Where Did My Ancestor Go?

by Lisa South, Certified Genealogist

John B. L. Soule wrote, "Go West, young man and grow up with the country." Horace Mann used that quote in an 1865 editorial and thousands heeded his advice. Actually, the United States was on the move from the very beginning. Understanding why and how people migrated is helpful in finding where your ancestors lived.

There are a variety of forces behind migration:

  1. Trauma
    • Political trauma such as the many Tories migrating to Canada during the Revolution.
    • Religious trauma, such as the Latter-day Saints expulsion to the West.
    • Economic trauma, such as that caused by the Dust Bowl.
    • Sociological trauma, such as that resulting in The Trail of Tears.
  2. New Opportunities
    • Gold
    • Cheaper or better land
    • Improving personal circumstances
If you suspect your ancestor migrated because of trauma, get into the history books and learn about the circumstances surrounding it. Some of you may need to learn all about The Trail of Tears, while others should find out where in Canada the Tories usually settled. The more you know about the trauma that forced your ancestor to move, the more likely you are to learn what records might have been kept and where they would be located.

Many of those that migrated in search of wealth or new opportunities were single men - which can sometimes make them a little more difficult to trace. When whole families or many families from a community moved together, they would leave a larger "paper trail" and are therefore usually easier to find. 

Census indexes are good tools for locating where an ancestor migrated.

Often a family or group of families would move in search of cheaper or better land. Sometimes it would be a large group because of land lotteries (the Oklahoma Land Rush, bounty land etc.) Homesteading offered free land and many took advantage of this opportunity.


Land records sometimes give clues as to where a person migrated from. Homesteading records can be very valuable (this will be covered in a future issue of OGF).

Other records that might help establish your Ancestor's migration route are family histories (written or oral), journals, county or local histories, and military records.

Maps are essential for success. There are many maps available that show probable migration routes. As you study a map you can see if a mountain could be circumvented or if there was a waterway to get travelers where they wanted to go. As you search the records, plot a line of migration on your map. 

To find your ancestor's records you MUST know where they lived.