A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing Your Roots Overseas

This is Part 2 in a two-part series on combining travel with genealogy – specifically Norwegian genealogy. Check out Part 1, Finding My Roots in Norway.

Combining a love of travel with a curiosity about your family tree can be incredibly rewarding. It can also be incredibly frustrating, a journey that may be full of false leads and dead ends.

When I started researching my family’s history in 2005, I got very lucky in that Norway (home to my father’s ancestors) has digitized their census records and placed them in a searchable database online.  On the other hand, I have tried to track down ancestors in Germany with no luck – my guess is that the country’s turbulent history, inconsistent borders and extensive war damage are all partly to blame.  And my searches for my English, Irish and Swedish relatives haven’t gotten me outside of the United States yet.

Getting Started

The first, most obvious step is to start with what you know.  Find out whatever you can from your parents and extended family.  I started with my dad’s side of the family because they had the best records – I had a family tree dating back to the early 1800s on my grandfather’s side and a tree going back to the mid 1700s on my grandmother’s side, both including the names of towns overseas where my ancestors once lived. On my mother’s side, all I had was records from my grandfather’s family to the early 1900s and absolutely nothing on my grandmother’s side.  If your family hasn’t kept a lot of records, don’t get discouraged.  Just think of it as a challenge – and more interesting information for you to discover!

Note from great grandmother
Notes from my great-grandmother.

Your next step should be to go online to Ancestry.com, the most comprehensive family history research web site out there (at least in my opinion).  Ancestry requires a subscription to access the most useful information, but if you’re serious about finding your roots, it is well worth it.  Prices start at $12.95 per month for the U.S. Deluxe Membership and $24.95 for the World Deluxe Membership.  With the U.S. Deluxe subscription, you can access original census records across the country, birth and death records, military records, newspaper archives and more.  By upgrading to a World Deluxe subscription, you can also access emigration records and a variety of other sources in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and other countries. Ancestry also features message boards, sorted by location or by surname, so you can try to connect with others.  I have actually met relatives on both sides of my family while using the message boards!

Other free online resources you might try are Familysearch.org, EllisIsland.org and state and local vital records databases.  For example, Cook County, Illinois has a genealogy website that allows you to search for birth, death and marriage records.


I won’t lie – searching on Ancestry can be a chore.  It is important to cast your net widely and to use variable spellings of names.  You are searching electronic records that, in most cases, have been transcribed from the original, handwritten documents, so accuracy is not always 100%.  When you get your search results, it can be overwhelming.  I personally like to start by reviewing the census records, which typically list at least names and ages or birth dates and, in many cases, place of birth, occupation, literacy, citizenship and education information.  For states whose birth, death and marriage records are included in Ancestry, those also provide extremely valuable information and can allow you to confirm information found in the census records.  Newspaper archives are also great for obituaries, which can provide information not found in more official sources.

1920 census
A page from the 1920 census for Thornton Township, Illinois

It is important to be aware of the user-submitted family trees on Ancestry.  You may do a search that shows your ancestor in a family tree that goes back several generations.  You might immediately think you have hit the jackpot.  But proceed with caution.  The user-submitted trees can be a great starting point, but you still need to confirm the information yourself.  I recommend trying to contact the person who submitted the tree to find out what their sources are.  You never know, it may have come from a long lost cousin!

Warning: Some people go a bit crazy when submitting trees to Ancestry.  When I first started, I followed the “roots” of a tree that led to my family being traced back to Charlemagne!  Needless to say, there is not much documentation to back that up.

Learning About Naming Practices

When researching your roots, it is important to understand local practices in the country from which your family hails, especially as they pertain to naming.  In Norway, they used a patronymic system of naming.  A child’s surname was derived from their father’s first name. For example, Nils, the son of Erik, would be known as Nils Eriksen.  Likewise, Marit, the daughter of Nils, would be known as Marit Nilsdatter. They also used the names of the farms on which they lived; however, as people moved from one farm to another, that name might change.  And of course, people often altered their names when coming to the United States.  Interestingly, my great-great-great grandfather immigrated using his farm name – Aune – as his last name and gave that last name to his children born in the United States.  However, his oldest children, all born in Norway, used the last name Nilssen (converted to Nelson in the U.S.) as they were all sons of Nils.

A simple Google search for “Norwegian naming practice” brought up a great article that explained this all to me when I started.  I recommend doing a similar search for your country of origin. Understanding this background should help you tremendously.


If you’re lucky, you will find more information than you know how to handle!  Enter Family Tree Maker software.  This was a lifesaver for me – the most recent version allows you to create individual records for every member of your family, connecting them together by the appropriate relationship.  You can keep track of everything from birth dates and marriage dates to residences to draft registrations to family anecdotes.  You can also upload pictures and source information, as well as create family trees in a variety of formats.

Christ Aune and Martha Ness Hankey Aune
My great-great grandparents. I scanned and saved the picture in Family Tree Maker.

Heading Overseas

Roots Traveler provides a nice list of things to consider when planning a trip overseas to explore your roots. If your goal is to further research your family history, I recommend trying to contact someone at a library or historical society in the town where your they once lived.  Google definitely is your friend here.  You may be able to find a historian to work with you for a fee (I haven’t used it, but GenealogyPro provides what appears to be an expansive directory of professional genealogists worldwide).  Or you may get lucky and find a local willing to help you out for free.  Other possible sources of information include churches and cemeteries.  I actually spent time in Selbu, Norway walking through the cemetery looking at headstones to see if any had my last name.  Tedious?  Definitely.  But you never know what you may find.

Even if you aren’t successful in tracking down specific information about your ancestors while overseas, don’t be discouraged!  Use your time in your “home” country to learn about local and regional customs that your family may have practiced or traditional recipes they may have cooked.  By the end of your journey, hopefully you will have a better understanding of your heritage and pride about where you come from.

Have you been successful in tracing your roots overseas?  What tips would you share?


11 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing Your Roots Overseas”

  1. I’m a travel writer researching a story about traveling to research family roots, for a lot of publications. I very much lijke your site and story about your experiences. I’d like to contact roots traveler, to which you refer, but am unable to do so. Can yoiu please give me the exact website address or email address? Thank you.

  2. Hi katie, im a South african but my heritage is from England and Poland, my grand father came from Poland in the 1930 to South africa, but as he was alone and a small child he had nothing on him,

    i was on google the other day and decided to google my surname, the shock was i found a John Lozowski ex US marine born in 1923 but his picture looks exactly like me!!!, iv tried to register on the sites you have provided but it looks like my country does not let me in..

    could you know of how i can try find more memebers of his family in the states, as i would love to see if i have family there 🙂

    all the info i have on him is:

    Entered the Service from: New Jersey
    Died: April 8, 1943
    Buried at: St. Joseph Cemetery
    240 South Chews Landing Road
    Gloucester Township NJ 08012
    PRIVATE JOHN LOZOWSKI, of the U.S. Marines was born in Philadelphia, March 8, 1923. The family moved to Camden when John was quite young. When the 1930 Census the Lozowski family lived at 1602 Broadway
    He studied at Bonsall School, Hatch Jr. High, and was a January, 1941 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden NJ, where he took part in many school activities. While a student at Hatch Jr. High, John received the American Legion School Award, a bronze medal. He had been an employee of the Radio Condenser Company of Camden NJ as an apprentice toolmaker. After entering the service in November of 1942, he was stationed at Parris Island, Cherry Point NC.

    John Lozowski died in an airplane crash at Atlantic Field NC on April 4th, 1943, at the age of 20. He was survived by his parents, George and Cecelia Lozowski of 1143 Sheridan Street, Camden NJ, a sister Rita, and a brother George Jr.

  3. My grandfather was obsessed with genealogy and he made a family tree that went back 7 generations. The family tree hung on the wall in our house and when I was younger I’d always look at it while brushing my teeth.

    One of the most interesting stories in our family history is that a relative (my I’m-not-sure-how-many-greats-grandfather) was in the army in Sweden, and supposedly there were too many soldiers named Gustavus Steffanson. So the boss lined up everyone with this name and said, “keep your name, keep your name, change your name…” My relative was assigned to change his name, and he picked Swanberg.

    So my mother’s family name is Swanberg. I told this story to some Swedes that I lived with in Beijing, and they suspected a different motive for the name change. You see, Steffanson is a commoner’s name, for a farmer or something. And Swanberg is a nobleman’s name. So maybe he was a social climber. Hmmm…

    We have a family flag, that shows my mother’s name (Swanberg) and my dad’s (Forman.) You can see it here: http://www.leslieforman.com/2010/10/the-places-ive-called-home/family-flag/

    Thanks for making me think about these traditions!

  4. Thanks Natalie, Ayngelina and Alouise!

    Ayngelina – you’re lucky you have an uncommon Irish name – my grandpa’s last name is Dalton and there’s about a gazillion of Daltons, both Irish and English.

    Alouise – I feel your pain with the Prussian/German thing – I have the same issue on my grandmother’s side. I know the towns where ancestors lived, but I’m not sure some of them even exist anymore!

  5. What a neat project. I looked up a bit of my family tree for a school project that I did, but I found it hard to find records. A lot of my family is German, but they came to Canada when it was still Prussia making records hard to find. I’ll definitely have to check out some of these resources.

  6. Very cool project. My Irish side is very easy to track because Brogan is not a common name at all.

    But Italian side is a bit trickier as they were originally Buccarelli but then when then moved to Canada shortened it to be Bucci to be less “ethnic” and I suspect others who traveled may have done the same in different countries.

  7. I don’t know if I would want to trace back all my family. The ones that I do know about are the ones that you do not admit to knowing!!

  8. Wow – that is REALLY cool! I’ve always wanted to research my family history, but may not have much luck given that most of my roots are in Germany! My Grandma went in the 80s, opened a phone book, and saw pages and pages of people with the same last name. At least we know they ARE out there – ha!

    1. Thanks Dalene! Yeah, Germany can be tough – my grandmother’s maiden name is super common too. We know a few towns that people came from but I’m not sure if they even exist any more.

      Let me know if I can be of any help at all! I’ve gotten completely sucked into it – it’s like trying to put together a big puzzle or solve a tough mystery!

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