I Found My Immigrant Ancestor – Now What?

Many people start their ancestry journey wanting to know who their immigrant ancestor was. Some only go back a generation or two while others go all the way back to the Mayflower or Jamestown. But once you find them, what do you do with that information? How can you find out more?

Immigrant Ancestor - picture of the Mayflower in Boston Harbor

By starting with yourself and working backward, you probably found your immigrant ancestor’s country of origin in a census record. The first time I found my 2x great-grandfather, John Donahoo, with his father was in 1860 in Grainger County, Tennessee.1 It’s the father I’m interested in as he was an immigrant from Ireland.

William Dunahoo was born about 1818 in Ireland, but that’s all the information given…the country. All census records throughout William’s life are consistent with his home country of Ireland, but I want more. Notice there is no birthplace listed for anyone else in the household. Not helpful!

After finding every census record I could, my next stop was to look for naturalization papers. I didn’t find an image of his application, but there was a transcription that just listed Ireland as William’s country.2 He emigrated to the United States on 3 April 1836. That piece of information leads to new questions…did he come alone? What port did he come through?

I searched for passenger manifests but came up empty. So, it’s time to look at William’s FAN Club…those friends/family, associates, and neighbors to see what their records might reveal.3

I started with William’s children, especially my direct line ancestor and William’s oldest child, John Dunahoo (or Donahoo). The 1880 census has John in a household in Grainger County, Tennessee with his wife, Sarah, and their 5 children.4 From this record, John was born about 1838 in Georgia and his parents were both born in Cork Ireland.

County Cork – I now have a county in Ireland to research, but I also have a possible U.S. entry point for William…Georgia. Savannah, Georgia was one of the many ports used by immigrants to the U.S. – not everyone came through Ellis Island.

John’s brother, James, has conflicting evidence as to his place of birth. Some census records list Tennessee while one says Georgia. The one item that is consistent is the birthplace of his parents. All census records that ask for that information say Ireland. Looking at the other siblings of John and James, they all have Ireland as the home of their father, William.

Death certificates are another source of parent information, however out of all of William’s children, only one lived long enough to provide that – and Ireland was all it said.

At this point, you may be lost as to where to search next. FamilySearch has a wonderful resource that lists the most likely records to answer your research question. You can find that here. Not only should you look for these types of records for your immigrant ancestor, but also for their FAN Club.

While I am still searching for the smoking gun on what port William came through, I did find in John’s Civil War Pension Records a letter he wrote verifying his birthdate and birthplace (Savannah, Georgia) and other family information that is invaluable to my research. I think the port of entry in Savannah is looking very promising. Transcribing the file will take a while as it is over 100 pages.

Putting together the pieces of your ancestor’s immigration to America is sometimes challenging, but always rewarding.

Genealogy tip: The FAN Club can be key to finding information about your immigrant ancestor. Look for all the records for the people in their life to see what else can be learned.

Finding your immigrant ancestor sometimes takes a little work. I’d love to help you find them. Click the button below to find all my contact information. Let’s journey to the past together.

1 1860 U.S. census, Grainger County, Tennessee, population schedule, District 5, p. 75, dwelling 539, family 539, Wm Dunahoo household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7667/images/4296190_00497: accessed 8 Oct 2023), image 10; citing National Archives and Record Administration microfilm publication M653, roll 1250.

2 “Declaration of William Donahoo for Naturalization, 1849, Grainger County, Tennessee,” discussion list 2 Apr 2008, Ancestry.co.uk (https://www.ancestry.co.uk/boards/surnames.donahoo/103: accessed 8 May 2023).

3 The FAN Club is a term Elizabeth Shown Mills coined to describe the people our ancestors associated with.

4 1880 U.S. census, Grainger County, Tennessee, population schedule, District 5, p. 3 [penned], 430 [stamped], dwelling 26, family 26, John Donahoo household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6742/images/4244587-00604: accessed 8 May 2023), image 3; citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 1257.

4 thoughts on “I Found My Immigrant Ancestor – Now What?

  1. Just curious – you refer to “immigrant ancestor” as if there is only one. I’m pretty sure there is an immigrant ancestor or more for each branch of my family, Percy, Dunshee, McKinnis, Jones, Rosenberg, Bittner… Am I not understanding the concept?

    1. Good morning. Since you are researching one ancestor at a time (or one family unit at a time) I wrote the blog with that in mind. You are correct in that you will have many immigrant ancestors and you would apply this methodology to all of them. Thanks for your point of view. I appreciate feedback and how others read my work. Have a great week. Gray

      1. That’s a very good point, thank you for enlightening me! I just started following you and am enjoying reading your posts and learning new ways to view my own genealogical endeavors. And a good week to you!

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