Tracing US ancestor back to Germany?



My great great great grandfather came over from Germany, but I don't know how to find when or where. His name is Henry Fischer about 1821-1898, married to Dorothea Holiday Fischer about 1825-unknown.

I know he lived in Houghton, Houghton, Michigan, United States in 1850 because I was able to find him on the federal census there. I have also been able to find a passport request that I assume is him, but the listing didn't have enough information.

If he was born in about 1821, and was on the 1850 census in Michigan, where should I search for immigration information?

I am a newbie so I don't know where to look for said information other than a raw google search.


Posted 2012-10-11T20:55:55.083

Reputation: 375

1the tree link you gave is private -- I cannot view the details even with a familysearch login – Gene Golovchinsky – 2012-10-11T21:03:44.273

David, to get concrete help, you'll need to provide more details. It's probably better to provide them directly, rather than linking to sites that some people may not have access to (e.g., – Gene Golovchinsky – 2012-10-11T21:31:23.697

1-1 I'm going to try to post an answer, but this reads to me like a fishing query in search of someone who has researched already conducted research on this person. – GeneJ – 2012-10-11T21:31:38.147

I agree with @GeneGolovchinsky, it's best to take the time to phrase your question with details, rather than links. Consider editing your question and we'll do our best to help you out. – Lorraine W – 2012-10-11T21:37:39.717

3This is not a question about genealogy, but a request for assistance with personal ancestry. That request should be directed to a genealogy research provider. – TamuraJones – 2012-10-11T21:50:37.637

1Please see corrections. I have only done research myself and as a newbie feel like I have hit a wall of information and don't know where to look. – david.tanner – 2012-10-11T22:04:48.323

4Perhaps this is an early example of issues of scope of this site that we should address in discussion without piling on to poor @david.tanner – Gene Golovchinsky – 2012-10-11T22:27:08.993

1@GeneGolovchinsky, downvotes are a tool and are perfectly fine to use. They help keep poor content off the top of the main page. With that said, I upvoted after seeing the edits, and I want to point out that people can change their votes on an edited post if they agree it's been significantly improved. Hope this helps! – jmort253 – 2012-10-12T00:49:58.220


Have you checked the collection of death records which has recently come online at Seeking Michigan?

– Jan Murphy – 2015-04-28T03:48:09.780



At one time or another, I suppose most of us have suffered from premature connectivitis syndrome (PCS)--we don't really know enough yet by which we can well identify a person, yet we want to connect them to a much earlier place in time. I know I suffered. Somewhere I have copies of e-mails sent to cousin Dr. Bill Smith with lists of Preston and Butler names. All of these e-mails could have been titled, "So and so might be one of these, right?"

Take heart, David, too, because we are all working together to figure out how questions should best be written/presented.

Now, my PCS cure came about the time I was sure my cousin wasn't going to read any more of those long lists I was working to compile and send to him. (As though he'd been reading the others!) Know too that only some correct connections might be made by the afflicted. By far, most such connections made are loosely fitted and in error.

In my journey, I have found that genealogy is as progressive as it is addicting. The more I have learned, the more it is possible for me to learn.

These tips work for me, they might help you:

  1. Work from a time line on which you specify locations (and/or events). Pick the point on the timeline where you feel you have solid information; begin there. When you move from that point in time, think INCHWORM (rather than leapfrog).
    The 1850 census that you shared might be your starting point. Henry [Fisher] was living at Houghton, Houghton County, Michigan. He was age 30 with a wife, three apparent children and others who are much older, apparent boarders. All the boarders are reported born in Germany. Henry and his wife are both reported born in Germany, but notice where the apparent children are reportedly born: John, the eldest of the reported children is said born at New York, while the two younger children, ages 4 and 2, are said born at Ohio. So, you now have a migration clue (parents, especially the mother :-)) were generally at the same place as their newborns. But wait, there are more apparent clues in that census record. A John Fisher living in the same house, ae 34. And lookie lookie, both Henry Fisher and John Fisher are listed as Engineers. You have a possible family connection between your Henry and just older John Fisher (and it should not go unnoticed that Henry has apparent son named John.) P.S. Henry's wife's name is a lot more interesting than his.
  2. Once you have spotted this starting point (we'll pretend it's Houghton), your next stop should be the Family History Library Catalog. Look up the location in the catalog and take note of all the records that have been filmed for that place. You want to learn about the record collections that might have information related to your ancestor. This means that a wonderful microfilmed newspaper collection covering the years 1930-1950 might not be of any value to you, but you might have great interest in films about a local German church/its records or history if available for the right period.
    Review the material and bookmark the page. No reason to dwell too long, because you now need to ..
  3. Visit the public library. In this case, it's not your local library, but one in Houghton. Find their website, phone number and call them. Ask for the reference librarian and inquire whether or not there is a genealogy section (you'll want to direct your questions to the genealogy section if they have one). Generally, the genealogy section of the local library knows the local record collections (birth, marriage, deaths, vertical files and obituary or card collections, etc.) and where the bodies are buried (sometimes, literally). Among other things, you want to be directed to a good history book that would have information about Houghton in the 1850s era. Aside from your general interest in the area history, you especially want to know if there is some information that might explain why engineers from Germany might have come to live in Houghton by 1850.
  4. Check out the local genealogical and/or historical society/ies. You can often find information about the societies by searching the Internet or reviewing information on the county USGenWeb site--there many be more than one in a county. These societies also have knowledge of the local resources; likely have authored or published some of them. Some societies maintain files or folders about ancestral families; they may have a query log that extends back generations. There is still more …
  5. Learn about the official record collections for the town, county, etc. The library may provide an overview, but there other sources for this information. For most of the places I research, I use the website For many counties in the US, this website has information about court records, vital records, land records, etc. One of the highlights of this site is that it often tells you if there were any material courthouse fires. Here's the link to Houghton on Some of what you can learn from this site will just make you a smart researcher. For example, if they didn't start collecting birth records locally until 1890, then there is little reason to be concerned that you didn't find a birth from 1862 in that collection, right?

Since I started on this answer, I see your question has been updated so I may update this answer in a bit.


Posted 2012-10-11T20:55:55.083

Reputation: 8 477


My advice to anyone trying to connect an immigrant ancestor back to the country of origin is to start by thoroughly documenting the life of the person in the USA first. You want to have enough information that when you are ready to work your way back to Germany, you'll recognize that you have the right person and not someone with the same name. Collecting records in the USA will also help you narrow down the time frame for when the person arrived. See Sources of Genealogical Information for a checklist of what kind of records to look for.

Anyone who is researching ancestors from Germany should take a look at Joe Beine's outstanding website German Roots. His Basic Research Outline for German Genealogy gives the beginner an outline of the entire process of collecting data and working methodically. But don't forget to look at the rest of the website, too. I'm constantly going back to it and finding new things that I didn't notice before, because I wasn't paying attention, or didn't have the experience yet to realize how a resource could help me. Everyone goes through this process, because our brains can only absorb so much at a time. Don't be afraid to review your data from time to time and re-integrate information from resource guides and from the information you've already looked at and collected.

Now let's look at the specific case of researching Henry Fischer. We need to take the information from these research guides linked to above and to focus on the period from 1821-1898, give or take a little. You have the following timeline so far:

  • 1821: his birth
  • ????: his marriage to Dorothea Holiday
  • 1850: he is enumerated on the census in Houghton, Houghton, Michigan
  • ????: someone with his name applies for a passport (This could be a VERY important clue, because it might show if Henry was naturalized or not -- see When were passports first issued in the USA?)
  • 1898: he dies

Since your great great great grandfather died before the really nosy 20th-century records, you won't have the same opportunities to find pointers to records that descendants of later immigrants have, so you'll have to work a bit harder. Make a Research Plan. You want to find as many records as you can that will support what you already know. Start with his death and work backwards.

While you are researching, broaden your search to consider not just Henry, but his other family members, his friends, associates, and his neighbors. People rarely immigrated alone. They usually came in groups, or had other friends who came before them and came after them. Check your local libraries to find resources about the local German community in that period. If Henry was part of a larger wave of immigration to the area, you might be able to find pointers about how people traveled by learning about the bigger pattern.

So keep an eye out for the people around Henry -- the "cluster" or FAN club. See QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) and QuickLesson 11: Identity Problems & the FAN Principle by Elizabeth Shown Mills. If Henry had siblings, the clues for when he might have entered the country and/or what part of Germany he came from might be in a sibling's record instead. Be prepared to work through this entire process for any of Henry's siblings that you might find.

Here's why studying the entire group, and reviewing your previously-collected records, pays off. I was not able to find several of my German immigrants in the Naturalization indexes because when I searched, I was looking for them as individuals. While reviewing the records I had already collected, I finally realized why not: because I had the index cards pointing to their father's Naturalization records. If their fathers had been naturalized while they were under age, the sons had derivative citizenship. They didn't need to go through the process themselves, so they would not have Naturalization records of their own.

Filling out the details of Henry's Life

Death Records: Assuming for the moment that he died in Michigan (not necessarily the case, because people do travel, and they can die anywhere): Joe Beine has a handy page on Online Michigan Death Records & Indexes that outlines all the places you might be able to find death records there, including Houghton County Cemeteries. Make a checklist of all the places you've searched, and note what you find. If you find nothing, make a note of how you searched, so when you review your data again, you can see what you did. If you find a burial, and the place of death is in a different jurisdiction than the burial, check for death records in both jurisdictions. (See the posts Death in the Wrong Place and Following Up on Death on Judy G. Russell's blog, The Legal Genealogist.)

I would also recommend that you try to find out when Dorothea (Holiday) Fischer died, because that might be an important clue to finding Henry's whereabouts. If he is widowed, he might be living with one of his children in the census records after 1850. Probate records might give you many bits of information that have nothing to do directly with the immigration question, but the information lays the foundation for the search backwards in time.

The 1890s: If Henry served in the Civil War, there might be records associated with him or Dorothea in the surviving 1890 schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of Union veterans. You won't find the general population schedules for that decade because the 1890 federal census was destroyed. Joe Beine has a link to a research guide, 1890 Census Substitutes.

Census Records: Try to collect all the census records available, working backwards from 1880. Use the ideas from the 1890 Census Substitutes article as a guide to finding census records. See whether the information agrees with or contradicts the Census records you find.

Other records: Collect whatever you can find to fill in the years between the census, and to complement the official government records. Newspaper research can be especially productive. If you are lucky and the right newspapers survived, there might be obituaries, notices about probate, land transfers, social news, travel news, the arrival of new immigrants to the community. I've found short news articles about people traveling back to their country of origin on a visit that told how long they stayed; using that information, I was able to find the specific passenger lists for those travels.

Emmigration and Immigration and Naturalization records

If Henry was naturalized, these are the papers you really want to get clues about where he might have come from in Germany. NARA's introduction to the process is here: Naturalization Records. An important change happened in 1906. Since we know that Henry died before 1906, that means any Naturalization records he might have will have been created before 1906, so they would have been recorded at the local level. NARA says

  • Contact the State Archives for the state where the naturalization occurred to request a search of state, county, and local courts records.

  • Contact the NARA regional facility that serves the state where naturalization occurred to request a search of Federal court records

The Family History Library might also have microfilmed records for Henry's local courts. See Joe Beine's page on Online Searchable Naturalization Records and Indexes for ways to search online.

If you can find Naturalization papers for Henry, those papers might give you the name of the ship he arrived on and a date of arrival. Bear in mind that the date might not be completely accurate, because sometimes people didn't remember. In any case, once you have narrowed down the period when Henry might have arrived in the USA, you can try looking for his passenger list.

Other Research Guides:

The FamilySearch Wiki article says "Keep searching and the connection from America to Europe will reveal itself." That's great advice. Work from the known to the unknown. Research, review, research again.

Jan Murphy

Posted 2012-10-11T20:55:55.083

Reputation: 22 994