the various assumptions mean that hundreds of people still think that this is their ancestor who emigrated, and so have the wrong next generation back. The reality is that their true ancestor’s baptism probably has gone unrecorded as it was during the period of disruption caused by the English Civil War, when records weren’t kept properly and many destroyed. Or, possibly recorded in a parish whose records haven’t been indexed (there were over 12,000+ parishes, so not possible to check them all one-by-one!)

Case Study 2

The following is a case study in reverse, showing how I gathered enough information about a migrant to Britain, to enable them to be located back in their country of origin: France. The man in question was thought to be a Huguenot—French protestant who fled France due to persecution. To start with, all that was known was his name, occupation and when he died.

By examining his life in Britain, I obtained his will, which gave the names of his children and some other individuals, such as an executor. With the children's names known, their baptisms were sought, which gave his wife's name (she wasn't named in the will as she died first). Once the eldest child was found, I located the marriage to the wife. As this was by licence (most British marriages were by banns), it gave his age, it was rare for an age to be recorded at marriage in the 1720s.

I looked for possible kin. I found a very likely brother: a man with the same unusual occupation, to which our candidate signed as a witness at his wedding, the likely brother also had his age recorded when he married, and so we had an approximate idea of when he was born too.

Although no records of our man, nor his likely brother, showed where in France they came from, the executor of our man's will had documented this information—he had applied for a coat of arms at which point he submitted a pedigree to the College of Arms, which included information back to his grandparents, such as where they married. This pedigree showed some overlap with the surname of the main individual that was being traced.

At this point I had a couple of French towns to check (those named by the executor), and it could be expected that if a baptism of our man and his likely brother could be found, around their estimated year of birth, then this would prove the connection.

Both baptisms were found; what was more a little further work showed that our man was the first cousin once removed of the executor of the will, and so made the connection certain.

Most of the work (80%+) was done in the destination country, and only the hypothesis checked by reference to the country of origin. Obviously, to follow back further, would require French records, but that would never have been possible without the exhaustive work in the destination country. Had the client approached a researcher in France, the case would not have been proved; the French researcher would have had no clue as to where to start, nor proof when a record was found.


Very often, before engaging a genealogist in the origin country, I recommend contacting a professional genealogist in the destination country, who will be able to check that all possible information has been gathered about the migrating ancestor and their community. They will have access to records there, and be better placed to undertake that work. If this still just leaves the name, then it is unlikely to be possible to follow back your ancestor in Britain.