University of Minnesota
Immigration History Research Center

Immigration History Research Center's home page.

Family History Sources at IHRC


At the outset, it is important to note that the IHRC does not maintain certain types of records commonly associated with genealogical research on immigrants, such as ship manifests and naturalization records. For more information about conducting family history research on the Internet, please see our Family History Research page. The collections focus primarily on the experiences of the immigrants and generally consist of documentation they themselves generated as opposed to information recorded by government officials or others involved in processing newcomers through American ports or assigning them citizenship.

Nevertheless, the Center's holdings have proven useful to numerous researchers attempting to identify immigrant ancestors or to learn more in general about the lives and legacy of millions of Americans who came from other lands. The collections span the period between the mid-1800s to the present, reflecting more recent migration activity and manifestations of ethnicity as well as the mass migration period. Materials include the written records of American-born generations as well as immigrants. The collection is national (indeed, international) in scope, with strengths of geographic coverage relating closely in most cases to concentrations of immigrant settlement.

The IHRC holds over 23,000 books, 900 newspaper titles, and 3,000 serial titles along with ca. 900 manuscript / archival collections amounting 4,500 linear feet. Researchers should be aware that a large percentage of this material is in the original languages of the immigrant groups. For this type of introductory article, only the most cursory level of description is possible. In most cases, the various finding aids and cataloging records at the IHRC provide more detail on the following sources.

In addition, The Immigration History Research Center: A Guide to Collections by Suzanna Moody and Joel Wurl contains a thorough survey of the Center's holdings. This guide is available online.

Newspapers & Serials

Periodicals published by immigrant communities are among the most important sources for historical research generally as well as family history specifically. As enumerated above, the IHRC holds one of the nation's largest collections of ethnic newspapers and serials. Newspapers contain a variety of information pertinent to genealogical research; as one might expect, a number of these papers include obituaries of ethnic community members. Also important are the frequent news articles submitted to the papers by correspondents from various ethnic locales. Many of the newspapers, magazines, and newsletters were organs of political associations, fraternal societies, cultural and religious organizations, etc. and thus often contain information on individual members.

Most European immigrant groups produced a number of different annual publications (yearbooks, almanacs, kalendars), some of which have proven extraordinarily useful for family historians. Along with obituaries, these sometimes include biographical profiles of individual immigrants as well as historical vignettes of immigrant settlements often accompanied with original photographs. Many of these publications were widely popular owing to a diversity of content that included literature, news from the "Old Country," children's stories, art, music, and more. They, along with other serials and newspapers in general, furnish fascinating insights into the daily lives and interests of the immigrants and their descendants.

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Fraternal Society Material

Employed predominantly in difficult and often dangerous industrial occupations, immigrants sought financial protection for themselves and their families. As a result, they established their own fraternal/benevolent organizations to provide mutual insurance and to foster social interaction. Records of fraternal organizations contain a wealth of personal information in the form of membership application and death benefit claim forms. The membership applications generally include dates and place of birth, names of parents and siblings, religion, profession, place of residence (at time of application), and medical information. Death benefit claims provide the date of death, but also contain much other information about the individual. The records of the First Catholic Slovak Union (membership applications) and the National Slovak Society (death benefit claims) are among several such IHRC collections. Among the fraternal organizations represented at the IHRC are the National Slovak Society, the First Catholic Slovak Union, the Slovenian National Benefit Society, the Order of AHEPA (Greek), and the Order Sons of Italy in America.

Fraternal/benevolent societies have also published their own histories, jubilee-anniversary books and conventions. Many of these contain information about individual lodges and their members, as well as photographs. They also provide the researcher with good background information on ethnic community life.

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Church Records & Publications

For many immigrant groups, the church constituted the single most important institution associated with the process of ethnic community development. For countless individuals, it was the leading force in their lives, fulfilling various social, cultural, and educational needs as well as spiritual purposes. The IHRC maintains records of several individual churches, church auxiliary societies, and national or regional administrative bodies. Many of these collections contain documentation on church members in the form of birth, death, marriage, baptism, or other records reflecting rites of passage or sacraments. Important information on individuals is also available in papers of ethnic clergymen. Noteworthy among these are collections of Suomi Synod Lutheran Church leader Rev. Raymond Wargelin (Finnish), Frs. Nicolo Carlo Odone and Louis Pioletti of St. Paul's Holy Redeemer Church (Italian), Polish Presbyterian Church head Rev. Paul Fox, and Ukrainian Orthodox Priest Rev. Vladimir Klodnycky.

A common item on the IHRC's shelves of published material is the church jubilee or anniversary album. Prepared in celebration of a church's founding or in commemoration of a major event such as the opening of a new place of worship, these monographs usually include listings of current and past members, brief histories of the church and sometimes of the local ethnic community, profiles of the church's leaders, numerous photographs, and ads or notices from the various sponsors of the publication. Some of these publications offer surprisingly detailed and unique information for local and family history research.

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Manuscript Collections

Along with the manuscript material described above relating to fraternal and religious organizations, the IHRC maintains several other collections of archival records and personal papers of potential value to genealogists. Among these are the research files of professional and amateur historians and others who compiled voluminous data on immigrant communities. Outstanding examples of these include the papers of historians Theodore Saloutos (Greek) and Wasyl Halich (Ukrainian), Polish American journalists Karol Jaskolski and Henry Archacki, and Minnesota Italian community activist John Vannelli. Also useful both for data on individuals and for understanding the immigrant experience generally are the Center's numerous autobiographies and memoirs, in unpublished as well as published forms.

The IHRC holds the records of several agencies established both within the ethnic communities and by mainstream society to service basic needs of individual newcomers. For instance, a great deal of information on post-World War II refugees can be found in the files of the American Committee for the Resettlement of Polish Displaced Persons, the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, and the Polish American Congress.

The records of immigrant cultural and political groups often comprise documentation on membership while illustrating the wide array of activities and concerns associated with the immigrants' adjustment to America and vice versa. Some examples of useful collections are the records of the Dramatski Zbor "Nada" theatrical society of Chicago (Croatian), the Stella del Nord Chapter of the Italian American Historical Association, the Jugoslav Socialist Federation, the Polish Library Society of Minneapolis, and the Latvian Chorus Shield of Songs of Kalamazoo, MI. In addition the administrative files of economic or business enterprises sometimes contain information on individual members and consumers. Among these kinds of collections are the records of Finnish consumer co-op organizations as well as office files of publishing agencies such as the Paryski Company of Toledo, OH (Polish). The latter contains voluminous listing of individual subscribers along with advertisement regards and correspondence with readers of the firm's nationally-circulated newspaper.

Although the Center's holdings are composed chiefly of documentation originally found in the U.S., important material has been reproduced from archives in countries of emigration. Included in the Finnish American collection are three sets of microfilmed "America" letters. Numbering over 14,000, these letters were written by American and Canadian immigrants to friends and relatives in Finland between 1890 and the 1960s. Also on microfilm is a large collection of information from the Hungarian Prime Minister's office, 1895-1917, pertaining to emigrants from various regions of the Austro-Hungarian and another from the Italian Office of the Commissioner of Emigration, 1901-27.

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Secondary Studies

Published histories of ethnic groups are also an important source for family research. These can be studies of statewide or local communities and include both single ethnic group and multi-ethnic works. Such writings are often detailed and provide good overviews of community life, especially in the earlier periods. Often they include names of the very first settlers and founders of churches, organizations, schools, and businesses; several are pictorial in nature. Examples of secondary histories in the IHRC's monograph collection are: Ukrainians in Pennsylvania (1976), Michigan Suomalaisten Historia (The history of Finns in Michigan, 1967), Immigrants on the Hill: Italian-Americans in St. Louis, 1882-1982 (1986), The Slovenian Community in Bridgeport, Conn. (1971), and Northeast Minneapolis: Location and Movement in an Ethnic Community (1979). The IHRC also has historical monographs on European and Near Eastern regions for those interested in acquainting themselves with their ancestors' homeland and culture.

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Oral Histories

Oral histories are not a major component of the IHRC collection, but those that are available do provide the researcher with useful first-person accounts of the reasons for immigrating, struggles of adjusting in the new world, and day-to-day life. The richest oral histories in the IHRC for genealogical use are those of the Minnesota Finnish American Family History collection. One can experience an immigrant's first day in America, what Minnesota winter's were like and how they affected family life, and much more. This collection is indexed and contains written family histories as well as taped interviews. Other important oral history collections include "Italians in Chicago," "American Italian Historical Association - Stella del Nord Chapter," and "Italian Immigration to Michigan's Upper Peninsula."

Self published autobiographies and family histories have become increasingly popular. These works also provide insight into the daily lives of early immigrants, relationships between first and second generations, customs passed down to children, and more. They can also be helpful as models for presenting one's own family history or for writing an autobiography. The IHRC holds a substantial number of these works for several ethnic groups.

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Reference Collection

Visitors to the IHRC's reading room are aided by a small but useful set of general reference works, some of which focus specifically on genealogical sources and methods. Included are bibliographies, catalogs, guides to holdings elsewhere, research handbooks, dictionaries, and directories for various ethnic repositories and institutions. Among the more useful tools for family history research are The Source (1984), Ships of Our Ancestors (1983), In Search of Your European Roots (1986), Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records... (1981).

Those who have attempted to trace ancestors to European locales know how difficult it can be to pinpoint a town or village of emigration. The Center's collection of maps and atlases is limited but it does include some of both a contemporary and historical nature that can assist in this process. A more extensive collection can be found at the John R. Borchert Map Library, located at the University's main (Wilson) Library.

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