In 1880 the population of the United States was just over 50,000,000 people. In the period between 1880 and 1930, 27,000,000 people immigrated to the United States. That was the period of the great European immigration. 1907 ( exactly 100 years ago), was the peak year at Ellis Island with 1,004,756 immigrants received. The all-time daily high was on April 17th of that year when a total of 11,747 immigrants were processed.
How you go about your genealogy research depends heavily on whether your ancestors were part of the 50,000,000 people living in the U.S. in 1880 or if they were part of the 27,000,000 who immigrated in the 1880 to 1930 time frame. Let's take a look at how and why you would research these groups differently.
To begin with, those whose ancestors came during the great European immigration have only two maybe three generations of ancestors who would appear in U.S. records of any type. Any family history before that time would likely be written in a foreign language and exist in a foreign land. Online databases such as ancestry dot com, world vital records.com, and footnote.com are of limited value. They contain virtually all U.S. records. Those records may give you a clue to the country your ancestors came from but that's about all you can expect to find. If you want to go back 3, 4 or a half dozen or more generations you simply can't do it online and very likely not in English (depending on your ancestor's country of origin).
Those whose ancestors were here before 1880 have a much greater selection of potential sources for genealogy research, in English, available to them. They can access land records, old newspapers, find a grave dot com, county histories, Civil War pension files, probate records, etc. I'm not suggesting that all of that is online but some of it is. And what's not online can for the most part be requested, in English, by e-mail, ordered online, with a quick phone call, via interlibrary loan, at a local Family History Center, or by making a family vacation out of visiting a location by automobile.
Going back to the folks whose ancestors came during the great European immigration, they basically have four choices for researching their family history beyond the generation or two they might find records for here in the U.S. One, view vital records photographed and recorded on microfilm from their ancestor's country of origin at a local Family History Center (if the records they seek have been photographed that is), then learn to translate them into English or hire a translator to translate them. Two, hire a researcher in their ancestor's country of origin and have them do their research for them, and then translate it. Three, write to an agency in their ancestor's country of origin (church, government archives, etc.) and request vital records via snail mail, then learn to translate them or pay someone to translate them. Four, learn a foreign language and travel to a foreign country to do the research themselves.
Obviously, U.S. records are more easily obtainable for the big U.S. database companies to put online. So it's understandable that that is the majority of their offerings. But for those of us whose ancestors were among the 27,000,000 who came to the U.S. between 1880 and 1930, they just aren't much help at all. Randy recently wrote a blog post (in response to Paul Allen's blog post) where he listed the information he'd like to see made available at worldvitalrecords.com. On behalf of those of us whose ancestor's didn't get here until the 19th century, I'd like to say that what we really need more of is... WORLD vital records at worldvitalrecords.com. (That was #2 on Randy's list too.) And a bonus would be to have a translation to English available too.
In an earlier post, Paul Allen wrote about his goals for worldvitalrecords.com for 2007. Goal #3 was, "We intend to have search engines built and data available in dozens of countries and several languages. We are working on our Poland genealogy search engine, for example." The problem is, anyone can do that. Google gives you step-by-step directions for creating your own custom search engine for any group of web sites, Polish, English, Japanese, whatever. Rollyo does it too. If I can do it myself, I'm not going to pay a subscription service to do it for me. I don't want another search engine, I want actual world vital records!
Here's the top 5 on my wish list of databases I'd like worldvitalrecords to add. 1.How about negotiating with the Polish/German/Russian governments for WWI or WWII military records of Polish citizens? 2. Or how about the Polish resettlement records that haven't been filmed by the LDS? 3. Here's another idea, how about tax lists from the manorial estates in Poland? 4. School enrollment records of Polish children through 1924 would be nice. 5. Plot maps of Polish villages at the turn of the century with names of the property owners. Now those records would be worth paying for. And I'd pay quite a bit!
In terms of a general research strategy, yeah, we all need to start with what we know and go back from there. But for some the going back is made a bit easier with a variety of online databases. For the rest of us, well, we're suffering from database envy.
Can anybody hear me out there?