No matter where you find your ancestors, they probably came from somewhere else. Maybe your ancestors were indentured servants who came to the New World, or Jews who fled Nazi Germany. Perhaps they left on a voyage but never turned up at the expected destination, or arrived there with a new or dramatically changed family. Such migrations can make it hard to trace genealogy.
Knowing where an ancestor’s journey started and ended may not be enough to resolve these conundrums. Many major migration routes had important stops along the way, where people stayed for a month or a year or more. If you check these waypoints, too, you may find “missing” records of important life events.
Among my own ancestors, I have found many who were born in the British Isles but died in Utah. They came to the United States in the nineteenth century because of their faith: they were Mormons. There are records of these ancestors in Nauvoo, Illinois, but after that point there seem to be gaping holes. Some of them left Illinois but never turned up in Utah. Others arrived in Utah but with drastic changes in their families.
The Mormon pioneer trail had several significant stops. By studying the route, I was able to find records of events along the way, mostly in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Some of the earliest Mormon pioneers settled there (they named it Kanesville) and set up farms, so they could supply pioneers coming later. The settlement became an important rest stop for pioneers, especially during the winter months, when Winter Quarters was set up just across the river.
Because of the crowded and unhealthy living conditions there, diseases spread quickly. Scurvy, malaria, and tuberculosis claimed many of the pioneers, who were already weak from the arduous journey. This may be what took the lives of some of my ancestors.
On my paternal side, my great, great aunt Sophronia never reached Utah. Her records say she died in Council Bluffs on August 26, 1847. Records for two infants born that day indicate that she died in connection with giving birth to twins.
My maternal ancestors suffered losses in Council Bluffs, too. For example, five generations back, a Jonathan Hale died there in 1846. In the next two weeks, his wife and three of his children also died.
I already knew there were Mormon pioneers among my ancestors, so it was easy to trace my lineage back using what I learned about the trail. Similarly, clues like where and when your ancestors lived can direct you to other migration routes. For instance, if your ancestors are connected with the Spanish War, you may learn something by researching El Camino Real de los Tejas, a significant trail leading from the Rio Grande River in Mexico through San Antonio, Nacogdoches, Laredo, and other cities on the way to Natchitoches, Louisiana.
If you’ve heard stories about your ancestors heading out west for the gold rush, you may find answers along the California Trail, which ran through many cities on its way across the United States, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Kansas City, Independence, Star Valley, Carson City, and Salt Lake City.
If you find Irish ancestors living outside of Ireland, they could point you to the Irish Diaspora, which moved significant Irish populations to Great Britain, Argentina, Canada, Bermuda, Jamaica, Mexico, the United States, and other countries.
There are many other migration routes; a simple internet search can find a trail that might be relevant to you. Maybe you’ll be able to discover something groundbreaking, or maybe you’ll learn more details to a story you already knew, like I did. Either way, you’ll have something new to share when you pass along the stories of your ancestors.