Ideas for facing the challenges of researching ancestors that came from Europe

Ideas for facing the challenges of researching ancestors that came from Europe

Have you discovered that some of the people on your family tree came to Britain from the continent of Europe? Perhaps you’ve just found some old family papers, giving you some fresh clues. Or possibly a DNA test has shown links to other parts of Europe. The Library at the Society of Genealogists can be a great help, as you start to sort out a research strategy. Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, every country in Europe is represented on our shelves, as are some that aren’t in Europe but want to be, like Australia.

At first it seems exciting and a tiny bit glamourous to have ancestors from other parts of Europe. In my mind, my ancestors’ lives are part War and Peace (the ballroom scenes, not the battles), part Versailles, with maybe the Medici thrown in.

Then reality starts to hit. It can be quite difficult to figure out where exactly those ancestors came from and where to go to find any records or anything about their lives. For example, if our ancestors left Germany before 1871, were they German? Or should we refer to the place that they came from, such as Prussia or Bavaria? Does it matter?

A friend of mine always believed that her grandmother came to Britain from Germany round about 1901. Then she found some papers showing that her grandmother had travelled from Russia to an uncle who lived in Germany, then she came to Britain. What, my friend wonders, was ‘Russia’ in the very late 19th century? Was it a country? The area her grandmother came from seems to be part of modern Poland. Was Poland part of the Russian Empire? Or was it an independent state? Suddenly, sorting out the parish boundaries of London over the last 150 years seems like a walk in the park.

And don’t get me started on translating records, written in old European languages, into modern English. Don’t we all wish that we’d paid more attention, or any attention in my case, in German or French lessons at school?

The Society of Genealogists is the National Family History Centre and the UK-wide repository for family history documents, records and books. So, we have items that you might not expect to find. Here are some suggestions for understanding more about genealogy in other European countries, after a quick browse through our shelves.

For France, there are a number of social histories in the Library describing the changes in 19th century France. They are mostly written in English, or there is a translated version. I really liked A Social History of 19th Century France because it told a clear story of how France had changed and evolved during the 19th century. It was easy to browse and grasp the main concepts. Tous les noms de famille de France et leur localisation en 1900 is a wonderful, large book with a very long list of French surnames and where people with those names lived in 1900. Yes, this one is in French, but you’re just looking for a surname and a place name so relax, it’s OK.

There are a lot of books in the Library covering German history and German genealogy. My favourite that I’d like to recommend is A Genealogical Handbook of German Research. It is in English. It traces all the geographical and political changes in Germany in a really clear manner. It has a handy list of German terms that you might want to know once you start looking at records, such as ‘kirchenspiel’ which means ‘parish’.

There’s a whole shelf of Russian books in the Library. I thought that the Russian History Atlas was very good. It holds 146 maps, from 800 BC to the 1970s. I found it incredibly helpful for getting a picture of Russia through its history, especially in the 19th century.

But that’s not all the Society offers. It is absolutely worth checking our Birth Briefs index. When they join the Society, each Member is given a birth brief form and asked to record their ancestors back to their great-great-grandparents. From home, you can search SoG Data Online to see if any of your surnames are included. Members can actually see online a preview of the information held. The preview shows the volume, quarter and folio details. You can view the actual birth briefs in the Upper Library.

Another source of information is our Document Collection. It holds legal documents, wills, photos, newspaper clippings and letters. All these items are collated and indexed online, by surname. There are more than 44,000 surnames. From home, you can search the online index on the SoG website. The Document Collection is held in boxes in the Lower Library. Visitors just need to ask at the Enquiry Counter and a member of staff or a volunteer will bring the boxes out for them.

It is worth checking the pedigree listing as well. The Society holds a large number of pedigrees, some of them quite wonderful. From home, you can search the online index on the SoG website. Pedigrees are all held in a closed area in the Lower Library. You just need to ask at the Enquiry Counter, explaining what you would like to see.

As you’d expect for a genealogical library founded over a hundred years ago the Society’s reference resources for researching European Royalty and Nobility are remarkable. For example, search the catalogue for the subject Russia - General : Nobility and you’ll find over 50 guides and biographies including for example La descendance de Pierre le Grand, Tsar de Russie by Nicolas Enache and the Dictionnaire de la noblesse Russe by Patrick De Gmeline. More general reference works for Peerage/Royalty have over 2000 references in the catalogue including a good collections of Almanach de Gotha, annuaire diplomatique et statistique and volumes of the  Europäische stammtafeln : Stammtafeln zur Geschichte der Europäischen Staaten.

As a final recommendation, we are hosting a workshop on Saturday 18 May on Tracing your European Ancestors: East and West with Julie Goucher. In her first session, Julie delivers a broad overview of research in Europe. She also covers the concept of researching European surnames and how it might link into European DNA projects. In her second session, Julie describes the key resources, some well-known and others less so, for researching European ancestry. Find more information here.


A Social History of 19th Century France, Roger Price, London Century Hutchinson Ltd 1987

Tous les noms de famille de France et leur localisation en 1900 Laurent Fordant Paris 2007

A Genealogical Handbook of German Research Larry O. Jensen Pleasant Grove, Utah Jensen Publications 1980

Russian History Atlas Martin Gilbert London Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1972

 - By Sherryl Abrahart, with Else Churchill, 2019

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